I wish I’d known more about helping a baby sleep through the night before my first was born. I honestly thought it only took babies a couple weeks to sort things out and start sleeping all night long.
Sleep seems like such a simple subject. But because it’s so critical to our survival, and sometimes feels completely at odds with our desire to be good parents, it’s become fraught with conflict.
I’ve read multiple books on the subject. Most of them contradict each other, but still make me feel like I’ll permanently damage my child if I don’t follow the exact rules they lay out.
Does sleep have to be so complicated?
New mothers are so exhausted that we’re desperate for a solution–any solution–to make the pain go away so we can finally feel alive again. But we’re also desperately afraid of “ruining” our children.
Some of us (myself included) struggle with postpartum depression (diagnosed or otherwise) and a huge dip in our confidence with the arrival of a new little one. And we need that sleep to help us get back to being whole.
I ended up being afraid of the tiniest peep of displeasure from my child. And it nearly undid me.
In desperation, one night after we got home from a trip to Italy that undid any progress we’d made, I ended up letting him cry it out all night long. It worked, but I felt so guilty about what I felt I’d inflicted on my son.
With the birth of our daughter I resolved to do things a little differently.
I developed what I think is a fairly balanced way of approaching the topic of infant sleep. Here are the top 15 non-cry-it-out sleep secrets I’ve found for teaching a baby to sleep through the night without going crazy yourself.
1. Don’t stress about sleep with a newborn
I think it’s important to say this first: those first few weeks with your precious newborn are all about bonding and meeting your baby’s need for love and food.
Your baby will need to eat every couple hours or so. Don’t feel bad about picking her up and feeding her. She won’t sleep through the night at first, and that’s OK.
One thing I do in the early weeks to start establishing good habits is putting the baby down in her bed to sleep after she falls asleep nursing, even during the day. That way she gets used to the feeling of sleeping away from my body.
But even that I don’t practice religiously. There’s nothing quite like sleeping-newborn snuggles, and it’s totally OK to soak those up while you can.
So the first few weeks are more about what you can do to make sure you get enough rest. Here’s what I’ve found helpful:
I use this sidecar bassinet with a lowered side next to my bed for my newborns. It’s 100% worth the cost. The lowered side makes it so easy to get them in and out of the bassinet in the middle of the night.
And with my second, I did lots of side-lying nursing in the middle of the night. I felt so much more rested with her than I did with my son because I often dozed a little bit while she ate.
I also reclined on our couch while nursing her–gravity kept her sort of “glued” to my body so that she wouldn’t fall off, and I could close my eyes for a few minutes. Even now, at 15 months, she nurses in similar positions.
I know; we moms like to be independent and believe that if we want something done right we have to do it ourselves. We are strong and resourceful and superwomen.
But right after birth is not the time to be a hero. You have just done the most heroic act of growing a new life, pushing it out into the world, and now you’re keeping it alive by feeding this new being around the clock.
Make it easier on yourself by enlisting help. If you have older children or family members who can help bring you things you or the baby need, or who can watch your other young children, don’t feel guilty asking them to do so.
Sleep when the baby sleeps
You’ve probably heard you should “sleep when the baby sleeps” so many times that it starts to sound trite. And I personally don’t always do so well with this one because I usually have about a hundred things I want to accomplish. But it is so important to slow down with a new baby and sleep as often as you can.
2. Use a swaddle… or (gasp) tummy sleep
Newborn babies have a Moro (or “startle”) reflex. Because they’re used to the confining space of your womb, after they are born they startle much more easily on their backs with their arms free.
I feel like I shouldn’t tell you this because it goes against all the current medical advice… but I believe the SIDS-tummy sleep connection is largely overblown, and I let my second sleep on her tummy. But you have to do what you believe is safe.
Studies in New Zealand indicate that SIDS may actually be connected to the chemicals emitted from mattresses–which tummy sleep would exacerbate by keeping the baby’s face close to the fumes.
So I bought a non-toxic mattress to keep my baby from breathing harmful fumes. And then I let her sleep on her tummy. It made things so much easier.
The alternative, however, is to use a swaddle. This is a great option if you put your baby on his or her back to sleep.
Note: NEVER put your baby on his stomach when swaddled.
3. Establish a flexible routine early on
When my first was born, I had no idea what was normal for baby sleep. I didn’t know when I should be trying to get him to nap and when he should be awake.
Then another mom told me about routines and sent me a link to average sleep charts–let me tell you; it was life changing.
Here’s the thing, though: I believe if you’re too rigid in what you expect from your child’s sleep routines you’re just setting yourself up for extra stress.
What works best for us is a flexible routine. I have basic guidelines I follow, but I also pay attention to what my baby is telling me. And sometimes life happens and the routine goes completely out the window.
I use these average sleep charts as a starting point. Look up your baby’s age to see how much wake time he needs between naps and roughly how many naps a day he needs.
Then watch your child for signs of sleepiness (rubbing eyes, yawning, acting silly if older) and put him down for a nap at a time that roughly correlates to their sleep needs.
