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Many parents are surprised by how difficult it can be to help their babies sleep. Many newborns struggle going back to sleep if they awake in the middle of the night.

Babies also go through different developmental stages which may affect sleep. Teaching your newborn to fall asleep unassisted, recognizing signs of fatigue and comforting your baby during night wakings will all help develop healthy sleep habits.

Signs of Sleep Readiness

A key way to help your baby to sleep is to pay attention to signs of sleep readiness. If your baby is very tired, they may become overstimulated, which makes it hard for them to fall asleep. So it is best to encourage your baby to go to sleep before they become overtired. The following may be signs of your baby being ready for sleep:

  • Fussing
  • Looking away
  • Yawning
  • Rubbing eyes

How to Help Your Baby Fall Asleep

It is common for parents to want to breastfeed or rock their baby to sleep at night. While a bedtime routine is helpful for babies, letting your baby fall asleep in your arms is not always a helpful habit. If your baby begins to expect to be in your arms in order to fall asleep, they may have trouble putting themselves back to sleep if they awaken between sleep cycles.

It is a better habit to lay your baby down drowsy, but awake. After a soothing bedtime routine, this can encourage your baby to learn to fall asleep unassisted.

Babies also do better falling asleep if they feel secure. Comforting and cuddling with your baby during the day can help them feel more secure at night. The list below details other ways you can help your baby learn to sleep:

  • Avoid activity and stimulation close to bedtime.
  • Do a bedtime routine, such as bath, rocking and reading books.
  • Put your baby down for naps during the day as needed.
  • Play soothing music.
  • Comfort your baby when he or she is afraid.
  • Place your baby in bed before they are asleep.
  • Give your baby a transitional object such as soft toy or small blanket they can take to bed (only once your baby is able to roll and sit, so as to avoid risk of suffocation).
  • For night awakenings, comfort your baby by soothing and patting, but avoid removing your baby from bed.
  • If your baby cries, pause and wait a few minutes. If they continue crying, comfort them briefly, say goodnight, and leave the room.
  • Try to be consistent with your routine and responses, and your baby will slowly learn that night is a special time to sleep.

Signs of Infant Sleep Problems

Sometimes a baby will begin to sleep through the night and then return to awakening in the night again. This often happens around 6 months of age.

The reason for this is babies go through separation anxiety, a normal part of their development. This happens when babies don’t understand that separations are temporary and their parents will return. As a result, babies may have trouble going to sleep unassisted, or returning to sleep unassisted, because of anxiety and overstimulation.

Babies experiencing difficulty falling asleep because of separation anxiety may act in the following ways:

  • Crying when a parent leaves the room
  • Refusing to go to sleep without a parent nearby
  • Clinging to a parent
  • Awakening and crying during the night after previously sleeping through the night

Babies will gradually grow out of separation anxiety and return to sleeping through the night. However, because sleep problems can be a symptom of illness, consult your baby’s pediatrician if your baby develops a new pattern of having trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.

Shane Stephenson, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic HealthWest

Dr. Shane Stephenson is a family medicine physician practicing at Methodist Physicians Clinic HealthWest. His goal is prevention and wellness for those he treats. Through his own experience as a teenager with his dad, he knows that if there is an illness that it doesn't only affect the one with the diagnosis, but the whole family is affected in different ways. He cares about the whole family of his patients and wants to be there for them. For ParentSavvy, Dr. Stephenson writes about ...

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