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How to Help a Baby Sleep

When a baby sleeps, it represents a moment of bliss and reprieve for a parent. But actually making a baby sleepy is part skill, part patience, and a lot of dumb luck.

Parents will try anything when they’re struggling to understand how to help a baby sleepsinging lullabies, gently rubbing the back, reading children’s books. But “helping” is the operative word, especially when trying to get very young children to sleep. These methods are sleep aids, not in the chemical sense, but in that they can move a baby toward getting sleepy. They are not tranquilizers. Parents should not expect them to work that way.

“With newborns, all bets are off,” laughs Dr. Howard Reinstein, a spokesman for the American Association of Pediatricians who serves as clinical faculty at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the UCLA Medical Center. “With young infants in the first two to three months of life, making them sleepy is hard to do. The younger they are, the less organized they are: They eat and sleep on demand, not really on a schedule, so it’s difficult.”

How to Help a Baby Sleep

  • Find what works for them, whether it be a lullaby or a children’s book, and stick to it.
  • Increase pre-bedtime activities like going to the store or tummy time to help make the baby tired.
  • Help a child develop an association between an object or a movement with sleepiness, as part of a bedtime routine.
  • Once you’ve established a bedtime routine, don’t deviate from it.

That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. The key, says Reinstein, is establishing some sort of routine or ritual where a certain activity becomes mentally associated with sleepy time.

“Establish a bedtime ritual — reading a book, a bath if the child is relaxed by it, singing lullabies — and create a routine so the message to the child is that it’s time to settle down and go to sleep,” he says.

Physical activity helps too, but during infancy, a child’s mobility is severely limited. Still, simple acts like taking them for a walk in a stroller or even grocery shopping offers up ample mental stimulation, which can wear a child out. Tummy time, too, can result in a tired kid.

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Children can also be “programmed” to learn to associate certain objects, sounds, or actions with getting tired. Introducing a certain stuffed animal regularly before bedtime, playing a specific song, or even specific phrases that signal that it’s time for bed can cause a child to become drowsy and prepare for sleep. “As the child gets attached to something as they get older they can use that to soothe themselves, which associates with the feeling of getting drowsy and going to sleep,” says Reinstein.

As for feeding, there’s a misconception that breast milk has a more calming effect on a child than formula. This, Reinstein says, is backward. In fact, formula’s long gestation period leaves a child feeling full for longer, typically resulting in more sleep.

“Breast milk empties from the stomach quicker than formula,” Reinstein says. “If babies have that formula in their stomachs, they have the feeling of being satiated longer. Usually, with formula, babies will sleep longer.”

Reinstein emphasizes that establishing a routine and sticking to it as regularly as possible is the key to healthy sleep, and with practice, patience, and discipline, a child will become predictably drowsy, allowing parents to plan their free time (and naps) accordingly.

“There’s a difference between making a child sleepy and teaching them to be a good sleeper. There’s a process where you can teach them to be better sleepers,” says Reinstein. “As they get a little older, you can create a bit of a schedule, a bit of a cycle.”