Helping Your Baby Sleep Better

Gentle Tips for Helping Your Baby Sleep Through the Night

By Meri Levy, MFT, CLE

It’s a very rare new mom who isn’t exhausted much of the time. Newborns don’t sleep the way adults do, and it can be a very difficult transition for new parents to adapt to their newborn’s sleeping patterns, and sometimes an even harder one to eventually adapt their baby’s sleep schedule to one that allows Mom and Dad to get a good night’s sleep.

Newborns are used to being lulled to sleep by Mom’s voice and activity during the day while in utero, and can be more active at night (remember those kicks waking you up at 3am?). So at first, it isn’t uncommon for the baby to have days and nights reversed. But don’t worry too much. Humans are diurnal creatures by nature (active during daylight hours) and there’s not much you need to do except expose your baby to daylight during the day for the baby to adapt to sleeping at night. Although it may feel like a long time coming…

Another way you can help your baby to distinguish day from night is to spend plenty of time holding your baby and interacting during the day when the baby is alert, and avoiding eye contact and being more businesslike about feeding and changing during the middle of the night. Regardless of how adorable your baby is in the wee hours, if you save your quality interaction for the daytime hours, your baby will sleep more consistently at night.

Most babies are not ready to sleep more than a few hours at a stretch until they are at least three months old and weigh 12lbs or more. Some babies will start to sleep longer intervals on their own around this time. If you have questions about whether your baby can go without feedings for longer than three to four hours, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.

After four months or so, the decision of whether to feed and change the baby during the night is a controversial one. Ask 10 parenting experts at what age your baby could be sleeping through the night, and you’re bound to get 11 answers! So, this can be one of the hardest decisions new parents must make: at what age do I want to encourage my baby to sleep through the night, and how far am I willing to go to make that happen?

Factors to consider when making this decision include your pediatrician’s advice, your parenting philosophy, how badly you need more sleep (which depends on your sensitivity to stress), and how often your baby is waking during the night. One Mom may be content to sleep with her baby and feed continuously throughout the night for a year or so. Another may not be able to sleep well at all with her baby, have a baby that wakes every two hours to feed, and desperately needs more sleep to function well. Only you can make that decision. If you’re doing well with the way your baby sleeps at night, this article isn’t for you – yet. But if your baby’s sleep pattern changes or you decide it’s time for a change, you may want to consider some tips for encouraging your baby to sleep through the night.

If you will not want to continue feeding your baby throughout the night for many months, it’s a good idea to get into the habit early of putting your baby to bed at least partly awake. Just as you would wake up upset if you fell asleep with a pillow and woke to find it gone, your baby can be startled if he or she falls asleep at your breast or in your arms and wakes up alone. So putting the baby to bed in the same way he or she will need to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night is a good idea to encourage the baby to sleep through the night when he or she is ready. That doesn’t mean you can never nurse your baby to sleep, but at least some of the time, put the baby to bed when he or she is sleepy but partly awake. The earlier you start this, the easier it may be for the baby to transition to falling asleep out of your arms.

If you do decide to help your baby along in the process of sleeping through the night, it may be difficult to do this with the baby in your bed or even in your room. Studies show that cosleeping mothers and babies impact each other extensively during the night. Up until three months, the baby’s stirring and waking rouse the mother. But after four months, frequently the sounds or sensations of the mother stirring rouse the baby, who then wakes up to feed. So the first step is establishing the baby in a safe crib in a room where he or she can’t hear every move that Mom makes. Sometimes this, in and of itself, can cause the baby to start sleeping through the night.

The second thing that you can do, if moving the baby to his or her own room isn’t enough, is to begin consistently putting the baby down to sleep when sleepy but still awake. That means when you’re feeding during the night and the baby starts to nod off, burp him for a minute to rouse him a bit, and try to make sure you put him back to bed before he is fully asleep. Another aspect to this is feeding the baby only enough to satisfy but not fill her up. In the early days you wanted to get as much milk as possible into the baby to encourage her to sleep longer. But when you are trying to help your baby sleep through the night, it is a good idea to have smaller feedings in the middle of the night, so he eats more during the day and gets used to meeting his caloric needs then.

Once your baby is only taking small feedings at night and can fall back to sleep in his crib on his own, he is more likely to give up the nighttime feedings entirely. And if he doesn’t, you are in a better position to encourage him to give up the night feedings than if he was feeding a lot at night (and therefore hungry) and falling asleep in your arms.

Whether you allow your baby to fuss or cry for a period of time with or without you in the room is something you need to decide in consultation with your pediatrician. It is a very difficult decision for any parent to let their baby fuss along in his crib, but some babies will not learn to sleep on their own without expressing some protest. If you do let your baby cry, it is OK to soothe him or her at regular intervals, but you should not “give in” and pick the baby up. If you do, you are teaching your baby to cry for longer periods of time in expectation that you will eventually come and pick them up. So you need to be really prepared for how you want to handle what comes up and stick to your plan.

In my own case, only one of my three kids was so challenging during the night that I eventually needed to let him cry it out — he was waking every 45 minutes at night to have his pacifier put back in his mouth and I was about to totally lose it! (An aside – he was the kid who most needed limits in all areas of life). It was a tough few nights, after weaning him off the pacifier during the day first, but he did learn to get himself back to sleep after only a few days. And I loved him so much more that first morning when I had had a full night’s sleep — 7:30pm to 7am. And interestingly, he’s been the best sleeper of the three consistently since that time. He’s only one who never complains of difficulty falling asleep, even at 21 years old!

It can be very challenging making decisions of how to work with your baby around sleep. Remember, there’s no one perfect way to parent, and every baby is different.