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Good Nights: 6 Ways to Improve Your Baby's Sleep Skills

Photo © Kayla Snell/Stocksy United
Photo by Kayla Snell / Stocksy United

It’s 2 a.m. and little Quinn is wide awake and calling (okay, wailing) for you—again.

But hey, good news! If your child is healthy and over six months of age, then she is developmentally ready to learn self-soothing skills. It’s not always easy, and will probably take time and patience—but by integrating certain techniques and habits into you and your child’s routine, the whole family will (finally!) be able to get more rest.  We asked Dr. Elizabeth Super, a pediatrician and children’s sleep specialist with the Pediatric Sleep Medicine program at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, to weigh in. Here she shares six common-sense approaches for breezier ZZZ’s.

1. Consistency is key

Soothing him periodically? Letting her cry it out? Co-sleeping? Any of these approaches can work well, but the secret to helping your child learn sleep skills is to pick an approach that you and your partner can deliver calmly and consistently, and to stick with it.

Still having trouble? Be realistic about which approach your family can follow consistently, implement it, and then be patient for a week (or two). How quickly your child adopts new sleep habits depends on his sleep temperament and his developmental stage. In a few weeks, he’ll better understand what to expect at bedtime.

2. Start at bedtime

“When trying to change sleep habits, we think about bedtime first,” Dr. Super says, as it’s easier for parents to stick to a consistent approach in the early evening—because being calm and patient at 3 a.m. takes a lot more effort than keeping an optimistic attitude earlier in the evening. Dr. Super suggests starting by setting a regular bedtime between 7 and 8 p.m.

Still having trouble? Try moving bedtime 20 minutes earlier than your normal routine. A child who isn’t overtired will have more reserves to spend on learning new sleep skills.

3. Find a great routine

Maybe your child responds well to a bath, massage, singing, or the scent of lavender. Whatever it is, try adding it to your night-time ritual to help both of you relax and get ready for a journey to dreamland.  Using dim lights will also help your baby understand that when it’s dark out, it’s time for sleeping.

Still having trouble? Try simplifying. The classic “brush teeth, read book, go to bed” routine is easy to do and clearly communicates that it’s time for bed.

4. Put her down drowsy but awake

“If you don’t want to be there in the middle of the night with your child, you don’t want to be there when she falls asleep at bedtime,” Dr. Super says. Put your child down in her crib drowsy but awake, so that she can learn how to fall asleep by herself. She’ll learn that even if she wakes in the night, she can go back to sleep without your help. Keep in mind that some babies will have more difficulty putting themselves to sleep than others, and some transitions (like vacations, illness, or a move) can disrupt sleep routines.

Still having trouble? Try changing your approach. If you’ve always soothed her to sleep, try making your soothing routine very brief or simply begin putting her down and saying “Good night, I love you, it’s time to go to sleep.” She might be unhappy for a little while, but she’ll get a lot of practice putting herself to sleep—and eventually, she will get the hang of it!

5. Introduce a lovie

It may take time for your child to imprint on a teddy bear, so you can go ahead and pick a transitional object for him. Once your child is over 1 year old, rolling over, and raising his head, it’s safe for him to sleep with a special blanket or a small stuffed animal—just watch out for button eyes or other small bits that can pose choking hazards. Including that beloved bunny or blankie in the bedtime routine can help your child associate comfort with it, which will help him fall asleep on his own.

Still having trouble? Try an article of your clothing instead. Some babies respond well to familiar smells, so try putting him to sleep with a scarf or T-shirt that smells like mama. If your baby loves his binkie, try scattering extra pacifiers around his crib so he can always find one when he wakes up at night.

6. Plan for night wakeups

Even after your child develops self-soothing skills, there may still be wakeups in the middle of the night. Check to make sure that your child is not wet, ill, or cold, and then give a calm, brief reassurance (nothing fun and no feeding) and leave him to settle back to sleep. Once they know that nothing too exciting is going to happen in the middle of the night, some babies have an easier time getting back to sleep on their own.

Still having trouble? If you’ve already checked on him and he’s still crying, try letting him fuss for a while—how long? There isn’t a right or wrong answer: Listen to your instincts and pick an approach that your family can be consistent with. If he still can’t fall asleep by himself, then go ahead and soothe him to sleep. After all, good rest is important for everyone, and you can always practice self-soothing skills again tomorrow—beginning at bedtime.

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