Any parent or caregiver can tell you that sleep training is one of the most controversial topics in the childcare world (along with vaccines and discipline, which we'll save for another day!). Most American parents, advised by their pediatricians, don't worry about sleep at all in the first few months of a baby's life, then at the 6 month mark, pick one of dozens of sleep training methods - Ferber or Sears, wake to sleep or pick up/put down, cry it out or no-cry solution. Almost all of these can be effective if used consistently (which they rarely are by exhausted and overwhelmed parents), but what experienced nannies and newborn care specialists can tell you is that you can skip sleep training altogether by creating good sleep habits from birth, instead of trying to break bad habits formed over the first 6 months. With an understanding of how babies sleep, you can help even tiny babies get plenty of good rest so they can grow and thrive.
We all cycle through periods of light and deep sleep throughout the night, but babies’ sleep cycles are much shorter than adults’, usually 30-45 minutes. Many parents are familiar with the 30 minute mini-nap, but don’t realize that it’s normal for babies to rouse briefly from sleep before settling back down for a longer nap. If your baby’s regular naps are less than an hour, chances are they’re having trouble bridging sleep cycles.
When early humans were living in caves or camping on the savannah, we survived by waking up periodically throughout the night, just to make sure we weren’t about to be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Babies’ frequent wakings are a remnant of that need to check that we’re still safe. Often, when babies wake between sleep cycles, they’re not truly awake, just aroused enough to check that their surroundings are the same. This is why rocking babies to sleep is often counterproductive - they fell asleep being cuddled and soothed, but the next time they rouse they realize they’re alone in their crib and cry out. On the flip side, if baby fell asleep on their own, going in to the nursery at the first sign of arousal may wake them fully and signal that it’s time to get up. When helping a baby to learn independent sleep, it’s best to let them self-soothe back to sleep on their own, and only go in to help if they’re truly awake and crying.
Babies have universal patterns not only of sleep, but wakefulness as well. The length of time a baby can stay awake between naps starts out very short during the sleepy newborn phase and gradually increases throughout infancy and toddlerhood. The majority of sleep problems I see are due to little ones being kept up too long, until they’re completely overtired. Knowing the right interval of wakefulness for a babies’ age, as well as recognizing early signs of sleepiness, are key to putting baby to bed when they’re in the right window to fall asleep easily.
If there’s one "secret trick” to baby sleep, it’s this: always put babies into bed drowsy but awake. Have a consistent but short bedtime routine - a story, a lullaby, nursing, swaddle - but don’t soothe them all the way to sleep. Even very young babies - 3 months or younger - can easily fall asleep on their own, and when they’ve been doing that from the start, you won’t have to break the habit of rocking or feeding to sleep with sleep training once they’re older.
Once you understand the patterns all babies fall into, it's easy to be proactive about creating positive sleep habits for your baby that will last a lifetime!