Learning to sleep like a baby

By Daniel B. Kessler, M.D.

The expression “I slept like a baby” is a funny one because we all know that babies are more prone to waking up throughout the night as newborns.

What many parents may not know is that your baby actually learns to sleep and you are your baby’s best teacher. Here are three tips I give parents when they want to help their baby sleep like a baby.

Teach them what bedtime means

When babies are first born, they can’t distinguish between night and day. Your baby makes those distinctions and begins to sleep more at night based on environmental cues from you.

For example, let’s say you are working and come home past your child’s established bedtime and you want to play with her. You are sending her a very important message that staying up past bedtime is super fun! A message which may have unintended consequences later when she fights sleep because “no way do I want to go to bed and miss fun playtime.”

Be boring

When your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, you want to be as boring as possible. If you need to change her because she’s wet, get it done quickly with little fuss and as little talking or interaction as possible. The same advice applies to a feeding at night. If there is excitement on your part or play with toys, she will confuse nighttime as playtime and won’t easily fall back to sleep. It is the cues from her environment that helps her establish that nighttime is sleeping and boring. She should be thinking, “Mommy is asleep; Daddy and Sister are asleep too, so I guess I need to sleep because no one is around to play.”

Unwind slowly

Restful sleep involves decreasing our general activity level. During sleep we are doing much less. Our body slows down and we want our minds to slow down as well. The best way to do this with your baby is to establish a wind-down routine each night to help pace your day down.

Every parent and every family does this differently. Perhaps you have dinner, give baby a bath, read stories and then it is off to bed. Whatever your routine, help slow down the activity level in the household if possible to give your baby the best opportunity for a restful night’s sleep.

No matter what your family routine is, as a pediatrician and a child development specialist I encourage parents to use wind-down time for reading and not for screen time. Many studies show that screen time is actually stimulating to the brain, whereas reading is a quieting activity. Reading also is incredibly important to help your baby develop language skills and to help her with imagination and creativity, making it an ideal activity.

There’s a reason why as parents you remember the first time your baby sleeps through the night – it’s magical and signifies more sleep for Mommy and Daddy too! Helping your baby sleep well provides a restful night for the whole family.

Daniel Kessler, M.D.

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development. His private practice, where he provides evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents, is located at Southwest Human Development.

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