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Help! My Newborn Won't Sleep at Night: A Guide for New Parents

I'm a Wisconsin-based husband and father who writes on a variety of topics including health, fitness, spirituality, & addiction-counseling.

Ethan shortly after birth

Ethan shortly after birth

Getting a newborn baby to sleep at night can be extremely frustrating and challenging for new parents. A newborn's need to feed every few hours can seriously interrupt nighttime rest and exhaust new parents. When my wife and I first became parents, we struggled to help our baby sleep at night.

After a lot of trial and error, we learned how to help our little one sleep, and as a result, our whole family was able to get some rest. Here are three ways to help your baby sleep at night.

Why Your Newborn Isn't Sleeping

Newborn babies may struggle to sleep for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they're gassy or fussy. Other times, they might be hungry or need a new diaper. Occasionally, a baby may be unable to sleep for other reasons that aren't as easy to determine. This article will shed light on the potential reasons why a baby might not be sleeping. New parents should consider every possibility when trying to assess why a newborn isn't sleeping.

Christmas time as Ethan turns 4 months.

Christmas time as Ethan turns 4 months.

Help Your Baby Sleep With These Tips

1. Establish a Bedtime Routine for Your Newborn

After you and your newborn have had time to recover from the birthing process, your baby will take several weeks to adjust to life. In that time, feeding usually takes precedence over setting a firm sleeping schedule. Babies usually need to eat every few hours. After your baby has passed this stage, you can start to establish a sleeping routine. While you and your baby get adjusted to one another, observe when your baby typically takes their longest stretch of nighttime sleep. Observing when your baby falls asleep will make it easier to form a bedtime routine when the time comes.

Once your baby is a few weeks old and more capable of sleeping for stretches of a few hours at a time, you can start establishing a routine. If your child sleeps for 4-5 hours at a time each night, then begin a bedtime routine about 30 minutes before they usually get sleepy.

Bedtime Routines Should Include:

  • Dim the lights and keep noise levels low.
  • Make your baby feel comfortable. If they're too hot or cold it will be hard for them to sleep.
  • Calm your baby with gentle rocking and soft, soothing sounds.
  • Ensure that your baby has a clean diaper.
  • Feed your baby shortly before putting him/her to bed. If they are hungry, they won't rest for long.

A bedtime routine signals that it is time to rest. Babies can get used to a bedtime process and they will eventually be comforted by it. Following similar guidelines to prepare your child for a nap will also help your baby get familiar with the signs that it's time to snooze.

Ethan dressed as Winnie the Pooh for Halloween.

Ethan dressed as Winnie the Pooh for Halloween.

2. Let Your Baby Take Naps During the Day

If you're trying to get your baby to sleep at night, you should start by making sure that your child can take naps during the day. According to KidsHealth.org, if your baby hasn't napped, he may be exhausted and too fussy when it's time to sleep at night. Napping isn't just important for a baby's nighttime sleep, it is important for a child's overall health and development.

Napping gives children time to recharge so they aren't overwhelmed by their days. It is also necessary for their physical and mental well-being. The New York Times reports that when children are awake, sleep pressure builds up in their brains, which causes a biological need to nap. Young children are less capable of tolerating long periods of wakefulness than older kids and adults. Napping isn't just good for babies, it can also give parents crucial time to rest or manage other tasks. Don't try to keep your baby up all day so he'll sleep at night. It's best to allow your child to nap when they need to. This article from WhatToExpect.com offers some great tips on making nap time more successful for parents and babies

3. Sleep-Train Your Baby

As a baby gets older, some parents find that they want to change or encourage certain sleeping habits. Adjusting sleeping behaviors is typically called "sleep-training." There are several methods of sleep training that parents can implement in order to address a particular need. Some people sleep-train their children to change how a child prepares for rest and some people sleep-train to help their child adjust to changes. For example, the process of moving a baby out of his/her parents' room and into his/her own room may be a good opportunity to explore sleep-training methods.

