Parents don’t need to sleep.
You know that, right?
Babies need sleep. It’s absolutely essential for their neurological development that they get at least 70% of the recommended hours of sleep (which you can reference here). If they get less, their cognitive development will be permanently stunted, mostly because their parents will be too tired to play with the baby or do anything other than sit and stare at him.
Toddlers need sleep too — even more than babies. If a toddler or preschooler doesn’t get at least 75% of the minimum recommended hours of sleep, he will become so cranky, irritable, and difficult that most parents will be forced to shut themselves in a closet and hold the door closed while the toddler pounds on the other side and screams that he needs a cookie NOW. This can have permanent negative consequences on a toddler’s emotional and social development.
But parents? We don’t need sleep. It’s perfectly fine — normal, even — for a parent to stay up all night trying every trick imaginable to persuade a wide-eyed baby to drift into dreamland.
And fortunately, there are a whole lot of tricks to try. You can fill a whole night with different creative attempts to get a baby to sleep.
If your baby sleeps well, you will never need to try most of these. I hope you never do. But if you have a baby who can’t sleep, there are many ways to help him. Here’s a collection of some of the less common ones I’ve tried.
1. Play different kinds of white noise. You’ve probably heard that white noise is helpful for sleep, because it sounds similar to the rush of blood through your veins that your baby listened to while in the womb. For most babies, the noise should be louder than you would expect it needs to be. The sounds in the womb are really loud. But what you may not know is that some babies might be soothed by a particular type of white noise even though other types disturb them. So it’s worth it to try different kinds if your first attempt isn’t helpful. Some babies like random noise, like a vacuum, radio static, or a coffee grinder. Others prefer rhythmic noise, like a heartbeat toy, a train, or rain falling. Get a white noise machine with different sounds on it — you can buy one for about $20 at Target — and try them all.
2. Vary the motion. You know that bouncing or rocking can help your baby sleep. But you may not know that alternating between them can be more effective than either alone. Try swinging your baby back and forth in a cradle motion and then shifting to a gentle up-and-down bounce. Sometimes the shift in motion distracts your baby enough to enable him to relax and fall asleep.
3. Ignore him. No, I don’t mean leaving your baby alone in a crib and sleep training him. I just mean not looking at him. For some babies, the stimulation of eye contact is so exciting that they have to stay awake for it. If your baby is older than four months and has good head control, try wearing him on your back — the physical contact combined with the lack of face-to-face interaction might do the trick. If that doesn’t work, try holding him or patting him without looking at him. You can gaze over his head or close your own eyes to set an example of what you want him to do. Yes, you’ll look silly. But nobody’s looking.
4. Try a new bed. If your baby is sleeping well, then you should keep the bedtime routine — and location — the same. But if he stops sleeping well, he may be telling you that he’s outgrown his current location. If he’s in your bed, try a hammock bed or a crib. If he’s in a crib, try a floor bed or your bed.
5. Breathe deep. Of course you can’t control how your baby breathes — although you can teach a toddler to breathe deeply and slowly — but you can help him relax by relaxing yourself. Try holding him close to your body or lying next to him and relaxing your own body. Take deep, slow breaths, and slowly relax all your muscles. Your baby might follow suit.
6. Make a nest. Little babies often love to be swaddled, but older babies and toddler can benefit from similar strategies too. A smaller space can make sleep come more easily. For babies too old to be swaddled, try a sleep sack, a hammock bed, or a “human swaddle” — wrap your arms around him gently so he can’t wiggle around so much. Your toddler may love a body pillow to snuggle up against or a canopy bed so he’ll feel more enclosed. My daughter often sleeps curled up in her play tent on top of her bed.
7. Experiment with lighting. Think pitch-black darkness is the best way to induce sleep? It may not be. Remember that babies are biologically adapted to sleep outdoors, so light that mimics the night sky might make sleep come easier. A nightlight that projects stars onto the ceiling will give an older baby or toddler something interesting to look at. Or a flickering nightlight that imitates candlelight could help your baby relax.
8. Lower the temperature. The evening drop in temperature is one of nature’s signals telling your brain it’s time to sleep. That’s why baths are often a useful part of a bedtime routine: when you take your baby out of the bath, the air on his wet skin makes his body temperature drop, which helps make him sleepy. Try turning the thermostat down a degree or two, or open the window if it’s nice out, and the evening chill might make your overactive baby chill out.
9. Start bedtime in the morning. Forget bedtime routines. For a troubled sleeper, your bedtime routine starts the minute your child wakes up. You can’t control what time he goes to sleep, but you can control when he wakes up, so wake him up on time, and get him outside, even if just for a few minutes. Being out in the sunlight will trigger his brain to be awake — which will mean better sleep once night rolls around.
10. Plan your day around naps. Try scheduling your day around naptimes. Even if you can’t get your baby to sleep for “naptimes,” make sure he rests and has the opportunity to sleep. But don’t spend all day trying. Schedule a reasonable amount of times for naps (60 minutes if he’s on 3 naps a day, 90 if he’s on 2, or 2 hours if he’s on one nap), and if he doesn’t go to sleep in that amount of time, then continue with your day and wait for the next nap. And if he falls asleep late (say, at 10:30 for a nap that was supposed to start at 9:30), then wake him after an hour if he hasn’t woken on his own. Napping too late will push bedtime later, which will push your day later the next day, which will start an endless cycle of later-and-later sleep.
11. Forget about naps. Some babies resist all attempt to be scheduled. If your baby is one of those, try ignoring nap schedules. You might discover that your baby sleeps better while you go about your day. He might resist all efforts to sleep at home but fall asleep happily the minute you put him in the stroller, the car seat, or the Ergo. If that’s the case, you might be able to shift him onto a nap schedule that involves you going out for a walk instead of putting him in bed.
12. Give him lots of exercise. Even non-mobile babies need exercise. Wearing him in a carrier gives him the opportunity to move his body in tandem with yours and feel how to balance his muscles. A few minutes on the floor give him the chance to stretch his limbs and discover his fingers and toes. Older babies and toddlers, of course, need to practice crawling, standing, walking, running, jumping on trampolines, and climbing to the top of the bookshelf.
13. Know your baby’s personality. I don’t advocate “crying it out” for any baby (although if you decide that’s what you need to do for yourself and your family, I support you in making that choice for yourself — it’s just not a technique I’m going to address here), but the reality is that some babies need to fuss before they can sleep, especially if they’re overtired. Some babies work up more stress by crying, and some let out stress by crying. So if your baby needs to fuss in your arms while you soothe him to sleep, don’t feel bad for “doing CIO.” You’re not. An earlier bedtime can sometimes help, but not necessarily. If your baby calms down pretty quickly and goes to sleep, then you know it was because he was tired. It’s okay to be tired at bedtime.
And if none of these work? Take comfort in the reminder that you, at least, do not need sleep. You are strong. You are like a Spartan who can fight for days without food, water, or rest. All you need is a little caffeine and a sweet baby smile.
And as for your baby’s neurological and socio-emotional development being affected by lack of sleep? Don’t worry about that. Worst case scenario is that your baby turns out a little less smart than he otherwise would have been, which seriously? Is okay. It just means he’ll have to work a little harder to outsmart you.
Disclaimer: I am kidding about parents not needing sleep. Obviously. You need lots of sleep and you should get it however and whenever you can. Also, I’m kidding about the brain development. Your baby will be fine if he doesn’t nap.
I’m not kidding about caffeine.
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