7 ways to get your baby to sleep

Expert and parent-tested tips to try to get your baby to sleep, and to sleep longer. 

How to get your baby to sleep
Photography by Michael Alberstat
Dare to use the expression "sleep like a baby" around bleary-eyed new parents and expect to get a few death stares. Sure, we've all heard about three-month old babies who sleep 10 hours straight, but they're not the norm. "When we hear this, we assume all babies can and should do this, and we become very discouraged when our four or five-month-old is still waking up twice a night for feeding," says Elizabeth Pantley, parenting expert and author. The reality is that, up to 12 months of age, some babies will wake up every four hours to feed, she explains.

Luckily, there's lots you can do to entice Mr. Sandman until your baby's sleep cycle matures. Keeping in mind that each baby is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some expert- and parent-tested methods:

Follow "tired" clues. In the first few months of life, newborns sleep when they are tired and wake when they are ready. The best time to try putting your baby to sleep is as soon as he seems tired. Sounds simple, but many parents miss the signs, such as becoming quiet and less active, getting fussy, rubbing eyes and/or yawning. "Some parents try to keep babies up late, hoping they'll exhaust them or that they'll wake up later, but it usually works to your disadvantage," suggests Tracey Ruiz, a Toronto-based sleep doula. "Overtired babies are harder to get to sleep, and are more likely to wake in the night."

Build a bedtime ritual. Setting the stage for nighttime sleep means scheduling 30 to 60 minutes of quiet-time before bed so that your baby can transition from activity to calm. "Noise and action can override the biological need for sleep," says Pantley. "If the TV is loud and your baby is playing with Mommy, Daddy or her siblings, her brain will override that 'sleep' button." Bedtime means dimmed lights, with limited interaction and stimulation. So turn the TV down or off. Choose quiet, relaxing playtime activities, such as reading to your baby. Also, try to avoid running errands with baby or having visitors within an hour of bedtime, adds Pantley.

Nix the food-sleep association. Many parents let their child fall asleep at the breast or with a bottle. If it's the last thing they do before dozing off, it's the first thing they'll miss when they wake up. Ruiz says that breaking up the food-sleep association is important in the early going, especially from four to six months. "I like to do feeding, bath, sleeper, book, then bed," she says. "You don't have to do a bath every night, but maybe wipe your baby's face and hands with a cloth, then change the diaper and sleeper."

Create the right mood. Making your baby's room and crib cozy and comfortable can promote good sleep. Besides a dry diaper, here's what else you can try:
  • Bedding: Invest in a quality crib mattress with a foam core, or use a padded crib mattress cover. "The standard mattresses that come with cribs are often hard, stiff and plastic- coated, making for an uncomfortable sleeping surface," explains Pantley. Use crib sheets made of fleece, flannel, terry cloth or jersey knit, which are softer and warmer than traditional crib sheets and less jarring when you first lay your baby down, says Pantley. (Always use sheets, blankets and covers intended for a baby crib, ones that fit securely around the mattress.)
  • Sounds: Use soothing sounds such as lullabies or white noise to help your baby drift off. "Recordings or sound devices that play the sounds of ocean waves, rainfall, the hush of wind, or the sound of a human heartbeat are often the best choices," says Pantley. Ruiz suggests using a white-noise machine; some parents use radio and set the dial between stations. Shushing, which mimics the sounds of the womb, can also help baby relax.
  • Lighting: Keep the room dimly lit, with any nightlights out of baby's direct line of sight. "Your baby will likely sleep better and longer in a darkened room," says Pantley.
  • Temperature: Ruiz says that the best way to tell if your baby's too warm is to feel behind her neck for sweat. Ruiz suggests putting a fan in a corner of the room to keep baby cool, promote air circulation and create white noise.

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