5 Ways to Get a Baby to Sleep (Without Being Mean)

How do you get a baby to sleep without being mean?

This must be one of life's great mysteries.  Baby sleep is one of the things most talked, argued, read, researched and worried about by parents.  So how do you get a baby to sleep?

I have to admit that I haven't read a million books on how you get a baby to sleep through the night.  I haven't spent hours researching this either.  (I have heard that there are a few good books out there but I never got around to them...)  One thing I have noticed though as I look at the advice given to parents as they approach nighttime parenting is that it is often extreme on either end.

One camp seems to view the baby as somewhat "evil" and manipulative.  They preach that the baby should be trained at a young age.  They tell you how to make sure that your baby is a self soother who is dependent on nobody and nothing else for sleep.  Their tendency leans towards "cry it out" methods and other things that never rubbed me that well.

The other camp preaches that the baby is needy of his mother.  Baby should be held and worn and nursed and comforted and walked and NEVER allowed to cry. 

When I had my first I approached my baby, (Dr Sears in hand!) with the latter method.

And it worked.

Except for when it didn't.

The baby seemed pretty happy but I was somewhat strung out, burnt out and overwhelmed.  Truth is, I think that women need a little more practical advice besides "don't let them cry!" or "you have to just let them cry!"  I think there is a middle ground somewhere.

Here are five ways to get a baby to sleep better without being cruel.  Some of these "get your baby to sleep" techniques are real and physical, and some are just shifts in my thought process that helped me survive a little better those first few years.

1)  Erase Expectations

I remember being hugely pregnant and sick with my first baby.  I had typical nausea/morning sickness but had also managed to catch one horrendous sinus infection and I was miserable.  A friend of mine who had five kids told me that the thing that helped her most when she had children was to "Let go of her expectations of herself."

At the time I thought it was one of the most depressing I had ever heard.  It sounded very fatalistic and sad.  I realize now how much wisdom she had acquired as a mother. 

I think one of the biggest barriers for people just enjoying their baby is ridiculous expectations that we have.  They come in a VARIETY of forms and nobody is free of them. 

Some people "expect" their baby to sleep through the night by a specified age.  Some "expect" to not sleep ever again.  Others "expect" that nursing or a natural birth will make the baby easy (this was me!).  And yet others "expect" that a book will solve all their baby problems and questions.  Some people expect things of themselves- like to go back to work, or keep their house clean, or get eight solid hours of sleep each night.  They expect that their life will go back to normal....eventually.

The truth of parenting is that you are getting a human being to raise.  They are immature and needy and they are also all incredibly different.  The truth is that it will NEVER be the same.

Letting go of expectations for yourself and for your baby is so incredibly freeing and will lighten your emotional load immensely.

Yes, you can still strive for sanity and a new normal.  But give yourself- and your baby- time to adjust to this very new life.  Give yourself this time after EACH NEW BABY.  They re all different.

I have never actually been able to let go of my expectations for myself or my baby, but I find that the more I do this, the happier I am.  I think part of the key to happiness with a baby and as a mother  is being open to what will happen and trying to go with the flow of it.  Learning that swimming with the current rather than against it will actually get you a lot farther, much faster.

2)  Re-think Infant Sleep

We tend to think a baby is sleeping through the night when they sleep for eight solid hours.  In reality about five hours of solid sleep around the three month mark is what medical experts typically refer to as "sleeping through the night".

Take a moment to wrap your mind around that.  Three months old.  Five hour stretch.

Remember too that this may or may not be during a time when YOU would typically be sleeping.  It might be that first sleep time- maybe from 7pm to 12 midnight.  Are you asleep then?  Or are you running around doing stuff?  And are you then freaking out when you finally lay down and BOOM- the baby wakes up!?

The truth is your baby might have gotten in a good long stretch of sleep (experienced mothers know that a solid four hour stretch is like GOLD in your bank of sanity) but you might have been so busy getting things done that you didn't grab it when you had the chance.

So don't expect your baby to sleep a long stretch right away, maybe not for a long time.  Of my children I had one who was sleeping eight hours at a time by four weeks and another who was still up every hour or two when she was approaching the age of two YEARS.  (No, there was nothing wrong with her.)

Just accepting that what you thought was normal for people is in fact NOT normal is liberating.  You are not a failure if your baby doesn't sleep for long chunks of time.  If you can, find a way to sleep when they do and arrange your sleep situation so that their nighttime feeding wakes you up less.  (For some families co-sleeping is HUGE in keeping mom more "asleep" even during the baby's needed nursing at night.  You can just roll over and nurse without becoming fully awake and marching through the house when they start screaming.  Some babies will actually sleep better a little father away from mom.  Find what is most restful for your family.)

3)  Learn Some Practical Baby Comforting Skills

Some practical skills that helped me with my babies usually revolved around re-creating the womb.  A baby feels comforted when they are in a familiar and calming situation.  Imagine what their life was like for the first 9 months and then strive to recreate it.  Dark.  Watery background noise.  Snuggled.  Warm.  Near mama.

Swaddling-  This was a lifesaver for me with some of my children and it imitates the womb very well.  It has the advantage of keeping a baby warm and snug and allowing mom to be able to set the baby down so that she can do things that require free hands.  I swaddle the arms tightly and don't worry about the legs.  This is especially helpful if you are following the recommendation to sleep baby on their back so that they don't startle every time you set them down and awaken.

I have heard people slam on the idea of swaddling lately and frankly,  I think they are ridiculous.  Yes, I have heard of foolish baby haters who swaddle the baby so constantly that they starve them. (This is a real possibility for those who use it excessively, so please, don't use swaddling to put off needed feedings.)  This isn't an ALWAYS thing- but for nighttime sleep it can be very helpful.  Nor is swaddling necessary immediately after birth.  Babies are born naked so you can put them skin to skin and warm them with your body.  But to abandon this useful tool that imitates the comfort of living inside mama is absolutely silly.  Sometimes you need the baby to sleep while you are awake. 

