Here’s the good news: There are no rules about baby sleep. “Most of the time,” says Shelly Weiss, author of Better Sleep for Your Baby & Child, “parents can just go with their instincts.” So by all means do whatever works for you, your baby and your family to get the sleep you need.
But “whatever works” is likely to change from night to night, and week to week. Your little one who was happy to be put down awake in her crib at three months may scream in terror when you put her in that same crib at six months. The baby who was easy to rock to sleep at 7:30 now naps at 4 p.m. and stays up to midnight. Sleep challenges come and go — sometimes a virus or teething is the issue; other times a new developmental stage adds a fresh wrinkle to your bedtime routine. Nothing works all the time, and nothing works forever.
What can help is to have a few tricks to pull out on those restless nights. Read on to see if any of these appeal to you and your little night owl.
Trick: Think like a mammal
What to do Nurse your baby in your arms or cuddled next to you while you lie on your side.
Why it works Puppies and baby gorillas fall asleep when cuddled close to their mothers while being fed, points out lactation consultant Diane Wiessinger. “I think it’s also instinctive in humans to hold their babies, rock, stroke or pat them, and nurse them to sleep.” In fact, your milk has components to induce sleep, and your baby’s body produces sleep-inducing hormones in response to suckling. The relaxed feeling of having a full tummy and being held close creates the natural conditions for a baby to fall asleep.
Weiss also points out that for at least the first three or four months, it’s very important to nurture babies to sleep. “Nursing to sleep is normal and appropriate,” she says.
Worried that bed sharing or nursing your baby to sleep will lead to future sleep problems? Don’t be. A 2002 study of bed-sharing families that followed the children for 18 years found no sleep problems or other negative consequences from bed sharing in early childhood.
Trick: Move it, move it
What to do Rock, jiggle, carry or drive your baby in a car — anything that provides rhythmic motion.
Why it works For many months, your baby was gently bounced in your womb as you walked around your home or office. Lying still can feel strange and stressful, and movement is relaxing. A sling is a great way to keep your hands free while you are on the move with your baby, and you can lay the baby down, then slip the sling over your head to settle him without waking him up. If you transfer baby to a crib, try gently jiggling it with the same rhythm you used while walking or rocking, to help him stay asleep.
Trick: The scent of a woman
What to do Give your baby something with your scent on it to help him feel your presence.
Why it works Your baby associates your smell with comfort and security. One mother of nine-month-old twins took one of her unwashed T-shirts and set it between them as they slept. Everyone got more rest. Dad could sleep with a receiving blanket under him to transfer his scent, and then wrap the baby in it as he rocks him to sleep and sets him down.
Trick: The sounds of silence
What to do Create some white or other background noise to drown out sudden sounds that might disturb baby, and to provide continuous soothing sounds. You can use a white noise machine, a fan turned away from the baby or a radio turned down low.
Why it works The womb is a noisy place — baby heard your voice, the rumbles of your digestive system and the sounds of the world around you. Hearing similar sounds now as he falls asleep reassures him that he’s not alone. Toronto sleep doula Tracey Ruiz recommends the white noise machine because it’s a consistent sound and easy to take with you.
Trick: As different as night and day
What to do Help your baby learn the difference between night and day by keeping his environment dark and quiet at night, and bright and lively during daylight hours. Start to darken the room you’re in an hour or so before you want your baby to go to sleep. If 2 a.m. diaper changes are needed, use a flashlight or night light to guide you, and don’t get into any active playtime. During the day, keep your napping baby close to you so the sounds and activity of your household keep him from sleeping too much.
Why it works Your newborn arrives without the circadian rhythm that makes an adult wake up in the morning and prepare to sleep once it gets dark. But some research says you can teach even a young baby to recognize the differences between night and day. Robyn Stremler, an assistant professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Toronto, studied 30 mothers where half emphasized these differences, and half did not. They were also encouraged to put their newborns in bed while still awake but drowsy. The results: Babies in both groups slept about the same number of hours over a full day, but the mothers who had emphasized day and night differences slept, on average, one hour more each night when their babies were six weeks old. “These babies also slept for longer stretches during the night,” Stremler adds. That’s a boon for parents who like more unbroken rest.
Trick: Snuggled up
What to do Swaddle your baby, or hold her snugly in a wrap carrier or sling.
Why it works Before birth, your baby was held tightly in your womb — by the end, she could barely move! Many young babies will startle themselves awake by flinging out their arms or legs, and being held snugly helps them stay calm and feel secure. Be careful about leaving your baby swaddled for long periods of time — babies can have difficulty regulating their temperatures when swaddled, and the snug wrappings mean they may not be able to give feeding cues. It’s safer to partially unwrap your little one once she’s asleep.
Trick: Goodnight Moon
What to do Recite a story (like Goodnight Moon) or poem, or sing a lullaby — the same one every time. Combine this routine with nursing or rocking.
Why it works At first, your baby just enjoys the rhythm of your words or the song. But over time, he associates it with falling asleep and it can almost magically relax him when you start to repeat the words. Be sure both Mom and Dad (and any sitters) know the story.
Trick: 20 winks
What to do Wait about 20 minutes or so — until your baby has fallen into a deeper level of sleep — before trying to transfer her to a crib or some other sleeping surface.
Why it works When your baby first falls asleep, she’s really just dozing. If you try to set her down, she’ll wake up quickly. But if you wait about 20 minutes, she’ll become more relaxed — her arms will hang limply, her breathing will be slower — making a transfer more likely to succeed. Make it easier by moving slowly and warming the mattress beforehand (use a hot-water bottle, but do a touch test to make sure it’s not too hot).
Nothing’s working? Combining one or more sleep strategies may nudge your baby into dreamland. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, suggests using all five of his S strategies at once: shushing; swaddling; side-lying or stomach position (meaning you hold the baby on his side while rocking him); swinging (or rocking); and sucking.
There’s nothing magical about any of these tricks — the real magic is finding an approach that works for you, your baby and your family. Being patient will eventually get you all to dreamland.
• settle baby to sleep on her back
• use a CSA-approved crib (be careful of hand-me-downs)
• keep the baby in your room for at least the first six months
• keep quilts, pillows, bumper pads and other items away from your baby’s sleep area
• co-sleep with your baby if either parent smokes or if the mother smoked while pregnant
• sleep with your baby on a couch, recliner, waterbed or air mattress
• leave your baby to sleep in a car seat
• co-sleep if your alertness is impaired by alcohol or medication