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You knew that having a baby would change your sleeping routine, but it can be hard to really understand just how much until you're in the thick of it. While young infants do spend most of their day sleeping (up to 19 hours for some!), they typically only sleep for short windows of time. This means that you're also waking up frequently to care for them—and mama, it's exhausting and overwhelming. You're in a constant state of wondering how to get your baby to sleep, and overwhelmed by the physical and emotional nature of it.
From the stress of a baby dealing with reflux or colic to the pressure we feel to get our babies to sleep through the night, navigating the challenges of how to get an infant to sleep is hard—really hard.
As a sleep consultant, I want to share my best baby sleep tips with you, because ultimately the most important thing for you to know is that you are not alone. Your baby will sleep (and you will, too)—I promise.
Here are my top 10 baby sleep tips for infants.
1. Understand that you know your baby best.
While it may be tempting to listen to what others suggest about how to put your baby to sleep or how long they should be sleeping, try to trust your own instincts. The more you stress about 'not doing the right thing', the more you're taking the joy out of this sweet time with your baby.
Co-sleeping expert, Dr. James McKenna says:
"Do what works for your family and trust yourself to know your baby better than any external authority. You are spending the most time with your baby, and every baby is different. Infants, children and their parents intersect in all kinds of diverse ways. Indeed, there is no template for any relationship we develop. When it comes to sleeping arrangements, many families develop and exhibit very fluid notions of where their baby 'should' sleep. Parents with less rigid ideas about how and where their babies should sleep are generally much happier and far less likely to be disappointed when their children cannot perform the way they are 'supposed to' — i.e. sleep through the night."
Remember that you can always talk to your pediatrician about specific baby sleep concerns and your unique situation.
2. Don't worry about 'do's" and "don'ts' of baby sleep.
It's really important to not get caught up in too many 'sleep do's and don'ts' for the first few months. For the first three months especially, you really only need to be feeding, changing and putting them back down to sleep. For those with babies dealing with reflux or colic, you know that sleep is a challenge—so do whatever you have to do!
3. Remember that there are no negative ways for a baby to go to sleep—breastfeeding to sleep, using a pacifier, etc.
As a sleep coach, I tell clients to let their babies go to sleep how they want to, whether that's being rocked or pushed around in a stroller.
The term 'negative sleep association' frustrates me because even adults have associations with going to sleep—using white noise, reading a book or having a specific set of sheets that we prefer, for example. There is nothing negative about needing something to help us relax into sleep.
But when rocking your little one to sleep is no longer something you want to do because it's taking a full hour, then change it (if it is taking that long, then it's likely not working for them, either). Although it might be met with some resistance, if you are gentle about the transition and give your little one time to adjust, the resistance will be minimal.
If your child loves sleeping on you during the day and it's no longer viable for you because you have things you'd like to do, try letting them fall asleep on you and work on transferring them to a crib or bassinet. Wait until they are in a deep sleep and try putting them in the bassinet feet first and slowly lay them down. This will remove the feeling of falling that can sometimes wake them up.
4. Know it's OK if babies wake up frequently through the night.
Newborns have two sleep states, active sleep (which is similar to adults' REM sleep) and quiet sleep (similar to our non-REM sleep). Studies have found that active sleep plays a necessary role in preventing SIDS. Fortunately, babies spend more time in active sleep from 2 am to 6 am, so during this time, they are much more likely to wake if they are hungry, cold, wet or startled by not breathing.
Babies' sleep cycles are actually shorter than ours (lasting only 50 to 60 minutes) and therefore they can experience a partial arousal every hour or so. There is a biological reason for waking: it is for survival. In order for children to grow, they need to eat and therefore need to wake to eat.
If a child is too cold or too hot, they need to wake to let mom know. If a child isn't breathing, they need to wake. Anything that forces a child to sleep too deep too soon is dangerous. Active sleep also has other benefits, it is thought to be smart sleep because the brain isn't resting, it increases the blood flow to the brain and is thought to be responsible for more rapid brain growth.
5. Keep your baby close when you can.
This is true both at night and during the day. There is absolutely no need to rush baby into their own room. It's important to note that a Harvard study found that room-sharing for the first six months can play a role in lessening the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
If they are still waking several times at night and you are exhausted, try co-sleeping (I always have to say that I am not allowed to promote bedsharing so by co-sleeping, I mean room sharing). You will get the extra sleep you need and your baby will get the closeness they love.
Keeping baby close during the day is also important. If they want to nap on you, go for it. You cannot spoil a baby by snuggling them, so look at the amount of time you are holding them. Oftentimes it is easy to get caught up in the daily tasks and the total amount of time you spent holding them is very little. But, remember, mama needs a break, too—call on your village so they can take the baby while you take some time for yourself.
In order for a child to become independent, they must first be securely attached. Babies need physical proximity, sensing the person they are attached to through smell, sight and sound. They also need a parent to respond sensitively and consistently when they signal.
6. Avoid overstimulation for your baby.
It's easy to forget that babies are little and everything is new to them. Going on a walk is stimulating all of baby's senses—new noises, smells and things to see. We often forget this and slip into the role of 'director of amusement' needing to stimulate babies with toys all day, when really, a simple walk outside is incredibly engaging for them.
Our daily activities impact sleep, so try to wind the entire family down before bed. A trip to the grocery store right before a nap might make for one very overstimulated baby, so give them a longer wind-down if you want them to nap.
7. Take stock of your baby's sleep environment.
New babies are sensitive to different factors. If it's too hot, they will not want to sleep. If it smells like cleaning products or any other strong scent, their sleep might be interrupted. If you are turning on a night light to change a diaper, baby may not want to go back to sleep.
If your child is highly sensitive and their pajamas are itchy or have tags or the detergent you are using is bothering their skin, then this could impact their sleep, too. If your house is noisy around bedtime, consider a white noise machine. Or take a look at the temperature and air to get of sense of what may affect baby.
8. Try a motion nap.
Use a baby carrier and let your baby sleep while you stroll. Many babies love motion naps so if you're having trouble with sleep, try it out.
Consider your lifestyle. Do you like to get out of the house? Do you enjoy hikes and walks as a family? If so, get baby used to sleeping in the carrier. Don't worry that they will never sleep in their crib.
Most babies that I work with younger than 6 months need at least one motion nap a day—it's rare to see a baby at this age taking all of their naps in the crib. Switch up your naps, too—maybe you snuggle for one nap, use the carrier for a second and get out in the stroller for a third nap.
9. Celebrate small sleep successes.
Maybe you got them to sleep for 20 minutes so you could take a shower (congrats!). Perhaps they took a pacifier and looked comfortable for a few minutes while you made a cup of tea (amazing!). Take time to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins when you're in the midst of baby sleep struggles.
10. Take care of yourself.
Please do things for yourself and ask for help. It is so important to take a walk or go get a coffee or spend an evening out once in a while. Ask your parents, your partner or a close friend to help, even if it is only for an hour so you can shower and read a few pages of an actual book, for example.
It is imperative that you are in a good headspace when you are with a newborn baby.
Remember that you are doing a wonderful job. You are the absolute best person to be caring for your baby. The first six months are SO hard—but don't be afraid to ask for help. Make sure you make time for yourself at the end of the day.
A version of this post was originally published on August 1, 2018. It has been updated.