It’s 3 a.m., and your baby just. won’t. sleep. You know that this happens with babies, but you also know that there has to be a better way.
According to recent data, sleep satisfaction and duration among new parents suffer — and don’t recover until the kiddo is 4 to 6 years old. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t concrete steps you can take to improve your situation, including your baby’s ability to fall and stay asleep (so you can, too).
We’ve got you covered, whether you’re reading this months before you deliver or are in the throes of a middle-of-the-night scream session.
Tip #1: Try the 5 S’s
Sleep guru Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and child development expert, created Happiest Baby on the Block — a series of books, videos, tutorials, and a website designed to teach parents the 5 S’s to help their baby sleep. (See our full guide here!)
These soothing techniques have been lifesavers for many parents trying to get their baby to sleep. They include:
- Swaddling. This mimics the womb and helps baby feel secure. Note: Babies should only be swaddled for sleep, not all the time.
- Side or stomach position. This is to temporarily calm baby while you hold them and shouldn’t be used as a safe sleep position — but it can help your little one get ready to drift off to dreamland. The only recommended position for sleep is on baby’s back in a crib or other separate baby sleep space.
- Shushing. You’re the best sound machine around. Make a loud shushing sound in your baby’s ear to imitate the womb environment. (Definitely use a sound machine when you get sick of hearing yourself or run out of breath!)
- Swing. Rocking your baby can help soothe them to sleep. (Again, they should be placed on their back in a crib or bassinet once they’re ready to fall asleep.)
- Suck. Babies are comforted by the sucking reflex, which is why nursing babies often like to hang on the breast — even when they’re finished eating. Consider using a pacifier to appease their sucking tendencies and help soothe themselves to sleep. (For newborns, make sure breastfeeding is established before offering a pacifier.)
Tip #2: Use light to teach babies day and night
It’s always dark in the womb, so light and dark are new distinctions to a baby.
In addition, a regular bedtime routine can help alert baby that it’s time to swiftly head off to dreamland.
Tip #3: Rethink your stance on night waking, at least for young babies
We’ve all witnessed a heated debate in a playgroup about using the cry-it-out method in the middle of the night. But for the first 6 months at least, babies waking at night is completely normal and crucial for feeding. It doesn’t necessarily need to be “fixed.”
While it can be stressful to have a baby who wakes frequently in the night, it’s very normal in the early months and even beyond.
That said, you can start encouraging even young babies to use the self-soothing abilities that naturally begin to emerge around 4 months. When baby wakes at night for a feeding, you can foster these abilities by:
- keeping the room dark and quiet as you feed baby
- letting baby fuss for a few minutes before feeding (If something other than hunger, such as a noise, startled them awake, they may fall back asleep.)
- using a pacifier and soothing touch to lull baby back to sleep
Babies aren’t born ready to sleep through the night for 8 to 10 hours. In fact, there are concrete and science-backed reasons why babies don’t sleep as much as you’d like. Here are a few:
- During the first few weeks, they don’t even know it’s nighttime. In the womb, day and night weren’t really a thing, so how would they know?
- Newborns eat every few hours and shouldn’t be going too long without a feeding. Breastfed babies will eat
8–12 timesin a 24-hour period in the first weeks to months.
- Your baby has many basic needs. Often new parents get caught up in deep and scary reasons why their baby is crying so much, but be sure to consider the basics. Does your baby have a dirty diaper, or are they too hot or too cold?
Sleep matters — for everyone in the household. True sleep deprivation can be dangerous for your physical and mental health.
Poor sleep can lead to a variety of other health problems, from weight gain to mental disorders. It can also just make you plain miserable throughout the day, when you’d rather be enjoying life with your new baby.
Babies also benefit from regular and consistent sleep, with newborns even sleeping up to 17 hours per day (just not in large chunks of time as you’d hope). Young babies will sleep as much as their bodies need — a quality that caregivers should, whenever possible, seek to emulate. We know — easier said than done.
There are times when crying all night (or day) is indicative of a bigger issue. If your gut feeling as a parent is saying something is wrong, listen to it and call your baby’s doctor for an appointment. It’s wise to ask a pediatrician to rule out any medical issues.
Sleep deprivation for parents is real, and it can make you feel desperate. If you have thoughts of hurting your baby or yourself, place your baby (crying or not) in their crib in a safe space, and step away for a few minutes to take a break and clear your head. If you have these feelings, contact your doctor so you can get professional help.
If you feel your baby is sleeping too much or not enough, ask the pediatrician as well.
The good news is that this is temporary, and you’ll both be sleeping through the night as your baby gets older and more able to soothe themselves. While it can seem like the weeks drag on — and you’re only hanging on from one latte to the next — give yourself and your family some grace while you try to get through one of the most difficult times of parenting.
Don’t hesitate to seek medical advice for yourself or your child if you’re struggling. There are no dumb questions in parenting — only sleep-deprived parents trying to get a little nap.