PLN Parenting 101: Guide to Young Baby Sleep

“Mama’s gonna’ buy you a mockingbird… or a new paci, or a noise machine, or …”

First off — and this should sound familiar — understand that getting your 3-6 month-old to sleep is a different experience for everybody.  Research proves it, and when I compare the fierce mom-bags under my eyes this week to the fresh glow of my next-door neighbour (with her sleepy 4-month-old ) I see the confirmation. So. Not. Fair.

At the day’s end, it seems to be as simple as a roll of the dice. Some babies will sleep soundly – others… well, they’re just going to need a bit of extra help if you feel like they need a few more z’s for their sake and yours.

What should the sleep patterns of my 3-6 month-old baby look like?

When your baby grows out of the newborn stage, (during which time they will sleep for an average of 16-18 hours each day), and enters the 12-week/3-month phase, your baby should be sleeping for about 14-16 hours in a 24 hours period. You should also find that bedtime begins to happen a little earlier than the newborn days. By the time your baby reaches the 6-month mark, they should be getting an average of 12-14 hours of sleep each day.

Is this Four Month Sleep Regression I keep hearing about actually a thing?

Sort of. There is evidence that a lot of changes happen around the 3-4 month mark which could explain why parents who previously thought they might actually have this sleep thing down pat are suddenly being faced with a babe who is waking several times a night. This period usually comes with an increase in brief wakings every 60-90 minutes, and if your baby is used to being fed, rocked, shushed, paci’d back to sleep, chances are they will be expecting this throughout these wakings now too. Great, so what to do? Well, you can ride it out and accept that this is your life for the next few months or years (I mean, no one knows a four-year-old who still expects to be rocked to sleep in the middle of the night, right?), or you can find one of several methods to help your baby learn to self-soothe during these wakings.

 “SLEEP TRAINING” YOUR 3-6 MONTH-OLD

Here are a few popular sleep training methods many people (including me!) are using right now to help train 3-6-month-old babies to sleep better:

Establish a sleepy time routine and stick to it. A 3-6 month old baby will begin to recognize and take comfort in behavioral patterns and they’ll expect certain things to happen at certain times of the day, like during their sleepy time. It’s true: babies prefer order to chaos too. Seriously, set a routine in the 3-6 month window and you’ll reap the rewards later. Added bonus: This will make the transition to a sitter or caregiver easier on everyone, including your little one, when the time comes.

DJ those funky, sleepy sounds: This isn’t really about music, although maybe Sinatra in the crib is the secret to rearing the next Michael Buble. Many sleep specialists recommend playing some kind of ‘white noise,’ like a fan, in your baby’s room. It’s thought that the whooshing sound mimics what babies hear in the womb, and our little sleepers associate it with being soothed and comforted. You can also buy baby-specific noise machines or download ‘white noise’ MP3s for babies. The sound will also help disguise the regular ‘house sounds’ of creaking floors, barking dogs, or toilet flushings that may be culprit to foiling your baby’s sleep schedule.

Embrace mood lighting: Light and dark are major factors to a baby’s concept of sleepytime and wakey-time, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. When you want baby to start winding down, try dimming the lights well ahead of true bedtime. When your baby cries in the night, leave the light off and soothe him or her in the dark. Avoid using nightlights in your baby’s room that give off a stimulating yellow or white glow (you want to find a soft blue-ish nightlight).

Sleepy-but-awake: Heard that a lot? It’s tempting to always cuddle your baby to sleep when they’re little for so many good reasons, but it’s worth occasionally trying to put them down when they aren’t 100% asleep if you would like to eventually have them fall asleep without you. Studies show that if you increase how often you do this as your baby grows older, you give them the opportunity to slowly learn how to fall asleep on their own.

The night fast: Turns out, 90% of 6-month-olds can sleep through the night without being fed, according to Kim West, clinical social worker and author of 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. If you’ve become a 24-hour diner for your baby, try putting your baby down while sleepy but still awake instead of feeding to sleep. Some pediatricians suggest that rather than stopping the night feedings cold turkey, you can try eliminating one night feeding at a time and choosing a different way to soothe your baby at that time. Or you could try decreasing the amount of formula/milk in each bottle, or the amount of time on the breast. Either will begin to work out to more sleep and less night-time feedings.

