Tips for Getting Baby to Sleep

Based on content from ZERO TO THREE®: National Center for Infants, Toddler and Families.

Newborns usually don't have trouble falling asleep and they usually sleep a lot, waking when they need something such as food or a diaper change. They don't yet recognize when it's night-time or daytime, so they will split their sleep between day and night almost equally, and they sleep for different lengths of time each day. An unpredictable sleeping pattern is normal in very young babies.

A newborn baby usually needs to be fed every 2 to 6 hours, and you should feed your baby on-demand (whenever he or she is hungry). This is an exhausting time for parents, since you may be up a lot at night.

As they grow, babies begin to learn the difference between day and night (usually at about 4 months). This is when people start to think that babies will just naturally start to sleep through the night. Actually, this is pretty rare. Babies usually need some help from parents to learn how to sleep through the night.

Here are some hints for getting baby to bed:

Remember, they're babies.

Newborns sleep a lot, just not necessarily at night. Because very young infants need to be fed frequently and are still learning how to get on a night-sleeping / day-waking schedule, we generally wait to teach babies to sleep through the night until they are between 4 and 6 months old. This is just about the time that the need to feed them at nights stops [unless a doctor or other health care professional suggests otherwise].

Keep it routine.

One thing that really helps babies learn when it's time to go to sleep is a bedtime routine. The bedtime routine is a cue for children. It tells them that it's time to go to sleep. Having a bedtime routine means doing the same thing every time you put your baby down to go to bed. Some families give their baby a bath, then read a story, then put the baby in the crib. Another family might put lotion on the baby while singing her a lullaby, and then put her in the crib. It doesn't really matter what your bedtime routine is, as long as it is comforting, loving, and relaxing.

Turn off the TV.

Watching television together doesn't often work well as a bedtime routine. The goal of the bedtime routine is to help children relax and get ready for bed. Television shows are often noisy and stimulating, and sometimes even scary and violent. That isn't relaxing for a child, and may even make them feel more awake or reluctant to let you leave the room! Also, even though children are sitting near their parents while they watch television, it's not the same as having their one-on-one attention during a bedtime story or a bath.

Where's Teddy?

A "lovey" (stuffed animal or soft blanket) can be an important part of a child's bedtime routine. Some parents choose to give their children a "lovey" that the child uses to comfort and soothe him/herself to sleep. The "ovey" can sometimes ease the separation that some children feel when their parents leave the room at night.

Read the signs.

As parents get to know their babies and their babies grow a little older, parents will begin to recognize the signs of when their baby is hungry or sleepy. Yawning is the most obvious hint that baby is ready to take a rest, but there are others, too—such as a certain sleepy cry, pulling on her ear, or rubbing her eyes when she is sleepy. What is your baby's own unique way of telling you "I'm tired!"?

Go to sleep...awake.

It's important to put your baby down while he or she is sleepy, but still awake. When you rock your baby to sleep every night or rub his back until he falls asleep, he may have a lot of trouble putting himself back to sleep when he wakes at night. When you put your baby down while he's still awake, he learns to soothe himself and put himself to sleep. This is a really important skill that he will use for the rest of his life!

Plan for protests.

As your child learns a new way of falling asleep, he may cry or protest. How do you think this might make you feel? Think about how you might respond if, for example, your baby cries when you leave his room. Will you come back in and check on him every 10 minutes? Will you let him "cry it out"? Thinking about these issues before they happen helps you feel more prepared.

Patience, patience.

Even though they may seem overwhelming at times, sleep problems can be solved...but they take patience and consistency. Consistency is important because it helps children learn what to expect. It's not fair to do one thing on one evening, like rock a child to sleep, and then do something completely different the next night, like put them in the crib awake and walk out of the room. Children feel comforted by routines and they feel safe when they can anticipate what will happen next. When we are consistent in what we do and how we respond at bedtime and naptime, we help children learn new bedtime skills. Patience is necessary because parents have to wait and stay calm while their child learns something new.

Babies are people, too.

There are situations and events that can impact a baby or child's sleep pattern, for example, a divorce, a new sibling, a new caregiver, witnessing violence, experiencing abuse, etc. Life events like these can create or intensify sleep problems. If your child was sleeping just fine and then started having problems, it can be helpful to think over what has been going on in your baby's life recently. Sleep disruptions can be a symptom of something in your child's life that is causing stress or worry, or even of a new developmental stage, like teething or walking.

Keep the faith.

Remember, your baby will learn how to sleep on his or her own. It takes time, consistency, and patience—but it will happen. If you find you need additional help or support with bedtime issues, contact your health care provider and ask about behavioral therapists who may be able to assist you in developing a night-time plan for your family.