Baby Wearing-  Again, this can be a great tool.  I mostly do it outside of my home though so as to avoid that big, stupid, bucket seat.  Who can actually carry that thing?  I use my baby carrier a lot too on days where the baby just is fussy from new teeth or a bad cold and they want to be close.  My favorite is an Ergo, but find one that works for you and your lifestyle.

DAD-  For the love of Pete, LET DAD HOLD THE BABY.  Dads are often just beautiful baby holders, bouncers, patters, walkers, etc.  They have a different feel and smell (nothing like breast milk which can really distract a baby) and voice.  My second was bounced to sleep nearly every night on her daddy's lap after I fed and swaddled her.  That was such a lifesaver to me and I wished I had given him that bonding time with our first baby. 

Use Different Methods-  Sounds silly but I found it incredibly helpful to try different things and to use different ways to get a baby to sleep every night.  The more tools in your tool box the better you will be.  And, if you plan on date nights or you just need a few minutes where you are not being touched each day, having other people be able to help the baby to sleep can be helpful.  Some things that work (sometimes):  walking, swings, bouncers, baby carriers, strollers, car rides, bouncing, rocking, birth ball bouncing, nursing, swaying, etc.  I do think that having different ways to get the baby to sleep is really helpful simply because I sometimes got very burnt out on always having to nurse a baby to sleep.  Frankly, that was only possible with my first baby and never worked after that because there was simply too much going on.

A baby can fall asleep without a boob.  Allowing a baby to fall asleep without a boob is also not a crime in any state.  You can kindly and gently help a baby sleep without nursing them.  (This may seem obvious but there are people who will always and only recommend nursing a baby to sleep.  It is a great tool but it isn't the only tool.)

(I feel like I should also mention pacifiers here too.  I have never had a child take one though I have had a thumb sucker.  I find that baby books often either abhor the pacifier or insist that every child have one.  Personally, I don't push them, but for some baby/mother relationships where the baby is growing and nursing well but mom needs a break from a very frequent nurser, they can come in handy.  As you grow as a mother it becomes easier to tell when the baby is signaling hunger or just a need to suck.  I have had babies who wanted to suck- but really did NOT want any milk.  Be sensitive and aware of your child's needs.)

4)  Be Flexible About Sleep Place-  I think MANY parents start with a new baby having some really strong expectations about WHERE the baby will sleep.  They will ONLY sleep in their room.  Or, they will DEFINITELY sleep in our bed.  Whatever it is you expect, do yourself a favor and trash it.  Some babies sleep well in between mom and dad.  Some sleep well in a crib.  Others sleep well in a room with a sibling (in different beds) and others want total silence in their own room.

Just be open to what YOUR BABY needs and it will usually work better for you too.  Be willing to try different things and places as time goes on and things change.  At different ages our children have slept in a variety of places and each child has been very different.  Respect that their needs may be very different than any book you have read. 

5)  Recognize Your Lack of Power-  (Doesn't that make you feel good!?)  I think one of the reasons I was meant to have four children was so that I would know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I was not in control of the situation.

Children come with personalities.

When I had my first I was sure that every thing he did right or wrong was because of me.  I was his mother and I shaped him.

The more children I had the more I realized that so very little of their temperament had anything to do with me.  Some babies sleep long stretches at an early age.  Some seem to really hate sleep and want to tell you about it.  As they grow older I see how their personalities influenced their infant sleep patterns and how little I had to do with the situation.  

You can try different things and read different books and be the best you can be.  But in the end your baby is it's own person and it will do what it wants.  I truly believe that some babies are simply "harder" and some seem "easier".  I don't believe this "hard" and "easy" stuff lasts forever.  They grow and change and one day you find that your easy baby is a terror. 

Sometimes you will get a baby that pushes you to your limits.

It ends.  The baby stuff ends.

I am not sure it gets easier, but it does change.  Maybe the next stage will be easier for you, maybe it won't.  It will however be different and will present new opportunities for learning and growth.  Relaxing as much as possible (I know I can't do it all the time either so don't feel bad) helps things go better.

Part of respecting them as separate humans is recognizing that even as infants they have free will and they will use it.  You have wisdom because you are their mother and you will eventually figure it out.

Your baby will one day sleep through the night.   (Or they will move out.  Whatever comes first.)


(I haven't read these books, but here are a few suggestions from La Leche League, some of which I have heard good things about.)


Unknown said…
For the really young baby, here are a few things to consider, regarding swaddling.
-newborns cue to eat by bringing their fist to their face. They can't do this when swaddled.
-from birth, babies will use their arms to push away from anything that restricts their breathing. Swaddled arms can't do this.
For these reasons hospitals in my province (BC) are moving away from swaddling.
That being said, it is a useful tool in some circumstances and can calm an over stimulated upset baby.
LOVE your blog and your educated common sense approach.
Mama Birth said…
Thank you Nancy- added an addendum to that section-
Mrs. Doyle said…
My aunt found this post for me when I had expressed sleeping frustrations with my child (8 months) I loved reading your blog because it made me feel like "few! I'm not alone!" Thank you!
Jessica said…
As always, thank you Mama Birth. Now can you address the baby who wont sleep anywhere but in someone's arms? What then?
Mama Birth said…
Jessica- it is hard. Then it ends. I don't know what else to say. Been there done that though and survived! You will too. I know how it feels.

I find that swaddling works well for that though- or babywearing. I personally can't babywear 24/7 though.
city said…
thanks for sharing.
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