Baby sleep problems are a source of frustration and exhaustion for many parents. Here, we’ll discuss common problems in getting your baby to fall asleep, establishing good sleep habits, and teaching babies to sleep through the night.
Problems Getting Baby to Sleep
Baby won’t sleep in crib
Gas or digestion keeping baby awake
Baby only falls asleep in my arms
Problems Getting Baby to Sleep
Many baby sleep problems involve getting the baby to fall asleep consistently in his or her crib and without much fuss. One thing works to your advantage here: babies need sleep, and lots of it. At some point their bodies will take over. But establishing a bedtime routine and sticking to it is important, and it should start the day your baby gets home from the hospital. If not then, it should start now!
It might be hard to fix these problems cold turkey. If you need to make a change, start once every 2 or 3 days and work your way up. This will make the transition easier on everyone. Let’s talk about some of the unfortunate habits that babies get into.
Baby won’t sleep in crib
This is a common baby sleep problem, one that parents are often posting about in the forums. Maybe you’re transitioning the baby from bassinet to crib. Maybe you’ve gotten into the habit of letting him sleep in a swing, or worse, sharing your bed. The crib is the safest place for your baby to sleep. Unfortunately, it’s also flat and wide open space that may seem scary to your baby until he’s used to it.
There are a few things you can do to make this transition more comfortable. Try a portable bassinet (left) that lets your baby lay right next to you but in his own little space. Swaddle your newborn to help him or her feel snug and secure. Next, set the mood with a soothing music box or baby night light. Use the same one, every night, when baby goes into the crib.
For detailed help, see our article on Getting Baby to Sleep in the Crib.
Gas or digestion keeping baby awake
If your baby has reflux, or squirms and cries when put in bed, your problems may be from baby’s digestion. Gas makes babies uncomfortable, particularly when they’re laying down. To address this, make sure to burp your baby thoroughly before putting him or her into the crib. Second, you should elevate one side of the bed, the side where your baby’s head will be.
Most cribs these days have different height settings; you can lower one end to create a slight incline. This puts gravity on your side and reduces spitting up. It may also help bubbles work their way out rather than going through your baby’s digestion system. For more help, see the article on 5 things to do for gas.
Baby only falls asleep in my arms
This is another frequent problem I hear about, often with new parents. The baby only falls asleep while being held or rocked. First things first, you should put your baby into bed before he or she falls asleep. This teaches your baby to soothe himself to sleep, and makes these transitions easier. You don’t want to get into a situation where you put the baby down, he wakes up, and you have to start over.
Put the baby in bed, offer a pacifier, tuck in the swaddle or blanket, and leave the room. This last part is important; your baby knows when you’re around. If the baby fusses or cries at first, that’s fine. Give him 5-10 minutes to settle down. Go back in, re-pacifier, re-tuck, and leave again. Eventually the need to sleep will overpower the need to be held.
For more help, see our article on 12 ways to make a baby sleep.
Problems with Sleep Habits
Sleep habits vary widely among babies, even between twins. Here we’ll focus on the habits that create problems for establishing a good sleep routine. If your baby sleeps too little, too much, or at random intervals, this section is for you. Make sure you check our baby sleep chart to know what the norm is for babies at your infant’s age. A newborn (0-2 months), for example, should not and usually cannot sleep more than 5-6 hours consecutively. A 9-month-old or 12-month-old, however, should be able to sleep 10-11 hours at night, if not more. Let’s go through some common sleep habit problems and talk about how to address them.
Baby has no sleep schedule
Most newborns eat every three to four hours, and generally sleep in between. If your baby spent any time at the NICU, he or she probably already follows a schedule like this; as NICU nurses must care for multiple infants at once, they don’t have the luxury of feeding a baby whenever he cries. Our nurses established, and recommended that we continue, a schedule based upon points of the clock: 3, 6, 9, 12. The maximum wiggle room was about half an hour, no more. This means that we’d wake a baby up at 3:30 if he was supposed to eat at 3. If he woke up early, we’d try to hold him off until at least 2:30. This kept our babies on schedule and let us plan our our days at nights.
If your baby eats a little bit, falls asleep, and then wakes up half an hour to an hour later, then you’ve got problems. Most likely, he or she is waking up hungry. Try to get your baby to drink the whole bottle. If he falls asleep while drinking, wake him up by switching positions, talking to him, or doing a diaper change. Feeding, burping, and a fresh diaper are the key to make it for 3-4 hours.
Baby sleeps too much
There’s an old adage, one my dad likes to bring up, that you should “never wake a sleeping baby.” There is such a thing, however, as a baby sleeping too much. This is a tough one, because most other parents you ask about it don’t see it as a problem. Judging by the number of forum posts and internet searches on this, however, it’s actually a problem for many babies. First, you should be aware that newborns need a lot of sleep.
According to the baby sleep chart, a newborn should sleep 18 hours a day. If your baby is sleeping more than that, or not eating frequently enough, it’s time to take action. Lucky for you, waking a baby up is easy. Light, noise, and movement work well for this. I find that changing a diaper and/or the baby’s clothes gives a brush of cool air that rouses them nicely.
