Many parents aren’t sure where to begin when it comes to starting to work on sleep. What if you just want your baby to learn to sleep without the pacifier? What if you are working on transitioning out of the swaddle or Magic Merlin Sleep Suit? What if you want to teach your child to sleep in the crib? What if you want to begin some sort of sleep training? As usual, every book seems to have a different suggestion about what to do. So, what works best? Nights? Naps? Both? Do a quick Google search and you’ll get dozens of different suggestions. The key to teaching your baby to sleep in a new location or in a new way is to start at bedtime. Here’s why:
The Science: Many parents tell us that they don’t want to work on making changes at bedtime, because their baby or toddler doesn’t have a problem going to sleep. We actually wouldn’t expect most children to have a problem going to sleep, because at bedtime both the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure drives are promoting sleep, making it easy for your baby to drift off peacefully. In addition, deep sleep dominates the first part of the night, so if your child falls asleep in your arms and then is transferred to the crib, it will be an effortless transition. In the middle of the night and during naps, sleep is light and it doesn’t come easily. This means that it takes a lot of work to get your child to fall asleep and if you are lucky enough to get your child to fall asleep in your arms, when you make a move towards the crib your child has a high probability of waking up. This is exactly why you shouldn’t start an intervention at naptime or in the middle of the night. At those times the sleep drive is weak and your child will not feel sleepy, therefore it will take a long time for her to accept falling asleep in a new way or in a new place. All of the reasons that make it easy to put your child to bed at bedtime are exactly the reasons you should start at bedtime when working on an intervention. If you need a little more convincing, here are the practical reasons you should start at bedtime:
The sleep drive is strongest at bedtime, so you are guaranteed your child will fall asleep. This means when you are asking your child to go to sleep in a new way, she’ll be primed for sleep and will feel sleepy. This feeling of sleepiness is important and bedtime is the only time of day or night when the drive to sleep is overwhelming. If you start at naptime, your child could be in bed for well over an hour before falling asleep (or she might not sleep at all!), because the sleep drive is so weak during the day.
Learning to fall asleep at bedtime will help your child know what to do in the middle of the night. It’s not going to be easy to do intervention in the middle of the night, but it will be comparatively easier if your child has already had some experience with your intervention at bedtime.
You will be more awake at your child’s bedtime. No sleep intervention is easy, but it’s much easier to be consistent when you feel more awake. It’s much easier to change your response at 3:00 AM or convince yourself that your plan isn’t working. At bedtime you won’t have your own sleep drive working against you and you can stick to the plan.
What should I do?
If you are starting some sort of sleep training or if you just want to get your child used to sleeping in a crib, without the pacifier, swaddle or magic sleep suit then start with your intervention of choice at bedtime. As always make sure that the foundation for healthy sleep is in place before you begin any intervention. Make sure your baby is old enough to accept change, make sure your baby has a regular schedule that is age-appropriate (see our sleep chart and nap blogs for help with this), make sure you have managed your baby’s calorie intake by adjusting her nighttime feedings if needed (see our reducing night feedings blog), and make sure your baby has an optimal sleep environment that is cool, dark and quiet. Once these elements are in place, then you should begin your intervention of choice (see our sleep training blog) by choosing one of the following patterns of implementation:
Sleep Intervention Implementation — Option 1. If you feel confident in the intervention technique that you have chosen, then you can begin at bedtime and work right through the whole night (at wakings that aren’t associated with hunger). Monitor your progress in four day windows of time. If you are doing sleep training, then things should be much better after four nights. If you are asking your baby to accept more gradual change, then you should see that she begins to accept your new way of doing things by the fourth night. Once your baby is doing well at night, you can begin to work on naps if your baby is old enough to do so.
Sleep Intervention Implementation — Option 2. If you are nervous about your intervention strategy and want to make sure it’s the right fit for you and your child, then start at bedtime only and do what you would usually do during the rest of the night. After four nights of working exclusively on bedtime, then introduce your strategy in the middle of the night at non-feeding times and after your baby is doing well at night, you can begin to work on naps if your baby is old enough to do so.
