I have had four babies.
I have had babies who slept well, and babies who slept terribly. I have been crazy sleep-deprived, and sleeping most nights. And I have learned a lot about teaching babies to sleep.
The first thing you should know is that I generally subscribe to “Attachment Parenting.” I don’t let my babies cry. I co-sleep with them and enjoy every snuggly minute. So, if you’re looking for someone to tell you how to get them to sleep in 3 – 4 hour stretches in their own rooms from day 1, or someone who advocates that “a little crying never hurt anyone,” you are not going to hear it from me.
If you are desperate for a decent night’s sleep but don’t believe in letting your baby cry, or don’t want to stop co-sleeping (or maybe want to start a slow and peaceful transition), I can help you.
What Does “Teaching a Baby to Sleep” Really Mean?
When most people hear that phrase, they think about cry-it-out (CIO). That’s what “sleep training” is, right?
It doesn’t have to be. When babies are born, the entire world is confusing to them. They are not sure what is good and what is bad. They are not sure what they need to get rid of bad feelings (like being hungry, wet, or tired). They are not sure what is day or night, how to move from asleep to awake, or really how to make sense of anything around them. These are unsettled newborns, and they need help learning about the world. They need a loving parent to teach them what life is about and how to manage their most basic functions.
The more intense and loving work you do in teaching them to sleep in the early days and weeks, the more sleep you will both get later on. This is entirely without crying, and actually involves quite a lot of sacrifice from you.
Your baby relies entirely on you to unlock the “secrets” of the world. When my fourth was born, I could sense his confusion and his worry in the first couple of days. He didn’t know what was going on or if the world was okay. I held him almost constantly and nursed him every 10 – 15 minutes, whenever he wanted to. By day 3 or so, he began to relax a bit more, nurse a bit less often, and seemed like he had decided the world was okay. Still, his unsettled newborn behavior and fussiness continued until he was around a month old, at which point he relaxed a lot, started smiling, sleeping fairly well and consistently, and being a very “easy” baby.
Whereas with my other three, I breezed through the newborn period in a fog of uncertainty and sleep deprivation, this time I knew what I was doing — and it shows, in that I have my calmest baby yet. Yes, that is partially just his personality, but this early “training” helps.
Goals of Training
Your goal is to first convince your baby that s/he can trust you completely to meet his/her needs. Then, you need to convince your baby that the world is an overall good place.
Once you have done these things, you will teach the baby gently how to calm down and fall asleep in a variety of ways, and how to develop a general routine. Babies thrive on routines. I don’t believe in rigid schedules, and would never put a baby in bed because “the clock says so” even if baby doesn’t appear tired, or wake a baby for a feeding for the same reason. We all ebb and flow and baby will be the same way.
The goal is not to make baby easier for you to deal with. It’s not to teach baby to be independent. It’s not to teach baby who’s boss. It’s to gently, lovingly help your baby trust you and learn to manage himself, in time. You manage him, carefully and joyfully, until he is ready to take over the job.
Baby Sleeping Phases
There are a few things you need to know, first, about how sleep happens.
Days 1 – 2: Baby sleeps almost all the time, unless he is eating. It’s not uncommon for babies to be awake for 1 – 2 hours after birth, then sleep 12 straight hours. Baby will not do this again for several weeks at least!
Day 3 – 1 month: Baby is very unsettled and may have trouble falling asleep, especially if he gets over tired. Some days baby may sleep all day, some days baby may be rather wakeful. Baby may be awake for stretches in the middle of the night and asleep all day. There is very little pattern to baby’s sleep, and they usually wake and sleep randomly throughout the 24 hour period.
Months 1 – 4: Baby now has some sort of rough routine, and is much more settled and roughly predictable, but still needs help sleeping. This is a crucial period for teaching baby to sleep in a more “traditional” sense (though still without crying).
Month 4 – 12: Baby is now capable of “sleeping through the night,” which means a 5 – 6 hour stretch, not 12 hours! Baby should also take 1 – 3 somewhat regular naps each day. At some point in here, some babies may begin to sleep 10 – 12 hours a night; others won’t until age 2 or 3.
Ages 1 – 2: Toddlers go from still unpredictable and often having interrupted sleep from teething, colds, etc. to sleeping pretty consistently and often (but not always) 10 – 12 hours through the night, plus one 1 – 3 hour nap in the afternoon.
