In this Sound Advice column, we asked Rest To Your Nest‘s Mary Cantwell—voted Best Sleep Specialist in the DFWChild 2022 Best for Families Awards—for her expert advice on this burning question: “How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?” — Lauren, Dallas
A: New parents are often asked, “Is the baby sleeping through the night yet?” The crazy thing is that none of us sleep through the night! We wake up, go through multiple cycles, crest at the top of a sleep cycle and put ourselves back to sleep without even realizing it. So, I would pose this question: How do we build and maintain a solid sleep hygiene routine and sleep foundation?
No matter our child’s age, the most underutilized tool is sleep environment. Here are the optimal elements for a sleep-conducive environment:
Cool temperature. Have a temperature of 68–72 degrees.
Dark room. Absence of light cues our body for sleep.
Sound machine and colored night lights. Use a sound machine to help replicate the womb and soften outside sounds. If older kids need a night light, or for night feedings for babies, utilize a red or orange night-light or feeding light, as those hues promote melatonin production.
Separate sleep space. Babies should use a firm sleep surface such as a crib or bassinet until they outgrow it; a playard (such as the well-known Graco Pack ’n Play) and then a bed can be used for older kids.
Swaddle or sleep sack. A swaddle will soften the Moro reflex (the startle reflex). Transition to a sleep sack when your baby starts to roll.
No electronics. The blue light from these devices inhibits melatonin production.
For newborns, circadian sleep rhythms are highly immature and focus on sorting out day and night confusion. To help this process, keep the lights on and use a regular tone of voice during your baby’s awake time. When it is sleep time, bring down your voice, lower the lights and keep the house more quiet.
For guidance on when to lay your baby down, utilize age-appropriate wake windows (the period between when they wake until the next nap) in conjunction with sleep cues (such as yawning, staring into space, rubbing eyes). Newborns can handle 45–60 minutes of wake time before getting overtired, something that makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep longer. So, when your baby gets proper rest during the day, they’ll actually sleep better at night.
As we reach 6–8 weeks, babies can start to follow simple cues, which means it’s time to start consistently implementing a brief sleep routine. The routine could go something like this: sound machine, light on low, diaper change, swaddle, lights out, rock, and lay baby down drowsy but still aware. Sometimes your baby will go to sleep easily, and other times they will need more parental assistance (rocking, shush patting, etc.) to fall asleep.
You will notice bedtime moving earlier as your child gets closer to 4 months, which is also when circadian sleep rhythms are mature. At that point, or when you and your baby are ready to do parental-led sleep teaching, utilize your chosen sleep-teaching method. The method you choose is completely up to you. With families I work with, I go over different options based off age, what fits their family and the child’s personality and where the child is at from a sleep perspective.
Sleep will change as babies grow and develop. A solid sleep environment, sleep routine and age-appropriate schedule will help you through every stage. If you are running into a wall on the sleep front, I encourage you to reach out to a sleep consultant or specialist.
Top image: iStock