Credit: Hessam Nabavi, Unsplash
There’s no denying that parenting is exhausting work. But having a baby doesn’t have to mean resigning yourself to months (or years) of sleepless nights. Armed with a bit of expert knowledge, you can help your little one sleep better — so you can catch a few z’s, too.
Find your baby’s sleep number
According to sleep expert Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., late bedtimes cause many childhood sleep problems, because overtiredness makes it harder for children to get to sleep and stay asleep. But figuring out when to put your baby to bed can be tough.
To find your baby’s perfect bedtime, first determine how many hours of sleep he needs in a 24-hour period to determine how many hours he can comfortably stay awake per day. Set your child’s bedtime so that he is not awake longer than that, and you’ll prevent overtiredness that can wreck nighttime sleep.
For example, a 10-month-old who needs 14 hours of daily sleep can stay awake for 10 hours per day. If he gets up at 6 a.m. and naps for three hours each day, he needs a standing 7 p.m. date with his bed. (Hint: Newborns need between 14 and 16 hours of shut-eye per day; tots 1–3 years old need 12–14 hours; and kids 3–6 years old need 10–12 hours.)
Nix the nightlight
You may love the sweet nightlight you received at your baby shower, but when it comes to setting optimal sleep conditions, no light is best. Nighttime light disrupts melatonin production, and even a small nightlight or the light from the baby monitor can be enough to prevent deep, restful sleep. Dim the house lights after dinner and install effective blackout blinds to get your baby’s bedroom truly dark. A black twin-size flat sheet can be folded in half and tacked around a window in a pinch. (And put that nightlight to use in the bathroom, where it can aid your middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.)
Sleep doctors agree that an effective bedtime routine is one that’s absolutely set in stone: the same things, in the same order, every night. “Our bodies love routine, and this is especially so with children and bedtime,” says Teitelbaum. Performing the same events in the same sequence before bed cues a child’s subconscious for sleep. Sure, a routine this solid is bound to get boring for you, but the routine is for baby’s sake, not yours (and a happily snoozing child is well worth the effort).
Practice the pacifier
The journal Pediatrics reports that nearly 70 percent of parents give pacifiers to their newborns. And it’s likely that a good portion of these parents find themselves getting up at night to “re-plug” their baby’s lost binky. The sooner children learn to manage their own pacifier, the better everyone sleeps. Incorporate “paci practice” into tummy time and playtime, and your baby will be self-plugging in no time.
Start sunny-side up
For an easier bedtime, start your baby’s day off in a bright way. Strong morning light helps set your child’s internal clock, so she’ll fall asleep more easily come nightfall. Open curtains to let the light shine in, and serve breakfast in a sunny spot. When weather permits, take a quick stroll around the block.
Many experts advise putting babies to bed drowsy but awake, to support independent sleep skills. It’s true: Learning to fall asleep in bed will help your child sleep for longer stretches and, eventually, sleep through the night. But many babies won’t tolerate being put down while awake. Help your baby learn to love her crib by using rhythmic patting to soothe her after placing her in bed, without picking her back up. Because infants should be placed to sleep faceup, you might not be able to pat your child’s back, so pat the crib mattress or her shoulder instead.
Avoid nap traps
Naps are important to babies and young children; they promote healthy nighttime rest, and research from Emory University shows that naps help babies learn and retain new information. But napping all day is guaranteed to make your baby a nocturnal party animal. To promote healthy naps while preserving nighttime sleep, don’t allow naps to last longer than three hours. For most babies and young children, naps of an hour or two are long enough to be restorative without robbing nighttime sleep.
Get baby moving
Moving all day can help your baby sleep all night. A body in motion is one that’s primed for sleep, because exercise helps children fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. So, put away your stroller and carrier and let your little one move. Aim for at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous activity. Toddlers and young children need plenty of chances to walk and run; babies need lots of time on their tummies and backs to wiggle, stretch and work their muscles.