Knowing what to expect will help you know how to help — and also help you not to feel frustrated when your baby doesn’t sleep as you wish!
How to Teach Baby to Sleep
The nitty gritty! How do you help your baby to learn to sleep? Ideally you would be reading this before your baby arrives. If not, see below….
The Early Days
Your only job is to hold your baby and respond to his/her every whim. Baby is not capable of being spoiled or demanding anything that isn’t a need at this age. Hold your baby constantly, and baby will root when he is hungry, squirm when he is wet, and fuss a bit, then sleep when he is tired. Mostly, baby will sleep. Your body will regulate his temperature, breathing, heart rate, and more. Your baby’s nursing and also oxytocin released by snuggling skin-to-skin will contract your uterus, helping you heal faster. Just.hold.the.baby. You shouldn’t be up and about now anyway, let everyone else take care of food, dishes, etc. and let them wait on you hand and foot.
The First Month
Once those first few days are over, and things are starting to feel a little more normal, and you’re stronger, and baby is generally convinced the world is an okay place and you will meet his needs, do more of the same: hold him. A lot. But, start to vary the tactics that you use to help him fall asleep. If he’s starting to show signs of tiredness (yawning, stretching, not making eye contact/glazed eyes, fussing), then quickly check or change his diaper, make sure his clothes are comfortable, and feed him if he needs it. A comfortable baby sleeps far better than one who is not.
During the day, keep windows open or lights on, and at night, keep lights off. The lights signal the baby’s natural rhythms and teach day vs. night.
Allow the baby to fall asleep in a number of different ways:
- At your breast
- In your arms, with a pacifier
- In your arms, without a pacifier
- In a swing or other “curled” place, with and without a pacifier
- In someone else’s arms (Dad, Grandma, older siblings)
- In a bed or “flat” place (can use a swaddle blanket if desired)
Figure out if your baby is a back or tummy sleeper. I have had two of each. Place the baby in the position in which he is most comfortable. Be smart and don’t add a bunch of loose blankets or sheets if baby is on his tummy (or ever).
Sometimes, let the baby sleep on or with you. Sometimes, put the baby down to sleep. Sometimes, wear the baby in a carrier while sleeping. The idea is to show the baby gently that there are lots of ways to fall asleep.
This lesson is a good one to try when the baby is just starting to feel tired. But, sometimes you will miss the early cues. Sometimes you will see them, but baby is uncomfortable for another reason and you will still miss that window. Whatever the reason, baby becomes overtired and very unhappy, and cannot seem to calm down enough to fall asleep. There are a few things you can do at this point.
First make sure you have checked all sources of discomfort:
- Hungry (some babies will not sleep without that last 1/2 oz.)
- Hot/cold (go for around 70 degrees)
- Clothes scratchy or constricting
- Tummy upset/gassy
- Wet (babies pee a lot at this age, sometimes every 20 – 30 minutes, and some are very upset by feeling wet)
- Pain (weird things can happen, like a loose thread getting wrapped around a toe or diaper being on too tight, so check)
Bounce and Pat
Hold the baby over your shoulder, curled against you. Make sure baby is well-fed, changed, not in pain, etc. Bounce the baby gently but quickly as you pat his back. Some babies like to have a small blanket wrapped around them, especially if it’s cooler. Babies don’t like to be too cool or too hot. Keep it going constantly until baby relaxes, quiets, and begins to sleep. Slow down once you are sure baby is asleep but keep patting. Then stop patting. Then just snuggle. Do not move the baby until s/he is in a sound sleep, or you will have to start over.
Swaddle, Swing, Suck
I didn’t make this up, I got it from Dr. Harvey Karp’s “The Happiest Baby on the Block.” You can read the book to find out his theories on colic, sleep, and so on. To help an overtired baby fall asleep, wrap the baby tightly so he can’t flail arms or legs (this will probably make the baby really mad at first, fighting to get his arms loose and arching back — ignore this, it’s part of being overtired). Offer a finger or pacifier to suck, if baby will take it. Stand up and put baby on his side, curled against your body. Lean over him and start saying “shhh” very loudly in his ear, continuously. Then start to swing your body back and forth in small, rapid circles. The baby should be tightly curled against you, so this will not hurt him. At first the baby may fight, but will slowly quiet down and begin to relax. Keep doing it until baby’s body has been relaxed for awhile. Stop or slow one thing at a time, starting again if baby begins to wake. This will probably take 5 – 10 minutes to work.