Baby sleeps during the day but not at night
Here’s an issue that even the authors are dealing with: babies that sleep better in the daytime than at night. Everyone does better when the pressure’s off, right? My understanding is that this problem is due to (1) mixed-up circadian rhythms, and (2) getting too much sleep during the day.
The circadian rhythm thing has to do with light exposure – make sure your baby experiences natural light during the daytime, and sleeps in a completely dark or near-dark room (with the exception of a night light). Also, we’ve found that if we let the babies nap for too long before dinner, or put them to bed too early in the evening, they’ll wake up in the middle of the night. Curtail the daytime sleeping, and you’ll find that your baby does better overnight.
Sometimes babies fuss or cry in the middle of the night without truly waking up. It’s hard to say what causes this. They might be having a bad dream. They might have a bit of discomfort from stomach gas or digestion. Or they might simply wake up briefly in the dark, alone, and feel a bit frightened. The bottom line is that most of these babies can be soothed right back to sleep, if they don’t manage it on their own.
The worst thing you can do is go barging in there and throw on all of the lights, waking the baby up. I go in quietly, and if his eyes are closed, I re-insert the pacifier, tuck in the blanket, maybe touch his head and whisper a soothing word, and then I leave the room. This works almost every time.
Problems Sleeping Through the Night
Babies start sleeping through the night at different ages. For us, we were lucky in that all three of our children proved themselves capable by three months of age. This is roughly in line with the baby sleep chart; by three to six months, most babies are capable of doing 5 to 8 hours at night. That’s the age, and the amount of sleep, at which most parents I know start looking presentable again in daytime. While there’s bound to be variation between babies in how early they’ll sleep through the night and for how long, here are some of the problems you might have to overcome.
Baby wakes up to eat
In my experience, hunger is the number one reason that babies wake up in the middle of the night. The key is to stuff them with as much food as possible at the dinnertime and (if applicable) the nighttime feeding. Your baby might be capable of drinking more than you suspect; if he finishes a bottle and still seems interested, burp him, and then offer another 2 ounces. As soon as your baby is allowed single-grain cereal (usually the first permitted solid), start giving it to him. In the morning, try spoon-feeding, as they’ll need to learn how to do this and it takes a while to get the hang of it.
At nighttime, right before the longest sleep period, I’m a firm believer in mixing in some cereal with breast milk or formula. Not so much that it’s no longer liquid; I’m talking about perhaps 1 teaspoon per 4 ounces of milk. Make sure you use a level 2 or level 3 nipple and watch for clogs. When your baby takes cereal, you will almost certainly enjoy longer naps and more sleep at night. See the article on nighttime feeding and sleep for more on how to handle this problem.
Baby wakes up to play
This is a problem I hear about occasionally from other parents – their baby wakes up to eat in the middle of the night. Afterward, the parent wants to go back to bed, but the baby is wide awake and ready to play. This might be because the baby’s well-rested and doesn’t recognize that it’s still nighttime. More likely, though, the baby’s waking up and feeding overstimulates him or her into a state of alertness. You can take several steps to avoid this:
- Respond quickly. The sooner you start soothing and feeding your baby, the less he’ll wake himself up. I also keep bottles with pre-measured formula standing by for the same reason.
- Minimize light. Use the hall light or a night light to provide just enough for you to see by, no more. The less light he’s exposed to, the less it will rouse him.
- Keep quiet. The less you talk to your baby, the less he’ll feel the need to wake up and respond to you.
- Feed him close to bed. We have a soft, rocking armchair in the baby’s room and another just downstairs to handle those late-night feedings.
Last, and most important, once you’ve fed and burped your baby, and put him back in bed, leave the room.
Baby diaper problems
Sometimes babies wake up sooner than they should due to a wet or dirty diaper. Or, they might go through the night and wake up extremely wet, sometimes causing skin irritation. You should put your baby in a fresh diaper right before bed. Also, look into Huggies Overnites diapers, which are super-thick and wick away more moisture for the long night’s sleep.
Few things disrupt a sleeping schedule like a sick baby. When your baby is sick, he’s often congested, has trouble breathing, and feels icky in general. He coughs the pacifier right out. There are a few things you can do to make your baby comfortable and help him sleep:
- Get the nose clear. You can try the blue bulb-syringe, which most babies seem to hate. We had better luck just using the infant saline drops, which help break up the mucus.
- Run a cool-air humidifier in baby’s room. This softens and moistens the air, making it easier to breathe.
- If your pediatrician permits it, give baby pain reliever / fever reducer (Tylenol or ibuprofen).
For more help, see the article on getting a sick baby to sleep.
Sometime between the ages of three and twelve months, your baby will start teething. This will probably create all kinds of problems for you – teething babies don’t want to eat, drink bottles, take a pacifier, or go to bed. They pretty much just want to be held. The very first thing that you should try is Baby Orajel, a gel that you spread on baby’s gums with a Q-tip. It contains a topical anesthetic, and I know it works because if I can’t find a Q-tip and put it on with a finger, my finger’s numb about five minutes later.
If things are still really bad, and your pediatrician OK’s it, a bit of baby Tylenol will provide some relief as well. Give the medicine a few minutes before you feed your baby, so that the relief arrives in time to let him finish that critical nighttime bottle.
For more help, see our article on What to Do When Baby Is Teething.
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