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How to Raise a Good Sleeper: Part 1

By Janet K. Kennedy, PhD, NYC Sleep Doctor

Sleep is a hot topic among new parents and there are countless theories about how to get it.  Scan the shelves at your bookstore or search "infant sleep" and you'll come up with dozens of books. Try to read them all -- or even a few --and you might end up even more confused.  If you happen to be a new parent,  you're probably already exhausted and overwhelmed.  What you need is a few straightforward strategies that you can work with -- NOW!

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Children and Sleep

The single-most important thing you can do for your child is to get him or her as much sleep as possible.  It doesn't matter whether you are planning to co-sleep or "Ferberize," your child will sleep better if well-rested.  That sounds like circular reasoning: the whole problem is that your child is not sleeping enough!  But the key to a well-rested child is making sure he or she sleeps often, which you can control, versus long, which you cannot.


Don't let your child get overtired

When babies are drowsy, they fall asleep easily.  When they are overtired, they don't.  That's because our bodies release adrenaline when we are exhausted.  This adrenaline release is designed to keep us awake when we are tired. Basically, if you don't sleep when your body is tired, your nervous system assumes that you need to stay awake and gives you a boost of adrenaline.  Think about your college days or other times when you might have pulled an "all-nighter."  It's often hard to go right to sleep when it's all over.  That's because your body is full of adrenaline.

Adrenaline is powerful in babies.  It makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep, stay asleep, and return to sleep. Sleep is less restful and overtired babies often wake up too early in the morning.  So, don't listen to the people who tell you to,  "tire your baby out," "limit naps," or "keep him or her up late at night."  They're wrong.  The key to good nighttime sleep is to keep your child from becoming overtired.

Babies who are well-rested learn to fall asleep on their own, without endless soothing, feeding, rocking, walking or tending.  They learn to get themselves back to sleep during the night when they wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. They don't cry at bedtime or protest when you leave them alone to fall asleep.  They learn to love sleep.

Looking for drowsy signs:

Babies let you know when they are drowsy.  You just need to learn how to read their cues.  My personal favorite is the long, slow-motion blink.  As soon as you see it, swing into your sleep routine.  Other cues include: slowing down or seeming less interested in surroundings, putting head down, droopy or glassy eyes, becoming quiet and of course, yawning.

If you miss the drowsy signs, you'll notice: eye rubbing, pulling on ears, crankiness/fussiness, crying, spazzy movements, quickly shifting among several activities, looking wired, bursts of energy at times when fatigue should be evident.


Tips for keeping your child well-rested:

1. Put your newborn to sleep frequently.  Make sure your newborn is never awake for more than 90 minutes to 2 hours. Follow your baby's drowsy cues and start getting him/her ready for sleep before becoming overtired.  Don't doubt that your child needs to sleep again so soon after waking up.  If your baby looks drowsy, he or she most likely needs to sleep.  It's better to catch him or her too early than too late!

2. Follow your baby's schedule.  As your newborn reaches 3 to 4 months of age, he or she starts to be able to stay awake longer between naps.  Keep following drowsy cues and a schedule will start to develop with 3 naps during the day.  As the naps lengthen and your baby starts to stay awake longer between them, the third nap drops off (usually sometime between 8 and 10 months of age.)  When that happens, make sure to compensate by moving the bedtime earlier.  The morning nap phases out between 14 and 19 months of age and the single nap settles in at midday. (Stay tuned for more on transitions in future articles.)

3. Nap at home. In the early weeks, babies can sleep almost anywhere.  But, as they reach a few months of age, they become more stimulated by things going on around them.  It becomes harder for them to sleep in the stroller, car or carrier.  Even if your child has long naps in the stroller, he can become overtired because the quality of the sleep is not the same as sleeping at home.

4. Put your baby to bed early.  An early bedtime is extremely important to keep your child well-rested.  By about 3 months of age, babies start needing to go to sleep for the night sometime between 6 and 8 pm.  This is difficult for working parents, but it is critical for your child.  If you keep your baby up later to spend time with him or her, he is likely to become overtired and start waking up during the night or too early in the morning.

Just remember:  Good sleepers aren't born.  They're raised!

Up next:  Part 2 of "How to Raise a Good Sleeper" - helping YOU create bedtime routines that work.


Janet Kennedy, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, has helped hundreds of adults and small children solve their sleep problems. 

For more information about Dr. Kennedy, please visit