Many new mothers worry about sleep—theirs and baby’s. But you can stop fretting and start planning. Dr. Jane Scott, MD, and author of “The Confident Parent: A Pediatrician‘s Guilt to Caring For Your Little One—Without Losing Your Joy, Your Mind or Yourself,” shares her secrets to getting baby to sleep, starting from the day your child is born—
1. Start early
I’m asked all the time, “When should I start sleep training my baby?” The answer is, right away. Whatever routine you use to put your baby to sleep when she is just a few days old is the same routine that baby will expect every single time night or day. You can’t suddenly change your mind one day and decide you’re going to use a different method, and expect children to be okay with it. They usually won’t be, because they like what you taught them, so when you suddenly try to change it, most children will fight you. You can surely see their point of view.
2. Set a goal
Successful sleep training requires commitment. You have to decide, preferably even before your baby is born, what you want your sleeping arrangements for the next few years to be.
Now is the time to decide: Do you want to be sharing your room or your bed with a child five years from now? (It may seem a long way away, but time has a tendency to speed by once you have kids.) Where do you think you’ll be living in five years’ time? Will you be working? Will you have more children by then? Given your answers, will you mind tending to a small child several times during the night or sharing your bed? Will your partner? If so, you should practice putting your child to sleep in her own bed (though not necessarily in her own room) the first day you come home from the hospital. Otherwise, you will likely consign yourself and your child to an eventual bout of sleep-training hell once you decide you want to make a change.
However, if your baby is healthy and full-term, with no feeding or other medical problems, and you adhere to my suggestions from the day your infant is born, you will likely have to neither share your bed nor listen to your baby scream for you through the day or night. In fact, my method should allow your child to sleep about four to five hours per night within two to three weeks, and up to seven or eight hours per night by the age of eight to ten weeks. All it takes is a little planning, patience, and perseverance. Many parents think it all depends on their baby’s temperament or stubborn behavior, but it doesn’t. It’s almost always related to your behavior. What Mom and Dad do gives baby the cues for how sleep will happen.
3. Buy a bassinet before you bring baby home
It’s perfectly fine to share your room with an infant if you create a set up that allows you to gradually move your child out of your room without causing the child distress, usually after the age of six months.
The way to do that is to invest in a bassinet. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of families purchase co-sleepers. The problem with a co-sleeper is it puts your baby in such close proximity it’s really an extension of the bed (it’s a far safer but not completely risk-free option than actual bed sharing). Your baby will feel safe and secure in his own completely contained little space if he starts his life in your home sleeping in one. That’s why a bassinet is a better choice than a co-sleeper. Yes, you do have to actually sit up (if it is right alongside your bed) or get up to nurse, but you don’t have to go far, and then when you’re ready to move your infant into his own room, somewhere between six and twelve months, you can do so guilt-free, and it is usually a change your infant is largely unaware of. Not having been accustomed to feeling you right next to him in the night, your baby won’t notice the difference and won’t get upset.
4. Be consistent
Consistency, above all, is the key to starting a smooth sleep routine with your baby. It should be exactly the same every time he goes to bed. In the evening however, it is really nice to add a gentle massage or, once the umbilical cord has fallen off, a warm bath in the evening before you feed him and put him down. Keep him wrapped in his warm little towel or a soft blanket for now—you’ll dress him later—and enjoy a cuddle. Make sure the lights in his bedroom are low. There’s nothing nicer than snuggling with your baby right before his evening bedtime, so enjoy this quiet moment. By all means settle into the rocking chair you bought just for this moment. As your baby takes his last bottle or nurses, you could sing to him or recite poetry—he loves to hear your voice—or even pull out a few books and get into the habit right away of reading quietly to him.
5. Watch for the moment
The practice you need to perfect is this: After each feeding, watch for the moment when your baby has had his fill and appears to be ready to close his eyes and go to sleep.
This is how he will communicate that it is time to stop everything and be put to bed. Don’t wait to let him fall asleep in your arms! Burp him if he has not been burped, then gently lift him up and go to the changing table, change his diaper, dress him in his sleep sac, or onesie plus a swaddle, and gently lay him quietly in his bed. If all of his needs are met, he should settle down and go to sleep. When he enters his light sleep cycle about an hour or so later, he’ll know that he is right where you left him, he will feel safe, and he will go back to sleep.
He may need a few practice runs to get this down, but it usually takes only a few times or certainly no more than a few days.
Dr. Jane Scott, MD, is author of “The Confident Parent: A Pediatrician‘s Guilt to Caring For Your Little One—Without Losing Your Joy, Your Mind or Yourself.“