Wednesday, February 1, 2012

10 Tips for Getting Babies to Sleep Through the Night

If you happen to pass a frazzled, zombie-like, bag-eyed young woman on the street, odds are you're looking at a new mother. She's just brought a miracle into the world, and been rewarded with sleepless nights and a round-the-clock feeding schedule. Luckily, it won't stay this way forever. When your baby is two or three months old and doesn't need to eat every four hours, you can start about teaching him or her to sleep through the night. Here are ten things that can help you get there.
  1. Establish a bedtime routine. This is the single most important strategy in teaching your baby to sleep through the night. You lay out a series of steps and follow them, in order, every night before you put your baby to bed. Think bath, bottle, bed. Give your baby a bath, dry him off, dress him in nice soft pajamas, feed him a bottle, and put him to bed. Repeating the same steps every night prepares your baby for bed both physically and mentally. 
  2. Feed your baby plenty of solid foods and cereal. Nine times out of ten, when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, it's because he or she is hungry. At the newborn stage, there's not much to do about it. You should turn a corner at around 3 months (adjusted age) because your baby can finally hold enough milk to last longer. When your pediatrician tells you to start offering cereal, don't delay. You'll notice a BIG difference when you can get your baby to take some cereal at around dinner time. If the bowl and spoon aren't going well, try spiking a little bit into the nighttime bottle (no more than a teaspoon per 3-4 ounces). You can thicken regular baby food with cereal as well. Offer as much as your baby will eat and/or drink in the evening. The more he takes, the longer he'll sleep.
  3. Get the gas out. Digestive discomfort, or "bubbles in the tummy", is another thing that often prevents babies from going to sleep or wakes them up at night. For this reason, it's especially important to burp your baby thoroughly after the nighttime feeding. You can also slightly elevate one side of the baby bed (the side where baby's head goes) to put gravity on your side. Newborns might also benefit from Mylicon. The active ingredient, simethicone, is a mild soap that breaks up bubbles in the baby's tummy. Many parents swear by a homeopathic product, Gripe Water, which is given with the bottle. 
  4. Use overnight diapers. This is a small change, but a critical one. Once your baby can wear a size 3, look into the "overnight" diapers (such as Huggies Overnites). These are extra-thick and designed to wick away moisture while your baby sleeps at night. 
  5. Put your baby in clean, comfy pajamas. It's important to make this part of the routine, especially because it puts your baby in something clean, warm, and soft to sleep in. This is part of the "touch training" that tells your baby when it's time for the long sleep. I like long-sleeve pajamas with footies in them. Snaps are better than zippers because you can get to the diaper without exposing his entire torso. 
  6. Swaddle for sleep. If you happen to look into a hospital nursery, you'll notice that they swaddle every newborn before putting it down to sleep. This recreates the warmth and snug comfort of the womb; it's naturally soothing to your baby. Swaddling is easy to learn and, when done properly, will keep your baby warm and cozy all night long. If you don't have the knack for it, or your baby seems to kick out a lot, pick up a couple of velcro swaddlers. You won't regret it.
  7. Put a fan in your baby's room. This serves a few different purposes. First, it provides a steady hum of white noise that your baby becomes accustomed to -- an auditory signal that it's time to sleep. This also covers up any random noises from pets, siblings, televisions, or other sources, both at night and early in the morning. Second, a fan circulates the air in the room to help maintain a steady temperature. Just make sure that the fan isn't pointed directly at the baby's crib or changer, as that could make him or her chilly. Finally, fans have been shown to have a slight protective effect against SIDS, though the reason for this is unclear.
  8. Give a quick, warm bath just before bed. Some babies love getting baths, some hate them, but all seem to enjoy being dried off and dressed in nice warm pajamas after one. This soothes and relaxes your baby's muscles, makes him or her feel clean, and often delivers a blissful night of deep sleep. If it works well, make a quick bath part of your night time routine. You don't have to use shampoo every time, just a little dip and then dry-off with a fluffy towel should have the same effect.
  9. Offer a pacifier and keep extras handy. I'm always shocked when some parents say that their baby won't take a pacifier. Come on, this thing is shaped like a nipple! Get your baby into the habit early and stick to it. The pacifier may be the the best invention ever when it comes to baby care, especially for getting them to settle down for bed. Stash a couple extras in the bed, on your nightstand, and on the diaper changer. You can never have too many, especially when you're fumbling around in the dark looking for one.
  10. Soothe first, feed second if your baby wakes up. If you immediately offer food when your baby fusses at night, you'll condition him or her to expect it every time. Instead, the first time you go in, try re-inserting the pacifier and tucking the baby in. Maybe a soft touch to the head. A baby that's just fussing will usually settle down, but a hungry baby won't. It's much quicker to soothe a baby back to sleep than wake him up, feed him, and put him back down. 
Not all of these may work for you and your baby, but odds are that some will. There's no magic bullet when it comes to getting a baby to sleep through the night. It's about putting in the time, figuring out what your baby needs, setting a routine that works, and sticking to it. If you've read this far, you've got what it takes. Now go do it!

About the Author
Dan Koboldt is a father of three and the author of Get Your Baby to Sleep, a blog about establishing good sleep habits, soothing techniques, and helping a baby to sleep through the night.

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