Why baby won’t sleep alone (and 3 steps to fix)
Sleep is a learned behavior and while there are the occasional “unicorn” babies who learn to sleep naturally, and consistently enjoy a good night's sleep, many babies need help learning.
That's because every child and family is unique, including yours! Through my own parenting journey, the education I’ve received and the 10+ years I have spent helping new parents as a sleep consultant, I know that research-based recommendations help parents feel informed and empowered along their family’s journey, and through each developmental phase.
If your baby won’t sleep alone, here’s how to help them learn this important skill.
Step 1: Assess your current situationSleep deprivation is hard! I know from personal experience. And worst of all, a lack of sleep can often make us feel like we are not a good parent. But before you make any hasty changes, it is really important to take a close look at what you are currently doing. Write it all down or keep a daily log for a few days.
Tip: I offer a free printable log download to make it easy.
📝 Here’s what you need to record in order to have a complete picture of where things stand currently:
- Where does the baby sleep? (crib, co-sleeping, bassinet, pack-n-play, carseat, etc).
- When does the baby sleep (e.g. what amount of time? From 5am-8am, etc.)
- How long does your baby sleep in any one stretch?
- How much breastmilk/formula is the baby getting right now?
- How does the baby fall asleep currently? (e.g. do they fall asleep while breastfeeding or with a bottle? Do you rock them to sleep? Do they fall asleep while driving in the car, etc.) Tracking what is helping baby fall asleep currently will help you uncover their sleep associations. A sleep association is a routine or behavior that babies need in order to fall asleep. Some sleep associations require a parent or caregiver’s presence, while others do not.
- What are baby’s sleep cues? Sleep cues are signs that babies give when they are ready for sleep. Some are obvious, some not so much.
Here are signs babies show when they are getting sleepy:💗 Flutter their eyes before they drift off.
💗 One to two long slow blinks.
💗 A sigh that they let out.
💗 Feeling heavy and relaxed in your arms.
Tip: Check out my YouTube channel where I share videos like this on what sleepy signs look like in real life.
Why is learning baby sleep cues important?
So that your little one does not get habituated to being held, fed, rocked to sleep and then transferred to a sleep space. These are common reasons that your baby may become dependent on you to help them fall asleep.
Ideally what you want them to learn is to fall asleep IN their sleep space from a drowsy state. Then over time, once they get accustomed to being laid down drowsy, you can lay them down less and less drowsy as they begin to know how to settle themselves to sleep separate from you.
It is a practice and it often doesn’t happen overnight but if you put the practice in at an early age, you will see the payoff when they are older.
As a parent your job is to discover what your unique baby does to display that drowsy but awake state. You may even find that there are certain times of day when the signs are clear and laying him/her down is easier.
Deciphering baby’s wakings: Why did the baby wake?
You want to try to understand the difference between a habit waking and a hunger waking. To do this, you can start by tracking the quality of each feed at night. Oftentimes a handful of feeds are substantial and others are used as a means to resettle. Light feeds often indicate waking out of habit, not need and voracious feeds are necessary for filling your baby up. To reduce the habit wakings, many parents turn to some form of sleep training to help a baby learn to resettle without the need for a comfort feed.
Step 2: Learn what to expect at each age
Knowing what is realistic to expect for your baby is half the battle. Baby's needs change as they grow. When babies are first born, during the newborn stage, they are still in a very internal state. In these early days, they sleep longer, they are more adaptable, they can often sleep pretty much anywhere and “trick” parents into thinking that they are GREAT SLEEPERS!
And then your newborn baby begins to grow...and the 12 weeks leap hits (i.e. the baby turns 3 or 4 months of age) and everything changes. Sleep problems may emerge. Sound familiar? All of a sudden your perfectly good sleeper starts waking up every 2 hours, and begins to resist sleeping in their own crib, and starts to want to be held and rocked more to sleep. Maybe you first notice they no longer want to sleep in their own bed alone.
This change in behavior is a result of brain patterns changing, and awareness growing as their eyes literally come into focus and they begin being aware of their surroundings more. With the change in brain patterns, their mental development begins to expand and their awareness of their surroundings intensifies.
While this is a tough change in routine, the good thing is that your baby is beginning to grow in their self soothing capacities as well which means that when you begin to start thinking about sleep training, you can rest assured that your baby will know how to resettle at night.
The reality is that while some unicorn babies sleep through the night at 2 months of age, most babies are not physiologically able to until closer to 7-8 months of age.
Hang in there with me while I give you some basic information to set realistic expectations and guide you and your baby toward a better night’s sleep.
Is your baby ready to sleep longer stretches at night?
That answer will depends on many factors, such as:
- the developmental readiness of your baby,
- whether your baby is free and clear of any pain (from teething, acid reflux or GI issues)
- whether he/she is in the middle of a developmental leap which often leads to a sleep regression
When do these developmental leaps occur?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, unless your baby was born premature, most babies go through these developmental leaps at the following times:
- 5-6 weeks
- 8-9 weeks
- 12 weeks
- 19-20 weeks
- 25-26 weeks (6 months)
- 33-37 weeks
- 43-47 weeks
- 55 weeks (just after first birthday)
Why is this important to you as a parent?
