How can I get my baby to sleep through the night?

Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine
There are many different tricks in the book. Every parent just has to find what’s best for them and their child. Getting baby to go to sleep is a common problem: 45% of mothers say they have problems with sleep in their 6-12-month-olds. Here are some things you can try:
  • Keep a consistent routine. Do the same thing every night so the baby will learn the pattern.
  • Don’t run into the room the instant your baby makes a noise. Give him or her some time to settle themselves back to sleep.
  • It’s great to let your child start to learn to fall asleep on their own at around 1 month, if you can. Put them down at a time when they’re drowsy and happy.
  • Torn about doing Cry It Out (CIO)? There are many schools of thought on this – and TONS of opinions! The best advice I can give is that you have to do what’s right for YOU. No one else can say what that is.  Then, once you have made a decision, STICK WITH IT. Studies have shown that which method you choose is less important than how well you stick with it. In one study of 7-month-olds, parents were divided to use no specific technique, or techniques of either CIO or staying until they’re asleep. Results showed that parents in either of the two technique groups had better outcomes than those who didn’t use a particular technique at all. If you’re concerned about how these techniques will affect your child later, the study followed up when the kids were 6 years old. Neither method seemed to impact parent’s feelings, parent-child bonding or children’s stress levels.
Forget about tips for making organic baby food or procuring the perfect tiny wardrobe. When it's 3 a.m. and baby is fussy and awake, the only advice you care about is how to get him or her to sleep. Here are five tactics to try when you're in desperate need of some shut-eye.
  • Establish a regular routine. Even adults have trouble resting at night when their schedule fluctuates, and the same goes for your baby. Setting a routine that begins with quiet downtime, like reading a book, listening to soft music or giving your baby a bath, followed by some light rocking and ending in a clean crib may be all your little one needs to prepare for slumber. In fact, pretty much any method of getting your baby to sleep can be effective -- as long as you're consistent.
  • Be selfish with your bed. You are advised against sharing your bed with a child under age 2 because of safety concerns.
  • Be active during the day. Your baby may be too young to burn energy running around the yard, but stimulating activities like going for a walk in the stroller, seeing friends and family, visiting a children's museum or doing a sing-along activity (even if you're the only one singing!) may help tucker your baby out and get him or her ready for bedtime.
  • Consider a pacifier. Moms tend to be divided on whether pacifiers are a good idea for their babies, but if your little one is especially fussy, it may be worth a try even if you're anti-paci. The sucking movement can be very calming to young ones, and it's at least much better than putting him or her to bed with a bottle, which can be both a choking hazard and harmful to his or her dental health.
  • Don't let baby get too used to being rocked to sleep. Of course, during these first months, it's a joyful experience for you to feel your baby fall asleep in your arms. But this may be a hard habit to break if your baby decides that it's the only way to end the day and fall asleep. Instead, aim to put your baby in his or her crib while he or she is tired but still awake.
Karen Jackson, NP
Pediatric Nursing
At 2 months, children just typically don't sleep through the night, but at 4 months they are neurologically mature enough to sleep through the night. I recommend at 2 months that parents start getting a good bedtime routine in, that they get their child rocked and fed and sung to, and then put them into bed around 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. They might fuss, but we don't really let kids cry it out at 2 months. But that does set the cues that, yes, this is bedtime or this is nap time, and it's time to go to sleep.

At 4 months, again I said they are neurologically mature enough to sleep through the night. It's not so much how well they've been fed, it's really their brain development. This could be a little bit hard first of all, so I tell parents to have courage to do this because they're going to listen to their baby cry and fuss, probably for only about 3 nights though. So they do their bedtime routine, the baby gets sleepy, they know it's time to go to sleep, but they put them in the bed awake, and if the baby fusses, after 5 minutes they go in. They don't turn the lights on, they don't say anything, they just pat them on the tummy, and then they walk out. Then they come back in at 10 minutes and do the same thing -- pat the baby on the tummy and walk out. They vary the times so the child can't really predict when they're going to be coming in. But you're not abandoning your child. You're still there. And then after about an hour, those babies learn what they need to self-comfort to put themselves to sleep. And that self-comforting is really important for their life, because we all need to know how to self-comfort. So you're really teaching them how to self-comfort at an early age.

