I spend a good deal of time discussing infant sleep beginning in the newborn period and continuing through preschool. And while the amount of sleep and duration of sleep changes dramatically between those ages, a few things remain consistent in order to a create healthy, safe sleep schedule for babies.
First, once you get outside the first three to four weeks, parents are inevitably searching for a pattern to their baby’s sleep. What they often don’t realize is how, as caregivers, they are integral to their baby’s sleep patterns. Parents should take note of the intervals of sleep/awake time over the course of a few days. Parents are often surprised that a pattern is evident. Once you get an idea of what your baby is already doing, you can work on molding that pattern to fit both their needs and the needs of the family.
Establish a bedtime routine
Once you know that a longer stretch of sleep occurs after the evening feed you can begin to establish a bedtime routine. I recommend a “bath, book, bed” routine beginning in early infancy and continuing through the school aged years. The routine can be whatever works for your family, as long as it is consistent. The routine helps the baby learn that bedtime is coming and that it is pleasurable.
I recommend getting the baby into their own safe sleep space as early as possible, if not from day one. After nearly 10 months in the womb, it is natural for the baby to prefer to sleep cuddled on your chest, so teaching them to sleep on a firm, clutter-free mattress instead of in someone’s arms can take time. Using a swaddler and a white noise machine can help the new baby adjust to sleeping in a crib. For older infants not accustomed to sleeping on their own, parents should work on independent sleep in a stepwise fashion, beginning with naps and progressing to bedtime. Here, the routine is very important so that baby will know they are not being left forever, just for the duration of sleep.
Create a safe, comfortable sleep space
Parents often ask if nursing or rocking the baby into a deep sleep is OK. While these routines are fine in the beginning, they create a challenge when the baby is no longer a smaller infant. If you are going to incorporate feeding, rocking, or walking into the bedtime routine, just be aware that it’s a good idea to lay baby down before they are completely asleep so they learn the final seconds before drifting off to sleep are spent in a crib.
It’s never too late to start sleep training
Finally, once you establish the bedtime routine, include other caregivers. If the routine is performed the same way, it shouldn’t matter much if mom, dad, or grandma is the one doing it. For nursing mamas, consider handing the baby to your partner for a moment or two of walking just before sleep so they can be a part of the process.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019