If your baby falls asleep on his or her own and consistently sleeps through the night, this article isn’t for you. This article is for parents of nap resisters and bedtime fussers, of late-night wakers and early risers. In other words, it is for most parents of most babies. For you, here are five steps toward a longer, more consistent night of sleep for your baby.
Step 1: Establish A Nightly Routine
You should have a fixed routine leading up to bedtime with the same steps in the same order every night. For example, after dinner you might have an hour of play time, then a bath, change into pajamas, a warm bottle, book and then bed. These are more than just necessary preparations; these are sensory cues – the warmth of the bath, the soft touch of pajamas, the sound of your voice reading a book – that relax your baby and prepare him or her for sleep. When you do the same things every night, it teaches your baby that there are a series of steps and that when they’re over, it’s time for bed. Do it right and your baby will fall asleep seconds after hitting the mattress.
Step 2: Focus On The Evening Meal
A lot of parents think that the last bottle of the evening is most important for keeping the baby content overnight. This certainly matters, but I think that the evening meal of solid food (for babies that can have it) is even more important. When our boys started waking up earlier (4 a.m.) at around 6 months of age and after they’d been sleeping through the night, we eventually figured out that the problem was hunger. The last bottle wasn’t holding them over – they needed more solid food at dinner. So we topped off at dinner time with an extra bowl of single-grain cereal and it had them sleeping 2-4 hours longer almost every night. However, solid food needs some time to settle. Thus, it’s better to do the solid food at dinner, then offer a bottle just before bed.
Step 3: Set An Early Bedtime
Many parents think that “Early to bed, early to rise,” applies to babies so they keep their babies up later in hopes of them sleeping in later. This just doesn’t work for babies (or toddlers, for that matter). They’re hard-wired to go to sleep early, say an hour or two after dinner. Any later than that and they tend to get cranky and over-tired. Setting an early bedtime lets your baby match up sleep with circadian rhythms, the body’s natural response to light and dark that triggers sleep hormones. They sleep better, and almost always longer, if you put them to bed early rather than keeping them up late. It also frees up your evening so you can spend time with your spouse and other children. You have to try this one!
Step 4: Let Your Baby Fall Asleep In The Crib
A cornerstone of successful sleep habits is teaching your baby to fall asleep in the crib on his or her own. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t rock your baby or read a book at bedtime, of course. The important thing is that you put your baby in bed before he or she falls asleep. Otherwise, you could be rocking for half an hour or longer, only to have your baby wake when you put him down. Worse, this conditions your baby to expect to fall asleep in your arms. Put him in bed, insert the pacifier, and leave the room.
Step 5: Soothe Your Baby Back To Sleep
Even if you do everything right, your baby will occasionally wake up at odd times overnight. When your baby is old enough (say around 3 months), you can often get away with not feeding the baby and instead just soothing him back to sleep. Enter the room quietly and look at your baby. Is he moving? Are his eyes open? If not, you have an excellent chance of avoiding waking him up to eat. First, find and re-insert the pacifier. Touch your baby’s head softly and whisper to him. Tuck the blanket back in. Often, this is enough to comfort a baby back to sleep. If not, pick up and rock your baby a bit. If you can avoid feeding or changing the diaper, do it. Your baby will stay drowsy and might sleep for hours more.
Try all of these things, and I hope you’ll see a difference with your baby. Good luck!
This post was contributed by Dan Koboldt, a father of three and the author of Get Your Baby to Sleep, a blog about establishing good sleep habits, soothing techniques, and getting your baby to sleep through the night.