Teaching Baby to Get Herself Back to Sleep

At first, your baby will wake up during the night for feedings. Later, she'll outgrow the middle-of-the-night feedings but may still wake up. We've already discussed some of the reasons. She may have a bona fide need, such as being too warm or being thirsty, or she may simply have woken up to move around or roll over. This is no problem unless she cannot get herself back to sleep again, known as “self-soothing.”

If your baby does wake up during the night, what should you do? First of all, do nothing for a few minutes. Your baby may wake up, make a little bit of noise as she finds herself awake at an unwanted hour, and then slowly settle down and go back to sleep. If you hear your baby making cooing noises, soft cries, or anything other than a full-throated wail, don't go running into her room. Let her work her way back to sleep on her own. If she can't, she'll let you know … quickly!

If she doesn't settle down quickly, then by all means go to her. Though there is a school of thought that advocates letting your baby cry herself to sleep once you are sure that she is not hungry, hot or cold, in need of burping, or otherwise in discomfort, most experts disagree with this thinking.

After all, something is bothering the baby, even if it is merely her inability to get back to sleep. She is seeking help of some sort, even if it is only the comfort of your presence and companionship at a time when she is awake and doesn't want to be. She cannot speak and cannot tell you what is troubling her. All she can do is cry. It is her only form of communication.

Fact

For years, parents have said of the child who cries little or who sleeps well through the night that “She's a good baby.” But babies who sleep through the night or who cry relatively little are not being “good.” This is not a question of behavior. The reverse of the coin would imply that a baby who cries a lot or doesn't sleep well is “bad.” Assuredly such a baby is not misbehaving or deliberately being difficult. Instead of saying that your baby is “good” or “bad,” say “She's an easy baby” or “She has her moments.”

There was a time when it was believed that crying was “natural” for babies, that crying helped them expand their lungs, and that crying was “merely a baby's way of expressing herself,” but that school of thinking has been replaced by the belief that babies cry only if something is bothering them. You should try to find out what the problem is and resolve it if possible. If a resolution is not possible, you should at least provide comfort.

Is Baby the Right Age to Go to Sleep on His Own?

Until your baby is about six weeks old, his cycles of sleeping and waking are likely to be somewhat haphazard. He might sleep for two hours at a stretch, perhaps longer, and then wake up. This cycle of wakefulness could last from just long enough to have a bottle or nurse at your breast and then go to sleep again to a span of two or more hours, perhaps even long enough for him to want to feed again before he goes back to sleep. If you're lucky, he'll spend many of the nighttime hours asleep, but in these early weeks of his life, this is by no means guaranteed. At this age, it's too early to try to establish regular routines.

Essential

In trying to set bedtimes and naptimes for your baby, you'll want to take two things into account: her own internal schedule and your family's schedule. What time does she get sleepy on her own? What time does she wake up if left to wake up on her own? How does this mesh with your family's schedule?

If you're feeding him on schedule, rather than on demand, you may begin to set a routine for feedings, but until his sleep consolidates and he begins sleeping for longer stretches at a time, it's difficult or even pointless to try to get him to sleep at certain set hours.

At around six weeks, he'll begin to sleep more during the night (interrupted by periods of wakefulness when he'll feed and, hopefully, go back to sleep quickly). His daytime sleeping will decrease in quantity. Some time later (though not at the same exact age for every baby), his daytime sleeping will consist of a morning nap and an afternoon nap, and during the rest of the daytime he'll be awake and alert.

If your baby naturally seems tired and sleepy every night around 7:00 P.M., that time would probably be a good bedtime for him. Suppose, though, that Mom and Dad both work. Mom gets home at 5:30 P.M., and Dad doesn't get home until 7:15 P.M. Dad wants to see Baby while Baby is still awake, but with a 7:00 P.M. bedtime for Baby, that isn't working out to Dad's advantage.

You could try repatterning your baby's sleep schedule so that he goes to bed at 7:30 P.M.or 8:00 P.M. instead. On the other hand, maybe your usual family dinnertime is 7:00 P.M., and you'd like your baby to go to sleep at 6:00 P.M. so that you can spend an hour in the kitchen, preparing the meal. In that case, you might want to try to adjust your baby's schedule so that he goes to bed at 6:00 P.M.

As explained earlier, the best way to adjust a baby's sleep schedule is in increments of ten minutes at a time until you have moved his bedtime up or back to the desired time. His wake-up time should adjust itself accordingly.

