Ask D+D: How do you get babies to sleep through the night?

Our first “Ask the Doctor (or the Dad)” question comes to us from a presumably sleep-deprived and bedhead-ridden mom named Heather:

How do you get babies to sleep through the night?
– Heather

Thanks for the question, Heather. We assume you mean your babies, not the neighbor’s babies or some random babies from the next town over that you’ll probably never meet.

Research on children’s sleep provides two clear tips for parents looking to make night-night time less of a nuisance:

1) Create a consistent bedtime routine

Kids benefit from a predictable bedtime routine that allows them to know what’s coming next and to realize that it’s time to relax. In our family, bedtime for our infant includes:

  • a diaper change
  • kisses from daddy and big sister
  • breastfeeding
  • rocking (but not totally to sleep – more on that later)
  • and singing

Bedtime for our big kid includes:

  • using the potty
  • brushing teeth
  • reading one book
  • telling one story “from our minds”
  • and singing one – or when we don’t feel like putting our foot entirely down, two or three – songs

2) Enable children to soothe themselves to sleep

This is the really tough part. As a parent, it feels terrible to see your kid struggle. But let’s face it – sometimes they need to in order to learn a valuable lesson. And learning to soothe himself to sleep is one of those lessons. Self-soothing is a crucial skill because it will enable him to get back to sleep on his own each time he wakes up during the night – allowing him (and you) to catch a lot more Zs. If a child doesn’t learn to soothe himself when he’s young, sleep problems are likely to persist throughout childhood. And this is bad, because sleep is important for children’s physical growth, emotional regulation, IQ, academic achievement and your sanity.

So get ready, because this advice is about to get real.

Much like tongue kissing and interviewing for a job, falling asleep is something kids need to learn to do without their parents around. That doesn’t mean that you can’t cuddle and kiss and talk soothingly and rock your kid at night. It just means that you should stop doing all that stuff before he’s completely asleep. And it also means that when you leave the room, he might cry. And you’ll have to listen to all that crying without rushing back in to make it all stop.

We know as well as anyone that this is no easy task. From the time our daughter was born, we would always rock her until she was totally asleep and then lay her in her crib. This was fine when she was a sleeps-anywhere-and-everywhere newborn, but after several months it got to the point that she would wake up as soon as she touched the mattress and wail. We’d then pick her back up and repeat the whole rocking process – sometimes seven or eight times before she finally let us lay her down without crying.

By the time we decided to make a change, we were desperate. At first, hearing her cries was gut-wrenching. We were pretty sure that we were the worst parents ever and that we were doing permanent damage to her psyche and our relationship. But as she learned to soothe herself and started crying for shorter and shorter stints, it quickly got easier. And rest assured – to our knowledge, NO existing sleep studies suggest that letting a child soothe himself to sleep has any negative effects. Seriously. If you find one that claims otherwise, please start crying about it, and we’ll come check on you in about twenty minutes. On the contrary, study after study report improvements in parent satisfaction, child demeanor (probably because they’re finally getting more sleep) and most importantly, more sleep for both child and parent.

If you’re thinking about trying out this self-soothing thing, it might be nice to know that you don’t have to quit soothing your precious little sugar bean cold turkey. Research suggests that the following steps can ease you and your baby into self-soothing and help you both to finally sleep a little easier.

  1. Begin whenever you feel ready (but not before your baby is about four months old.)
  2. Start with bedtime only. You’ll deal with those pesky middle-of-the-night wakings later.
  3. After your consistent bedtime routine, put your baby in bed and leave the room. If the baby is crying, wait 2-3 minutes and then go in to verbally soothe her (e.g., “It’s time to go night-night. I love you.”) Don’t stay longer than a minute or two when you go in to soothe her and don’t touch her. Next time you leave the room wait 3-4 minutes before you go in, then 7-8 minutes, and then every 10 minutes as needed.
  4. Complete this schedule nightly as needed.
  5. Two weeks later, begin following the same verbal soothing schedule any time your child wakes in the middle of the night, too.

By the time we had our second child, we had learned our lesson about letting a child self-soothe. Since Day One we have never rocked our second baby all the way to sleep, and as a result he is a self-soothing master. Watching him do it through the monitor is like watching a magic trick! So now you’ll know what to do next time if you decide that you’re crazy daring enough to do this whole parenting thing all over again!


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2 thoughts on “Ask D+D: How do you get babies to sleep through the night?

  1. Dear D&D,

    I have found your tips helpful. At what age did your first child learn to sooth herself to sleep? Our children are older and we hope to transition to self soothing. Do you have any helpful hints for older children?

    Thank You,
    Elizabeth, who wishes to have a conversation with her husband before he falls asleep.

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