Help Baby Sleep (Tonight!)

Nearly every baby goes through stages of not sleeping through the night, much to the dismay of tired parents. Here are some valuable tips and tricks for helping you and your baby get more sleep.

In the classic parenting book Your Baby & Child, Penelope Leach states an enduring truth: “Being a parent means broken nights.” How “broken” those nights will be, and how long they will last, is a variable that is foremost on the mind of every new parent.

Unfortunately, as much as new parents want (and need) more sleep, the typical baby is not programmed to accommodate this need. Infants are simply too small, and need to eat too frequently, to sleep through the night before they are four to five months old or have doubled their birth body weight.

Four to five months? That can seem like an eternity to bleary-eyed parents who can’t even imagine how they’ll make it through the next day, never mind the weeks ahead.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. These days, most adults get by with just under seven hours per night, and one-third of adults sleep six and one-half hours or less per night. And most parents of newborns get considerably less sleep than that. While this may not have much impact in the short run, cheating your body in this way builds up a sleep deficit that will eventually impact you.

Research confirms what we already know: well-rested people are able to concentrate more fully, produce more quickly, and handle stress better. In contrast, those who are sleep-deprived can have difficulty performing even the simplest of tasks. Tasks requiring logical reasoning and memory are especially hard hit by lack of sleep, which might explain why new parents seem to have such difficulty keeping track of car keys and eyeglasses!

However, there is hope for sleep-deprived parents—and it comes in the form of advice from the experts. While the advice varies greatly, everyone seems to agree that babies must learn to distinguish day from night. Fortunately, there is much parents can do to help babies understand when it is time to play and when it is time for rest. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Have Baby sleep in a portable crib or bassinet during the day.
  • Do not make the room completely dark while Baby naps.
  • Provide stimulation when Baby awakens from her daytime nap; be as boring as dry toast when she awakens at night.

Beyond this, there is no one rule of thumb for getting your baby to sleep through the night. What works for one child can have the opposite effect on another.

“It is important for parents to know that there is not one right way for children to sleep that will fit for every family, or even for every child in one family,” cautions Janis Keyser, coauthor of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. “Rather, most families explore different solutions until they find one that works best for all involved,” she says.

The best thing frazzled parents can do is take a systematic approach to reviewing each of the following popular methods, combine the recommendations with their own good judgment, and hope for the best.

A side note: The following counsel will likely not help at all if your child is sick or teething. On those nights, consider any sleep a bonus.

The Attachment Parenting Approach

Dr. William Sears, MD, an advocate of attachment parenting, is a well-known and well-respected pediatrician and author of numerous parenting books, including Nighttime Parenting.

Dr. Sears doesn’t teach you how to make your child sleep but rather helps you accept that your child will sleep through the night when he or she is biologically capable of doing so.

Part of treating your child with respect, kindness, and understanding, according to Dr. Sears, is not allowing your child to “cry it out.” He supports parents sleeping with their children and asserts that they are biologically designed to do so. He does not suggest that putting a child to sleep with his or her parents will solve sleep problems, but rather says that infants that sleep with their parents because they are following a natural process by doing so tend to develop better sleeping patterns in the first place.

The Progressive Waiting Technique

Dr. Richard Ferber, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, wrote the popular book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.

His technique, known as Ferberizing, involves establishing a soothing, pre-bedtime ritual and then putting the baby into the crib while she is still awake. She may cry or fuss at first, but only by putting her into the crib while awake can she learn to get to sleep on her own.

Once you’ve laid her down, be firm and matter-of-fact. Tuck her in, kiss her good night, and leave the room. If she cries (and she likely will), wait a predetermined amount of time before going in to check on her. Most parents choose to start with five minutes. After the allotted time, speak to your child, comfort her, but do not pick her up. Once this is done, leave the room even if she is crying. And once you leave the room she will likely raise the decibel levels. (It is helpful for parents to warn nearby neighbors before beginning the Ferberizing process.) Increase your waiting time by five minutes before going in to soothe your child.

If you can’t bear the sound of your child crying, this will be a long 10 minutes. Once 10 minutes have passed, go back in and do just what you did before. Talk with your child, rub her back, but do not pick her up. Leave the room and don’t return for 15 minutes, then don’t come back for 20 minutes, and so on.

Continue this process until your child falls asleep. Repeat the process the next night, and the next, until your child can fall asleep on her own, shedding nary a tear. Sound impossible? According to Dr. Ferber it should only take about one week (and what a week it will be!).

The Baby Wise Method

Author Gary Ezzo was once a pastor, but new parents might think of him as a drill sergeant with the rigid parenting instructions he lays out in his best-selling book, On Becoming Baby Wise. Ezzo advocates putting newborns on a strict, every three- to four-hour feeding schedule. From that, says Ezzo, will come babies that rarely cry, sleep through the night at eight weeks, and grow to be responsible, respectful members of the community.

Ezzo says parents shouldn’t respond immediately to a baby’s cries at night but should instead check on the baby every 15 minutes. “Any crying will be temporary,” he writes, “lasting from five to 45 minutes.” According to Ezzo, this will not be an issue beyond eight weeks of age.

The Delayed Gratification Approach

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, MD, a well-known child development expert in the United States and author of many parenting books, recommends parents develop bedtime rituals that are conducive to sleep, such as a reading a quiet story, listening to soothing music, and taking a warm bath.

He does not recommend letting babies cry it out, but does suggest parents not jump at their baby’s first cry or whimper. Parents who interact with the baby at the first cry don’t give the baby time to develop his or her own settling strategies. Instead of being the solution, parents who respond too quickly can actually become part of the problem.

Dr. Brazelton recommends letting the child fuss for just a few minutes, to see if she’ll settle on her own, before comforting her. “As I see it,” says Dr. Brazelton, “the task for parents is to develop a supportive bedtime ritual and to learn not to jump at the first whimper. And to help the baby discover his own style of settling himself back down into sleep.”

There are parents who swear by each of these sleep techniques, but you may need to try out a few before you find the one that works for your baby. While it may take some work to establish a healthy sleep routine, the payoff will be worth it for your whole family.

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