The pacifier-be-gone method: Weaning your baby off their pacifier can be tough. But it’s a well-known fact that one of the reasons our 3-6-month-old babies wake up screaming bloody murder in the night is because they’ve lost their paci and don’t yet have the fine motor skills to pop it back in their mouth. As recommended by Dr. Janet K. Kennedy, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, letting your baby cry out their frustration of losing the paci, rather than giving it back to them, is a tough way to get more sleep but it has worked for many parents. On that note…

Controlled crying: Also known as the Ferber method, this is a form of the “cry it out” method. Controlled crying works for some people, but not for all. It requires you to leave your baby to cry for increasing intervals of time, starting with just one or two minutes at a time. Some babies respond remarkably well to this method, and cry less overall than with other methods. Some babies take many hours to settle, and experience a lot of distress. Many experts recommend waiting until your baby is at least six months old before starting since there is currently not enough research on what the risk are in younger infants. At the end of the day you know your baby best; it’s up to you to judge how your baby is responding and whether this method is right for you.

Cry it out (CIO): Also called the Extinction Method, this technique is largely seen as outdated by most medical professionals. In the past, parents were often advised to “put the baby in the crib, close the door, and not open it again until morning.” This is a very extreme approach and not one that is supported by research; it’s called extinction because babies tire themselves out through crying and eventually fall asleep. Well-meaning relatives might insist this is what you need to do to get your baby to sleep, but in reality, it’s always advisable to try the gentler methods first, and maybe enlist the help of a sleep consultant before resorting to CIO.

HOW CAN I MAKE SURE MY BABY IS SAFE WHILE SLEEPING?

There’s no sugar-coating this, so we will be straight with you – SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is real, it’s scary, and baby safety is crucially important at all stages of your baby’s life, particularly during the first 12 months. Often, though not always, SIDS is caused by a variety of sleep-related accidents such as:

Suffocation: This could occur if soft bedding, like a pillow or mattress cover accidentally covered an infant’s nose and mouth, reducing their ability to breathe.

Overlay: This is when another person accidentally rolls on top of or against the baby while they are sleeping in the same bed.

Strangulation: This could occur if the baby’s head and neck were to become caught between crib railings.

Entrapment: This is when a baby becomes wedged between two objects such as a mattress and wall.

Accidents certainly do happen, but you can actively help to prevent these tragic possibilities. Always make sure your baby sleeps safely in their crib (not in your bed) and keep a close eye for signs that your 3-6-month-old is getting ready to roll over if they are being swaddled (i.e. pay close attention to when they start to move around more in their crib). You should also become a ‘tuck pro’ right away, making sure that every single time you lay your little one down, there’s no loose bedding in the crib that could cause them harm. You’re the sheet police now.

Relax, you got this.

Remember, as you stand there in the early morning dark, shuffling around in your jammies, yearning for your pillow, rocking your screaming baby back to non-sleep, just take heart and remember that the non-sleeping phase truly won’t last forever. It sounds ridiculous, but try to enjoy it while you can, because this phase of our lives as new parents is so fleeting. Find other sleep-deprived parents to commiserate with. Vent your crankiness to someone other than your partner (so you’re not just transferring the stress). We might not all agree on which approach to sleep training is best, but we can all agree on one thing: our kids grow up too fast.

Besides, soon enough you’ll be putting in a Herculean effort to haul them out of bed to get them brushing their teeth, eating waffles, and onto the school bus on time…

Helpful Resources:

The No-Cry Sleep Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley

The Sleep Lady®’s Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy, by Kim West

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Canada

Lindsey Irwin

Lindsey Irwin

Lindsey Irwin is a Communications Specialist, and a chronic 'dabbler' - she's taught overseas, worked for a Fortune 500, moonlights as a freelance writer, and is currently working for a college. She lives in beautiful Millbrook with her growing family, her mean, old cat (Phil) & her two lovely mutts (Harley & Gus). She enjoys running, craft beer & sunshine.