Six strategies to improve your baby’s sleep skills

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It’s 2 a.m. and little Quinn is wide awake and calling (okay, wailing) for you – again.

If your child is healthy and over six months of age, then she is developmentally ready to learn self-soothing skills. Hooray! If you and your child are not getting enough sleep, then it might be time to learn some sleep skills that will help the whole family get more rest. Dr. Elizabeth Super, a pediatrician and children’s sleep specialist with the Pediatric Sleep Medicine program here at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, shares six common-sense approaches for breezier ZZZs.

1. Consistency is key. Soothing at intervals? Crying it out? Co-sleeping? Any of these approaches can work well, but the secret to helping your child learn sleep skills is to pick an approach that you and your partner can deliver calmly and consistently.
Having trouble? Get realistic about what your family can do consistently and then give it a week (or two). How quickly your child adopts new sleep habits depends on his sleep temperament and his developmental stage. Two weeks gives him plenty of practice understanding what to expect at bedtime.

2. Start at bedtime. “When trying to change sleep habits, we think about bedtime first,” Dr. Super says, as it’s easier for parents to stick to a consistent approach in the early evening – and harder to find the patience at 3 a.m. Begin by setting a regular bedtime between 7 and 8 p.m., Dr. Super advises.
Having trouble? Try moving bedtime 20 minutes earlier than your normal routine. A child who isn’t overtired will have more reserves to spend on learning new sleep skills.

3. Find a great routine. Maybe your child responds well to a bath, massage, singing, or the scent of lavender. Whatever it is, build a ritual that feels relaxing for both of you. Dim lights will also help your baby understand that when it’s dark out, it’s time for sleeping.
Having trouble? Try simplifying. The classic “brush teeth, book, bed” routine is simple and clearly communicates that it’s time for bed.

4. Put her down drowsy but awake. “If you don’t want to be there in the middle of the night with your child, you don’t want to be there when she falls asleep at bedtime,” Dr. Super says. Put your child down in her crib drowsy but awake. Keep in mind that some babies will have more difficulty putting themselves to sleep than others, and some transitions – like vacations, illness, or a move – will cause disruptions in sleep routines.
Having trouble? Try changing your approach. If your baby is older than six months and you’ve always soothed her to sleep, try making your soothing routine very brief or simply putting her down and saying “Good night, I love you, it’s time to go to sleep.” She will probably protest in the short term, but it will give her the chance to practice putting herself to sleep independently.

5. Introduce a lovie. You don’t need to wait for your child to imprint on a favorite teddy bear; you can pick his transitional object for him. Once your child is over 1 year old, rolling over, and raising his head, it’s safe for him to sleep with a special blanket or a small stuffed animal – just watch out for button eyes or other small bits that can be choking hazards. Including that beloved bunny or blankie in the regular bedtime routine can help your child associate comfort and sleep with it.
Having Trouble? Try an article of your clothing. Some babies respond well to familiar smells, so try putting him to sleep with a scarf or T-shirt that smells like mama. If your baby loves his binky, try scattering extra pacifiers around his crib so that he can always reach one when he wakes up at night.

6. Plan for night wakeups. Middle-of-the-night wakeups can be a challenge. Check to make sure that your child is not wet, ill or cold, and then give a calm, brief, reassurance (nothing fun and no feeding) and leave your child to settle back to sleep. Once they know that nothing too exciting is going to happen in the middle of the night, some babies have an easier time getting back to sleep on their own.
Having trouble? Try letting him fuss. If you’ve already done a brief intervention, let him fuss for a length of time that works for your family. If he still can’t put himself back to bed, then soothe him to sleep. After all, good rest is important for everyone, and you can practice building self-soothing skills again tomorrow – beginning at bedtime.

Other posts in the Dr. Super sleep series:
What is your baby’s ‘sleep temperament?’
Monsters under the bed: banishing bedtime fears
Battle bad dreams, night terrors and things that go bump in the dark
The real scoop on teething and sleep


Dr. Elizabeth SuperElizabeth Super, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Doernbecher Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital