They’re questions that any new parent might ask in the middle of the night: Why is it so hard for babies to fall asleep?
Children — especially infants — should learn how to fall asleep on their own, right? When should they start learning? How can I help my child develop healthy sleep habits?
Consistent care is important, especially during the first four months or so of a baby's life when they are developing trust.
“During the first few months of a child’s life, babies develop trust by being attended to whenever they cry. They are, so to speak, impossible to spoil,” says Nicholas Levy, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.
If they have any condition, such as colic or reflux, that caused prolonged crying infants should be held or cuddled.
“The temptation to ‘just let them cry it out’ should be avoided at all costs, even if it's hard on the parents. The psychological benefits are very significant,” Dr. Levy says.
The first two months are a time when it doesn’t matter where or how infants fall asleep (as long as it happens in a safe sleeping environment). They won’t remember any of it. Children appear to begin developing memory and internalizing sensation at about 2 to 3 months of life.
Children eventually learn to fall asleep on their own -- or with a little help of course. Parents have a big say in the development of their baby’s sleep habits.They decide on sleep schedule, bedtime routines, how to manage sleep problems and the sleeping environment.
“Do they want their baby to sleep in their bedroom, in the family bed or in his or her own crib or bassinet?" Dr. Levy says.
Other questions might include:
- Do they want to rock them to sleep?
- Do they want to lie with them while they fall asleep when they are older?
- Would they prefer to say goodnight to them before they are asleep?
“Both parents need to be in agreement on sleeping habits. Bedtime can become stressful if there is disagreement,” Dr. Levy says. “This is a time of day for many couples when they should be spending time together.”
In many instances parents want their children to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night, but they don’t know when to stop nursing or rocking them to sleep. They simply hope that they will learn to do it on their own and get frustrated when it takes five or six years before they do.
Sleep training can help a baby develop good sleep habits without a need for prolonged crying, whether they sleep in their own bed or in the family bed. “It does take some work, but the results are well worthwhile,” Dr. Levy says.
The best time to start sleep training is soon after your baby is 2 months old. Most children will sleep their longest stretches during the night hours by this age. They will generally be falling asleep sometime between 8 pm and 11 pm, and most will be waking once or twice during the night to feed. In many instances they are still sleeping in their parents’ room in their own bed.
If you want to put your baby to bed in their own room, envision it the way you think it will be when they are about 1 year old.
There are many different sleep training methods for babies.The most successful one depends on the child and parents. Both parents should be on board and consistent.
Begin by paying careful attention to when your baby starts to fall asleep. As soon as they begin to get drowsy or their eyes get heavy, put them gently into their crib.
If they fuss, respond immediately and try to soothe them in the crib. Do this by patting or stroking them or gently shaking the crib, perhaps while singing softly or whispering to them.
If they don’t settle down quickly (about 20 to 30 seconds is reasonable), then pick them up again. Walk with them, talk to them and watch closely for them to get drowsy again. As soon as this happens, put them down again.
If they again start to fuss, respond as before and try and soothe them in the crib. If this doesn’t work, pick them up again, soothe them in your arms until they begin to fall asleep and then just before they do put them down again.
Every baby is different in terms of how many times they will need to be soothed again. If you persist, however, then the result is that they will fall asleep in their crib even it means that a parent is present in the beginning.
“Each night will be a little easier, and fairly soon you will be able to put your baby down, say goodnight, and leave the room,” Dr. Levy says. “Although the baby may vocalize a bit without really crying, eventually he or she will fall asleep.”
Ignore the little awakenings during the night but respond to any real crying, he adds.
After 4 months or so, infants are quite capable of sleeping for nine to 10 hours at a time at night. They don’t need to eat during this time. If you decide to feed your baby, they will develop a pattern called trained night feeding.
“Everybody wakes up during the night and then goes back to sleep. We reassure ourselves that nothing has changed and don’t even remember having woken up the next day,” Dr. Levy says.
“Children that fall asleep in a parent’s arms and then wake up during the night in a crib, find this very difficult. They tend to need their parents’ help to fall sleep again.”
It is acceptable to allow babies over four months of age to cry a bit. Sometimes a few minutes of crying in the middle of the night is all it takes for the child to learn to sleep through the night.
“Remember to always respond at first, with as little intervention as possible,” Dr. Levy says.
If you are having trouble with getting your baby to settle to sleep, talk to your pediatrician or arrange to meet with them for a sleep consult, he adds.
“Parents who get regular sleep are much more patient and have more energy to deal with the everyday needs of their children,” Dr. Levy says.