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.