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It’s the bane of every new mom’s existence: sleep. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. A major lack thereof in some cases, for months (or even years).
Second to the pain of not sleeping? Getting 1,000 mixed messages about how to deal with your baby not sleeping. Should I let him cry it out? (Or is that too traumatic?) Should I rock her until she’s asleep? (Or is that creating a bad habit?) Should I sit in the room? Should I leave him alone to learn to self-soothe?
When some people hear baby sleep training, they immediately think of the Cry It Out Method. But the truth is, there are as many approaches to baby sleep training as there are babies, and that amount of choice can be incredibly overwhelming, especially when you are so, well, sleep deprived. The most important thing to keep in mind? It is possible to do what’s best for your baby and for your family. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad or guilty for the choices you make.
How does sleep deprivation affect you?
Not sleeping is no joke—any new parent can tell you how utterly debilitating it is. It impacts every single part of your life. It robs you of your ability to think clearly and to remember things. It weakens your immune system and your reflexes, making you more accident prone. It increases your risk of diabetes and heart attacks and lowers your sex drive. It can also cause depression and anxiety. Lack of sleep can even contribute to the complex recipe for postpartum depression.
In other words, everything is harder when you’re not sleeping.
But the sleep deprivation of early motherhood will end one day. Eventually, your little one will sleep through the night. Your new normal might be a 6 a.m. wake up, but that will seem like heaven after being up every hour all night long!
Why is getting baby on a sleep schedule good for mom and dad?
You still matter! That’s the short answer.
The longer answer is this: We all need time to refuel, and this is virtually impossible when there is zero time set aside for you.
“Having a baby on a schedule”—more on that below—“allows parents to have a life,” explains Kiri Gurd, PhD, MSC, sleep consultant at Baby Sleep Science, a sleep resource center that offers private consultations, educational materials, and a sleep app. “If your baby only naps in the stroller or the car, you’re not using that time to recuperate, sleep, or do an activity that feeds you.” Likewise, if you’re spending four hours a night struggling to get your baby to sleep, you have no time for adult activities—like couple’s time or going out with friends.
“Taking a more systemic approach to sleep—thinking of it as one would nutrition—is helpful. You wouldn’t deny yourself food! It’s so important for the health of the family.” —Kiri Gurd, PhD
“Taking a more systemic approach to sleep—thinking of it as one would nutrition—is helpful. You wouldn’t deny yourself food! It’s so important for the health of the family.”
—Kiri Gurd, PhD
If you feel guilty, know this: “Sleep is as important to babies as food,” explains Gurd. “And more research shows that lack of sleep is an indicator for disease, anxiety, and depression in mothers.” She encourages moms to think about what exactly they’re feeling guilty about—the fact that the baby is crying? That she’s taking a shower when she should be gazing at the baby? There are lots of different stressors, she explains, including mom being depressed.
She says, “Taking a more systemic approach to sleep—thinking of it as one would nutrition—is helpful. You wouldn’t deny yourself food! It’s so important for the health of the family.”
Still, Gurd understands that moms have guilt about doing anything for themselves, but argues that they do not need to justify it. “If you need a rationale, I’d say it makes you a better mom. Having free time is not a luxury; it’s a requirement.”
Learning to sleep is a skill.
“Sleep training options are generally perpetuated in a binary way,” Gurd explains. And the rhetoric around that binary often deals in great extremes: “Either you do cry it out and your baby will cry forever, or you’ll co-sleep until they’re 9.” In reality though, your options for teaching your little one to sleep are much more varied—and don’t mean crying forever or bedsharing until middle school.
Gurd and the team at Baby Sleep Science don’t espouse conforming to one method. They lead by what is developmentally fair for the child, based on the science of sleep. “Sleep is so particular to each family,” she explains. “If you don’t feel comfortable with the method you’re using, you won’t be consistent, so it won’t work.”
She explains that some discomfort—as well as mom guilt—is often alleviated if families understand the science of sleep and the baby’s brain development, but the bottom line is this: We can teach kids to sleep, and we should.
Here’s why: We help our kids learn a number of skills in their lives—to eat, sit, stand, walk, read, write. “When they learn to ride a bike, we don’t just give them a bike and say, ‘Good luck!’” Gurd says. “Or, conversely, if they fall off the first time they try, we don’t say, ‘You clearly can’t do this.’”
“Learning to sleep is like learning any new skill,” she explains. “It’s both psychological and physiological. To learn to fall asleep on our own requires that the body learns a series of steps that move us into a more relaxed state.” That’s the physiological piece. Psychologically, a baby needs to understand, for example, that she’s safe in her crib.