At the early developmental leaps, your baby is noticing patterns, images, sensations and forming crucial relationships. As they get older (19 weeks and older) their developmental leaps coincide with a movement milestone such as rolling, crawling, pulling to standing and walking.
As they integrate patterns and relationships, or as they learn a new movement there is a marked increase in brain activity which can present to parents as clingy, fussy and an unpredictable sleep schedule.
While this can be frustrating and lead to sleep issues for everyone, I assure you, your baby is doing exactly what she or he needs to be doing and it is a really good sign of important development.
Baby Sleep Patterns by Age
Here are some key guidelines to follow to establish good sleep habits that will set you up to have realistic, evidence-based expectations of what your baby can and can not do at various ages:
0-4 month olds often need to eat every 3-4 hours at night
5-7 month olds--every 5-7 hours
7+ often can go 7+ hours before they need a feed. Why? Because by 7 months most babies are being introduced to hearty solid foods that sustain them longer through the night.
How long should a baby be awake (wake time) between daytime naps?
- 4-6 months of age: 2-2.5 hours of awake time
- 6-9 months of age: 2.5-3 hours of awake time
- 9-12 months of age: 3-4 hours of awake time
How many naps should my baby take per day?
- 4-6 months of age: 3 naps a day
- 6-9 months: 2 naps a day (9 or 10 am & 1 or 2 pm)
- 9-12 months: 2 naps a day
- 12-18 months: 1 nap a day
Why does my baby wake up after 30 minutes of sleep?
Babies typically sleep in cycles. If babies are put into bed sound asleep, they pop up after their first sleep cycle (30-60 minutes) and call out to have that same routine repeated in order for them to fall back asleep. These routines that parents create to help babies fall asleep are called sleep associations.
Helping baby sleep for longer periods
Sleeping through the night is 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. So this may mean that the baby wakes in the middle of the night for nighttime feedings but for all other wakings, your baby can self soothe and resettle. While most babies get enough sleep with 10-12 hours of sleep at night, a baby is “sleeping through the night” when they get 8 hours uninterrupted before needing night feedings and then resettle post feed for another stretch of sleep.
Step 3: Optimize the sleep environment
A dark room is best for sleep
The persistent light to dark cycle of the sun has a powerful effect on our body’s circadian rhythm, sleep, and alertness. Most parents know this already but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of blackout curtains to keep the room dark.
Next to a dark room, a good white noise machine if your baby is sound sensitive is another must have to block out distracting or stimulating noises.My favorite Portable White Noise Machine:
Establish a Sleep Routine
An effective sleep routine or pre-bedtime routine typically involves low lights, quiet voices, bath time and simple play in the child's room. This can be a warm bath, a massage, or simply reading a few stories in a soft voice in the baby's own room.
ProTip: Begin to have a pre-bedtime routine in place by 12-weeks of age, incorporating a big feed, wind down time, topper feed, and then bedtime.
Some babies habituate to a certain song or lullaby, or the sound of the white noise machine coming on. While carrying out the pre-bedtime routine, please be sure to take some slow deep breaths yourself as your ability to calm and get present will send signals to your little one that will help him or her to calm their central nervous system.
If you have a little one who is at the age where he or she understands your words well, you can also begin to talk to them about the things that are coming up for the sleep routine. For example: "First we are going to take a bath, and then we are going to read some books and then it is night-night time."
Be sure to re-establish the sleep routine in a way that has your child going into his/her crib drowsy but awake so that they learn to put themselves to sleep using their own self soothing mechanisms.
Remember that bedtime is determined from when they wake from their last nap and this usually falls between 6:30-8:30pm.
Most importantly: Be consistent. At the end of the day, this will determine your success!
Key takeaway: Sleep is never one size fits all and is often not a linear path
The books and online courses about baby’s sleep needs simply don’t cover all the questions you may have about your baby. Even this blog post is just scratching the surface.
Whether you are trying to wean your baby from the breast, bottle or any number of other sleep associations, with a careful assessment of feeds, realistic expectations and being informed of what your baby is capable of, sleeping without you is possible.
If you are ready to create a tailored plan that reflects you and your baby, please, reach out. I can help. Together, we will set your family on the path to feeling refreshed and renewed again.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Sarah. As a mother of two, I quickly learned that sleep is influenced by a variety of factors and there is not one RIGHT way to help baby sleep. Both of my daughters had unique temperaments and struggles, and I was humbled to learn that newborns are complicated and parenting in a world of information overload is stressful.
Now, I partner with parents to create a tailored plan using an evidence-based and multidimensional approach to sleep. I take great care in co-creating a plan that takes into account all of the factors that makes each family unique, including parenting philosophies, infant temperament and readiness, age, weight gain, health and development and much more. To date, I have helped over 2,000 families.
If you're ready to teach baby to sleep independently and feel like someone’s got your hand through all of this, contact me. Tell me more about what you’re facing and I can answer your questions about my approach to working with families and offer a personalized plan that gives you the support you and your family deserve.