For the first few months, your baby will sleep—and wake—around the clock. But, by four to seven months she has learned to self-soothe, which allows her to snooze longer and for more consistent stretches at night, according to Jennifer Garden, a Vancouver occupational therapist and founder of Sleepdreams, specializing in sleep consultations for babies. “This is the perfect age to start creating positive associations around sleep and bedtime,” she says. And getting a system nailed down now can make life easier for the months, and years, ahead. (You can try to implement a nighttime ritual even sooner, but it likely won’t stick. It’s just about creating a baby bedtime routine.) Here’s how you can help your little one successfully drift off to dreamland.
1. Choose the right bedtime Winnipeg mom Kristi Baily says the typical lights-out time for her daughter Shraya has become 8:30 p.m. “At pretty much the same point every night she waves bye-bye to Dada, wants to nurse, and that’s it. She’s out.” Some babies are night owls, while others are ready to turn in shortly after supper. Watch for signs of sleepiness and follow your child’s lead. “There is no exact right time, and it will change with the parents’ schedule in the evening, but between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. tends to work for most babies,” says Shelly Weiss, a paediatric neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Sleep Society.
2. Create a ritual “It’s very important to develop a routine that is calming, consistent, short and predictable,” says Weiss. At first, simply singing your baby a song or giving her a cuddle while you rock her in your arms might suffice. Over time, you can introduce some of the tried-and-true techniques, like an evening bath or reading a favourite storybook to help summon the sandman. Experiment to see what works, but do it in the room where she sleeps so she can easily make the connection with bedtime. If parents can take turns with the baby bedtime routine now, your child is less likely to want—or demand—to only be put to bed by Mommy when she reaches toddlerhood.
3. Go for dark Don’t leave a light on because you think your little one will be afraid. “I often have parents tell me they’re concerned about this, but your baby’s mind hasn’t developed to a point where that’s even a possibility,” says Garden. The dark is best for getting your infant’s body into sleep mode, because it encourages the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps the body transition to sleep. (Your baby also needs to be exposed to a lot of light during the day to support the development of her internal clock or circadian rhythm.) If you prefer a little light to keep from stubbing your toe when you go in for late-night feedings, opt for a flashlight app on your smart phone.
4. Put baby down drowsy We all sleep in cycles throughout the night, and infants typically rouse every 40 to 50 minutes. “If they wake and realize things aren’t the same as when they drifted off, they’ll likely cry out to alert you that something is different and potentially wrong,” says Garden. Your child is much more likely to learn to drift back into deep sleep if things are unchanged when she stirs. So, the trick is to make your exit when you can still see eyeballs. “Eyelids should be heavy—not shut,” she says.
5. Be flexible While the experts do agree consistency is key, your baby bedtime routine shouldn’t be written in stone. Also, a rigid ritual probably won’t last for long, because as your child grows, so do her needs—as well as her likes and dislikes. You’ll find the baby bedtime routine that worked last week won’t lull her to sleep this week: Those evening baths that used to be so soothing, for example, could suddenly become a raucous playtime. So you might need to do tub time earlier in the evening and try another technique before bed. “Be patient and persistent as your child learns her bedtime routine, and she’ll figure it out.”
TIP: If your toddler is bunking with the new baby, make him an integral part of his sibling’s bedtime ritual. “Ask him to choose the infant’s sleeper or select a book to read—anything to make him feel included, because a jealous toddler can really derail a baby’s sleep routine,” says Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist.