Many parents look forward to bedtime with a combination of eagerness and dread.
On a good day, bedtime can be the highlight of your day, the last few minutes of cuddling with your baby before they peacefully drift off to sleep. But on a bad day, bedtime means hours of rocking and patting a screaming, fussy, or wide-awake baby.
With any sleep problem, a good diagnosis is the first step toward a solution. Bedtime is difficult at different ages for a variety of reasons, and it might take some trial and error to figure out what’s causing your baby’s late night partying. Here are some common reasons for bedtime struggles and how you can solve them.
Day and Night Confusion
The most common reason for a newborn’s late bedtime is day and night confusion.
In the womb, babies often sleep during the day, when the motion of your walking rocks them to dreamland, and stay awake at night, when your stillness makes it easier for them to move and stretch. You might have noticed during pregnancy that your baby was often active and keeping you awake at night, or that there was less movement during the day.
Solving day and night confusion is relatively simple. You just need to ease your baby into a daytime schedule. Encourage your baby to stay awake for a little while between daytime naps by feeding them when they wake and then playing with them for a little while.
Keep window shades open during the day to let natural light in, and take your baby outside for a few minutes of real sunshine in the morning. In the evening, turn off electric lights so your baby will experience the natural drop in light as the sun sets. When they wake during the night, keep lights off and don’t play or engage with them too much. Feed them and encourage them to go straight back to sleep.
Transitioning from the Womb
Another common reason why newborns have trouble falling asleep is because of the big changes they experience with life “on the outside.” After the warmth and comfort of the womb, a crib is a cold, hard space. Lying on their back (the safest position for sleep) can trigger your baby’s startle reflex, and cold air and the lack of motion can make it hard for them to relax.
By simulating the environment of the womb for your newborn, you can help them relax and fall asleep. Start by swaddling. The cozy warmth of a swaddling blanket will help prevent startling and remind your baby of the comfort of being inside the womb. While they’re falling asleep, hold them on their side instead of their back, which is more comfortable for most babies.
Give them something to suck on like a breast or a bottle, or a pacifier or finger if they’ve already eaten. Use white noise, like a white noise machine, to imitate the sound of the womb and to prevent loud noises from startling them awake. And finally, rock them to imitate the motion of the womb. For many babies, this combination of the five “Ss” (swaddle, side, suck, shush, and shake) is a magic key for almost instant sleep.
Sleep Stage Changes
Even if bedtime was a dream with your newborn, it’s very common for sleep to take a step back when your baby is around 4 months old. Similar sleep regressions tend to happen with older babies at 9 months, and again at 18 months. All of these can be related to changes in your baby’s sleep and napping patterns.
Four months is the most dramatic change, because it’s the age when your baby begins to sleep according to more adult patterns. Instead of falling straight into deep, non-REM sleep at bedtime, they begin the night with a lighter sleep, which means it’s easier for them to wake since they’re just about to fall asleep.
In addition to changes in the type of sleep your baby experiences, these sleep regression periods all usually involve a change in your baby’s nap pattern. Around 4 months, most babies will shift from taking four daytime naps to three. Nine months is when most babies switch to two naps, and 18 months is when they switch to one nap.
Fixing this pattern might mean changing how your baby goes to bed. Four months is when most babies will fall asleep more easily without motion (no more rocking to sleep, if you’ve been doing that). It’s also the age to stop swaddling, and it’s a good time to establish a regular bedtime routine with activities you can continue through the toddler years.
If bedtime is getting harder and harder and being pushed later and later because your baby just doesn’t seem tired, that’s a good sign that they’re ready to drop a nap. Try keeping them up a little longer between naps earlier in the day, and their sleep will likely consolidate into fewer naps and earlier bedtimes.
Physical and Mental Developmental Leaps
Sleep patterns aren’t the only thing that’s changing for your baby. All of their behaviors and patterns are constantly changing during the first year, and these can affect bedtime, too.
Big physical developmental changes can make bedtime hard. For example, when your baby has just learned to roll over, they may be so excited by this new skill that they just can’t stop practicing, day or night. Mental leaps can also be the culprit. As your baby’s brain is learning to identify new patterns, they’re so focused on learning and studying the world around them that they can’t settle down to sleep.
If developmental changes are the reason for your bedtime woes, you may not realize it until after it has solved itself. Luckily, these kinds of sleep disturbances don’t usually last long. Your baby might sleep poorly for a week, and then suddenly learn a new skill and start sleeping again.