“You’re teaching them a healthy habit. They are sad and confused and you’re going to help them through it, like you will with a million things in their life.” —Kiri Gurd, PhD
“You’re teaching them a healthy habit. They are sad and confused and you’re going to help them through it, like you will with a million things in their life.”
—Kiri Gurd, PhD
And yes, oftentimes there’s resistance to sleep training, which usually means the baby cries. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. “Our discomfort is with the emotions,” Gurd says. “But if you’re doing a method you believe in, that’s biologically sound at an appropriate age, you’re teaching them a healthy habit. They are sad and confused and you’re going to help them through it, like you will with a million things in their life.”
Jane Rosen, PsyD, MA, PhD, and director of a preschool in Los Angeles, concurs. “When parents start to sleep train, it’s often the first time they’re setting a limit, which is hard,” she says. “It’s the beginning of parenting in a much different way.”
How do I know my baby is ready to sleep train?
“The first thing to guide sleep training is the developmental age of child,” Gurd explains. “We can’t do it at 4 or 5 weeks—the child doesn’t have the neurological capacity.” Generally speaking, babies experience a cognitive surge around 4 months, Rosen says. Most parents experience this as the dreaded four-month sleep regression, when all hell breaks loose and whatever schedule you’ve established falls apart.
Many sleep consultants begin sleep training at this point because babies are developmentally capable of self-soothing—and they are finally sleeping in sleep cycles. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website notes that babies do not have regular sleep cycles until they’re about 6 months old, so some professionals recommend waiting a bit longer to start working on some form of sleep training.
In other words, when your baby starts waking up during what had formerly been a long stretch of sleep at night—whether it was 4 or 8 hours—it’s time to start teaching him to sleep.
But I’m scared to sleep train! What if she doesn’t stop crying?
It’s normal to feel nervous about sleep training. It is almost impossible to expect your child not to cry when you suddenly start, say, putting her down at 7 p.m. and leaving the room rather than rocking her for hours upon hours.
“The baby had you sleep trained, and now you’re changing it up. That’s not harmful.” —Jane Rosen, PsyD, PhD
“The baby had you sleep trained, and now you’re changing it up. That’s not harmful.”
—Jane Rosen, PsyD, PhD
That said, “every change is accompanied by crying,” Rosen says. “The baby is fussing and saying, ‘I don’t like this.’ The baby had you sleep trained, and now you’re changing it up. That’s not harmful.”
Given that there will be crying or screaming for a few consecutive nights, “you need to be at point where this is worth it,” Gurd says. “If you’re so tired already, it makes the process harder because you’re already feeling really messed up.”
She suggests starting sleep training before you’re completely out of your mind with sleeplessness. “Once you see that stretch of sleep go awry at 4 months, that’s a good point to start [laying the foundation].” At 6 months old, a baby can be trained to sleep through the night (but not so at 4 months when they’re still not developmentally ready).
How much should my baby be sleeping?
According to experts at Baby Sleep Science, the following amounts of sleep are developmentally appropriate for baby:
Newborn to 4 months
A newborn doesn’t have a schedule yet, so your main goal is to just surrender to her “schedule.” Let her eat, sleep, and play on demand. The key thing is to not let the baby get overtired or keep her up too long.
Naps: 4 to 5 naps, on demand
Total Sleep: 15 to 16 hours within a 24-hour period (unfortunately not all at once!)
4 to 6 months
A schedule is revealing itself! Hooray! Baby shouldn’t be up for longer than 2 to 2½ hours between naps. During this time, you should try to have the baby sleep in the same place for naps and bedtime, says Rosen. No more moving the baby around wherever you go.
Naps: 3 naps, with the third being the shortest
Total Day Sleep: 3 to 4½ hours
Total Night Sleep: 10 to 12 hours
6 to 9 months
Baby’s schedule should be becoming more set in stone. During this phase, baby usually drops one nap, moving from 3 to 2 naps a day.
Naps: 2 naps
Total Day Sleep: 3 to 4 hours
Total Night Sleep: 10½ to 12 hours
9 to 15 months
Most babies sleep through the night at this point. They usually drop one of their two naps around 12 months, taking just one nap a day through toddlerhood.
Total Day Sleep: 3+ hours up to 12 months, then down to 2 to 2½ hours after their first birthday
Total Night Sleep: 10½ to 12 hours
Tips for Getting Your Baby to Sleep
Create sleep cues.
