If you are reading baby sleep books (everybody has one and if you’re searching for help online I’m guessing you probably have three) at some point I guarantee you will find this line:
Put your baby down while they are still awake.
Sounds so simple doesn’t it? I mean why are all these monkeys struggling with this whole baby sleep thing. Why would you rock, nurse, etc. your baby to sleep for months (years?) when there is a much simpler alternative to the whole baby sleep slave routine. Just put them down in their crib where they will smile and coo at you for a moment before they gratefully drift off to sleep comforted in the knowledge that their parents are wondrously talented and caring individuals.
Everybody Sleeps Great in the Womb
Babies sleep just fine in there. The problems start when they come out. So lets start looking at what is going on in your belly.
- The womb is loud.
Like Lizzo concert loud. Your bedroom, even with that stuffed sheep that makes whale noises at your baby, is library quiet compared to the rock concert they’ve been listening to their whole lives.
- They’re squished.
Think back to your third trimester. You were so full you went to the bathroom 5X an hour. You got heartburn if you ate a raisin. They were stuffed in there tighter than a Thanksgiving turkey.
- They’re on the move.
Did the baby kick around that much when you were out and about? No. But as soon as you went to bed it was like your peanut was throwing a frat party in there.
So our peanuts pop out after spending their whole lives smushed into a ball, hanging upside down, at a rock concert, being constantly swayed to sleep. Two days later we place them flat on their backs, in a giant crib (giant from their point of view anyway), in a deathly silent room, and hope for the best.
Invariably that doesn’t work well (for us, meaning people with troublesome tots, if your newborn slept just fine like that then go gloat elsewhere) and we start sliding down the slope of desperation.
It starts with the growing realization that our newborn baby isn’t sleeping enough and that getting them to fall asleep is not quite as easy as promised in the brochure. The nights are rough, naps are short, and everybody is starting to get scared that nobody will ever really sleep again. And then the real fun begins – we start to do whatever we possibly can to get baby to sleep. I’ve worked with families who have been reduced to:
- Bouncing continuously on an exercise ball while holding the baby
- Driving in the car for 3 hours a day while baby sleeps (only while the car is moving because of course being able to park and nap, read, talk on the phone means baby wakes up instantly)
- Letting baby park on the breast the entire time she sleeps*
- Wearing baby in sling, wrap, bjorn, etc. for hours at a time to encourage sleep*
- Baby only sleeps ON you (what, you wanted to eat? shower?)
- Wearing baby in sling while carrying a blow dryer and sticking fingers in baby’s mouth because said baby refuses a pacifier (yes this is me, no it was not a proud moment, but I wanted to make it clear that I’m not laughing AT you I’m laughing WITH you, well not laughing exactly but maybe shuddering a bit and reaching for a glass of whiskey while I try to block out the memory of this photo)
* Please no haters – I am neither anti-nursing nor anti-baby wearing. I am however anti-I’m-doing-this-cuz-nothing-else-works. If you want to take a nice spring day and wear your baby while you go for a hike and he gets a nap, great! However if this is the ONLY way to help your baby sleep and your (insert: back, nipples, etc.) is killing you and you would like an alternative to help baby sleep while you catch a break than read on.
Want your baby to sleep? Then you need to tactically recreate what we know already helps them to sleep because they used to sleep, just fine, without you.
How to Get Baby to Sleep
- Don’t let them get overtired.
You may get a few days or even a few weeks of “babymoon” where your baby will literally fall asleep CONSTANTLY. You may even need to wake them up for scheduled feedings for a while (your pediatrician will let you know). You may wonder what all the fuss about “babies being so much work” comes from. But invariably the babymoon ends and suddenly sleep – theirs and yours – becomes a major issue. but most newborns can only stay awake a very short time before they’re overtired.
- Swaddle, swaddle, swaddle.
It helps A LOT for the first few months. Swaddling will help baby sleep and reduce crying. Even if they don’t like the process of being swaddled, they’ll sleep better afterwords.
- Use white noise.
White noise is cheap, accessible, and effective. There are plenty of apps or white noise generators that will work just fine but make sure the volume is appropriate – you’re aiming for 50 dB which is roughly the volume of somebody taking a shower. If it feels too loud to you it probably is. If it’s so quiet it barely registers it’s likely too low. Play around and find a comfortable level of white noise that will help block the ambient noises of the house and help your baby sleep better.
These things form the basis of better sleep for newborns but there are a variety of challenges unique to newborns and while some of them are developmental (yes your peanut needs a little time to get their sleep sorted out) parents have enormous influence in setting babies as young as 2 months up for longer, more predictable stretches of sleep at night. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to help your little one sleep better (and avoid loads of pitfalls down the road) grab a copy of the Precious Little Sleep Book!