Each evening, Liz Mohr helps her daughters, 5-year-old Elsie and 10-month-old Eliza, get ready for bed. It’s a routine that starts with baths and teeth brushing and ends with quiet reading.
The girls are both good sleepers and Liz credits the wise advice she received from her pediatrician, Dr. Pilar Bradshaw, two weeks after Elsie was born.
“She said, ‘What is your bedtime routine?'” Liz recalls. “I told her we don’t have one and she said, ‘You need to establish one now.'”
Babies develop somewhat backwards sleep habits while they are in the womb—they are most active at night when mom is sleeping, and then they sleep during the day when mom is awake. So when normal, healthy babies are born, they typically do not have regular sleep patterns until they are about 6-months-old.
Establishing a bedtime routine early is important in helping your baby begin to readjust and get to sleep easier, says Dr. Bradshaw. To encourage a baby sleep longer, parents should try to remove any incentives for waking up.
“The things we do in the night that reward our kids for waking up are: We go to them. We pick them up. We snuggle them. We talk to them. We feed them. We bring them back to our bed,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Those are six examples of common things we do at night that essentially reinforce crying and waking. If you can remove any of those that you feel comfortable with as a parent, that’s a form of sleep training.”
While sleep training can be a contentious subject among parents, Liz and her husband took Dr. Bradshaw’s advice when each of their daughters were 5-months-old. But while letting Elsie—and later Eliza—cry herself to sleep proved effective, Liz says it wasn’t easy.
“I was sitting in the living room and I could clearly hear her,” she says. “And I walked down the hallway a couple of times but my husband said, ‘No, Liz, you need to come back. She’ll be OK.'”
“I tell parents it’s OK to let your baby cry themselves back to sleep, because you won’t be doing it for very long. Give it a week. If you can give yourself and your baby a week, almost every family is going to have a baby sleeping through the night by the end of a week,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “However, there are many moms who can’t listen to their baby cry for a second, and I tell them if you can’t do it, I don’t want you to break your heart.”
If you do need to tend to your baby, stay in his or her room and refrain from pacing other parts of the house. Dr. Bradshaw also suggests keeping the lights low.
Avoid sleep training your baby until he or she is at least 10 pounds and 4-months-old. At that point, developmentally, a baby is able to sleep 10-12 hours without requiring feeding. If your baby cannot sleep well after one week of sleep training, Dr. Bradshaw recommends stopping and talking with your pediatrician about another approach.