Basically, try different combinations of cuddling, rhythmic movement, sucking (fingers, breast, pacifier), swaddling, white noise, or positioning until baby calms down. Sometimes reclining and setting the baby facing out on my lap worked. Try different things until you find what your baby likes best.
If you can get through these few weeks and help the baby fall asleep, you will be well-set for the next phase. Note that I said nothing about scheduling in this time frame. Your only goals are to notice the baby’s tiredness signs and help him figure out how to get from awake to asleep in different ways. That’s it.
Months 1 – 4
If you have done your job, your baby is more settled in the world, adjusted to life, and can fall asleep in a variety of ways. This gives you a good framework for the next step. If you have not done all the things I outlined above, it may be that your baby sleeps “fine” until towards the end of this period, at which time he begins to wake frequently and sleep much less. This is what babies seem to do when they do not know how to fall asleep, yet they are older and aware of the world around them and are distracted by it. (My second baby did this!)
Starting a bedtime routine would be a good idea at this age, if you haven’t. Keep it simple, they are still little! Ours at this age basically consists of changing into PJs and nursing while rocking or lying down (which we don’t usually do at other times of day; I typically just sit on a couch). Look for signs of tiredness and move towards a bit of a routine. It is still very common for babies to nap sporadically, in 20 – 40 min. stretches throughout the day. This will change usually by 6 months.
You can help encourage longer stretches by taking the baby up to “bed” when you see signs of tiredness, checking diaper and nursing before laying him/her down. It is fine to nurse the baby all the way to sleep now if s/he prefers. Babies will sleep better — longer and more soundly — if put to bed, instead of staying downstairs in the chaos of the home or in your arms. You will start to see a pattern emerge, but it won’t be extremely steady yet.
At bedtime you will probably see a longer stretch emerging by the end of this time — baby may go to bed at 8 or 9 and sleep until 1 or 2 before needing a feeding. Some will then sleep another long stretch, and some will need to be fed every two hours, and many will go between the two. But, you should be getting some decent sleep.
Since we co-sleep, we usually choose to put the baby to bed in a bassinet next to our bed to start the night, and baby joins me when he wakes the first time. Occasionally he goes back into his bassinet, if I need to get another child or use the bathroom or if he seems uncomfortable (but isn’t wet/hungry).
Baby may sleep in later than other kids, if you have older ones. My older ones are usually up around 7, but the littlest one sleeps until 8 or 9. I put him back in his bed when the other kids get up.
Months 4 – 12
By now you should have some semblance of a routine. If not, go back and start with the newborn tips again. Teach your baby that, first, he can trust you to meet his needs. Help him learn a variety of ways to fall asleep on his own. You may need to enlist Daddy’s help here. We struggled with our second baby (when my first baby was born I didn’t have any friends locally yet, and she was easy, so all I did was stay at home and respond to her cues) because I took him on the go and never created any sort of routine or helped him learn to sleep at all. That created a nightmare situation where he woke every 40 minutes, all night long, for almost a year, and never really took naps except in the swing or a carrier. We still got him in his own room and sleeping fairly well by 18 months and great by age 2.
So, there is hope. If you say “We didn’t know and now my baby has terrible habits!” you can break them, gently and without crying. We did a multi-step plan that involved having baby fall asleep on Daddy’s lap, then next to Daddy, then across the room from Daddy, then on his own, over several nights (weeks). But it worked. Daddy fell asleep some nights laying on the floor in front of the crib, but it worked. What he needed was to know it was okay to fall asleep and someone was there.
If baby is on the younger side (much under 9/10 months), go back and spend a few days being extra responsive, noting early signs of tiredness (squirming, slight fussing, yawning, eye-rubbing) and taking baby to rock/nurse and then laying him down. Try a swing, a pacifier, a swaddle, darkened room, whatever will work. Re-teach baby that sleeping is good and sleeping alone sometimes is okay too. Treat baby like a newborn again.
