Your Top Baby Sleep Questions, Answered

Baby sleep problems can be a stumper. We have tips for sweet slumber!

Newborn baby sleeping on his back

Can’t get your little one to sleep through the night? Not sure what this “sleep training” thing is all about? This week, pediatric sleep expert Dr. Rebecca Kempton (also known as the Baby Sleep Pro) answers your most commonly asked questions about baby’s sleep problems. Here’s what moms and dads want to know most:

Q: I spend so much time putting my baby to sleep only to have her wake 30 minutes later!  What am I doing wrong?  How can I get her to sleep longer? 

RK: Frustrating as it is, cat naps are extremely common in newborns, and even older babies, before they learn how to self soothe. The simple sleep science behind this is that babies’ sleep cycles last for about 30-45 minutes. Ironically, then, trying to encourage your baby to fall back to sleep actually robs them of the opportunity to sleep longer. In other words, when you do all the work to help them fall asleep, they learn to need YOU to fall back to sleep, because they don’t know how to do it themselves. Falling asleep is a skill – just like learning to ride a bike: you set her up for success by giving her some pointers and a helmet with that  shiny new two wheeler, but at some point you have to let her fall so she can figure out how to get back up and start again on her own. The answer to lengthening nap and night sleep is to put your baby down while still awake. It may sound counterintuitive but it works. You set your child up for success by providing a perfect environment, putting your child to sleep at biologically appropriate times, and creating soothing bedtime routines. But, it is equally important to  put her in the crib awake so she can learn the crucial skill of falling asleep on her own. By doing this consistently, your baby will get longer and more restorative sleep.  

Q: Why does my baby always seem cranky and tired? 

RK: All parents spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the baby cries so much, especially in the early days.  Relax:  the options are usually limited—thankfully! He’s  hungry, he needs a diaper change, or he’s just plain tired. Hard as it is to believe,  babies can only tolerate 1-2 hours of wakefulness before they need to sleep again. And in the first weeks of life, sometimes they can only last  45 minutes before they need another rest.  When we try to stretch wakeful periods  too long, you end up with a very cranky and overtired baby who is in fact wired which makes it even harder to fall asleep. Between  6-12 months, the wake time stretches a bit,  but remember to err on the side of earlier bedtimes which should start no more than 3-3.5 hours from the end of the second nap. Yes, that may mean as early as 5:30 or 6:00!  And that can mean a scramble for working parents!

Q: Are there any other methods of sleep training besides letting my baby “Cry it Out?”  

RK: There certainly are!  I always tell clients sleep training, or sleep learning, as I like to call it,  is never one size fits all.  I always cater the technique to the family’s needs and style.  The baby’s temperament makes a big difference in determining an effective method for your child as well.  The good news is that teaching your child to sleep better does not mean you have to leave them to their own devices, in their room alone. The “Cry it Out” method, also known as extinction, popularized by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, MD is only one of many effective techniques.   Other more gradual methods that involve more parental input (but still some crying!) including Check and Console and the Chair Method, which consists of sitting with your baby as she falls asleep and gradually moving out of the room over the period of a couple weeks.  The key to success with any method is that you are 100% consistent..

Q: I have tried sleep training my child and it just doesn’t seem to work.  What am I doing wrong? 

RK: You already know now that there are several alternatives. But here are a few tips that apply to whichever method you adopt:

Be consistent: This is the most important thing to remember.  With parenting in general, it’s okay to be 80% consistent, but with sleep,  100% consistency is the key to success.  Letting your baby cry as long as  45 minutes and then rescuing him by picking him up,  only teaches him to cry longer and harder; he learns fast that he will eventually be rescued.  Give your method at least 2-3 weeks before trying something new.  

Set the mood:  Be sure the nursery, or wherever the baby sleeps, is conducive to sleep!  The room should be pitch black, if necessary  using black-out shades; remember darkness activates melatonin, our internal sleep hormone.  Add some white noise that recreates the whooshing sounds from the womb,  which is both  soothing and sleep- inducing:  the sound of a shower or fan works well.  Be sure the white noise  runs continuously for nights and naps. 

Time it right:  Timing is everything with infant’s sleep.  Aim for naps in sync with circadian rhythms, also known as the internal biological clock, (9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.); also plan on an early bedtime no longer than 3-3.5 hours from the second nap of the day. Avoid overtired babies  by watching for sleepy cues and responding as needed, while aiming to schedule in sync with those circadian rhythm sleep times.  Some experts say putting a baby to sleep outside of these times that match the internal biological clock is akin to filling him with junk food: it just isn’t healthy.  

Be patient:  Although dozens of my clients have seen overnight success after implementing my step-by-step sleep plans, it doesn’t always work so quickly.  But don’t give up.   With consistency and follow- through for a couple of weeks, your child will become a sleep champ sooner than you think!

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