Teaching your baby healthy sleep habits doesn't have to start when they've reached a certain age or milestone. Although each developmental stage will have different sleeping habits and patterns, introducing healthy sleep hygiene from the start is a great way to ensure long-term sleep health.
Adopt these 10 sleep habits with your child from birth to help you establish a strong foundation for sleep. (And don't worry, if your baby is older, you can still incorporate these habits into your current routine!)
Related: Baby Milestones Guide
1. Use light and darkness to your advantage
Exposing your baby to light first thing in the morning and throughout the day will help them distinguish the difference between day and night, driving their circadian rhythm. Natural sunlight will keep baby alert and stimulated throughout the day, which is important for development. Darkness is equally as important. Your baby's room should be dark for all naps and bedtime, signaling to their body that it is time to sleep. In the evening, you can start dimming the lights in the house about two hours before bedtime to prepare them for the transition to sleep.
2. Develop a routine
Even when your baby is a newborn, you can start thinking about a routine that will help them learn when sleep is coming. Although a newborn's sleeping patterns are erratic and unpredictable, a bedtime routine is still beneficial at any age. When your child is younger the routine will likely include more rocking and helping to settle, whereas an older baby might fall asleep more independently. Some ideas for a routine are: Bath, books, rocking, swaddling, infant massage and singing. Of course, you can decide what works best for your family and your baby.
3. Eliminate exposure to blue lights and electronics before bed
This is true at any age, including adulthood. Blue lights from screens easily suppress melatonin, our sleepy hormone, and it happens fairly quickly. This is why it is best to turn off the television and any other electronics at least two hours before bedtime.
4. Keep your baby's sleep environment consistent
When your baby is first born, it might seem like they will fall asleep anywhere and everywhere and it will be tempting to let them do so. While napping on the go is somewhat inevitable for the first couple months, I always encourage sleep to happen in your baby's own sleep environment. So whether that is in a bassinet in your room or a crib in their room, teaching them to sleep in the same environment consistently will help avoid difficult transitions later and encourage longer sleep stretches without distraction.
5. Encourage healthy sleep "props"
Many parents worry that the use of a pacifier or other sleep objects creates a habit that is difficult to break later on, but I highly encourage the use of sleep objects as long as they don't become the only thing that will get your child to sleep. A pacifier, white noise machine, lovey, small blanket, or swaddle/sleep sack are all great sleep promoting objects, depending on baby's age. Many babies will naturally transition out of using one or more of these items as they get older and if they don't you can help them do so using various methods.
6. Honor sleepy signs and cues
Most babies will show clear signs that they are ready for sleep as early as six weeks. Following appropriate awake windows for your baby's age will help avoid over-tiredness, but sometimes listening to your baby is all you need to do. Rubbing their eyes, consistent yawning, extreme fussiness and drooping eyes, are all signs that your child is ready for sleep soon and it is important to put them down quickly to avoid missing that window.
7. Make sure your baby's environment promotes sleep
One of the reasons sleep in transit or sleeping in different environments each day isn't a great idea is because it can be overstimulating and distracting for your baby. But some parents don't realize that their baby's room or dedicated sleep environment is also distracting. The area that your baby is sleeping should be free of distraction, which includes toys, lights, artwork and colors. It is best to have minimal objects in the room and neutral colors to eliminate overstimulation. Room temperature is also key as you don't want your baby waking because they are too cold or too hot. The recommended room temperature for your baby is between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit.
8. Follow a consistent schedule and routine as best as possible
For the first eight weeks of your baby's life, a schedule really isn't possible since sleep isn't consolidated yet. As they get older, it is a good idea to set consistent nap and bedtimes and stick to it. As your baby's sleep cycles develop, she will have the ability to follow a schedule and it is a good idea to implement one that you follow consistently. Of course, there will be times when you need to adjust nap times because of a commitment, traveling, or having to get out of the house, but it shouldn't be the norm. I encourage the 80/20 rule which means 80% of the time you are following a sleep schedule and 20% of the time you can be a bit more relaxed.
9. Practice independent sleep skills
When your child is younger, they will need more assistance from you to fall and stay asleep. As babies develop, they have the capability of sleeping independently more often and it is important to encourage that. Independent sleeping does not mean you should leave your child to cry until they fall asleep, as this is often the perception—but, rather teaching them that they can fall back asleep on their own as they transition from one sleep cycle to the next. One way you can do this is by recognizing what their noises and cries mean and when you need to come to their assistance. For example, it is completely normal for your baby to wake up multiple times throughout the night and stir, change positions or make noises. If you run into their room the moment they're awake, they'll associate all wake-ups with a parent coming to the rescue. If you allow them the opportunity to fall back asleep, they will learn that they are capable of doing so. If they become upset very quickly after waking up, that might be an indication that something else is going on and they truly do need assistance.
10. Prioritize adequate nutrition
It is important that your baby is getting enough to eat during the day to avoid multiple night wakings. Although babies newborn to about 6 months will still be taking feeds at night, it is a good idea to encourage a full belly throughout the day and before bed. Once they start solids, you want to avoid certain foods, such as sugar, that could interfere with their ability to fall asleep. Healthy sleep is as vital to our bodies as eating and drinking and although baby sleep can seem complex, starting with these foundations might be all that your baby needs to become a great sleeper!
A version of this article appears in The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama: Redefining the Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Journey. This post was published in December, 2018. It has been updated.