If baby is older, try the other method (multi-step mentioned above) and you may have to get a little “tough” if you are ready. Our second son did cry a little bit, but never alone. A parent was in the room, soothing him, but would not get him out of his bed. It only took three nights of that. It felt so mean and I hated every minute, but he was never alone. Daddy would sit in a chair and talk quietly to him, pat his back, etc. but would not get him up. (He was over a year when that happened.) He was pretty stubborn though — our oldest son never cried as long as there was a parent in the room. He would pop up briefly to check that someone was still there, and if so, would lay himself back down, satisfied. Depending on the personality of the kid, they may or may not cry at this method.
It’s important to know that many babies have a “sleep regression” around 9 months. They are going through a growth spurt, teething, making physical and mental developmental leaps, and more. It’s a time to hold them close and help them through it — it’s hard on them. If you are responsive, they will begin sleeping better again in a few weeks.
Years 1 – 2
Finally, some decent sleep! Even if the toddler is not sleeping through the night, you will have something predictable. Hopefully. 🙂 If not, see above and try the “older baby” trick. We found it was best for us to transition from co-sleeping to separate rooms around the 1-year mark. At that point, they were waking up more than they needed to just because we were all disturbing each other. They did not “need” much at a year old, maybe 1 – 2 times per night if that.
Yes, they may still need to wake at night. I continue to feed my babies on demand until about 18 months, both nursing and food. We offered our boys plain yogurt as a bedtime snack many, many times between 12 and 18 months. This is an age of massive physical and mental development!
We found it was very important to keep bedtime consistent in many ways during this period of time, in order to get the best sleep. Here is what we typically did:
- Yogurt for a snack — as much as baby wanted/would take
- Soft PJs, not too warm (my kids like to sleep in sweat pants and t-shirts and refuse sleepers after a certain age)
- Room at around 70 degrees (add fan in the summer and small heater in the winter if needed)
- White noise (to drown out siblings)
- Soft sheets (has to be jersey knit or flannel — once Jacob woke over and over and over until I changed the sheet)
- Teething tea (catnip + clove — helps him relax and relieves teething pain)
- Rocking/nursing/snuggling in the bedroom
- Consistent routine (saying good night to each older sibling first, always around 8 PM)
- A cup of water (mine wake up thirsty if we don’t leave one with them, so we always do)
These helped us to get decent sleep. If any of these was slightly off — a little hungry, a little too warm or cold, etc. then he’d wake up frequently (every 40 – 60 minutes). If he was sick he’d end up in bed with my husband while I slept on the couch, especially once I was fairly pregnant.
The teething tea was a great discovery for us. It eliminated most of the waking. The remaining waking has usually been for a new diaper. My babies do not sleep with wet diapers, typically — if they can feel it *at all* they will wake and ask for a new one. Jacob (almost 2) still wakes a few nights a week, once, calling “Da! Help!”
We also occasionally use magnesium lotion on them. A few times, especially around growth spurts, if I had tried everything on the list above and Jacob was still waking frequently, I put magnesium lotion on him and he would sleep more soundly almost immediately. It also helped my oldest son with growing pains, and me with minor insomnia.
I have to say that I believe that there is always a reason why babies cry, even if we don’t know what it is yet. I tried CIO a couple of times with both my older two (they never did fall asleep and I eventually went in), but I always discovered there was something going on. It was sometimes as simple as a wet diaper, and other times as complicated as undiscovered food allergies. I always realized later there was a reason.
Babies from day 1 are communicating with you as eagerly as they can. Even now, with Nathan just shy of 12 weeks, I know he is communicating. When he is on my lap and squirming and frowning/smiling earnestly, he is trying to tell me he needs something without crying. If I don’t “listen” then he will eventually cry. It seems “sudden” but it’s not — he’s crying in frustration because his message wasn’t understood! Babies are so smart and they will guide you to what they need if you listen, and you can show them it’s okay and that they can trust you. When your bond is solid, everyone will sleep!
By the time our babies are 2, they wake a few nights a week, usually very early (by 11 or so) or very late (4 – 5 AM) for a diaper change, but otherwise sleep through. When they are potty trained, they sleep through unless something’s wrong (if they’re sick or something). They go to bed easily and peacefully for both nap and night with no fight from several months old, too. It’s not perfect, but no one’s exhausted!
This is getting very long! I can’t cover absolutely everything here. Basically, stay responsive but stay consistent as well, keep them comfortable, and gently help them to manage themselves.
If you have specific questions I can try to answer in the comments. 🙂