Helping Your Baby Get to Sleep

by Dr. Laura Markham

Most new parents are shocked by the constant interruption of their sleep that a newborn brings to the house. My first baby slept for about an hour and a half, than woke to eat for twenty minutes, then slept for another hour and a half, every night for the first three months of his life. I had never been so tired in my life. I knew that new parents were supposed to be sleep deprived, but I had never expected anything like this.

What's the best sleep strategy for exhausted new parents? How can you be there when you baby needs you, but still get some rest?

There are basically three schools of thought on this issue

The first, made popular by the book authored by pediatrician Richard Ferber, advocates teaching babies to sleep through the night in their own cribs, by letting them "cry it out" for increasingly longer periods of time. While most babies eventually give up and fall asleep, the process is often traumatic for parents (and we can assume for the baby), and frequently needs to be repeated following any disruption in routine. Critics point out that Ferber has no psychology training and question whether letting babies cry it out has permanent, harmful effects.

The second school of thought, practiced by advocates of the Family Bed, says that infants are hard-wired to sleep with their mothers, and nurse at night, for many months, probably until toddlerhood. They point out that babies who sleep with their mothers are less likely to die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), and that the mothers get more sleep. Critics of this method express concern that parents might inadvertently roll on their babies in the night, and wonder why any self-respecting toddler who is accustomed to sleeping with his parents will give that up for a new, lonely, "big-boy-bed."

The third school, perhaps best represented by No Cry Sleep Solution author Elizabeth Pantley, understands that parents may desperately need some sleep and agrees with Ferber that babies need to learn to fall back asleep on their own, but argues that this can be accomplished without the trauma of letting babies cry it out.

Having attempted Ferbering and failed, having loved the family bed but given my baby cavities from night nursing that went on too long, and having spent far too many nights waking up to help babies fall back to sleep, I find myself agreeing with Pantley and her cohort. What I like most about Pantley is that she offers a variety of sleep solutions that fit every unique family, from co-sleeping to baby bunks to cribs.

Of course you want your children to know from the earliest age that they can always ask for and get help. That said, we all need sleep. My recommendations are biased in favor of keeping your baby close so you can get more sleep. But this is a very individual choice. Read as much as you can, and then lose the guilt. Do what works for you and your baby.

How can you get some sleep, when your baby's still waking up to nurse?

  • Sleep whenever and wherever you can.

  • Keep your baby near you while he's still nursing at night, so you don't have to get out of bed. Breast milk is designed to be given every few hours. It simply cannot hold a baby for much longer. Rats, on the other hand, give their baby food much higher in fat, so that the mother rat can leave the babies for eight hours while she's off foraging. Baby humans could not survive predators if they were left for long periods, so nature has designed them to require their mother's presence fairly constantly. That means your baby needs to be nursed at night, for a minimum of six months and probably until she is a year old.

    Afraid of rolling over on your baby? Unlikely, since mothers are designed not to (unless her natural warning system has been interfered with by drugs or alcohol). There is actually evidence that babies who sleep with their mothers are less likely to die of SIDS because the co-sleeping babies' sleep cycles are in sync with their moms', and her presence stimulates him not to fall into such a deep sleep. However, it seems possible to me that a father could suffocate a very young baby, especially if he's had a drink or two. I would always position a very young baby on the other side of the mother (with a wall or secure piece of furniture blocking him from falling, of course). And NEVER let a baby sleep on a waterbed, where they are absolutely in danger of suffocation.

  • If you don't feel comfortable with your baby in bed with you, try a "Moses basket," cradle or baby bunk within arm's reach. Some moms are such light sleepers that they just can't get any sleep at all if the baby is in their bed. There are wonderful baby bunks that can be anchored to your bed, at the same level, and opened so that the baby has his own space but you can roll him into your bed with you to nurse.

  • Learn to nurse lying down so you can sleep while he feeds. Newborns can't do this, of course, but within a couple of months, he'll be able to, and you'll feel much more rested.

  • Take a long maternity leave, so you can nap when your baby naps during the day.

  • Let your partner take the baby in the morning to let you sleep in for an hour, it makes all the difference in the world.

  • Go to bed early. When you were pregnant you did it. Don't feel bad about it, this is not the time to resume an active evening life. You have the rest of your life to stay up late.

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.YourParentingSolutions.com and www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth."

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham fields questions from our community members on her Expert Forum and hosts a regular Online Chat on Wednesdays. Click here to check out her Parenting Tips.

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, 13 year-old daughter, and 17 year-old son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.