Sleep. It’s so elusive in those early months with your new baby. At first, you don’t mind because you want to spend every moment you can with this wonderful person you’ve just met. But as the nights turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months, you find yourself asking: how do I get my baby to sleep longer?
There are many things to take into consideration when thinking about sleep and your baby.
The age of your child
Realistically, your child will need help in those early months falling asleep. But by 3 or 4 months old, your baby’s sleep should consolidate to 2 or 3 naps during the day. Most babies will still need to get up during the night for feedings.
Setting a schedule around feedings and nap times gives your baby the comfort of a routine so he’ll know what’s coming and you have the ability to schedule activities (hot shower, anyone?) When your baby gets overtired, his body produces a stress hormone called cortisol, which makes it even harder for him to fall asleep and stay asleep. If he’s rubbing his eyes, yawning or tugging on his ear, these are sure signs he’s ready for a nap. In the early months, babies can’t go more than 2 hours between sleep without getting overtired. Once your routine is in place, you can make it as flexible or rigid as you want, but the predictability will be comforting for the both of you and help your baby sleep longer at naptime and bedtime.
The best approach in the early months is to help your baby build healthy sleep habits. The way your baby falls asleep is directly related to how long your baby will sleep. So, if you nurse or rock your baby to sleep or let your baby sleep on you all night and you suddenly start putting them into the crib to fall asleep, you will get a good amount of resistance. Here’s an analogy for you – if you fell asleep in your bed and woke up in the middle of the night to find yourself sleeping on the living room floor, you’d be pretty upset. To help your baby sleep longer, try building the healthy sleep habits listed below.
Breastmilk vs. Formula
Breastfeeding is one of the best gifts you can give to your child. It’s jam-packed with vitamins and nutrients and is loaded with antibodies that protect your baby from diseases. However, breastfed babies will usually not sleep as long as formula-fed babies simply because breastmilk is much easier to digest, meaning baby feels hungrier quicker.
Make sure your baby gets a full feeding. Try not to let your baby fall asleep at your breast. Tickling the feet and undressing her are ways to keep her awake during the feeding. When I used to feed my babies, I wouldn’t change them before feeding them – if they fell asleep during the feeding (as they usually did during night feedings) I would change them to wake them up enough to continue nursing.
Try a dream feed. I say ‘try’ because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. A dream feed is when you feed your baby while they are asleep, usually between 10-11 o’clock at night. This is easier if you’re bottle feeding as you don’t need to take them out of the crib. The dream feed will fill your baby’s belly back up so he or she can continue to sleep, in some cases until 4 or 5 in the morning. If you go to sleep before the dream feed, have your partner do the dream feed and extend your sleep even further.
The term sleep regression is used to identify a period of a time where your baby suddenly starts waking up during the night unexpectedly, waking up early from naps, or skipping naps altogether. There are different times throughout baby’s development when you can expect to see a sleep regression:
- 4 months – when sleep habits change for the better to permanently to resemble adult sleep
- 8-10 months – wanting to practice developmental milestones like crawling, pulling up and cruising. Teething also comes into play here.
- 11-12 months – not very common but may cause resistance to naps – don’t be fooled, keep 2 naps until baby is at least 15 months old if possible
- 18 months – language skills are developing and teething (usually painful molars) don’t help this one. Separation anxiety also plays a role.
- 2 years – may be big life changes here – potty training, transitioning to a bed or even a new sibling.
Sleep regressions typically last 2-4 weeks. When babies are younger, extra feedings may help with sleep regressions. Just be careful not to introduce bad habits that will be hard to remove once the sleep regression ends.
Building Healthy Sleep Habits
Helping your child build healthy sleep habits from the start will help her sleep longer and enjoy more restful, peaceful sleep. Here’s what you can do:
Develop a sleep routine. Your sleep routine should include cues to let your little one know it’s almost time for sleep. For an infant, this may be a bath, nursing (or bottle), change diaper, put on pajamas, read a book, sing a lullaby, give hugs and kisses and into the crib for sleep. For an older child, you could include brushing teeth and going to the potty. The sleep routine should be as little as 15 minutes for a baby up to 1/2 hour to 40 minutes for a toddler.
- Avoid electronic devices for an hour before starting the bedtime routine. These devices emit blue light which prevents the development of melatonin, which helps bring on sleep.
- Place your child in the crib while drowsy, but still awake. This helps them learn to fall asleep on their own.
- Don’t put your baby to sleep with a bottle. When the feeding is over, you take the bottle with you. This prevents your baby from becoming reliant on the bottle.
- Don’t bring your baby into your bed to solve the problem, unless you’re prepared to co-sleep for a while.
- Try swaddling – see my earlier blog post about swaddling for more information.
There are great resources available online to help you and your baby achieve peaceful, restorative sleep. One of my favorites is The Sleep Sense Program by Dana Obleman. Her website is full of informative articles on helping your child sleep well. She also offers personalized coaching (which we utilized for our toddler when we were having sleep issues) which I highly recommend! She also offers The Sleep Sense Program, if you’d prefer to tackle your child’s sleep issues on your own.