There are several methods of sleep-training and some of them are controversial. If you're thinking of starting a sleep-training process, consult your pediatrician and do lots of research before deciding on a course of action. Some forms of sleep-training include:

  • Self-soothing: This process encourages babies to comfort and relax themselves enough to sleep. Sometimes self-soothing babies need to suck on a pacifier or play with their hands in order to calm themselves enough to be able to sleep.
  • The Pick-Up-and-Put-Down Method: This practice entails picking up a distressed child and soothing him/her until he/she is calm enough to be put down. Usually, the baby will still be awake when he or she is placed in their crib. The goal is to calm the child enough to help them drift to sleep on their own. If the child starts to fuss and cry, the parent should pick him/her up again and only put the baby down after they've calmed down, but before they've begun to sleep.
  • Cry-It-Out Method: This entails letting a baby cry for a specific amount of time before you try to comfort the child and extending the amount of time that you let your child cry before responding each time.

There are other methods of sleep-training and the ultimate goal of sleep-training is to encourage babies to fall asleep by themselves without much aid from their parents. If your baby is old enough and you have discussed a sleep-training plan with your doctor, sleep-training may be a good way to help all members of a family get to bed and get some rest.

Tips for a Good Night's Rest

Sleep when your baby sleeps

Ask a friend or family member to watch your baby while you sleep

Avoid taking sleep aids

Avoid falling asleep while holding your newborn

Will a White Noise or Sound Machine Help My Infant Sleep?

Some parents rely on white noise machines or other sound ambiance devices to help their babies relax and sleep. While I personally haven't used one of these machines, I must urge interested parents to do research to determine which devices are safe to use and learn how to use them properly. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that sound machines can damage a baby's ears if they're used too often or too closely to children. The New York Times also reported that infant sound machines can pose a risk to children when used at their maximum volume.

Some studies have determined that there's a correlation between sound machine use and a decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In addition to the potential decreased risk of SIDS, many parents have had positive results when using sound devices to drown out noises that may disturb a sleeping baby. One potential side effect of using sound machines is that babies may become dependent on them and unable to sleep without the device. If you choose to use a sound machine, be careful and responsible.

Establishing a Sleep Schedule

Some parents find it helpful to adhere to a schedule so their baby eats and sleeps at specific times everyday. Many parents adjust their schedule as their baby ages to account for typical growth-associated changes in the amount of time babies sleep, but my wife and I don't adhere to a sleep schedule.

During the first few weeks, our baby would wake up every two hours or so to eat, and he'd occasionally stay awake for up to four hours at a time during the day. Sometimes we could predict how long he would sleep or stay awake, but other times we could not, so we decided to go with the flow.

Some parents and babies find it easy to stick to a sleeping and feeding schedule and some don't. Consider what works best for your baby and your family when you try to establish a sleep schedule.

What to Do When the Sleeping Routine Doesn't Work

Even though my son is almost one, he still wakes up in the middle of the night at least one to two nights per week. This is a pretty normal occurrence. However, there have been some scary nights where he didn't sleep much and he spent the night crying inconsolably. When he was about six weeks old, there was a night where he had just finished eating dinner and about twenty minutes later he started to cry. My wife and I went through our usual routine of trying to burp him, changing his diaper, and giving him more food, but nothing seemed to work and the crying actually increased. We didn’t know what to do except hold him and rock him, which didn’t seem to work either. If you’ve never been in this situation before, it’s easy to panic and maybe even consider going to the hospital, because I know we did. He cried for another twenty minutes before he finally fell asleep. I’m pretty sure he fell asleep because he expended so much energy crying and had no energy left.

After consulting the nurse’s line at our hospital, we determined that either Ethan was colicky or he had a case of indigestion. He ended up sleeping for a little while and then he started crying again. He wasn't responding to anything we did to soothe him, so the nurse suggested that we give him some infant gas relief drops (A.K.A. Simethicone drops). After administering the proper dosage to Ethan, he quickly responded, let out some gas from both ends, and then calmed down. I highly recommend trying gas relief methods or contacting a medical professional if your infant cries continuously and seems inconsolable.

If your newborn continues to cry after thirty minutes and just cannot stay asleep, it would be a good idea to consider taking him/her to the hospital because there may be something more serious going on inside his/her body. It’s a tough line to draw because on the one hand you don’t want to be a hysterical parent, but on the other, you want to help your baby feel better. All I can say is that no one is perfect and parents have to make tough decisions all the time. We make mistakes, but as long as you have your newborn’s best interests at heart, these mistakes can be minimized and, as your infant grows and develops, he/she will eventually sleep all night.

