Ahhh, sleep. Probably the most hotly debated topic in all of baby-rearing. It seems everybody’s got an opinion, quick fix, or one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to baby sleep. As a mom whose baby has struggled with and fought sleep for months on end, I can personally vouch for the fact that the world is full of conflicting advice and so-called “experts” who can barely agree on anything when it comes to baby sleep.
On behalf of sleep-deprived parents everywhere, I just want to walk up to this panel of experts, grab them by the shoulders, and say, “JUST GIVE ME THE FACTS!” It shouldn’t be that hard, right? There are facts about the best ways to help babies sleep, aren’t there? We don’t just have to leave it to generational fads and the unsolicited opinions of well-meaning strangers, do we?
No. We don’t.
Like many sleep deprived parents, I have desperately turned to peers, family members, and books and websites devoted to helping my sleepless baby (and his mama) sleep better. Despite conflicting information and heated debates, it seems there do exist some universal truths about baby sleep. Imagine that! They have simply become lost in the shuffle. After personally sifting through tons of murky info, it seems “experts” would likely agree upon the following 10 sleep principles no matter what their approach to helping babies sleep through the night.
Once you understand these 10 principles and are ready to further pursue specific strategies for how to actually help your baby sleep better, go ahead and check out the links at the bottom of this post. They should help you make a more informed decision about what your next step should be in this whole sleep thing.
Ready? Here we go:
1. Sleep begets sleep. Don’t buy into the lie that keeping a baby up all day will result in a longer stretch of sleep at night! It’s just not true. One of the number one reasons babies wake frequently at night is due to the fact that they are “overtired”. Seems counter-intuitive, I know. But think about it. You know how, as an adult, you can get a “second wind” after you’ve been feeling tired? The same thing happens with babies. They get really tired because they’ve missed out on some portion of sleep or have been awake for too long, so their brain sends out a signal to give them the equivalent of a second wind. So now their brain thinks things are fine, when really their body is begging for sleep, and what do you get? An overly tired baby who fusses and cries and yawns and rubs his eyes and SCREAMS, but who just can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep. His body just can’t relax enough. This is why daytime sleep is oh so important. The longer and more consistently a baby naps during the day, the better chance he will have at being able to sleep longer at night, and vice versa.
2. Understand what “sleeping through the night” really means. When a baby “sleeps through the night”, it means he gets about 5-6 hours of sleep (typically midnight to 5:00 or 6:00am) without waking for food or comfort. But that’s not “through the night”! you may object. Well, sorry to burst your bubble. I know it’s not for you, but it is for your little baby. As he gets older he will be able to sleep longer, maybe even up to 10-12 hours uninterrupted. But starting out, set your standard at 5-6 hours and then you can be realistic in your expectations.
3. Understand when babies are developmentally capable of sleeping through the night. Many sources report babies are capable of sleeping through the night (remember, this means a 5-6 hour stretch) by 2-3 months. However, that doesn’t mean all babies will sleep through the night by this age. Some may not reach this coveted milestone until they are 9-12 months…maybe even older. When they can sleep through the night and when they do are two very different things, and this is often affected by factors such as temperament, sleep habits, and sleep environment. Continue down the list to see what I mean.
4. Address the underlying cause first. While it may be “easier” to pick up a book or hop on a website to find out how to make your baby sleep better (maybe that’s why you’re reading this post?), you must first identify and address the underlying cause of baby’s sleep difficulties. Is she getting enough nutrition during the day? If she’s genuinely hungry, how can she be expected to sleep through the night? This has been a big one for us, as our little one has refused the bottle from an early age even though his mama works outside the home. Hungry baby = sleep-deprived baby = overtired baby = no fun for anyone. Are there underlying health issues that must be addressed? If she is sick, teething, or dealing with something painful like gas or reflux, then those things need to be dealt with before she can really relax and begin to sleep more peacefully. Is her sleep environment comfortable and conducive to sleep? Would you be able to sleep well if the sheets were scratchy, temperature of the room (or your body) was too hot or too cold, sun shone through the curtains, and you could hear everything going on in the house? Well, neither can baby. I’m sure you could think of other examples of underlying causes that must be addressed in order to help baby sleep, so for the sake of brevity, let’s move on.
5. Consider the TOTAL number of hours your baby sleeps in a 24-hour period. This is really the most important number to keep track of when it comes to making sure your baby is getting enough sleep. Yes, it would be magical if he slept 10 straight hours at night. But check out the numbers below to see where your baby is at (thanks to BabyCenter.com) before making any drastic changes to his sleep schedule.
Age Nighttime Sleep Daytime Sleep * Total Sleep 1 month 8 8 (inconsistent) 16 3 months 10 5 (3) 15 6 months 11 3 1/4 (2) 14 1/4 9 months 11 3 (2) 14 12 months 11 1/4 2 1/2 (2) 13 3/4 18 months 11 1/4 2 1/4 (1) 13 1/2 2 years 11 2 (1) 13 3 years 10 1/2 1 1/2 (1) 12 *Note: number of naps in parentheses
6. A baby’s temperament will affect the nature of his sleep. Some babies are easy-going, some are angels, some are sensitive, some are spirited (code for “screamers”), some are strong-willed. Some are social sleepers, some need their space. The list goes on. Most will exhibit a combination of traits, but many will also find one trait to be the leader of the pack, so to speak. My baby? Strong-willed, spirited, social sleeper. I envy those whose sweet, easy-going angel babies peacefully drift off to sleep in their own crib as soon as they show the first sign of fatigue and seem to go with the flow no matter what. That has certainly not been the experience in our household! So, like I said, a baby’s temperament can certainly shape the way in which he interacts with and experiences sleep, thus, it will influence the approach to sleep taken in each household (and with each individual child). So the next time you’re tempted to compare your baby with little Josie down the block who slept through the night at 3 weeks, just remember this baby is different than that baby. It’s unfair to compare the two (ohhhh, but it’s so tempting!).