After about 3 nights, that period of time that they're fussing really slows down or is cut down, so usually by the third or fourth night, you put them down, they might fuss a little bit, and then they go right to sleep. They sleep through the night. And when they wake up, they know how to self-comfort, and at 2 a.m. in the morning they put themselves back to sleep. So that's great for the whole family. The baby is happier the next day, the mom is happier with the baby -- the whole quality of life just really increases for that family.

Here are some things you can do to help your baby sleep relatively well through the night:

• Get AM light: Make sure your baby gets a dose of morning light. This will help set the body clock up, and reset a body clock that’s may be ticking a tad off schedule.

• Preserve nap time: Babies nap routinely throughout the day, usually once in the morning, and another in the afternoon. Though you may be tempted to cut back on nap time in order to “save” sleep time for the night, this will backfire. Babies who get the full extent of their naps in sleep better than those whose naps are cut short. And they just might grow up smarter thanks to their naps.

• Cluster feed: to overcome the challenge of keeping your baby’s belly satiated through the night, see if you can feed him in small clusters in the evening hours and then “top-off” his belly close to bedtime so he goes to sleep with a full belly. That way, he or she is less likely to wake up within a couple of hours hungry.

• Try the eat, sleep, play method: we used this method in our house and found it to be extremely helpful. The key here is consistency in the schedule: if it is sleep time and you are out, get home and get them to bed, it will pay off.

After 6 to 8 months of age, introduce a lovey (small blanky or stuffed animal) into her crib that she can cuddle with. Pick a night. Friday night often works well because the first few nights might be tough. Be consistent because she won’t understand why sometimes she gets picked up and fed and sometimes she doesn’t. Let her fall asleep at bedtime and tell her how long you expect her to sleep (saying it out loud helps you know your plan). When she does wake up, allow her to figure out how to get back to sleep on her own. There may be a few nights of crying, but if you resist the temptation to intervene, each night the crying will be less, and before you know it she’ll be sleeping all night long (and so will you). In the morning, tell her how proud you are of
her—clap, cheer, sing, or dance. Even if she is too young to understand, it’s a good routine to start. Both parents must be on the same page for any sleep plan to work, so talk to your partner and agree on a consistent approach.
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I have major beef with so many of the “baby sleep” books, because they set us up to believe that an infant’s inherent sleep patterns can truly be majorly altered by the external environment--us. And that if the baby isn’t sleeping like x, y and z by a certain age…well, that’s our failure in parenting. These books are largely based on the clinical experience of sleep-dysfunction specialists, who mainly see very disturbed children and families…people with severe problems. Then their findings are extended into the “normal” population, in error.

The other “faction” in the baby sleep department is the attachment parenting group, who don’t take into account the needs of babies who have differing sensory needs (or parents who have a need for some sleep).

I really want you to get away from the notion that there is one right way to be doing this, lest you screw up your baby permanently. Rather, have a long-term vision of what your ultimate sleep goals are for him, and then take mini-steps in that general direction, when you can. If backsliding occurs, so be it. Try to be as “zen” as possible about all of this. It will work itself out, and it will be a surprise to everyone involved how, and when it does. You cannot control much of this situation, beyond providing him with the “Good Enough” environment that you already are.

So that means all you can do is cope, for the time being. I hope he’s getting a bottle? So that someone else can feed him, and you get a break? Sit down with your partner and make a schedule. Who will take which nights. The other person is “off” on certain nights, and gets to sleep, go out, whatever. Or perhaps one of you might take him the first two-three hour shift of the evening, and then switch. Whatever works for you both. And it also includes calling in extra help, even if it’s paid help, even if that means just once a month, so the two of you can get out and just be together, without him, to recharge your batteries.

Keep giving him the message that nighttime is for sleep, but until he really gets that, all you can do is hang out with him as you are, at night. Don’t keep looking at the clock, saying “Man, it’s 10:30 pm already. He should be asleep! What are we doing wrong!” Just take a deep breath, get some extra support, trade off, and know that this to shall pass.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.