[updated June 2021]
Remember when you used to lay down, close your eyes, and just sleep? Remember when Saturdays meant you could sleep in? Remember when you were woken up by an alarm clock rather than a crying baby?
When baby doesn’t sleep, no one sleeps, and while it is natural for young infants to wake frequently during the night, an older baby who’s up all night can really start to wear down their parents. If your baby just isn’t sleeping through the night, you’re probably beginning to feel pretty desperate. You want to know Why won’t my baby sleep? and, most importantly, How can I get my baby to sleep?
There are many reasons why a baby won’t sleep and many ways to address the issue. We’ve compiled five reasons why a baby might not sleep. Following each sleep problem is a sleep solution, including ideas on how you may overcome your baby’s sleep problem.
Each baby is different and what works for one may not work for another. Pick a solution that seems to best fit your situation and give it a week trial. If it doesn’t work, move on to another. We know you’ll find something that works!
Sleep Problem #1: I’m down… I’m up!
You rock and sing your baby to sleep and he goes down within five minutes. But for how long? He’s up again in an hour and you pick him up, rock him, and sing until he falls asleep again. An hour later, he’s up! And on and on it goes all night.
The problem with this scenario, according to experts, is that your baby has not learned the skill of putting himself to sleep. We all wake up now and then throughout the night as we move between different levels of sleep. The difference with most adults, however, is that we can simply roll over and go back to sleep. Babies who have always been rocked or lulled to sleep may not develop the skills necessary to put themselves back to sleep once they’ve woken in the middle of the night.
Your baby needs to learn how to comfort himself and put himself back to sleep. One way to think about it is that if we want a baby to fall back asleep when he wakes up, then we need him to wake up in the same condition he fell asleep in (i.e. not on our shoulder listening to you singing a lullaby, but comfortable and safe in his own bed). You may think that falling asleep is something that comes naturally to babies, but really they need to be taught how to do this on their own.
One approach is to begin slowly by introducing a soft toy or blankie during cuddle time. Later, when you put your baby in his crib, give him the soft toy or blankie. The hope is that the toy will remind him of pleasant comforting times with you and when he awakes he will find the toy, snuggle it, and drift back to sleep.
Another technique is to lay down with your baby in a bigger bed that fits both of you. Your baby can snuggle up to you and drift off on his own, eventually without you having to sing or rock him. You can get up after he’s asleep. The next step would be to get up just before he’s fallen asleep. Then try laying him down, kissing his head, and sitting next to the bed. Eventually you should be able to lay your child down and walk away. For more advice and to better understand why babies need to learn how to fall asleep on their own, check out the book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.
Create a soothing environment with sweet, soft lullaby music. Only play the lullabies at bedtime so your baby associates the songs with going to bed.
Sleep Problem #2: Is it day? Is it night? I don't care!
Sometimes your baby goes down for a nap in the middle of the day and just won't wake up. Other times she's up all night and wants to play. This is a common problem for babies with visual impairments who may have little or no light perception and cannot differentiate between day and night.
It's important to teach your blind baby the cues that indicate a shift from day to night. This means that you will want to establish a pretty strict night time routine so she will understand that the evening hours have begun. Besides following a simple schedule (dinner, bath, bedtime story, etc), also choose special night time songs, night time story books, and night time toys that only come out during the evening hours. Then, when you begin to sing one of these night time songs, for example, your baby will know that it's getting late and almost time for bed.
Another good practice is to point out night time sounds to your baby. I like to take Ivan outside in the early evening hours so we can listen to the crickets chirping. He finds the sound very soothing and it helps calm him and transition him into the night time routine. Plus, as he gets older, he'll be able to identify the sounds of crickets as an evening sound.
Stock up on a few nighttime board books with fun rhymes and soothing messages about comfort and sleep. Only read these books before bed so your baby will associate the stories with bedtime.
Sleep Problem #3: Lazy days lead to lazy evenings
Maybe you have a mellow baby or maybe your baby is delayed in some of his gross motor skills. Either way, if your baby is passive most of the day and doesn't spend much energy he may not be ready for bed at the appointed hour.
Try to motivate your child during the day. Stay active, go to the park, and introduce as much vestibular stimulation as your baby will handle (vestibular stimulation is anything that gets the body moving through space, like swinging or sliding or just rough housing with dad). In other words, try to tire the little guy out during the day!
Little babies that don't get as much activity as they should may also feel aches in their muscles at night, a sort of "restless leg syndrome" kind of feeling because they haven't been using their muscles enough throughout the day. Try massaging your baby's legs and arms before bed. Right after the bath is a nice time to snuggle up in a heap of warm, dry towels and massage your little baby into relaxation. What a perfect transition to bedtime!
A relaxing pre-bed routine can help your baby learn that it's bedtime and get ready to go to sleep. A warm bath scented with lavender has been shown to ease stress and prep the body for sleep.
Sleep Problem #4: Babies just want to have fun!
No matter how tired she may be, your baby just loves to get up and play! The problem here may be that your baby craves interaction and wants to have fun all night.
Many of the solutions above will help in this scenario, like establishing a night time routine and relaxing your baby before bed with a nice massage. But the most important thing to remember with an overly interactive baby is to be consistent! Don't give in to your baby's desire to play and make sure all of your baby's caregivers are on the same page. It can be hard to ignore the sweet little smiles and hilarious little laughs bubbling out of your baby at 2 am, but whatever you do, don't play! This just reinforces to your baby that if you're cute enough, mom and dad will play with you at night.
You need to consistently act like it's night even if everyone in the house is awake. This means keeping very few lights on, speaking in hushed tones, and singing only those songs reserved for the night time routine. You may feel desperate, but if you remain consistent, your baby should get the hint eventually and understand that no matter how adorable they are, you just won't play with them at night.
If sleeping at home is a problem then sleeping while traveling may be almost impossible! Bring as many of your regular bedtime items with you (like your lullaby CDs and bedtime lotion) and get a nice comfortable travel crib too.
Sleep Problem #5: Afternoons are made for napping!
When people ask how your baby sleeps, your answer is that he sleeps wonderfully at 1 pm and terribly at 1 am. If your baby takes long afternoon naps, but then has difficulty sleeping at night you may need to take drastic measures.
I know those long afternoon naps are a great time to get the housework done, but many babies just can't be allowed to nap during the day. Period. It came as quite a shock to us when our pediatrician told us that many toddlers can't manage a day time nap and still sleep well at night. Aren't babies supposed to take naps? They are, but when you figure that your baby isn't sleeping more than four hours at night, a nice two hour nap during the day still only gets him to a total of six hours of sleep in a twenty-four hour period, and that just isn't enough for proper brain development. If skipping the nap means ten hours at night, it has to be done.
This advice has made the biggest difference for us. Our son went from four to six broken hours of sleep a night to ten to twelve uninterrupted hours in less than a week. We played around with new sleep schedules and found that he can handle one half hour nap around 2 pm. He wakes up chipper and ready for the rest of the day and sleeps well at night. We have also incorporated many of the other sleep solutions into our routine (we especially enjoy the massage), but the reduced day time nap has definitely had the most impact.
It's important that your baby gets enough sleep. Hopefully these tips will bring peace to your night time routine. If you've tried these solutions, however, and your baby still won't sleep it may be time to try the Crying Technique.
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Read this article in Dutch: Help! Mijn baby slaapt niet!