Few things are more rewarding than teaching your baby to sleep through the night. Those lucky parents who bring a wonderful sleeper into the world simply can’t appreciate it. When your baby learns healthy sleep habits, it’s a win-win: a developmental milestone for him, and more blissful sleep for you. In this article we’ll cover some of the baby sleep secrets that we’ve uncovered in raising our three little ones.
1. For Baby Sleep Training, Timing is Everything
Timing is a critical aspect of baby sleep training. For example, the time to start your baby sleeping in the crib is the day you come home from the hospital. Yes, it seems too big, and yes, your precious little input might seem lonely or frightened or upset about being placed in the crib to sleep. But it’s natural and the safest place for him.
Importantly, for the first few months your baby should not (and likely will not) sleep more than 5 hours at a time. Most newborns eat, sleep, and poop in 2-4 hour cycles. Sometime between the age of three and six months, you’ll notice that your baby begins sleeping for occasional longer stretches. That’s when you can begin some baby sleep training techniques to encourage the longest sleep stretch to be at night.
2. Nighttime feeding and sleep are connected
A number of factors influence how long your baby sleeps at night. One of the most important of these is the nighttime feeding. The most primal and powerful urge your infant knows at birth is a simple one: eat, eat, eat. This need takes precedent over being snuggled, over play time, even over sleeping.
What, when, and how much you feed your baby has an impact on how much he’ll sleep. It boils down to this: make sure you fill your baby’s belly with a full, nourishing meal before bedtime. For more help, see our article on feeding your baby for sleep.
3. Set and follow a bedtime routine
A consistent bedtime routine is a critical part of baby sleep training. Let’s be honest, life with a baby in the house (let alone twins) tends to be chaotic. If there’s ever a time for constancy and harmony, it’s the half hour before bed. By following the same steps in the same order every night, you teach your baby that these are the events leading to bedtime. They know where it’s going, and by the time you put them in the crib, they expect it.
Aside from the core elements (feeding, diaper change, and pajamas), the elements you put into your baby’s nighttime routine are up to you. Maybe you like reading to your baby, singing lullabies, or rocking in a rocking chair.
4. No bedtime is too early
Once your baby starts sleeping for longer periods (5-7 hours), setting a bedtime becomes more important. Often in our modern world, parents simply keep their babies up too late. There are lots of reasons for this — parents who work want to spend more time with the little one, or the chaos of dinner and clean-up takes too long. Giving your baby an early bedtime, however, can have surprising results: it helps them sleep longer!
Our little ones go to bed about an hour after dinner. That’s just enough play time and food-settling time, and then they’re ready. The signs are usually there: rubbing eyes, snuggling blankets, glazed eyes, and general fussiness. Look for these in your baby and you might find she’s ready for bed earlier than you’d think.
5. The diaper makes a big difference
As infants, our babies went through 8-10 diapers per day. That’s one about every three hours. When you want your baby to sleep 5 hours, 7 hours, or longer, a regular diaper just isn’t going to cut it! When our babies started sleeping longer at night, we switched them to a nighttime diaper. These generally are available in size 3 and up, and provide way more absorbency than your typical diaper. It’s just astonishing how much these can hold.
They also work to wick the moisture away from your baby, making him or her more comfortable. And that translates into longer sleep for the both of you!
6. Sleep training can work against you
The term “sleep training” refers to habits that are formed out of repetition. Ideally, these are good habits that you help establish for your baby. However, it’s equally possible that sleep training can work against you if the habits you allow are less than ideal. Some examples of these:
- Letting the baby sleep in your bed, a swing, or somewhere other than the crib
- Reinforcing late-night wake-ups in older babies (>6 months) with a bottle
The last one got us into trouble with one of our boys. He started waking up in the middle of the night, we’d feed him, and he’d go back to sleep. The problem was that we knew he was capable of sleeping through the night, but we reinforced the wake-up by feeding him every time. On the advice of our pediatrician, we devoted one week of sleep training to wean him from that. It paid off big time!
7. Only one thing goes in the crib
The baby. That’s right, the latest baby sleep safety guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that the infant be the only thing in the crib. No pillows, no stuffed animals, no loose blankets, and certainly no crib bumpers. A swaddle is permitted (not to mention recommended by most experts for warmth, safety, and security), as is a pacifier. When your baby starts kicking out of the swaddle blanket, switch to a sleep sack (a sort of “wearable blanket) instead.
8. Cereal and solid food will help
Before your baby is old enough to eat solid foods, you should have limited expectations about how long he’ll sleep at night. An all-liquid diet of breast milk and/or formula simply digests rather quickly. When your pediatrician advises you to start giving single-grain cereal, don’t delay! As soon as your baby gets the hang of that, you have a new tool in your baby sleep training arsenal.
Cereal and solid food provide a “slow burn” that seems to stave off hunger. When it comes to sleeping through the night, solid food at dinner time may be more important than the bottle before bed. In fact, we sometimes offer a little bowl of cereal right before that bottle for our extra-hungry baby boy, and it makes a difference.
9. You can solve most baby sleep problems
Many (if not most) baby sleep problems have a cause, though it might not be obvious at first. Once you figure that out, there’s probably something you can do about it. Here are some articles that will help you address some of the more common baby sleep issues.
Get these figured out, and you’ll notice an improvement in your baby’s sleep habits.
10. There is no universal baby sleep solution
We hope that some of these tips are useful to you. In fairness, many of them aren’t really secrets — the nighttime routine and early bedtime, for example — but common strategies for baby sleep training recommended by many experts. None of these experts knows your baby as well as you do. Above all, pay attention to your little one and trust your instincts.
Most of what we learned and found success with for our children was the result of trial and error. Try something new for a few days and see if it helps. It takes both effort and time, which you (as an exhausted new parent) might not have in great supply. But it’s an investment that will pay off huge in the long run. Good luck!