Set Up Good Sleep Habits from Day One
Luckily, yes—there’s plenty that you can do right from the start.
As I mentioned above, you can start right off the bat with making nighttime dark and quiet, while living life normally around your baby in the daytime. You’ll also want to disregard the old saying that “you never wake a sleeping baby,” because sleeping longer than three hours at a time in the daytime can disrupt how much sleep your baby gets at night. So in the first month or two, feed your baby at least every three hours in the daytime, and up to four hour stretches at night. Once my newborn patients are past their birthweight, I usually let them sleep as long as they want at night, though you may want to check to see that your pediatrician agrees with this for your baby.
Here are some other things you can do early on to help your child learn good sleep skills:
Use the “Five S’s” to prevent being overtired
In Harvey Karp’s book The Happiest Baby on the Block, he describes using “Five S’s” to calm an upset baby: Swaddle, Suck (your finger or a pacifier), Sway, hold the baby on the Side, and Shush (the best spot is on the side of the head above your baby’s ear, and shush as loudly as she’s crying).
The idea here is that there’s a “fourth trimester”—that we come out a few months too soon before the nervous system has matured, but if we stayed in and waited we wouldn’t fit on the way out—and the “Five S’s” replicate the environment of the womb, calming your baby.
I find that this works best during the first month, and will only work when your baby is fussing just to fuss—not when she’s hungry or dirty. But learning to help your baby settle whenever you can will help to prevent those fussing cries from growing into overtired cries…which ultimately lead to a baby that’s hard to put down to sleep.
Learn your baby’s signals
Figuring out when to put your baby down can be a challenge. Try too soon, and you’re left rocking a wide-awake baby for 45 minutes. Wait until your baby’s overtired, and, well, you’re left rocking a wide-awake baby for 45 minutes.
In her book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, Tracy Hogg describes three phases of the sleepy baby. The first phase is when your baby has a few yawns over several minutes. The second phase is the “seven-mile stare”—your baby might seem to zone out, staring off into the distance; if you try and get in her face, she might look away because you’re overstimulating her. An older baby might even nuzzle his head into your chest or rub his eyes. If a baby is able to try and fall asleep, then the third phase is the nodding off stage, in which your baby might show a pattern of slowly closing her eyes and then jerking them open, much like a person trying not to fall asleep on the subway.
If, however, your baby isn’t in an environment where she can easily fall asleep, then she moves into an alternate third phase—the overtired stage. Here, your baby might seem to be more active again, moving around more energetically, but also quicker to fuss. This is the point when many parents make the mistake of thinking that their baby has gotten a “second wind,” when in fact the baby is overtired.
The key is to try and get your baby down somewhere in the first or second stages—around the yawns and zoning out. If you wait until you see signs of the overtired stage, then you’re going to find that it’s much harder to get your baby down to sleep.
Try to separate eating from falling asleep
Another key component of Tracy Hogg’s approach is the “EASY Method”—Eat, Activity, Sleep, You-Time. The idea here is that you aren’t using a feeding as a way to get your baby to sleep. Instead, you insert playtime right after a feeding. This tires your baby out while also getting rid of the crutch of needing to eat to fall asleep.
I’ll be totally honest and say that I’ve only seen a handful of families who’ve been able to successfully do this early on. Still, it’s worth a shot because if you can separate eating from falling asleep, you’re going to be in a much better place down the road.
In my opinion, the best time to try this between one and two months.
Set up a bedtime routine by two months
This is KEY! I really should bold and highlight this section and fill it with eye-catching emojis, it’s that important!
Why? Because babies develop sleep associations somewhere around two months.
We all have sleep associations—your pillow is how you like it, your blanket is how you like it—and if you roll over at 2 AM, you fix your pillow and make everything just right and then fall back asleep. You essentially recreate the conditions you were in when you first fell asleep.
Now, if a baby who’s two months old or older falls asleep being held, fed, rocked, shushed, etc., and wakes up at 2AM and isn’t still being fed, rocked, or shushed, that’s like you waking up naked, on the floor, with no pillow. The conditions you fell asleep in are entirely different, so you’re now wide awake looking to make things right again.
So yes, the best way to avoid this would be to do something like the EASY method, separating eating from sleeping, and instead putting your baby down “drowsy but awake.”
But I’ve had my own kids—and I know that “drowsy but awake” is much more easily said than done.
So instead, aim for the middle ground of creating a relaxing bedtime routine that you can repeat every night—one that gives your baby the signal that it’s time to wind down for bed. Your nightly bedtime routine might look like this: bath, pajamas, book (yes, start reading to your infant now and thank me later!), song, bed. If you haven’t had any luck separating eating from bedtime, then you can sneak a bottle or nursing somewhere after pajamas or the book.
Having a regular, calming bedtime routine each night is crucial to sleeping success. Comedian and fellow Georgetown Hoya Mike Birbiglia, who wrote a movie about his own sleep disorder, jokes that going to bed should be like parking a car—we should do it gently, not come crashing to a stop.
Start helping your baby ease into sleep around two months by setting up a fixed routine and avoid a few crashes down the road.
If you are able to walk into your role as a new parent with a good understanding of what to expect in the first few months when it comes to your baby’s sleep, and if you’re able to successfully use these pointers for developing good sleep habits early, then you and your baby will be on the path toward a happy, well-rested year!
But if things don’t quite work out as planned, or if your baby is older and is having difficulty with sleep, then be sure to check out Part 2 of this article, “Sleep Training 101.” This second article covers how to know you’re ready for sleep training, an overview of the most popular sleep training methods and how to decide which is right for you, plus how to ensure your baby isn’t hungry in the middle of the night, the truth about crying, and much more!