Ready or Not?

So … when is he ready to go back to sleep? You can signal him in many ways that it's time for him to sleep and not be active. By keeping the room darkened or the light subdued, by keeping ambient noise hushed (which means this isn't the time to turn on music to soothe him), by keeping your voice low, and by not playing games with him, you signal to him that it's sleep time, not awake time.

How can I help my baby sleep through the night?

“Sleeping through the night” is a bit of a misnomer. We all, adults and babies alike, wake up, however briefly, at least several times during the night. If we get back to sleep quickly, when we wake up in the morning, we don't remember having awakened during the night at all. Babies, too, awaken during the night a few times. They all do. But some are “self-soothers” who can “roll over and go back to sleep.” Other babies, once they wake up, cannot get themselves back to sleep and cry out. The trick with your baby isn't to get him to literally sleep through the night, but rather to get him able to go back to sleep on his own when he wakes up.

But how, when he is ready to finally go back to sleep, will he let you know? You've already learned the signals babies give when they're sleepy. Look for him to exhibit any of these signs. Maybe after being awake for two or three hours he'll get hungry, want another bottle or want to nurse again, and fall asleep while drinking. But perhaps he'll finally grow sleepy without wanting a bottle or the breast first.

When he shows signs of being sleepy, put him in bed, perhaps with a pacifier if he uses one. Dependence on a pacifier for sleep is less desirable once your baby reaches the age of six or nine months. By that age, it's best if he can learn to sleep without it. You'll want to keep in mind that if a baby does fall asleep with a pacifier, he may wake up when it falls out of his mouth, and at that point, he may start crying all over again. Try to get him to sleep without it.

By putting the baby into his crib before he falls asleep, he grows used to being in the crib and falling asleep on his own. “On his own” doesn't mean totally without help. You can leave a pacifier in the crib within his reach (or even offer it to him to suck). You can also leave a cuddly, small stuffed animal in the corner of the crib or a small, lightweight blanket. Of use also is a night-light, which helps the older baby to see that there's nothing fearsome lurking.

All these ideas can be your allies. But the idea is that, whatever other help you offer him, you're not holding him until he goes to sleep in your arms or rocking him to sleep.

The earlier he reaches that level of independence, the better it is — not just for you, but also for him. Promoting sound sleeping habits early will help give him a good foundation for sleeping well as he grows older. Helping your baby learn to go to sleep on his own helps him get back to sleep on his own when he wakens during the night.

Desperation Measures

Naturally, if your baby just won't or can't fall asleep unaided, it's better to help him in any reasonable way you can rather than to listen to him cry and scream all night. Work toward a goal of getting your baby to fall asleep without you helping him by following the advice here as much as possible, and you'll find that you have fewer reasons to resort to the desperation measures, such as taking him on a middle-of-the-night car drive 'round and 'round the block to let the motion of the car soothe the baby to sleep.

Perhaps if he's colicky and needs extra soothing or for some other reason is having a bad night, you'll have no choice but to hold him and rock him and sing to him. But don't make a habit of it. You want him to learn how to fall asleep at night on his own, and you want him to learn to be able to fall back to sleep on his own when he wakes in the middle of the night. The child who has not learned the former skill will never acquire the latter one.

Alert!

Don't let your baby fall asleep with a bottle. It's best if he can learn to fall asleep without it, which will aid him in learning to go back to sleep without outside help when he wakens during the night. In addition to poor sleep habits, falling asleep with a bottle can lead to problems such as cavities and ear infections.

And So to Bed

Whether you do or don't tell your baby a fairy tale or a “her-story” or “him-story,” whether you do or don't sing to her, or whether you do or don't say a prayer or read from a book of poetry, be sure to hold her and snuggle her before you put her in her crib.

You can even give her a back rub. Babies love back rubs as much as older kids do, as long as you remember to be gentle. Your touch on her back not only soothes her, but also helps her bond with you and helps you bond with her.

For that matter, any type of good touch will soothe her, whether it's a back rub, an actual massage, or simply your fingers lightly stroking her arm or briefly running through her hair (or over her nearly bald head). Then give her a kiss good night. After that, it's time to say “Good night, sweet dreams,” and leave.

Whether or not he cooperates every night, he'll understand that it's now bedtime. He'll be soothed by your voice. He'll be lulled and comforted by the familiar bedtime routine he's slowly coming to recognize.

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