If your baby normally falls asleep easily but then has several rough nights, don’t panic. Chances are it will resolve itself soon. If it doesn’t, try changing the length of your bedtime routine. Sometimes, a too-long routine means you’re missing the window of time when your baby is sleepy, and by the time you’re putting them down, they’re overtired and can’t fall asleep easily.
For other babies, a too-short routine might mean insufficient time to wind down and let go of all the excitement of the day. Try experimenting, but don’t change things up all at once. Keep a consistent routine for at least a week before you decide whether it’s working or not. Similarly, experimenting can show you the exact right time for bedtime. Too early means your baby won’t be sleepy yet, while too late means they’ll be too tired to fall asleep.
Inability to Self-Soothe
At birth, all babies cry when they’re upset and continue crying until an adult meets their needs. Newborns are unable to soothe themselves. Crying is their way of communicating, and they’ll continue to cry until the cause of their crying is removed.
At some point in their development, all babies and children learn to soothe themselves when they’re upset and fall asleep without assistance. You will probably start to notice your baby begin self-soothing behaviors around 4 months. But age and personality are key factors in when your baby will master this skill.
There are many sleep training methods you can try that will help your baby learn to self-soothe. Most of them involve some level of controlled crying, which means you leave your baby and let them cry for short periods, then return and comfort them. When you gradually increase the length of time you leave them alone, they’ll eventually learn to soothe themself and fall asleep alone. The best window of opportunity to start these methods is by 4 to 6 months. After this, it is harder, as your baby’s sleep routine gets more established.
However, be aware of concerns with methods like this. First, think of your baby’s age. Before 4 months, your baby’s sleep patterns aren’t mature. In the first few weeks, your newborn needs to eat frequently during the night, so sleeping straight through could cause weight loss. Second, some experts believe that allowing excessive crying at bedtime is harmful for babies. Your baby’s personality could be a factor. Some babies get more upset the longer they cry, while other babies tend to calm themselves down after a short period of crying. If you’ve tried leaving your baby to cry for short periods and it seems to be making bedtime worse instead of better, more gradual methods that don’t involve crying might be more effective for your baby.
Talk to your pediatrician before you start any sleep training.
Finally, your bedtime problems could be caused by your baby being hungry. Even if your baby is eating the same amount they’re used to, a growth spurt could mean they’re suddenly hungry again at bedtime when they didn’t used to be.
If you’re breast-feeding, they could also be hungry at bedtime because you’ve had a decrease in your milk supply, or because you’re changing their feeding patterns as part of your effort to get them on a sleep schedule. This problem is easy to identify. If your young baby is rooting or making sucking motions, they’re hungry. If you offer a feeding to an older baby and they take it eagerly, then they’re likely hungry as well.
A hungry baby won’t fall asleep easily, so the immediate solution is to delay bedtime so your baby can eat until they’re satisfied. In the long term, look at patterns to determine whether you need to change your baby’s eating schedule to make sure they’re full before it’s time to sleep.
If the bedtime munchies are an unusual occurrence, it could be a growth spurt, which will resolve on its own. But if it’s happening regularly, try feeding them more at their normal last feeding to make sure they’re filling up. You can also plan a last bedtime snack as part of your bedtime routine, and make sure you offer it with enough time to finish your bedtime routine before their usual sleep time. Finally, if your baby is close to 6 months old and hasn’t started on solid foods, then increasing hunger could be a sign they’re ready to expand their diet.
A good bedtime routine can help your evenings with baby go a lot more smoothly, but finding the best routine for your baby is a matter of trial and error. The ideal routine lasts long enough to help your baby calm down and relax, but not so long that it keeps your baby awake past their ideal sleep time. Most families find that three to five activities are all you need.
Possible bedtime routine activities include:
- taking a bath
- changing their diaper
- brushing their teeth
- giving an infant massage
- putting on pajamas
- reading a bedtime book
- swaddling (for babies 3 months and younger)
- singing a lullaby
- saying goodnight to everyone in the family
- kissing goodnight
Bedtime, especially for young babies, is never as easy as the sleep books make it sound. Sleep is different for every child, and for every bedtime challenge there’s a solution you can try. It may take a little experimenting and a little luck! With some trial and error, you can improve even the most challenging baby’s bedtime. And no matter how difficult bedtime may seem right now, as your baby grows, your bedtime struggles will be just a memory.