There are many big challenges with a newborn baby: figuring out the soothing thing, unbreakable swaddling, learning how to feed a baby, wrestling them to sleep, etc. Usually by the 3 month mark, those hurdles have all been conquered. You are now a confident parent rocking the baby play groups, champion of navigating the grocery store with a baby, and chilling with other parents at Starbucks.
Champion parents will also have already read What You Need to Know About Sleeping Through the Night Part 1. It’s long and not particularly funny but it will explain the single most important thing you need to know to stay the course towards sleeping all night long. Go read it and then come back when you’re done (I’ll wait).
Now you know why it is so critical that you teach your baby to fall asleep without you (nursing, rocking, cuddling, etc.).
Note: A small percentage of babies will continue to sleep well even if they are being nursed, rocked, etc. until they are fully asleep. If you are the parent of an older baby who is sleeping like a champ (then you probably aren’t looking for answers for sleep problems on the internet but….) then you may have one of these rare babies who CAN be nursed, rocked, etc. until they are completely asleep without any problems. YAY!
For the other 98% of babies, failure to teach them to fall asleep on their own leads to many sleepless nights and days filled with short crappy naps.
Putting Your Baby Down Awake
By the time your baby is ~6 months old (give or take 2 months) you need to have figured out how to put your baby down awake and have them fall asleep without your assistance.
If you have already mastered the ability to put your baby down to sleep awake, good for you! Now stop gloating and please go away, the rest of us are still struggling with this.
Every parent has read that it is important to put your baby down to sleep awake. And every parent has tried this at various points in their newborn babyhood. Some babies are pretty cool about the whole thing and after a few minutes of futzing about, fall asleep. Most babies aren’t as keen on this plan and express their displeasure loudly and at length. So you fall back on whatever technique has been working successfully for you up to that point (rocking, nursing, etc.) and you continue about your business. Until this stops working. In a big way.
How to Put Baby Down Awake
There are many approaches to foster independent. I detail 7 methods along with how to identify which will work best for your child based on age and temperament in the book. If you’re serious about helping your child learn to fall asleep without you this resource is a must. But here is a brief summary of three popular approaches.
1. Use the Baby Swing
If your baby is under ~6 months of age the baby swing can be an excellent tool to help your baby fall asleep without your personal assistance. Further, if you are currently rocking, bouncing, or wearing your baby while walking around to help your baby fall asleep then your baby is telling you that they really need motion to fall asleep.
You can choose to ignore what they are telling you and try to force the crib. Or you can hear this message and embrace, temporarily, the baby swing.
Even if you are not rocking your baby to sleep, baby swings offer soothing motion that most babies respond to regardless of how you are currently helping your baby fall asleep. So this is also a great alternative if you are nursing your child to sleep or are currently co-sleeping and are ready to transition baby to their own bed.
If you’re going to try to use the swing to help your baby fall asleep on their own make a commitment to work with the swing for 4-7 days. Often parents will put baby in the swing for one nap, it won’t work well, and they’ll write the experiment off as a failure. You’ve spent months teaching your child to fall asleep in a specific way, and now you’re asking that child to adopt to a new method. It may take a little time for her to figure it out.
Once baby is happily sleeping in the swing, gradually decrease the speed of the swing (6-5-4….). If your baby continues to sleep peacefully great! If lowering the speed results in shorter naps or difficulty falling asleep, then your baby still needs the speed. No problem, you can try again in another week or so. At this age babies are developing so rapidly, what didn’t work this week can work like gangbusters next week.
Eventually you’ll find yourself with a baby who is sleeping in a non-moving swing. At this point the transition to the crib is relatively painless. Put the non-moving swing NEXT to their crib for at least a few days. Then, keeping everything else the same (sleep routine, white noise, etc.) just put them down to sleep in their crib. They may grumble for a few minutes but most babies accept this transition without much drama.
For younger babies, or babies who are motion junkies (love to be bounced, rocked, etc.) the swing is my favorite method for teaching them to fall asleep alone. Bar none.
2. Make it Gradual
This is one of the most challenging methods and the easiest to mess up so let me say this first: take a good look at you and your partner. How are you guys doing? If you are ground to a pulp (sleep deprived, just recovering from the flu, stressed out, have little/no support) then skip this method, it’s not for you. On the other hand if you’re feeling fairly chipper, read on.
Basically your job is to take whatever technique you are using to help your baby sleep and gradually make itty bitty modifications (typically over many weeks) to slowly wean baby off this technique. By the way, this is pretty much the entire message of The No-Cry Sleep Solution (minus the guilt-inducing part that makes you feel like a failure if you can’t pull it off). So there, I just saved you $10.
Take co-sleeping as an example. Your baby is now used to falling asleep in your bed, next to your body, and the routine probably involves nursing. To gradually wean off this you might put the crib in your room, put a futon mattress next to the crib, drop the side of the crib and replicate (making sure that the scenario is safe for baby) the co-sleeping environment only now the baby is sleeping in her bed instead of yours. Of course you are now sleeping on a futon next to the crib but hopefully this is temporary.
Over weeks you might work on nursing baby until she is drowsy but not asleep, gradually moving the futon away from the crib, putting the crib side back up, etc. Your goal is to do this so slowly that baby barely registers the change.
This can be difficult. Babies can be remarkably observant about your efforts to monkey with their system. Also illness, teething, etc. can all interfere with your progress. And if you are tired and frustrated it is FAR TOO easy to simply fall back to whatever works for you and let your baby nurse to sleep or pull her back into your bed, undoing all the progress you might have made.
For these reasons I suggest this method is really challenging. Thus my initial question – how beat up are you? If you and your partner are shuffling zombies your chance of success is low. You are welcome to try, and I encourage you to come up with a plan and give it a go. But don’t beat yourself up if, after a few weeks, you’re feeling frustrated by the lack of success.
Note: This method can be extraordinarily challenging if your baby uses a pacifier to fall asleep. Most pediatricians recommend loosing the pacifier by 6 months of age because this little tool which was so helpful for baby sleep when they’re little can become the bane of your existence when they’re older. I have never found a gradual way to remove the pacifier as they seem very binary – either you give them a paci or you don’t. If anybody has any “gradually loose the pacifier” methods, please share in the comment section!
3. Cry it Out
1. If your baby is older than 6-8 months old and…
2. she’s sleeping poorly (waking up frequently throughout the night, taking short naps, fighting naps, etc.) and…
3. you’ve tried the other two techniques, or for whatever reason, they didn’t suit, you’ve pretty much landed in cry it outsville.
Cry it Out is a big topic and you can lots of information about how, when, why, and why not in this sleep training resource page. But I want to briefly make a quick distinction here: cry it out is a technique that forces babies to learn to fall asleep on their own. And frankly, if done right, it’s a really effective technique. Cry it out is NOT the best way to get out of night feedings (another topic of an upcoming post). Parents often mistake these two issues.
If your baby has been consuming lots of milk/formula all night long and you decide to go cold-turkey and simply stop night feedings, both you and your baby are likely to have a pretty miserable time of it. Also there are more effective and gentler ways to night-wean. I would suggest you consider cry it out as a method to help your baby fall asleep solo at bedtime but that when they wake up at their regular night-feeding schedule, you go and feed them.
If you have stumbled upon some other way of helping babies learn to fall asleep on their own NOT covered here, please share in the comments! Otherwise it’s time for the final step on sleeping through the night, read up on how to gently finish night feeding your baby.