I’ve been a pediatrician for over 30 years. I have met a lot of babies and new parents. What is the most common question they ask me? It’s this: “How do I get my baby to sleep?”
It’s exhausting enough taking care of a new baby all day. When your child also won’t sleep, that is exhausting and frustrating. How can you know what your baby wants or needs? And with all of the information out there on getting your child to sleep, and staying asleep, how do you know what to listen to?
Because I know this is such an important and highly debated parenting topic, I want to cut through the noise and get down to the truth about your baby and sleep. To help me do that, I spoke with world-renowned pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears on my Parenting Great Kids podcast. Dr. Sears is the author of over 30 parenting books, including “The Baby Sleep Book: The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Rest for the Whole Family.” I call him the sleep guru because he has been studying sleep and babies for decades and is known and respected in the medical field for his knowledge on the topic.
Even if you think you have the fussiest baby on earth and you are worried you will never sleep again, I believe there is hope for your child, and you, to get into a better sleeping pattern. Over the next several weeks, focus on these three things and see what happens:
1.) Establish a good sleep environment. It’s important for your baby to have a warm, comfortable, and safe place to sleep. I recommend you have your baby sleep in the same place for naps as nighttime. This might not be an option for you if you aren’t home during the day, but as best you can, replicate naptime during the nighttime sleep — use the same blankets, make the sheets smell the same, or make sure your baby has the same stuffed animal with her for nighttime and daytime sleep.
When it comes to where your baby should sleep, Dr. Sears says it’s important to be flexible and pay attention to where everyone in the family gets the best night’s sleep: “That may change from month to month as baby sleep cycles change and their needs change,” says Dr. Sears.
In general, he agrees with yhe American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that every baby should sleep in the parents’ room for the first six months to a year and suggests using a co-sleeper (a bassinet that attaches to your bed): “The baby and the mother have their separate spaces, so they don’t wake each other up, but they’re within arm’s reach of one another for easier feeding.”
For a healthy full-term baby, feed her and then let her get hungry and feed her again until she is full — then she will sleep better.
2.) Put your baby to bed awake. Of course your family may not sleep best all together. If that is the case, and your baby sleeps in a crib in another room, I recommend putting your child in his crib when he is still awake. This might feel counterintuitive for you, but it could be what your child needs in order to stay asleep longer.
When you rock your child to sleep and then he wakes up two hours later, he will feel confused. The last thing he remembers is being in your arms. He’ll wonder what happened and will get upset.
If you get your child sleepy but not asleep, he will remember being in the crib and that you left. This will help teach him he is safe in his crib alone and he can self-soothe. If he depends on you to go to sleep, you’ll be in there all night long.
3.) Help your baby establish a good eating and sleep rhythm. Babies need a rhythm — awake times, sleep times, eating times, play times—and we must set it for them. This gives them a sense of security.
I recommend letting a baby determine their sleep schedule around their eating schedule. If a baby is full and satisfied, she sleeps better. If you feed her every hour, she never gets hungry, but she also never gets full. For a healthy full-term baby, feed her and then let her get hungry and feed her again until she is full — then she will sleep better.
Dr. Sears points out that part of establishing a rhythm for your child is having a regular nighttime routine: “When a baby starts a routine, you trigger a center in the baby’s brain that says, ‘Oh, this starts my favorite routine, and my favorite routine ends with going to sleep.'”
This could be a warm bath, singing the same song, dimming the lights — something that you can keep consistent each night that will tell your child it’s time to go to sleep.
Whether your baby has been struggling with sleep issues for a while, or if you’re just looking for some tips on getting your baby to have better sleep, I strongly recommend listening to my full conversation with Dr. Sears. It may feel impossible now, but I promise, a full night’s sleep is not only possible, it could be just a few weeks away.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practice pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.