Helping Your Baby Sleep Better

At one time or another, almost every baby will struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night or until a decent hour in the morning. Inadequate rest not only leads to a cranky baby and tired parents, but it can also be detrimental to your child’s ability to learn and develop normally.

Some children simply need time to outgrow sleeping problems on their own, but taking a few steps as a parent to encourage better sleep can be highly effective for many other young children.

Whether you are looking for ways to help your child sleep better in general, more details on sleep-training or ideas for specific problems, here are some suggestions that might be helpful for getting your baby (and you) sleeping better soon.

General Sleeping Tips

Take a Hard Look at Naps

Young children require varying amounts of sleep based on their age. If your child is getting too much of their sleep during the day, difficulties at night could be the result. This is especially true if your child has previously been a good sleeper and seems to develop problems suddenly.

Between the ages of one and two, babies are often ready to go from two shorter naps to one longer one. Dropping the morning nap first and moving the afternoon nap a bit earlier is usually the plan that works best for many families.

Don’t be discouraged if you have to do a bit of experimenting to find out what works for your child. Additionally, your child will probably need time to make the adjustment, so be sure to give any new routine at least a week or two.

Use White Noise

Young children often find gentle noise to be soothing. Background noise can also help mask household sounds from pets, older siblings or the television.

A sound machine can be an easy way to achieve just the right level of noise in your child’s bedroom. These small devices allow you to set your desired volume, and many models offer a variety of nature, music or fan noises. Some machines also feature light projectors and can double as a nightlight.

There are many options on the market, so be sure to check out our sound machine reviews before you go shopping.

Try Aromatherapy

Scent can have a powerful yet often overlooked effect on the brain and nervous system, and essential oils can be an effective and chemical-free way to introduce a relaxing fragrance for children over three months of age.

These scents are known for their calming and relaxing effects, and they are safe to use for young children:

  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Mandarin

Babies and toddlers have sensitive skin, so adding essential oil to the air with a room spray or diffuser is usually best. Spritz the room spray around the bedroom, but avoid spraying it directly on your child’s bedding. Diffusers are small machines that use water and a few drops of oil to make a scented mist. Set the diffuser on the top of a table, dresser or highest shelf of a bookcase.

Even though they are more expensive, be sure to purchase your oils from reputable sources. You can purchase high-quality oils online, or you can ask friends if they can put you in contact with any company sales representatives.

If you have any questions or concerns about essential oil safety, don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare provider.

Give Your Child Something to Snuggle

Having a special item to cuddle with could promote independent sleep by helping your baby feel less alone and more secure in their bed.

Toys or extra bedding are a suffocation hazard for babies during their first year, so a bed with just a fitted sheet is definitely safer for very young babies.

Most experts agree that once your baby is about one year old, you can safely give them one small stuffed animal or a light blanket to sleep with. Here are safety tips to keep in mind as you choose your child’s bedtime buddy:

  • A stuffed animal should be smaller than your child’s head and have no long ties, strings or detachable pieces. Choose an animal with embroidered facial features rather than plastic ones.
  • Pick an airy blanket that isn’t much larger than your child. Pillows and heavy blankets are still unsafe as long as your child still needs to sleep in a crib.

Start out by just placing this special item in the crib at nap time and bedtime, and be patient if your baby doesn’t seem to get the message right away.

Sleep Training Methods

Sleep-training can help your child learn how to fall asleep by themselves at bedtime and if they wake up during the night.

Let your child’s individual temperament and needs be your main guide when choosing which sleep-training method might work best for your family. Some children need the push that the self-soothing technique provides, while other children would benefit much more from a gentler, more gradual approach.

There are several sleep-training methods to choose from. Here are the details of two of the most common options.

Self-Soothing

This method’s goal is to give your child the opportunity to learn how to soothe themselves and fall asleep independently.

  1. Get your child ready for bed as you normally would.
  2. Lay them in their crib and tell them goodnight.
  3. Leave the room.
  4. At this point, you have the choice of either leaving your baby for the whole night and letting them cry to sleep or setting a timer. Many parents who choose the second option start out with a short time, around five to ten minutes.
  5. Let your child cry for the chosen time, then go back in the room and soothe them by singing or reaching into the crib to rub or pat them. Once they have calmed down, leave the room again for a little longer time.
  6. Repeat the process until your child falls asleep on their own.

It may take a few days, but your child should eventually learn to fall asleep by themselves within a few minutes.

Gradual Distance

Even though this method requires more time to produce results, it should help you reach the same goal with far less crying.

  1. Get your child ready for bed.
  2. Lay them down and say goodnight.
  3. Stand or sit next to the crib until your child falls asleep. Since this could take quite a while, try bringing a book or other quiet activity to occupy yourself. However, make sure your activity won’t stimulate your child and keep them awake.
  4. Every two or three days, increase your distance from the crib until you are able to lay your child down and leave the room.

Whatever plan you choose, don’t attempt any sleep-training until your child is about six months old. Training a younger baby whose brain and body aren’t ready to sleep for long stretches at a time could be dangerous.

Trouble Falling Asleep at Bedtime

Bedtime battles can be a common occurrence in many homes. Sometimes a child is just having so much fun that they don’t want the day to end, but making bedtime a relaxing time your child can look forward to may help reduce the number of battles.

Give a Small Snack

For infants, a bottle or nursing is the perfect snack. For toddlers, you can give some foods that are known to encourage drowsiness. Here are a few ideas:

  • A glass of warm milk. This is a bedtime classic for a reason. The comforting warmth combined with protein can help induce sleepiness.
  • A small banana. Magnesium and potassium both help muscles relax and can make you feel sleepy. Bananas provide a sweet combination of both and are usually easy to get children to eat.
  • Yogurt. Many flavored yogurts have a shockingly high sugar content, so try buying plain yogurt and sweetening it yourself with diced fruit or just enough real maple syrup to make it slightly sweet.

Eating a little something before bedtime can also help reduce the chance that your child wakes up hungry in the night.

Create a Bedtime Routine

Having a bedtime ritual that you do every night can help your child relax and wind down for bed. A set pattern of events lets your child know what to expect next, and this can help them transition into bedtime mode.

Start by brushing teeth and putting on pajamas. If you give your child a bedtime snack, have them brush their teeth after they finish eating. Next, choose about two or three quiet activities that your child enjoys, then decide what order you want to do them in. Here are some ideas that you may want to try:

  • A warm bath. Body temperature naturally rises with sleep, so putting your child in a warm bath can be a signal to their body that it’s time to rest. A body wash or lotion scented with a soothing aroma like lavender or chamomile could add to the relaxation factor.
  • Read a bedtime story. Save the rousing, energetic books for daytime reading and choose one with repetitive words that form a gentle rhythm. Don’t miss this list for some great ideas for bedtime stories (as well as a few for daytime too!).
  • A lullaby. This can be the start of a sweet tradition for you and your child for years to come. Even though classic lullabies are always a great choice, a contemporary song that your child already likes could be the perfect fit.
  • Have a bedtime chat. It’s never too soon to be thinking about the future. Preschoolers and older children might find it easiest to open up about their thoughts at bedtime, so going over your baby’s or toddler’s day with them could help you form the habit early on. Even though you will be the one doing most of the talking right now, you can lay the foundation for many years to come.

Waking up During the Night

Up to the age of about six months, night waking can help a baby meet basic needs like eating on a regular basis, and it could also prevent a baby from falling into a dangerously deep sleep.

While night waking is common and even beneficial, you and your baby also need adequate sleep.

Consider Changing Your Nighttime Nursing Routine

Breastfeeding babies who are accustomed to frequent nursing throughout the night may be waking up to nurse for comfort rather than to satisfy hunger. Reducing or eliminating nighttime feedings may result in better sleep once your baby learns that they don’t need nursing to fall back asleep.

There is some disagreement among healthcare providers about the age when most babies are ready to stop night feedings. Some recommend night weaning at three or four months of age, and others feel that a baby should be six months old at the very least. If your baby is less than six months old, ask your baby’s provider for their recommendation.

It may take some time for your baby to break the nursing-to-sleep habit, and also some patience and diligence on your part. Try rubbing your baby’s tummy or head or singing a lullaby to provide comfort without nursing.

Especially if you normally breastfeed multiple times at night, make sure to increase the amount of milk your baby gets during the day. Your goal is not to reduce the number of calories your baby gets daily, just to change when they get those calories.

Waking up Too Early

This may end up being the issue that you have the least influence over. Your child could be an early riser by nature, and trying to change their internal alarm clock may be difficult or impossible. It’s definitely still worth trying, though, so here are a few ideas that might help encourage your child to get on a schedule that works better for your family.

Try to Have a Daily Schedule for Meals

When your body follows the same basic schedule daily for meals, you become accustomed to the routine and usually start to feel hungry at your normal mealtimes.

If your child routinely gets up very early and is used to eating soon after they get up, their body may be waking them up to eat at this undesirable hour out of habit.

Try delaying breakfast by a few extra minutes, and gradually work towards your desired breakfast time. This may not be possible for a young baby who does truly need the nourishment when they first wake up, but an older child should be able to handle waiting a little extra time.

Install Room-Darkening Shades

The body’s circadian rhythm is designed to wake your body up in the presence of sunlight. However, during the spring and summer seasons when the sun starts rising very early, your child’s body may get the “wake up” signal far too early.

Regular shades will help reduce the amount of sunlight coming in, but room-darkening or blackout shades can almost eliminate it.

Consider Professional Advice

If your attempts to help your child sleep better have not produced the results you want, you may want to think about consulting a professional sleep coach.

If you’ve ever felt like you must be the only parent still getting up all night with your child, take comfort in the fact that you are in good company. The growing number of professional sleep coaches goes to show that many families are struggling to get the rest they need, and they are willing to pay for professional advice in an attempt to get it.

Sleep coaches typically offer a variety of services at different price points. After the consultation and history, the coach develops a plan customized to your family. Depending on which package you purchase, you can usually have follow-up sessions with the coach over e-mail, video messaging or phone.

Hiring a professional is not a guarantee and is usually an investment, but many families have reported improvement or full success after working with a coach.

When your child isn’t sleeping well, it can definitely throw your normal daily life off track. The good news is that you have several options to try that could make a big difference. Your main job is to guide and support your child through this process of learning to sleep, so try to see this challenging time as an opportunity to show your child patience and love.

Do you have any other suggestions for helping your child sleep? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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