If you're a parent, you've likely come across — and attempted — some of the supposedly tried-and-trued methods of getting your baby to fall asleep. But we're here to debunk some of the myths you might have heard with help from Devon Clement, a postpartum doula, newborn care specialist and baby sleep coach with 20-plus years of experience helping babies and their parents sleep better. Her New York-based company, Happy Family After, offers in-house services, such as newborn care and sleep coaching for new parents, and here, in an email interview, she offers up five strategies that parents, often sleep deprived themselves, should try when they're having trouble getting their baby to sleep.
1. Don't Let Your Baby Get Overtired
"Sometimes it's hard to tell when babies are tired — yawns and eye-rubbing are signs of a very tired baby, and they will have a more difficult time falling asleep once they become overtired," says Clement. "Babies also have FOMO (fear of missing out), so they will often stay up to play and interact even when they should be napping."
Clement advises parents to be aware of how much sleep babies need at various ages — if they're not sleeping enough, they will be overtired and then counterintuitively not sleep. "If they're 3 months and younger, an hour is the maximum they should be awake consecutively, and that includes feeding," explains Clement. "From 3-6 months, they can stay awake for about one-and-a-half to two hours, with shorter stretches in the morning and longer ones as the day progresses. When babies get overtired, their bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol, which makes them seem alert and happy. So, parents often don't realize they're actually exhausted. Put the baby down before they get to this point and they'll surprise you!"
2. Put the Baby Down Awake
You may think the only way to get your baby to sleep is by rocking, bouncing or feeding because you've never seen them fall asleep on their own.
If babies have been fed and are calm, Clement suggests trying to put them down awake and see what happens. "They may just drift off," she says. "Being able to fall asleep on their own is the foundation of great sleep habits. For newborns, of course, you want to comfort them if they cry, but they may not even make a peep. Be patient — as long as they're calm, they're totally fine alone in their crib."
3. Let the Baby Nap All Day
This is obviously not a great strategy for older kiddos and adults. After all, if you nap all day, of course you won't be tired at night, right? But babies are different — they need lots of sleep, and the more they get, the better it will be.
"Let your baby take as many naps as they need for their age — good sleep begets good sleep," she says. "A day of good naps usually leads to a great night."
4. Don't Try To "Sleep When the Baby Sleeps" During the Day
This is the oldest piece of advice in the book for exhausted parents, but it doesn't usually work because it's hard for adults to nap in the middle of the day — especially if they've already gotten dressed and had a couple cups of coffee.
Lengthen your night, says Clement. "Your pre-baby schedule doesn't work once you incorporate night feeds and awakenings, so eight hours in bed actually means four hours of sleep (if you're lucky)," she says. "Go to bed earlier (let the housework wait) to take advantage of the baby's best stretch of sleep, and in the morning, even if it's 6 or 7 a.m. when they wake to feed, go back to bed afterward. You're still in your pajamas, so you're still in 'sleep mode.' Don't start your day until you've really gotten a good amount of sleep. Do not have coffee and do not get dressed ... just pretend it's still 3 a.m. and go back to sleep."
5. Don't Stay in the Room and Then Sneak Out
It's a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The baby tends to fall asleep peacefully with you there, so you keep doing it, rather than have them be upset that you're gone. But then, when the baby wakes up, they wonder where you went and cry for you to return. Maybe it happens right away, maybe it happens hours later, but it happens.
"The key to successful sleep is for children to fall asleep and wake up in the same circumstances (i.e., in their own crib, by themselves)," says Clement. "If you work on this skill, not only will your baby be able to go back to sleep on their own when they do wake, they won't wake as frequently, because they're exactly where they expect to be."