My oldest took longer naps but dropped naps sooner than the average. With my second child, things were a little more scattered since we were often out of the house for first child’s activities.
This is why I say “flexible.” Do what you need to to make life work for you. Life got so much less stressful the second time around when I went with the flow as needed.
Establishing a before-sleep routine will help your baby know it’s time to sleep. You can make it as elaborate as you like, though I prefer to keep mine simple
With my children it goes something like this:
- Change diaper
- Turn on sound machine
- Lay baby down in bed with blankie or swaddle
You might also add a before-nap book, a small snack, a kiss and “sleep tight,” or a song. It’s really up to you; whatever you think you can keep up with consistently as a before-sleep cue.
You might also do a slightly longer routine at bedtime than you do at naptime.
When your child is still learning to the sleep through the night, it’s important to keep midnight wakings as low activity as possible. The less you rouse your child, the less they’ll feel like they’re supposed to be awake in the middle of the night.
Once you’ve fed your baby, put her right back into bed after midnight nursing.
- Don’t play with baby.
- Turn on as little light as possible.
- Don’t talk to baby.
- Don’t change the diaper if it’s just wet.
Just put her back in bed.
And try to avoid rousing yourself too much too! With my first I would browse Facebook while I nursed baby, and I was exhausted. It would take me forever to go back to sleep.
With my second, I stopped sleeping with my phone and got a lot more rest.
4. Practice “the Pause” to teach your baby to sleep through the night
I learned this tip from Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman, and it transformed my approach to baby sleep. According to Druckerman, French children learn to sleep through the night much earlier than their American counterparts.
And that’s due to what Druckerman calls “the Pause.”
When your baby cries out while sleeping, don’t rush in. Wait and see if he’s just rousing between sleep cycles. Give him some time to settle back down.
You don’t have to wait long; a few minutes at the most. And if he doesn’t settle down on his own you can go ahead and try to help him resettle.
Why I love “the Pause”
I love this method because it doesn’t require you to put your baby in bed and then walk away for the rest of the night. It doesn’t require you to leave your baby to “cry it out” for hours on end.
It just requires short periods of controlled fussing, after which you come to your baby’s aid if he can’t fall asleep himself. It’s a method of truly observing your child and what he needs, and teaching a little independence, instead of always immediately rushing in.
With my second child, I used this method not only in the middle of the night or the middle of a nap but also when I determined she was ready for a nap.
If she didn’t fall asleep nursing, I would go through our naptime routine and put her in bed anyway. If she didn’t fall asleep immediately, I’d let her fuss for a few minutes before I went in to rock her or soothe her and try again.
Now she goes to sleep very easily when it’s time for a nap or bed.
5. Use a sound machine to help your baby sleep through the night
I learned this method of helping babies sleep through the night from The Happiest Baby on the Block.
In the book, Dr. Karp advocates for “shushing.” Newborn babies are used to the noise of the womb, and after they’re born a quiet bedroom can feel overwhelming to them.
Even my husband and I sleep better with a little white noise–we run a fan in our room all night long, year round.
For the children, though, this sound machine has been amazing. We’ve been through two of them now (I burned out the first by plugging it into the wrong outlet in Italy… Oops…)
I like that the sound is mechanical rather than digital, so you won’t hear loops in the audio. It’s a very natural sound.
I bought one for my sister, too, after her first baby was born. They’re high quality and very effective.
6. Use soothing essential oils to help your baby sleep through the night
With small children and babies you have to be careful with essential oils. They’re incredibly concentrated, and some of them can be dangerous for children.
But if you’re using a high-quality oil that has been properly diluted, certain oils can be very helpful for getting a baby to sleep through the night.
The top three oils I would suggest for babies are lavender, frankincense, and Roman chamomile. A drop of each in a diffuser several feet away from the baby’s crib should be sufficient to create a soothing atmosphere in his bedroom.
I also suggest checking out this lovely blend formulated specifically for babies: Seedlings Calm.
Related: 10 Best Essential Oils for Sleep
You can also make a soothing massage oil. Mix together the following:
- 2 tablespoons carrier oil (coconut, olive, apricot kernel)
- 5 to 10 drops essential oil
Store in a small glass container and use as part of your bedtime routine to help soothe your baby for sleep.
Bonus: physical touch and massage are excellent ways to bond with your new baby!
7. Nurse to Sleep… or Don’t
You’ll see a lot of baby sleep advice that will tell you not to nurse your little one to sleep. They’ll say that it’s a “sleep crutch” that will prevent your baby from learning to sleep through the night.
In my experience, I’ve not found it to be that big of a problem. Every baby eventually outgrows it and after a while won’t nurse to sleep even if you want them to. So I don’t make it an issue.
Babies have sleep transitions roughly every 45 minutes, so the key is to help them learn to go back to sleep themselves when they reach one of those transitions.
Helping baby sleep through a transition
In addition to “the Pause,” there are a couple things I do to make sure the baby will sleep through a transition whether or not I nurse her to sleep.
If your baby has fallen asleep nursing:
- Put her in bed before she’s too soundly asleep. That way when you transfer her from your arms to the bed, she’ll be in a semi-wakeful state and will be less confused about where she is when she has a sleep transition later.
- You might try to rouse her just a tiny bit as you put her in bed. Just a slight jostle is enough–you don’t want to fully wake her, just enough to make her somewhat aware that she’s moving from your arms to the bed.
If your baby is acting sleepy but is not going to sleep, I will usually go through the before-sleep routine and put her in bed fully awake. Practice the Pause here. If baby doesn’t go to sleep within a few minutes, pick her up and try again.
Maybe you nurse her again or hold her for a few minutes or play quietly with her. Or maybe you decide it’s just not worth it right now and try again a little later. Eventually she will get tired enough to go to sleep.
8. Only put sleepy babies to bed… but not too sleepy!
Sometimes it’s hard to gauge if your baby is sleepy or not–especially as he gets older and starts playing. But as much as possible, make sure he’s really sleepy when you put him to bed.
It should go without saying that a baby who isn’t sleepy isn’t going to fall asleep.
On the flip side, don’t wait too long. Babies who are overtired have an even harder time falling asleep. So try to catch him right when he’s starting to get drowsy but hasn’t gone into crazy meltdown mode yet.
9. Cut off naps at a reasonable time
I hate waking sleeping babies. Like, hate it so much that I will arrive late to an event because I’ve waited until the last possible moment to awaken my snoozing beauty.
But sometimes it’s necessary. You will have to figure out what works best for you and your baby, but your baby needs a certain amount of time between when she wakes up from her nap and is ready to go to bed.
Again, see these sleep charts as a good starting point for determining how much time your baby needs between the end of a nap and bedtime.
If your baby needs at least 2 hours between sleeps and you want bedtime to be 8 PM, then you’d want to cut off naps by at least 6 PM (possibly earlier). I can’t let my children nap much later than 4:30 PM, or all hell breaks loose at bedtime.
10. Wind down early
Try quieting things down in the last hour or so before bedtime. Vigorous activity or conversation can make your baby more alert and harder to put to bed. If you keep things calm and low-lit, bedtime will go more smoothly.
11. Use motion and sound
Bouncing makes babies feel like they’re back in the womb. If your baby has woken up during a transition and won’t settle but you don’t think he’s ready for a feeding, try sitting on an exercise ball or in a rocking chair to lull him back to drowsiness.
Again, when you put him back down, you’ll want to make sure he’s not too soundly asleep so that he can learn to sleep through the next sleep transition.
Another trick I like that keeps baby in bed during the transition is the “Shush Pat” from Tracy Hogg, “The Baby Whisperer.”
This post gives a good explanation of how to do it, but basically you will “shush” your baby and pat his back until he falls back asleep.
12. Try a “dream feed”
Full disclaimer–the “dream feed” never really worked for my babies, but enough parents swear by it that I think it’s worth sharing. Just before you go to bed, go back to baby’s room and give her one last feeding.
The idea is to fill her belly so she’ll sleep longer without teaching her that midnight is eating time. Sarah at Busy Blooming Joy has a fantastic, detailed post about how to implement the dream feed and what to do if it’s not working. I may have to try again with our next baby!
13. Keep baby comfy
Make sure your baby’s room is an appropriate temperature–not too hot and not too cold. 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit is considered the ideal sleeping temperature.
The human body cools down when you sleep, so a cooler environment will help baby (and you!) sleep longer and better.
Also make sure your baby’s sleepwear is appropriate. It should be enough to keep him at an appropriate temperature. If you’re using a swaddle or sleep sack, use lighter sleep wear underneath.
Watch out for tags, zippers, or Velcro that could be irritating for baby and keep his nails trimmed so he doesn’t scratch himself.
14. Recognize every baby learns to sleep through the night at their own pace
One of the worst parts of modern parenting is how easy it is to compare ourselves and our babies to other parents and their babies. Social media encourages us to put our best face forward, even if it means lying about our accomplishments.
Every baby, though, like every other person, is different. It may take yours longer to sleep through the night than your best friend’s. Your best friend’s may have a harder time with sleep regressions than yours does.
You may find that some of these tips work great for your first child and others work better for your second child.
The key is to remember that you’re always making forward progress. Don’t stress yourself out when things don’t go according to plan.
Teaching a baby to sleep through the night can sometimes feel like two steps forward, one step back.
Things like teething, growth spurts, and learning new skills can cause a baby to wake up who was once sleeping. That’s when tricks like “The Pause” and “Shush Pat” can be really helpful.
But always give grace. Your child is a human being too and sometimes just needs you.
15. Take heart
When my first was a newborn I felt like the misery of sleeplessness and hormone-induced depression was going to be my new normal. I thought life would never get better.
It will get better.
I promise you, having a new baby can be hard, but you will find your rhythm. Eventually your baby will sleep. And you will feel better again.
That knowledge helped me immensely with my second child. And it was what I kept repeating to my sister after her first was born.
It will get better. Have faith and be strong.
You got this.