The path to healthy, consistent sleep habits for your baby is spider-webbed with tempting side roads. They seem like good ideas at the time. Short-cuts, if you will, to make life as a new parent a little easier. But there are some baby sleep habits that you really need to avoid.
These practices will come back to bite you, and make training your baby to sleep through the night on his own that much more difficult.
Newborns eat on a 3-hour or 4-hour schedule so you can use the points of the clock: 3, 6, 9, and 12, (three-hour schedule) or 4, 8, 12 (four-hour schedule). These are the times your baby should eat. Try not to waver more than half an hour.
This means holding your baby off, if he wakes up at 11:15, or waking him up by 12:30 at the latest.
Don’t get into the habit of letting your baby eat and sleep every hour. Set your schedule, and stick to it. This is just as important during the day as it is at night; for some tips, see our article on baby nap questions.
Your baby needs to learn to go to sleep in the crib on his own. If you let him fall asleep in your arms every time, or to doze off in a favorite swing, he’ll grow to expect that. He won’t be able to sleep without it, and that’s going to be hard, especially as your baby grows.The solution to this is simple, but the earlier the better: put your baby in bed just before he falls asleep. If you need to pick him up and soothe your baby, that’s fine. But put him back down as soon as he’s calm.
There’s a strange law of opposites with babies and bedtimes: the later they go to bed, the earlier they tend to wake up. That’s why many of the forums, guides, and sleep experts advise the early bedtime (EBT) technique. For my boys, they’re ready an hour or two after dinner: 7 or 7:30. Babies just aren’t programmed to stay up late.
Establishing a nighttime routine is crucial for you and your baby. Set an early bed time, stick to it, and make the most out of every waking minute you can.
I admit that I’m guilt of this. As you’re changing the baby, swaddling, switching blankets, etc., you tend to collect a lot of cloth “debris”. Dirty clothes, extra blankets, burp cloths, that sort of thing. Even compact cribs, with their wide opening and flat surface, make excellent collection areas for these things.
We all know this is a danger, even if you put the baby on the other side of the crib. Put a big hamper or basket in your baby’s room and use that to collect the stuff instead. Remember, sleep safety guidelines now say that the only thing that should be in your baby’s crib is the baby himself.
Some babies cry in their sleep, and most (if not all) babies occasionally wake up randomly even when they’re routine sleepers. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you apply good techniques, your baby learns to fall back asleep on his own and to self-soothe. Perhaps one out of every four unexpected wake-ups, my boys will cry, but then konk right out again.
Two times out of four, I can apply soothing techniques to get him back to bed. Only one time out of four do I have to pick him up and offer a bottle.
Invest in a good baby monitor to help you distinguish between little cries and full-on tantrums, and also to reassure yourself that your baby is safe. Baby monitors have come a long way in recent years. See our wireless video monitor reviews for some good options, including one monitor that transmits to your iPhone or smartphone!
Or, if not hungry, then insufficiently fed. The nighttime feeding is crucial to getting your baby to sleep through the night. You get one shot at it, so make it count. At dinner time, feed your baby solid food (if permitted), ideally a vegetable mixed with baby cereal. If baby’s still hungry, mix up more baby cereal and offer it. Then you can play with him for a bit while that settles.
Just before bed, at the right part in your routine, offer a bottle of nice warm milk – offer as much as he’ll take. Don’t let him go to sleep if you know he needs more to drink! Often the more a baby eats, the longer he can sleep at night (notice I say can, not will).
You should establish a routine for putting baby to bed, including a bath (optional), a fresh overnight diaper, clean pajamas, and swaddling. All of these are key elements to getting your baby to sleep as quickly (and for as long) as possible. I admit that I’m tempted to skip things occasionally.
Does he really need pajamas when I have him in a onesie already? Should I put him into a nighttime diaper when I just changed him 20 minutes ago? He looks warm enough; do I need to swaddle him?
Yes, Yes, Yes! Any skipped step could be the one that has him waking up at 2 a.m.
Oh, no! Thought you were going to get away with that, did you? There are a few types of co-sleeping with baby that parents might make a habit of. Sharing a room, but not a bed, with your infant is actually recommended by pediatricians, as it lets you monitor your baby while he sleeps overnight.
The worrisome kind is bed-sharing, when your baby sleeps in the same bed as the parents. It’s not safe to have a tiny infant sleeping with lots of pillows, loose blankets, and 1-2 exhausted parents. Further, this practice disrupts your own sleep as well, because you’ll:
- hear every little noise or movement the baby makes, and
- probably be paranoid about rolling over on him or her.
If you find yourself in this circumstance, begin by bringing a bassinet or small crib into your room. See our mini crib reviews for some compact but stylish cribs. Start transitioning your baby to sleep in that whenever he’ll take it, but at least one night per week. Then go to two nights, then three. For more help, see our article on getting baby to sleep in the crib.
Maybe you just want to be able to watch your baby at all times, even when he or she is asleep. Wireless video baby monitors make that possible, and we’ve reviewed some of the latest models.
Conclusion: Improving Baby Sleep Habits
Don’t feel badly if you’ve picked up a bad habit or two. Nobody’s perfect, and certainly not the author: I’ve been guilty of every single bad habit listed above at some point or another. But you’ve read this far, which means you’re willing to work at improving your baby’s sleep habits. Don’t be afraid to tackle some of these problems.
The latest research on baby sleep training intervention shows that it has both short-term (baby and parents getting some sleep) and long-term (reduced maternal depression) benefits, but no long-term harms. You have nothing to lose by trying it!
Bravo! Start tonight. The sooner you ditch those bad habits, the sooner your baby will have a longer, safer, more consistent night of sleep.
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References  Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Moon RY. SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: expansion of recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics. 2011 Nov;128(5):1030-9. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/10/12/peds.2011-2284  Weissblut, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Ballantine Books; 1 edition (October 4, 2005). Read our review. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345486455/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&tag=erudisysteinc-20