It’s possible to get a good night’s sleep with young kids in the house. After working with hundreds of families, I know you can be a well-rested parent, too.
If you’re a new parent, you’re likely struggling with some aspect of your baby’s sleep. Your baby might be having a hard time falling asleep — or, they might be having a hard time staying asleep. Maybe your little one is only taking short naps or experiencing lots of overnight wakings.
You may not feel confident that they’re getting the sleep they need. Likewise, you may not be getting the sleep you need to function and feel human.
Sleep is a huge passion of mine. I have helped hundreds of families get more rest over the years and I’m confident I can help you, too.
Below I’m busting some damaging and fear-driven myths about infant sleep, so you can get the best sleep possible for you and your baby.
Have you heard this one? It’s a doozy, and probably the one I hear most often. It’s so tough to go from your pre-baby self — sleeping through the night and waking up refreshed — to having a baby who needs to eat overnight.
This transition means that you’re not sleeping a full night anymore. But the reality is: babies wake up hungry overnight.
You’re not doing anything wrong by feeding your baby overnight. It’s very common for babies to need to eat during the overnight hours in the first year of life.
It’s true that some wakings are not necessarily about hunger. For example, some babies wake up really frequently, every 1 to 2 hours all night every night. Of course, if your little one is a newborn, this may just be par for the course for a few weeks until their day/night confusion has resolved.
However, after those first few precious weeks, you might be wondering if they still need to eat that much overnight. Always double-check with your baby’s doctor about how much they need to eat overnight because they’ll have the best information about your child’s health and growth curve status.
Look to your baby’s behavior for clues about whether they were hungry or waking for another reason. In general, we know that a baby was hungry overnight if they took a full feeding and settled back to sleep easily and quickly. If they were just nibbling or took a small feeding and then had trouble getting back to sleep, they may not necessarily have been hungry.
I bet you’ve heard this one. It’s one of the more damaging myths out there.
It makes me so sad that parents are left to think that they either must remain a sleep-deprived mess, or they must do something that goes completely against their parenting instincts.
In fact, there are a lot of options in between. There are literally hundreds of ways to help your little one learn to fall asleep on their own.
Now, let’s back up here a little bit and address why we’re even talking about helping a little one learn to sleep on their own. Why would we even consider doing this?
Well, you might be surprised to learn that there’s a scientific reason based on a concept called sleep-wake cycles. A sleep-wake cycle is a period of time during which your baby sleeps in various light and deep phases.
At a certain age (usually at about 3 to 4 months old), these cycles start to mimic what adult sleep-wake cycles look like. At the end of each sleep-wake cycle, babies predictably go through a very light sleep phase.
If your little one needed something from you to fall asleep at the beginning of the sleep-wake cycle, then they may need you to repeat these same conditions in between cycles to maintain their sleep.
This may look like wakings every 20 to 40 minutes for naps, and every 45 to 90 minutes overnight. Some babies can independently link the frequently deeper cycles of sleep that happen in the earlier part of the night but have difficultly doing the same during the frequently lighter periods of sleep that happen as the night goes on.
Therefore, the reason we think about creating more independence at the beginning of the sleep-wake cycle (e.g., at bedtime) is to help your little one link all the cycles that follow.
That said, you don’t have to teach independence. It is a choice, just like every other parenting choice you’ll ever have to make.
You could also follow your little one’s lead, giving them what they need until they eventually figure out how to fall asleep on their own.
Most children get there eventually, sometime between 3 and 6 years old on average. But many families are not willing to wait that long, and any reason that you have for wanting to improve sleep is a valid one.
You can build independence by following your parenting instincts, moving slowly, gradually, or quickly (whatever your preference is) toward better sleep stretches for the entire family.
I know you’ve seen these kinds of schedules before: the ones that say you must get your baby down at very specific times of day for naps, and somehow force them to sleep for very specific lengths of time.
Strict sleep schedules do not work, particularly in your child’s first year. It’s very normal for your baby’s nap lengths to fluctuate significantly.
Especially in the first 6 months of life, when your little one’s sleep-wake cycles have not yet fully matured, naps could either be really short or very long or anywhere in between.