Of course, there are exceptions to just about every rule when it comes to sleep and there are situations where things might not be perfectly straight-forward. Here are some common questions that parents have when we put together sleep plans during personal consultations.
My baby needs to eat before bedtime and I don’t want to deny her calorie intake by stopping her feeding early. What do I do?
This is a very common problem. You don’t want to put your baby down awake and hungry, but you also don’t want your baby to sleep feed for several minutes and conk out before you put her down. In order to make this work, nurse or bottle feed your baby around 30 minutes before bedtime in a room that isn’t associated with sleep. When bedtime rolls around, you can feed her again (a dessert feeding ;)) but now you know she’s had the calorie intake that she needs and you can unlatch her or take away the bottle before she falls asleep.
Won’t my child get confused if she goes to sleep in one place (or way) at night and in a different place (or way) during the day?
It would be optimal to have your child fall asleep in the same way, in the same place for both day and night, BUT in this case it’s not worth it to work on changing everything at once. Any change that you make, even very gentle change, like teaching your child to fall asleep through rocking instead of nursing, will be confusing and will lead to sleep loss. If your baby has terrible naps, then she’ll be overtired at bedtime and will have difficulty learning what you are trying to teach her. This will lead to her taking longer to fall asleep at bedtime and will lead to her waking up more during the night. Remember, not getting enough sleep during the day will actually increase night waking! As a result of this unfortunate trade-off, you have to make a choice, do you give your child the same experience for all sleep times or do you manage her sleep debt? In almost every situation it’s much better to keep your baby rested during the day, by helping her sleep in the way that she’s used to and only teach her how to sleep in the new way at bedtime. Babies are pretty good at understanding that something different happens during the day compared to what happens at night, so having this difference in fall asleep experience isn’t usually too difficult. Once your child learns how to fall asleep in the new location or in the new way at bedtime and during the night, then you can work on teaching her to fall asleep in the same way during the day.
My child already goes to sleep on her own at bedtime, but still wakes up at night, so what do I do about that?
The first question we ask in response to that is, “are you sure she’s really awake at bedtime?” The drive to sleep is so strong at the beginning of the night, that many parents don’t realize their babies are actually mostly asleep when being put down. You want your baby to go to bed at bedtime awake and aware of her surroundings. If you put your baby down with her eyes open and she closes them and appears asleep within one minute, then she’s probably not awake enough during the transition to recognize what is happening. Make sure you child is awake and aware of her surroundings when put down. This might require a slightly earlier bedtime or a reworking of your bedtime routine (see above regarding nursing to sleep). It takes a healthy sleeper 5-20 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime. A baby who is totally out before the five minute mark is probably already half asleep.
If your child is truly awake at bedtime, then you would start your intervention only during night waking (again making sure that feeding is appropriate and adjusted first). It is possible for a baby to maintain a sleep association during the night while also falling asleep independently. In this case, you would just need to prepare yourself for long night wakings on the first few days.
My child does great at night, but naps are erratic. What do I do?
This is a situation where you would work on naps and not nights (see our nap 101 series 1,2,3 and 4 for how to tackle naps). It is very rare that a child will naturally do great at night with no intervention, but then have a hard time with naps (naturally good sleepers will usually do great at night and naptime). In many cases nights are ok, but not perfect. If that’s the case for your child, then it’s worth working on a minor issue at nighttime before working on naps.
My child is under four months old and still has an erratic schedule, should I still start at night only?
No. If your baby is under four months old, then you have time on your side and are way ahead of the game when it comes to working on sleep issues. For babies under four months old it helps to have practice falling asleep in a new way or in the location where you would like your baby to sleep at naptime and nighttime. If your baby is 3-4 months old, then it may be easier for her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, but you don’t have to push it. See our blog on the four month regression for more tips on how to handle sleep in the first few months and know that we don’t recommend aggressive sleep training in this age range.