Parenting for the Perplexed: Creating bedtime routines helps baby (and you) sleep

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected].

We attended a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all-night Torah study) and realized this should be our child’s — any child’s — favorite Jewish holiday. Forget Purim and Passover; what’s better than staying up all night? At least, our baby seems to think so. We are exhausted! We need help getting our baby on a reasonable bedtime schedule.
P. and M. in Martinez

Dear P. and M.: I, too, love Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and your question reminds me that in the “5 a.m. wake-up” column on Jan. 6 I promised a follow-up on bedtime battles, so this is the perfect opportunity. We’ll cover infants here and older children in Part 2.

Babies and sleep are in the news with the conversation about attachment parenting (see my May 25 column on the topic). I have no quarrel with the claims about the emotional benefits of co-sleeping (e.g., the family bed). But I must note that the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends against it due to concerns about infants being smothered. And I know from the hundreds of parents I have counseled that for many it just doesn’t work, especially if both parents go to work the next morning. Most parents cannot get the quality of sleep needed to function in the adult word with its myriad duties if they sleep with their child.

So, this column is for those who would like their child to sleep in his or her own crib/bed.

Your baby is ready for gentle going-to-sleep training around 3 months. Two fundamental steps taken now will become the building blocks of consistent bedtime routines and, later, sleeping through the night.

Help your baby attach to a transitional object, something strongly associated with the soothing of nursing or bottle and rocking. Get a stuffed animal, make a shmata (10-by-10-inch baby blanket edged with satin), or buy a “lovey” (found in most baby stores). Have two identical ones and use them interchangeably — insurance against losing the beloved object.

Have your baby clutch the lovey or shmata whenever she nurses or will likely fall asleep, be it in a stroller, a pack or car seat. Give her the shmata whenever she goes into the crib. Within two weeks, you should observe a conditioned response: soothing/getting sleepy when the shmata is in her hand.

Some babies attach easily and intensely; others are lukewarm about it. If it’s the latter, the shmata is still very likely to help with falling asleep. You can encourage bonding by sleeping with it at your chest for a week, so it absorbs your body’s smell. And if it’s the former, the relationship will become a deep and abiding love. Decide now whether you want your child toting the shmata everywhere for the next few (or 25) years, helping him to feel secure wherever he goes. If not, restrict the shmata to the crib or bed. There are arguments on both sides. Whichever way you go, do it with forethought and consistency.

Once your baby bonds with the shmata, start putting him in his crib awake. Stop nursing or feeding two minutes early, rousing him gently if he drifts off. Add a routine for going to sleep between feeding and crib, e.g., change his diaper, sing a lullaby (always the same one), kiss each cheek, say goodnight to the moon — then swiftly into the crib where the shmata awaits.

If your baby protests — many will, especially if entrenched in falling asleep in arms/on breast/in a swing — soothe her first with just words, then pat her tummy or jiggle her a bit. If these fail, pick her up and rock her. After she calms, start the routine over from the lullaby.

There is much more to this, but not enough space to share all of it. Be creative, but whatever step you consider, ask yourself: “Am I up for doing this for the next 1,001 nights?”

With your going-to-sleep routine set (a little fussing is OK), you are ready for the “big one”: sleeping through the night. At 7 months and 15 pounds, most babies can go from bedtime (7 to 8 p.m.) to early morning without feeding. Every time your baby wakes, repeat the routine instead of nursing/bottle.

Easier said than done! This is one of the hardest things to pull off and stay sane. I strongly advise getting coaching and support.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.