Helping Baby Sleep: Strategies and Safety

By Lisa Pecos

For new parents, getting the baby into a regular sleeping pattern can be a challenge. Newborns simply do not seem to be on the same schedule as the rest of us. They fall asleep whenever they get tired, which can be at unpredictable times, and they wake up at seemingly random intervals. This is part of what makes the first several months such a difficult stage for many parents; in accommodating the baby’s irregular patterns, it is hard to get enough sleep for yourself. When you combine this with all the other things new parents have to think about, these first few months can be exhausting.

How much sleep do babies need?

For the first month, babies usually sleep around 16 ½ hours per day, but not all at once. For instance, your baby may sleep about 10 hours at night (usually with a couple of wake-ups) and then divide the rest of the daily sleeping time into three or four naps throughout the day. Every baby is different in this respect-some can sleep long intervals without interruption, while others wake in need of attention every couple of hours.

Over the first year, the amount of daily sleep gradually lessens. Nighttime sleeping becomes more prolonged and predictable, while daytime naps become shorter. In the beginning, a baby may take three to four naps during the day, but by the 9-month mark it’s usually more like two naps per day. By 12 months, your baby should be on a fairly predictable schedule of about 13 to 14 hours of sleep per day.

Baby sleep strategies

When setting a baby sleep routine, there is only so much that parents can do. You can try different approaches, but in all likelihood your baby will dictate much of what happens. And because each baby is different, there are no universal strategies that work for everyone. However, there are some general approaches that you can take.

Some parents choose the take-charge approach. With this strategy, rather than giving the baby everything she wants, you establish a bedtime routine that you follow rigidly each night. This way, for example, if you give the baby a bath 30 minutes before bedtime each night, she will soon learn that bath time means it’s almost time to go to sleep, and, depending on her personality, she will learn to go to bed and fall asleep with minimal fuss.

The opposite approach is to give the baby what he wants until he sleeps. For example, if he seems to fall asleep best when being rocked, you rock him until he sleeps. Or if he falls asleep best with a pacifier, you always make sure he has one. This approach can work for parents who do not need to place an emphasis on routine, but it is hard to sustain in the long run as it encourages your baby to use you as a sleep crutch.

Keeping baby safe during sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents always place their babies to sleep on their backs, as stomach sleeping creates a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Placing the baby on her side is not recommended, as it is easy to roll onto her tummy from this position. Because supervised, wide-awake tummy play is important for building neck muscles, the AAP’s rule of thumb is “tummy to play and back to sleep.”

For the first few months, the safest place for a baby to sleep is in the room with the parents, but in a separate crib or bassinet rather than in the same bed. Cribs should be free of toys and soft bedding, which includes fluffy pillows or soft comforters, as these items can impair the baby’s breathing. It is also important to ensure that the baby is not bundled too tightly and does not get too hot.