When my wife and I brought our first child home, we were full of book knowledge about infants and well experienced in caring for infants in the clinic and the hospital. However, we weren’t sure if we were at all ready to have our own child sleeping under our own roof. As we took on this new role as parents, eventually becoming parents of six children, we realized that each son and daughter was unique – and that uniqueness included how difficult or easy it was to get our children to sleep through the night! We made mistakes, learned what worked and what didn’t, and relied on good advice from many wise people.
Our firstborn’s pediatrician was a seasoned practitioner who advised us to allow our child to ‘be the boss’ for the first three months of life, before we should have any expectations about putting him on a schedule. While some people will say that babies have their ‘days and nights all mixed up’, the reality is that babies don’t have days and nights – they have yet to develop the circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, that all humans depend on. It is an essential task of human development for infants to learn to fall asleep on their own and settle themselves back to sleep when they experience normal awakenings during the night.
The internet is packed with advice on how to get your child to sleep through the night, with multiple methods, a variety of websites, and even web-based consultants who will provide personalized sleep recommendations for a fee. As a seasoned pediatrician, sleep specialist, and father, I’ve boiled down the most important infant sleep information into the following list:
Prioritize safe sleeping for your baby
This means your infant should always sleep on his or her back. Make sure her face and head stay uncovered. Consider using a sleeper rather than a blanket. It’s best for your baby to sleep in a crib, and to remove pillows, stuffed toys, and bumper pads from the crib.
Create a sleep schedule
While newborns may sleep up to 18 hours a day, they typically will only sleep for 1-2 hours at a time. Infants will gradually begin sleeping for longer periods of time, and by the time they reach six months of age they are developmentally ready to sleep through the night. Some infants are ready to sleep through the night by three to four months of age, or at least up to five hours at a time. Once your child is at least three months old, it’s a good idea to begin working on a daily sleep schedule.
Develop a consistent bedtime routine
Avoid stimulating activities that might delay the onset of sleep (this is something that is recommended throughout the entire life span). It is essential to put your infant down to bed drowsy but awake in order to avoid the development of sleep associations to which your baby might become conditioned to in falling asleep. Examples of this include rocking or feeding to the point of falling asleep, such that when the child awakens in the night they need that same stimulus to fall back asleep.
Understand that waking is normal
Be aware that it is normal for children to wake during the night; sometimes this occurs with crying, at other times the child may return to sleep on his or her own. If a parent responds immediately to crying, this may result in training the child to wake and cry at night (especially if feeding or social interaction by the parent reinforces this behavior). Of course, if your child is sick, or in a new or stressful situation, it is important to respond to your child in an appropriate manner.
Try a few different approaches
If your child cries, there are several different approaches to consider; some may work better than others depending on your child’s temperament and your own family style. I typically recommend the checking method: when your child cries, you may check on him or her, but make these visits brief (not more than a minute, and not picking your child up). Use this time as a non-stimulating opportunity to reassure your child. If your child continues to cry and be fussy, you may continue to return to reassure, but make these visits brief and wait longer each time in between the visits. This can be a challenging time and may take several nights (which can be exhausting), but typically persistence and consistency will help your child develop the ability to sleep through the night.
Because sleep is so essential in growing children (and in adults as well!), it’s worthwhile to put effort into helping your infant develop healthy sleep habits. When continued on into adulthood, these routines help them to regularly experience restorative sleep. One good source of helpful information on helping your infant sleep through the night is healthychildren.org.
Your child’s provider at Pediatrics Northwest is always willing to answer your questions and help your family thrive in every aspect of your child’s development, including learning healthy sleep habits.