I would also like to include a note about the importance of developmental stages in this conversation about temperament. As babies get older (around 7-8+ months), they begin to figure out how their behavior controls their caregiver’s behavior. This may mean they begin screaming more prior to nap/bedtime in an effort to either avoid sleep or gain your attention (they know from experience if they scream long and loud enough, you will come in, pick them up, and give in to whatever they want). They also tend to develop separation anxiety around this age as well. It is important to understand where your baby is developmentally in order to accurately determine how you are to approach their sleep issues.
7. Babies benefit from consistent routines. When a baby is born, she enters a world filled with unknowns. Back in the womb, everything was pretty much the same — dark, warm, snug, and filled with whooshing noises. But things are wildly different out here in the real world and, all of a sudden, baby has no idea what to expect. This is why a baby will often respond very well to consistent, predictable routines that signal to her what’s coming next. Once learned, they can offer her a sense of security, something that was lost the second she entered the world. While this principle can really be applied to any area of a baby’s life, it can be especially true when it comes to sleep. Now, this doesn’t mean you are doomed to putting baby down at the exact same time in exactly the same way in exactly the same circumstances every single day until she reaches adolescence. That would be unrealistic and impractical. But it does mean that, when you are starting to work on her sleep, one of the first things you’ll be encouraged to do is established a flexible yet consistent pre-sleep routine if you haven’t already. Many of the resources at the bottom of this post discuss the process of establishing pre-sleep routines in greater detail, so I will leave it to them if you’d like to learn more.
8. Babies form sleep associations. We often “train” our babies to associate certain events and objects with sleep without even realizing it. Some sleep training approaches advocate against the use of sleep associations while others advocate for them. Regardless of your opinion on the value of sleep associations, the truth is they exist whether we like it or not. Some sleep associations provide sensory input that impact the baby’s physiological state and allow her to calm, such as swaddling, massage, bouncing, back patting, white noise, or sucking. Other sleep associations provide psychological comfort that allows for calming, such as a particular book, blankie, or goodnight song. Still other sleep associations provide both sensory and psychological comfort, such as a pacifier, thumb, bottle, or the act of nursing. If your baby is relying on a particular sleep association to fall asleep in the first place, then the theory is she will need that same sleep association in order to go back to sleep in the middle of the night. So before you start working on your baby’s sleep, take a moment to figure out what her sleep associations are and what purpose they are serving (physiological, psychological, or both). Then you’ll be better able to determine what kind of method you’d like to take in pursuing sleep training.
9. Babies’ sleep patterns are constantly changing. Like it or not, babies’ patterns and routines change more quickly than their diaper sizes. If you told me right now what your baby’s sleep patterns are like, chances are they will be different 10 days from now. For some parents this is reassuring and is met with a resounding, HOORAY! For others it’s not so good news because it means their 12-hours-straight-per-night sleeper may have some rough patches ahead of him. And whether your baby is a “good” sleeper or a “bad” sleeper, all will encounter things that interrupt their sleep such as teething, sickness, travel, developmental milestones, and more. This is why it’s more important to establish healthy sleep habits and address underlying causes than it is to find the perfect “quick fix” to cure your baby’s sleep problems. You want to help your baby make changes that will endure, right?
10. It’s only a problem if it’s a problem for YOU. As long as you, your family, and your baby are okay with how things are going on the sleep front, then change isn’t necessary. Who cares if so-and-so’s kid doesn’t ever wake for a feeding, snuggle, or diaper change in the middle of the night. Even if they talk your ear off about what you should do about your baby’s sleep, the way you respond to your child’s sleep is your call, not theirs. Don’t feel like you’re being forced to make any changes. The choice is yours.
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If, after reading these 10 principles, you’d still like some more specific techniques for helping your baby sleep through the night, then go ahead and check out the following links below. I have only listed sleep resources that either I have personally used or that have been personally recommended to me by trusted friends because they worked for them. There are plenty more books and methods out there, so this short list is simply a place to start. Follow the links, read the official summaries of books that pique your interest, and do more research on your own if you must. Remember to always put baby on her back to sleep during the night, and closely supervise any daytime naps spent on her tummy. I hope this helps!
1. The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. By Elizabeth Pantley.
2. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep. By Marc Weissbluth, M.D.
3. The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer. By Harvey Karp, M.D.
4. Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate with Your Baby. By Tracy Hogg & Melinda Blau.
***6. On Becoming Baby Wise: Learn How Over One Million Babies Were Trained to Sleep Through the Night the Natural Way. By Gary Ezzo & Robert Bucknam, M.D. (See comments below regarding medical downsides to this popular approach)
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What principles and resources have you found to be helpful in your quest to get your baby to sleep through the night?