Dear Mr. Dad: Our six-month old baby has some serious sleep problems. We’ve tried everything—different bedtimes, skipping naps so he’ll be extra tired, changing lullabies, having him nurse just before bed and putting him down asleep, even getting blackout curtains for his room, but he still gets up in the middle of the night and has a terrible time going back to sleep. My wife and I are both exhausted all the time. What can we do?
A: One of the most important things you can do is to establish a bedtime routine—and stick with it. Babies love—and crave—routines, and constantly changing what you’re doing will just confuse your baby and make it harder for him to figure out when to go to sleep. Actually, routines aren’t just for babies. If you’re like most adults, you probably have a nighttime routine of your own, a pattern of activities that you do to help get yourself ready for sleep: read a few chapters of a book, catch up on your DVR, maybe have sex. It’s pretty much the same for babies: bedtime routines make them tired because they associate the activities with sleep.
A routine doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be something as simple as a snuggle, a story, a minute or two of baby massage, a quick nightcap, and some peaceful music. The number and order of the activities aren’t important. Just make sure you’re consistent. Here are a few other ideas that should help.
- Play a lot when he’s awake. Getting plenty of exercise during the day will help your baby sleep.
- Don’t mess with the schedule. It might seem logical that skipping daytime naps would help your baby sleep more at night, but the opposite is true. Your baby takes naps because he needs them. When he doesn’t get enough rest during the day, all the extra dopamine and adrenaline running around his system will make it harder for him to fall asleep at night.
- Make a distinction between day and night. During the day, you’ll pick up your baby, sing, clap, pay games, and do all sorts of things to engage him. In nighttime mode, you’ll do much less talking, much less physical activity, and generally tone things down.
- Don’t go overboard. Turning the lights down and making the house a little quieter is fine, but you need a baby who can fall asleep with the lights on and some background noise. Trying for total silence and total darkness will backfire.
- Put him to bed drowsy but not completely awake.
- Be patient. Babies can be pretty noisy at night. And like us, they wake up many times and look around to make sure the world is still spinning on its axis. So before your dash in to respond to every whimper or cry, take a deep breath and wait a minute. Chances are your baby will fall back to sleep on his own.
- Get the toys out. Some babies wake up at night, see all their toys, and decide that they want to play—and, of course, it’s more fun to play with you than alone.
- Take turns. It’s very chivalrous of you to share the midnight wakeups with your wife, but don’t. Have her take the first few while you get some sleep. Then you take over in the early morning and let her sleep.
Speaking of toys, I just returned from a week in New York seeing (and playing with) hundreds of new toys and games I’ll be sharing some of the highlights over the next few weeks.