As a parent, you will learn that children need a certain amount of rules and structure. Not rigidity for the sake of rigidity, but a framework to give them predictability and security. And as a family therapist and sleep expert who has worked with thousands of parents, I’ve realized that parents need rules and structure too! So here are eight “rules” for parents of newborns. These rules won’t get little tiny babies to sleep all night. They aren’t supposed to sleep all night in those first few weeks and months, they need to eat too frequently. But if you follow these rules, you can ever so gently get your baby on a gentle path toward good sleep habits so you won’t have to struggle with night wakenings and sleep deprivation — for all of you — indefinitely.
1. Create a flexible feeding and sleeping routine.
Babies like predictability. Routines also make parenting easier. A routine helps you figure out why a baby may be crying. Ask yourself — how long has she been awake? When did he last eat? If you know by your schedule that he is well-fed and well-rested then you can move on to: Is he hot or cold? Is she over stimulated? Is his diaper wet? Does she need a quiet environment? Keep a simple log to detect your baby’s emerging patterns. By about six to eight weeks, you should have a bedtime routine that ends with some quiet time at the baby’s bedside. As they get older, you will add books and quiet songs and all your own little rituals to make bedtime both a special parent-child time and a time and space for the child’s mind and body to wind down and prepare for sleep.
2. Encourage soothing techniques other than nursing.
Having a whole bag of soothing tricks helps you avoid having a baby that can only calm and put himself to sleep by sucking on a breast or bottle. Instead of feeding your child at every whimper, try swaddling, holding them on their side while cradling them in your arms, gentle rocking or swinging, and “shh-shh-shhing” as you are holding them. Remember that crying is normal! All babies do it, typically for about three hours a day. Certainly you want to respond to your baby’s cries, but you aren’t going to obliterate their tears. It’s part of how they communicate, and you will learn to differentiate between the “I’m hungry” cry and the “pick me up” cry and the “burp me!” cry.
3. Offer a pacifier for soothing and sucking.
Talk to your pediatrician, as medical advice on pacifiers has changed over the years but the current advice is that babies should have pacifiers for sucking and soothing after breastfeeding is well-established (four to six weeks). Babies need to suck, and pacifiers meet that need. But if he spits it out, leave it out. If he wants it back, he’ll let you know. Remember to use other soothing techniques as well when he’s awake and fussy.
4. Sometimes feed your baby when he wakes up — not just when you are trying to get him to sleep.
You want to avoid creating too strong an association between nursing and sleep because that may cause sleep problems later on. Try to find times to nurse her when she is getting up, not only when she is going to sleep. This is easy to do in the morning when they wake up (i.e. wake up, nurse, play, nap). At least once or twice a day, try to get into the pattern of nursing after naps and not before.
6. Introduce one bottle a day — even if you are committed to breastfeeding — by the third or fourth week if breastfeeding has been established.
Introducing a bottle in this time frame is much easier than when they are 6 months old and absolutely refuse! You can use either formula or your pumped breast milk. The idea is to have your baby learn how to use a bottle so she can have Dad or someone else feed her if need be (particularly if you are going back to work outside the home). Bottle feeding also lets both parents have a role in feeding the baby — to give the nursing mom a break, or to just enjoy that special bond with the baby.
7. Create a sleep-friendly environment.
Install room darkening shades, decorate in calm soothing colors and skip the stimulating mobiles in the crib (or bassinet). Lullabies and white noise machines can be helpful if you live in a noisy area or environment. Play the lullabies during the bedtime routine. Once it goes off, leave it off or else your baby won’t know how to sleep or get back to sleep without it
Avoid motion sleep (car, stroller or swing) for all naps after your baby is 8 weeks old. Motion sleep keeps the brain in a light sleep and is less restorative. It’s ok for an occasional nap but from 3 months on you want most of the naps in a crib that is dimly lit, quiet and stationary.
Start a consistent bedtime routine from 6 weeks on. Start with a warm bath, maybe some infant massage, nursing or Dad giving a bottle, dim light, swaddling and holding and then into the crib or bassinette.
8. Nap when your baby naps! And get to bed early.
Having a newborn is tiring. Try not to get yourself so exhausted that you can’t function. Being that exhausted may increase your risk for post-partum depression. It also just isn’t any fun. Take care of yourself so you can enjoy your baby, and have some energy for your partner and any older children who are probably feeling a little uncertain about the new baby and need your time and attention. The dishes and the housework can wait. You and your family are more important.
Copyright © 2009 Kim West, LCSW-C, author of The Sleep Lady®’s Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy
Kim West, LCSW-C, known as The Sleep Lady®, has helped thousands of tired parents gently teach their babies and children how to go to sleep and stay asleep. West has appeared on Dr. Phil, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America, TLC’s Bringing Home Baby, and CNN, and has been written about in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Parents, Baby Talk, Parenting, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today, and the Washington Post. West hosts the sleep section of The Newborn Channel, played in maternity wards in hospitals across the country. She is the mother of two daughters and a licensed child and family therapist, practicing for over seventeen years. She lives with her family in Annapolis, Maryland.
In addition to The Sleep Lady®’s Good Night, Sleep Tight, West is also the author of 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies and the upcoming, Good Night, Sleep Tight Workbook.
Visit Kim West at www.sleeplady.com.