Five of them, to be exact, according to Gurd. Sleep cues are actions that are repeated every night, exactly the same way. They become cues that teaching your baby she’s about to go to sleep. These happen after bath time and pajamas. An example would be:
- Dim the lights in the bedroom.
- Put the baby in a sleep sack.
- Read a book.
- Sing a song.
- Put the sound machine on.
Note that these should only take 15 minutes in total—any longer than this and the baby won’t associate them with sleep. This applies for slightly older kids, too, but again, keep it short because a 2-year-old will just assume you’re onto another fun activity and not register that these actions are connected to sleep if they take too long.
Don’t vary bedtime—or wake time.
Performing the same rituals is important, but so is sticking to the clock. “Keep bedtime and wake time within a 30-minute window,” says Gurd. Obviously things will come up, but just like adults, babies sleep better when they do it around the same time every night.
Rosen recommends that kids up to age 5 go to sleep as close to 7 p.m. as possible. Once you start pushing the cortisol levels by keeping them up later, all hell breaks loose. In other words, your fantasy that keeping your baby up late will make her sleep in? That’ll backfire.
That said, Gurd and the folks at Baby Sleep Science believe that while being overtired (as well as under-tired!) can make it more difficult for a child to fall asleep and stay asleep during the first part of the night, as long as their schedule is age appropriate, there is no “right” bed time—early or late. Bed times, they say, can vary from family to family—just not night to night!—depending on what works best for baby’s family and their lives. As Gurd says, “I have a family putting their 1-year-old to bed at 10 p.m. and waking at 9 a.m., and that’s totally healthy.”
Be realistic about your expectations.
Understanding how much a baby should sleep at any given phase of development will go a long way toward setting realistic expectations. A lot of baby sleep sites will tell you that sleep begets sleep.
“Sleep begets sleep up until the limit of your sleep.” —Kiri Gurd, PhD
“Sleep begets sleep up until the limit of your sleep.”
—Kiri Gurd, PhD
This is true on some level, “but there’s only a certain amount of sleep any person can do in a 24-hour period!” says Gurd. “Sleep begets sleep up until the limit of your sleep.”
When you’re looking at averages—i.e., a 12- to 18-month-old will sleep between two and three hours during the day—consider that this is a big spread in terms of age and hours of sleep. So within this six-month age range, the 12-month-old will nap longer and more often than the 18-month-old.
Create the right sleep environment.
Babies are a lot like us: They need a peaceful environment in which to rest. In fact, research shows that we all sleep best in a room that is dark, cool, and quiet. This means a few things:
- Don’t overdress the baby. If she’s too hot, she won’t sleep well. (It’s also associated with SIDS.) Make sure she’s sufficiently covered, but know that a cool nose or fingers are fine. If baby seems flushed or is sweating, she’s overdressed.
- Make the room dark. Really. This is what blackout curtains are for! You can use small nightlights, but keep them far from the child and opt for orange hues.
- Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Yes, it would be ideal if your little one could sleep anywhere, but after about 4 months old, this is not ideal. You want your child to rest in a peaceful, calm room and learn that sleep is a sacred act that happens in one place. If the room isn’t quiet (city dwellers will probably hear noise from the street), consider using a noise machine with a constant sound (rainfall or waves), and keep it on all night, not just for the time when baby is drifting off to sleep. This will help him go back to sleep if he’s suddenly woken. Remember, too, that from 4 months on, babies have a tremendous fear of missing out. They used to cry because they were wet or hungry—now they cry because they want company and fear not being invited to the party. FOMO: It starts early.
Babies, like adults, thrive on consistency. Once you establish a sleep routine, stick with it. Babies will be confused if they’re being rocked to sleep one night and left to cry it out the next. Older children will try to slip through whatever loophole you leave. (“But Mommy! You rubbed my back last night! I can’t fall asleep without it now!”)
Use a transitional object.
A blankie (for an older baby), a bear, whatever—preferably something that smells like mommy or daddy—should be incorporated into baby’s nighttime routine. It helps them not feel quite so alone and helps them associate an object with restful slumber.
And most importantly, follow this piece of advice.
“If I could give one gift to a new mom, it would be this: Don’t worry about bad habits,” says Gurd.
“Keep your baby safe, help him sleep. Just enjoy your baby.” —Kiri Gurd, PhD
“Keep your baby safe, help him sleep. Just enjoy your baby.”
—Kiri Gurd, PhD
“Keep your baby safe, help him sleep. Just enjoy your baby. I wish them less anxiety about it all.” She adds that this culture of shaming moms for creating “bad habits” is detrimental to mothers.
“Newborn babies want to be held to sleep—and that’s not the end of world!”