A Sleep Scholar’s Secrets For Hacking Your Baby’s Rest Schedule

Figure out your baby's rhythms and you'll put their sleep troubles to bed.

by Chase Scheinbaum
Originally Published: 
dad with baby on couch

An infant’s sleep schedule is basically nature’s way of letting you know that this squishy little bundle will be your entire life for a while. That’s what waking up 2 to 6 times to care for it will do to you. It’s an effective evolutionary strategy, but — and this is important — not one that needs to last beyond the first 3-6 months, says Dr. Jodi A. Mindell.

One of sleep medicine’s most respected authorities, Mindell is an expert in pediatric Zzzs and is the author of 7 books on the subject, including the influential Sleeping through Night: How Infants, Toddlers, And Their Parents Can Get A Good Night’s Sleep. She also serves as chair of the Pediatric Sleep Council. Mindell says that by understanding what to expect for the first 18 or so months, parents can divine their own baby’s rhythms and almost always put sleep troubles to bed.

Come To Terms With The Inevitable (And Unenviable)

Mindell’s first advice? Quit freaking out so much. She says that between one-quarter and one-third of all parents of babies younger than 3-years-old report that their kid suffers from some sort of sleep problem. Most of the are new parents, and, well, most of them are wrong. This isn’t to say that children aren’t affected by sleep disorders. It just illustrates a universal truth: baby sleep is cray. If your kid wakes up one or more times during the night, Mindell wants you to know it’s perfectly normal.

Establishing Good Sleep Habits

There’s no fighting it: The first few months of sleep will be erratic. So stock up on the cold brew and gird your loins. After those 12 weeks, however, Mindell says your baby should begin to develop a set schedule. And you need to enforce it.

“The more frequently babies have a bedtime routine, the better their sleep,” she says. “And even if your baby has problems sleeping, they’re likely to get better once you institute a routine.”

Here are a few things Mindell recommends:

  • Enforcing An Early Bedtime Every Night

“We know that babies who go to bed later take longer to fall asleep and wake more at night,” says Mindell. “Overtired babies take longer to fall asleep and wake up more often.” So what’s the magic bedtime? Mindell says it’s almost always around 7 or 8 p.m.

  • Keeping Things Consistent

Consistency breeds comfort so make sure your put-down routine stays more or less the same. Mindell says that, while they might not sound surprising, a bath, pajamas, and a bedtime story go a very long way. What’s more, Mindell says that research shows that more involved a father is with childcare and the nighttime routine, the better a child will sleep.

  • Letting Your Baby Self-Soothe

“Babies who can fall asleep independently will sleep better,” Mindell says. This means that when your kid inevitably wakes up after being asleep for a while, you shouldn’t rush out of bed and make with the rocking, nursing, or emotional soliloquies about the meaning of continuing the family line. Parents, Mindell says, often leap out of bed to the baby’s side. And this, while noble, deprives a baby of valuable self-reliance. Oftentimes, the baby can fall asleep on their own given a few moments of silence and the ‘tip toe-ing” of an exhausted parent is what really wakes them up.

A Word On Napping

After the chaotic first 3 months, your baby’s nap schedule will start to develop. Until about the ninth month, most babies should either take 2 lengthy naps (one in the morning and the other in the afternoon) or several shorter naps throughout the day. Both schedules are fine, Mindell says, so long as they add up to roughly 14-16 hours a day. At the 18-month mark, most babies drop the morning nap and just take a slightly longer afternoon snooze. Not sure when the bub is ready for a nap? They’ll often rub their eyes, stare off into space or get fussier than normal. Sound like someone else you know?

The bottom line is this: A baby’s bedtime habits do change, but this change happens more gradually than most parents realize. And this makes a lot of people worry about nothing. Knowing, is, as some helpful soldiers once informed you, half the battle. The other half, in this case, is coffee. Lots of it.

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