Baby Sleep Struggles Solved
For better health and a sharper mind, few things are more beneficial than a good night’s sleep. That goes double for little ones—the benefits of sleep on learning and memory may be even more profound for children (than adults) because they store memories during sleep more effectively, according to research published in Nature Neuroscience.
Unfortunately, getting your child to sleep well can be a nightly challenge, from birth through the toddler years. Whether you have a nurse-all-night newborn or a toddler who won’t stay in bed, sleep struggles can seem never-ending. Read on for solutions to some of baby’s biggest sleep saboteurs.
Month 0–6: All Night Nurse-a-Thon Frequent nighttime nursing is normal, even expected, during the first two months of life: weeks 2¬–8 bring a fussy period that may include near-constant nursing from 8 p.m. to midnight, as babies take advantage of nursing hormones that peak at night. During these early weeks, sleeping close to baby (the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] recommends putting baby to sleep in a separate crib in the parents’ bedroom) and napping while baby naps during the day can help new moms feel rested enough to function.
After month three, babies can begin to learn to sleep without being “latched” all night. Once baby is in a relaxed sleep state, with deep, regular breathing, limp extremities, and a relaxed jaw, slide a pinky finger into the corner of the baby’s mouth to aid in unlatching, says Elizabeth Damato, a registered nurse and sleep research director.
If baby fusses or wakes during this process, consider soothing with a pacifier, a tactic approved by the AAP that may serve to protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The pacifier won’t replace nursing, but can help mom get some rest before baby’s next feeding. And no need to worry: “There is no evidence that pacifier use interferes with breastfeeding when the pacifier is introduced after the first month,” Damato says.
Months 6–12: Tiresome Teething First teeth generally appear around month six and can cause fussiness and interrupt sleep in the second half of the first year, says Charles Shubin, M.D., director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare. Topical remedies like teething gels have little benefit, he says. Babies 6 months and older who seem to be in a great deal of pain may be relieved by oral acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Though teething can sabotage sleep in infancy, so can a lot of other things, like hunger, illness and inappropriate sleep routines, says Shubin. Paying attention to other aspects of a baby’s sleep routine can help her sleep more soundly, during teething spells and the rest of the time, too. For example, depriving a baby of regular naps—and conversely, allowing a baby to nap more than two hours at a stretch—can result in fussy, poor-quality nighttime sleep and make baby more likely to wake with teething pain. For sounder sleep, offer regular naps that are restful but not overly long (1–2 hours at the most).
Ages 1–3: Bye-Bye, Bed Big kid beds can be exciting. But tots may exercise newfound freedom by popping out of bed, again and again. Consistency and swift action are the keys to breaking this habit, says Robert Oexman, M.D., director of the Sleep to Live Institute.
Whether a child gets up because she’s frightened, needs to use the bathroom, or just wants to see you, return her to bed quickly. Tell her you’ll return to check on her in five minutes, and continue checking every five to 10 minutes until she falls asleep again. Make sure to return as promised; this reassures the child and builds trust.
Nightime visits may continue for up to a week, says Oexman, but staying consistent with this plan should help children begin sleeping all night within a week.
For an inquisitive toddler, wandering the house at night can be a significant safety hazard. Consider putting a baby gate in the doorway of your child’s bedroom during the transition to a big-kid bed.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist and mom of three.