My Story: How I Got My Baby to Sleep

At First, My Newborn Didn't Sleep at Night

As I am writing this article, my first-born son, Ethan, will be hitting that one year mile mark very soon. As I sit back and ponder about his short life thus far, I can’t help but think that there are so many parents out there experiencing parenthood for the first time. There are many fears and concerns a first-time parent experiences and one of the main concerns is how you will ever get a full night of rest. If your newborn struggles to sleep through the night, then welcome to the all-nighters club! It is normal for your newborn to stay awake at night and sleep during the day.

Before Ethan arrived, I used to think to myself that I could handle my son waking up in the middle of the night or that I could handle not sleeping at all. Of course that changed when he arrived and turned our worlds upside down. The nurse said it was normal for a newborn to sleep all day and stay awake at night and I tried my best to prepare for that, but my best preparation just wasn’t enough.

No Rest for the Weary

It was 11:07pm when my wife and I welcomed Ethan into the world. His way of saying "hello" after the doctors looked him over was to tell us that he was hungry. My wife was exhausted, but she mustered what little strength she had to nurse our son. Eventually Ethan fell asleep and we thought it was our turn to get some rest too. Well, Ethan had another opinion and his ruled above our own. He wanted to eat again after he had just eaten an hour ago. What was going on? Why was he hungry again? My wife nursed him again while she was half asleep. This pattern went on throughout the night. In addition to the back and forth between sleeping and feedings, we still had to go through a standard vaccination process, blood work, paperwork, and checkups. My son and wife endured it all and as a result, the whole family was exhausted.

Eventually it was time to leave the hospital and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was tired of seeing nurses and doctors every few hours and I just wanted to go home. It was the middle of the day when we left the hospital and Ethan was fast asleep. That day he slept for almost three hours before he wanted to eat again, which was bliss for my wife and I. I thought to myself that maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad and I hoped he would sleep that night as well. I actually wanted to keep Ethan up so he could sleep at night, but once again his will won against mine and I caved. Ethan slept the day away.

That night was a complete nightmare. Not only did Ethan want to stay awake all night, but he also wanted to eat what seemed like every hour. I was doing my best to help my wife, but there was only so much I could do. If you’re a new dad reading this, the best thing you can do for your wife is be there for her. Yes, that means staying up with her while she nurses because it’s probably a new skill for both her and your newborn. Your support will mean a lot to your partner.

The Adjustment Period

During the first few weeks, we were awakened every few hours to feed and change our baby, and it took about a month before he slept for four to five hours per night. According to What to Expect When You're Expecting's website, this behavior is normal for a newborn. His pattern of sleeping during the day and staying up all night changed after about a week or so. I’ve learned that it’s natural and normal for a newborn to sleep during the day and stay up at night, so try not to disrupt that too much. He/she will eventually catch on to days and nights, and he/she will learn when to sleep and when not to sleep.

Also keep in mind that even though you can't spoil a baby, you can ensure that he/she becomes accustomed to a routine. If you are nursing constantly during the night after eight weeks or so, your baby may get used to that and start to expect it. After a certain point, if Ethan woke up in the middle of the night, we did our best not to feed him unless he couldn't fall back asleep or we could hear his tummy growling. We didn't want to encourage the routine of feeding him in the middle of the night, and to this day we try to avoid feeding him right away when he cries. About a day prior to finishing this article, Ethan woke up crying around 5 a.m., so I picked him up and we walked around the house for a few minutes. He looked around and saw that no one else was up and that it was still dark, so he fell back asleep and slept for another hour.

As your baby grows older, he/she will start realize when they are by themselves and for some babies that scares them and will trigger a crying session during the early hours of the morning. When babies wake up like this, they usually want to be held and cuddled. You can respond to your baby's need for comfort depending on your personal parenting style, but my wife and I try not to cuddle with our son too much in the middle of the night. When Ethan wakes up, we console him, but we do not engage in playing or very much cuddling. He eventually learned that waking up in the middle of the night was not going to yield playtime or a midnight snack, so that behavior decreased after a few days.

Some parents set a routine while others do not. My wife and I fall somewhere in between because routines cannot always be followed 100% of the time, but at the same time, Ethan should not be dictating the routine— especially in the middle of the night. A baby's inability to sleep all night is very common, and you should try to find your own way of managing your baby's sleep patterns. Be patient (which is something I have to work on everyday and night) and know that this stage will pass soon enough and then you will be on to the next one. Enjoy parenthood and try to get some rest!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

tamron on September 06, 2013:

I can relate when my son came home. I thought I would never get any sleep. I was also scared because I was a single parent with not much help at all. Nice PICS.