Eight steps to make your baby sleep better and avoid sleep training

Scientifically-based Actionable Advice
By: 
Craig Canapari, MD
Contributing writer for Baby Sleep News

Let me be real for a moment— nobody WANTS to sleep train their child. Although it is both safe and effective, many parents are afraid of doing anything that involves crying. I want to show you the steps I think are key to help make your baby sleep better, minimize sleep problems, and may help you avoid sleep training your baby altogether.

Regardless of your parenting philosophy, I think everyone agrees that good sleep for baby is great for the whole family. Fortunately, if you take a few simple steps when you bring your child home from the hospital, you can avoid major sleep problems, and potentially avoid sleep training altogether.

Note: Everyone’s child is different. Some children sleep great no matter what. Some will struggle even if parents do everything perfectly. However, there are some best practices which will spare you a lot of wrecked nights if you follow them from the beginning. Trust me, I broke a few of them myself and lived to regret it.

  1. The best time to start a bedtime routine is when you bring your child home from the hospital. The second best time is today. Children thrive on routine. Newborns benefit as well, although the benefits are more for you in the first few weeks. Things feel really chaotic when you bring your child home from the hospital. Having a predictable bedtime routine is one of the anchors to your day. For more on creating the best possible bedtime routine.

  2. If you breastfeed, teach your child to take a bottle once your milk is in. Like most pediatricians, I’m a huge fan of breastfeeding. There are too many benefts for mother and child to list here. However, I’ve seen many families fall into the trap of only having the mom nurse exclusively for the first few months, and then having the child refuse anything but the breast. This makes it really difficult for the whole family, as other adults are sidelined, and Mom is stuck putting the baby down every night and dealing with every night feeding. It can also greatly complicate Mom’s return to work outside the home, if that is her plan. Once your milk supply is established, introduce a bottle, ideally given by Dad, your child’s other mother, or another adult caregiver.

  3. Make sure that the bedtime is simple enough that one grown up can do it. When my first son came home from the hospital, my wife and I did bedtime every night together. Which was lovely, but it was pretty elaborate in terms of the bath, lotion application, song, story, rocking, and nursing. (This also felt necessary because of my congenital inability to find towels, soap, pacifiers, books, etc. at any time). My second son did not have such an elaborate process due to Son #1 and it still worked fine. Babies don’t need complex bedtimes. If bathtime feels overwhelming to Dad (and it is usually Dad who is overwhelmed by these sorts of things) do it at another time. Keep it simple. Story, song, rocking, and put your baby down.

  4. Make sure that all the adults in the household participate in bedtime. I’ve heard the same story from tired moms, over and over: “My husband (or wife) can’t put him down at night! Only I can do it.” This usually means that Mom always put the child down every night for the first few months. Like #2 above, this is a recipe for maternal burn-out. Every parent (or other caregiver) at home should feel comfortable doing the bedtime routine and putting the child down at an early age. If you already feel stuck in this situation, the primary caregiver needs to go out with friends for the evening. I promise you that Dad will figure it out. And don’t be afraid to get a babysitter. I don’t think we got a babysitter for the first year of life for my son. Son #2— we went out probably around 3 months of age. Obviously you will be nervous. If you can, start with a grandparent for the first few times you go out.

  5. Put your child to bed drowsy but awake, starting around 3-4 months. Try it out. If it is a disaster the first time, pick your child up and try again in a week or two. Don’t be afraid to let your child fuss a bit. This is natural. Hysterical screaming is another story— this means you may need to wait until your child is slightly older. Try it at naps as well.

  6. Don’t sprint into your child’s room at night at the first sound of wakefulness. I remember sprinting into my son’s room at the first signs of wakefulness so that I could stuff the binky in his mouth and perhaps get back to sleep quickly. This led to him waking up more and more for the contact with me. In Bringing up Bebe (affiliate link), Pamela Druckerman wrote with astonishment that French babies slept through the night earlier than Anglophone babies. Her Parisian friends told her that they would ignore random noises made by their babies, and would only pick them up for full throated, wakeful cries. Remember, any random cry, burp, fart, or snort does not demand immediate attention. After the first few months, it’s a great idea to let your child fuss a bit before you go in. Often, these brief awakenings will self-resolve.

  7. Don’t obsess over the monitor. I can’t believe the amount of technology being hawked to anxious parents these days. Babies’ bedrooms are monitored to a degree that would astound a Cold War spymaster. Temperature, movement, sound, ambient light levels, heart rate, etc. I think that the majority of this technology is cumbersome, expensive, and unnecessary. Human infants have thrived for thousands of years without video monitors. Sure, you should be able to hear your child if she is distressed or crying, but you don’t need multisensor surveillance for this. Save the money and get an audio monitor. Parents often ask me questions like, “I check on her with the monitor and sometimes she is wide awake and quiet during the night. What should I do?” My answer: “Turn off the monitor.”

  8. Talk with your pediatrician about the need for room sharing in the first year. I have grave concerns about the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that parents room share with infants for the first year of life to prevent SIDS. Personally, I think the evidence is weak and the potential for development of bad sleep habits is much higher. The majority of pediatricians I know agree with me. For further discussion on this and safe sleep in general, please talk to your pediatrician.

Now, I want to know what you think. If you had a time machine, what would you tell yourself differently when you brought your baby home to help them sleep better? Add your comments on the original post.

Dr. Canapari is a pediatric lung and sleep doctor at Yale School of Medicine. For more evidence-based advice for sleep in kids and parents, head over to Dr. Canapari's website.