Naps before 6 months might look different from nap period to nap period, and different from day to day. Nap lengths are influenced by stimulation, activities outside the house, feedings, illness, the conditions and environment for sleep, and so much more.
The other reason strict sleep schedules don’t work is that they don’t account for how long your baby was awake. This is a recipe for an overtired baby. Overtired babies do not sleep well.
I recommend that you respect the timing that works best for your little one using a more flexible approach of following age-appropriate wake windows. Wake windows are the amounts of time that your baby can spend being awake in one stretch before they become overtired.
These windows are very conservative in the first month of life, only about 45 to 60 minutes. As a baby grows and develops, they can handle about 10 to 15 minutes more per month until they can handle about 3 to 4 hours of being awake in one stretch by their first birthday.
I definitely fell for this one when I was a new mom. I thought that I must be doing something wrong if my baby only wanted to sleep on me for naps and wouldn’t dream of sleeping in her crib or bassinet for naps.
Now I know the truth. This is simply what our babies are wired to do.
When I work with families to improve nighttime sleep, we work on giving babies balanced, beautiful rest in the day using the right timing and the best conditions possible. But they do not need to nap in their crib or bassinet.
Getting a good amount of daytime sleep is more important than where they sleep during the day.
The amount and quality of daytime sleep will dictate how quickly your baby learns independent, healthy sleep habits at night. I advise parents to focus on establishing nighttime sleep patterns before insisting their baby sleeps in the crib during daytime naps.
When their nighttime sleep has improved, then we can begin creating more independence for naps in the day too. Or, you can simply enjoy the flexibility of on-the-go naps or extra cuddles in the day. Babies do not get confused by this.
Teaching your baby to sleep in the crib doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, your baby could accept one nap a day in their crib or bassinet and you can keep practicing with that until you’re ready to work on more naps in their own space.
Rest assured that it is absolutely normal and in line with infant development for your little one to want a cuddle for their naps. Often they’ll sleep better and longer that way, too.
I promise it won’t last forever — and there are so many things you can do to change this when you’re ready to make those changes. In the meantime, you are not doing anything wrong if your baby sleeps best in the carrier during the day.
There are so many parents who are told that there’s nothing you can do about sleep in the first few months, so they just do whatever they need to do to survive. Meanwhile, parents suffer through sleep deprivation that only worsens while they get increasingly frustrated and hopeless.
My mission is to get the word out: It is entirely possible to establish healthy, independent sleep habits from an early age. I love working with newborns! There is so much we can do in the first few months of life to set you up for great sleep over the long term.
You don’t have to simply wait, covering your eyes, for that rocky period of sleep that everyone loves to scare you about: the infamous and poorly named “4-month sleep regression.” This rocky period of sleep around 4 months of age is simply a biological change in sleep patterns that will inevitably happen for every baby.
It’s also a permanent change. There really isn’t much we can do about this 4-month change once it happens, and it’s not as though things will just go back to the way they were before. In fact, we wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were before. The 4-month mark is a developmental progression that needs to be celebrated.
At the same time, if you’d like to minimize the sleep disruption that can happen at this point, you can make some changes in the newborn period to get ahead of it.
The most fruitful changes you can make in the newborn stage are following age-appropriate wake windows, getting your little one familiarized with their own sleep space regularly and early on, and practicing putting them down awake.
Families who establish healthy, independent sleep habits before they’re feeling desperate to do so find that they get better, more consistent sleep over the long run.
On the other hand, it’ll never be too late to improve sleep. It’s always about finding a time when you’re feeling truly ready.
Rosalee Lahaie Hera is a Certified Pediatric & Newborn Sleep Consultant, a Certified Potty Training Consultant, and the founder of Baby Sleep Love. She’s also a mom to two beautiful little humans. Rosalee is a researcher at heart with a background in healthcare management and a passion for sleep science. She takes a highly analytical approach and uses proven, gentle methods to help families (like yours!) get the sleep they need. Rosalee is a big fan of fancy coffee and great food (both cooking it and eating it). You can connect with Rosalee on Facebook or Instagram.