Newborns have a hard time distinguishing between night and day, which explains their maddeningly short bursts of sleep around the clock. But once your baby is a few weeks old, you can start to teach him the difference – and establish healthy sleep habits while you’re at it. These expert tips can help:
Use light strategically
“Lights push your child’s biological ‘go’ button,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. On the flip side, darkness triggers the brain to release melatonin, a key sleep hormone. Keep your baby’s days bright and his nights dark and he’ll quickly figure out when it’s time to sleep.
- During the day, allow plenty of sunlight into the house or take him outside. Put your baby down for daytime naps in a well-lit room (unless he has trouble falling asleep at nap time).
- To induce nighttime sleepiness, consider installing dimmers on the lights in your baby’s room, but also in other rooms where you both spend lots of time. Lower the lights in the evening (up to two hours before bedtime) to set the mood.
- It’s fine to use a night-light in his room, but choose a small, dim one that stays cool to the touch. (Don’t plug it in near bedding or drapes.)
- If your child wakes up during the night, don’t turn on the lights or carry him into a brightly lit room. The shift from dark to light tells his brain it’s go time. Instead, soothe him back to sleep in his dark bedroom.
- If early morning sunlight prompts your child to wake too early, or if he has trouble napping in the afternoon, consider installing room-darkening shades.
Baby sleep: Tips for birth to 3 months
Newborns sleep up to 17 hours a day. Learn about newborn sleep patterns and how you can establish good sleep habits.
Put your baby to bed when she’s drowsy, not asleep
This is a tall order, especially for breastfeeding moms, but master the timing and both you and your baby will rest easier. Babies who drift off on their own are more likely to learn to soothe themselves to sleep, says Kim West, a sleep consultant and author of The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight.
Try to put your baby to bed your baby as she’s quieting down, just before she nods off. West suggests creating a sleepiness scale from 1 to 10 when your baby is 6 to 8 weeks old. (1 is wide awake and 10 is out cold.) Wait until your baby hits 7 or 8, then put her down to sleep.
Wait a moment before going to your baby
If you jump at every squeak heard over the baby monitor, you’re only teaching your child to wake up more often. Wait a few minutes to give her time to settle back to sleep on her own. If she doesn’t, and it sounds like she’s waking up, try to reach her before she escalates into a full-blown howl. Stepping in before a meltdown means you’ll catch her before she’s too worked up to fall back asleep.
Either way, it’s okay to turn down the sensitivity on your baby monitor. Set the volume so you’ll be alerted when she’s distressed but won’t hear every gurgle.
Try not to look your baby in the eye
Many babies are easily stimulated. Just meeting your baby’s gaze can engage her attention and signal it’s playtime.
Parents who make eye contact with sleepy babies inadvertently encourage them to snap out of their sleep zone, says Claire Lerner, senior parenting adviser at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes the health of infants and toddlers. “The more interaction that takes place between you and your baby during the night, the more motivation she has to get up.”
So what to do instead? Lerner suggests keeping it low-key. If you go to your baby at night, don’t make eye contact, talk excitedly, or belt out her favorite song. Keep your gaze on her belly and soothe her back to sleep with a quiet voice and gentle touch.
Relax the rules on diaper changes
Resist the urge to change your baby every time he wakes up – he doesn’t always need it, and you’ll just jostle him awake. Instead, put your baby in a high-quality, nighttime diaper at bedtime, says Pantley. When he wakes up, sniff to see if it’s soiled and change only if there’s poop. To avoid waking him fully during nighttime changes, try using wipes that have been warmed in a wipe warmer.
Give your baby a “dream feed”
If your baby has trouble sleeping, waking him up for a late-night feeding (between 10 p.m. and midnight, for example) may help him sleep for longer stretches.
Keep the lights dim and gently lift your sleeping baby out of his crib. Settle him down to nurse or take a bottle. He may wake just enough to start feeding, but if he doesn’t, gently nudge his lips with the nipple until he latches on. After he’s done, put him back to bed without burping him.
Wait until she’s ready for sleep training
Following these tips helps establish healthy sleep habits, and you can start as early as the first month of your baby’s life. But as desperate as you may be for some solid shut-eye, your baby won’t be ready for formal sleep training until she’s at least 4 months old. By then she’ll not only be ready to sleep for longer stretches, but she’ll also be much more receptive to the techniques you use.
Brace yourself for sleep regressions
If your baby starts waking up during the night again, don’t panic: It’s probably just a temporary hiccup. Babies and toddlers often have minor sleep regressions around major developmental milestones or changes in routine, like travel, illness, or a new sibling. Many parents notice sleep problems begin around 4 months, when babies become more mobile and their sleep patterns change, and again around 9 months as separation anxietyincreases.
To get through it, go back to basics: Stick to a predictable, consistent schedule during the day and a soothing bedtime routine in the evening. If your baby is old enough, choose a sleep training strategy and try it for a week. If you don’t see improvement, reassess and try a new approach.