Looking to fine-tune your baby's sleep habits? We've got the solutions that put an end to all-nighters.
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My son, Zachary, spent the better part of his first week on this planet asleep, and my husband and I took all the credit. We're second-time parents: We know what we're doing this time! Everything is so much easier! And then Zachary woke up. The next few months were a blur of night wakings, napless afternoons, and pre-bedtime battles. And, of course, when he didn't sleep, neither did we. Little did we know that there were a number of reasons behind his erratic sleep habits—and "he's just not tired" wasn't one of them. Read on to see if any of these culprits are keeping your family up all night.

Your Baby Is Too Excited to Sleep

Whether they're being tossed into the air by Daddy, watching a video, or simply splashing in the tub, your baby may be spending their evenings doing the exact opposite of winding down. Not only will they think that going to bed equals missing out on fun, but those good times can make an already sleepy baby overtired. "When that happens it's actually much harder for him to fall asleep," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D, Parents advisor and author of Sleeping Through the Night. "And he'll wake up more often during the night."

Sleep Solution: Give your baby's bedtime routine a makeover. Ditch the tickle-fests and replace them with a massage, lullaby, story, or swaddling for a younger baby. And skip Baby Einstein screenings—TV is stimulating and makes it harder to fall asleep.

You should also consider your baby's temperament when you choose a ritual; not all bedtime staples are relaxing for every baby. Even baths may be a no-no. "Some babies find them thrilling and get wound up," says Ann Douglas, author of Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler. If that's the case, move tub time to earlier in the day.

Pay attention to your mood too—if you're tense, your baby will probably pick up on it. "When you're getting him ready for bed, you should slow down too," says Dr. Mindell. "Move quietly and dim the lights. Bedtime should be a cozy time with your child."

Your Baby Is Sensitive to Their Environment

You spent your pregnancy in search of the perfect lullaby CD and cozy bedding for your baby's nursery. But despite your hard work, they may not be comfortable. "Some babies are very sensitive to their external and internal environment," says Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. "They may be bothered by the phone ringing, the feeling of a clothing label, or even sensations in their body, like food digesting." Babies can ignore these sensations during the day when there's a lot of noise, but it's much harder at night.

Sleep Solution: Make your baby's environment as soothing as possible. If you're not sure what's bothering them, start by removing pajama tags, using softer sheets, and darkening their room. And while parents assume babies need lots of bundling, your little one may be overheated. "Feel her neck and ears," says Dr. Karp. "If they're hot, remove one or two layers of clothing."

On the other hand, your child may be upset by the lack of stimulation in the room, especially if they're less than 4 months old. "Babies were constantly held, rocked, and touched in the uterus, and there was always white noise," says Dr. Karp. "Many babies can't relax because they miss that rhythmic calmness." A tight swaddle may help recreate that womblike feeling.

They're Not Getting Enough Light During the Day

Too tired to go for a walk with the baby before 3 p.m.—or too busy to open all the shades? Keeping your baby in the dark may be causing their crazy sleep schedule. "Infants who get more exposure to light during the day sleep better," says Dr. Mindell.

Sleep Solution: The key is exposure to morning light. "It suppresses melatonin—a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle—so that it peaks at the right time," says Dr. Mindell. Move your baby's high chair or nursing pillow to the sunniest spot in the house and feed them there. A morning walk is a good idea too, even on a cloudy day, but if it's not doable, turning on a bunch of lamps is a decent substitute. Remember to dim them an hour or two before bedtime, though. "You want your baby to associate light and activity with the day and darkness and inactivity with nighttime," says Dr. Karp.

Tired Mother Sleeping On Crib Baby Standing Up Bedtime
Credit: kryzhov/Shutterstock

Your Baby Is a Midnight Snacker

"This is probably the number one reason why babies have trouble falling asleep," says Cathryn Tobin, M.D., author of The Lull-A-Baby Sleep Plan. When you feed your baby immediately before you lay them in the crib, they'll associate nursing with sleeping—especially if you let them fall asleep at your breast. That may not be a problem at 7 p.m., but it can become one when they wake up at 3 a.m. and need to eat in order to drift off again.

Sleep Solution: You don't have to get rid of pre-bedtime nursing all together; just move it earlier in the napping or bedtime routine, says Dr. Mindell. Try nursing, then doing a diaper change, then putting them down when they're awake. And consider not feeding your baby in their bedroom; they need to learn that the nursery is just for sleeping.

Eventually your baby will learn to soothe themselves when they wake up at night. But if they aren't getting the hang of it, their stomach might actually be empty. Dr. Karp suggests packing in extra calories so they're not hungry at night by feeding your baby every hour or two in the evening. For example, if bedtime is 8 p.m., feed them at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and at least one more before you tuck them in. Another option is doing a "dream feed": Put them down for the night at 8 p.m., then wake them for a feeding before you go to sleep.

Your Baby Won't Sleep at Naptime

Babies who refuse to snooze cost you more than some free time during the day. "A child who misses a nap or only takes a short one has a harder time falling asleep and will wake more often during the night," says Dr. Mindell.

Sleep Solution: "For babies under 12 months, it's typically a timing issue," says Dr. Tobin. "You have to hit that exact moment—the beginning of the yawn, the heavy eyes—or you often miss the opportunity for a nap." At that point, they're overtired and too wired to fall asleep. Watch for your baby's sleepy signs and put them down immediately. And be consistent. If your bedtime routine is a lullaby and a story, do the same before naptime. If they sleep, great. If they spend an hour cooing, fine—restorative downtime is still better than nothing. Newborns sleep whenever they feel like it, but by 4 months, babies typically fall into a nap schedule consisting of two longer naps a day (one in the morning and another in the afternoon) or three shorter ones.

They Can't Nod Off Without You

Whether you rock them or pat their back until they drift off, your baby has become dependent on your presence to fall asleep.

Sleep Solution: Don't abandon them entirely. Instead, gradually spend less time in their room each night and use a transitional object like a blanket to make the process easier. However, a baby must be around 1 year old before they sleep with a lovey—before that, anything loose in the crib increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But you can start swaddling them with the blanket that will eventually become their lovey, says Dr. Tobin. If your baby gravitates toward their fuzzy lamb, incorporate it into their bedtime routine until they're old enough to cuddle with it in the crib.

They're Struggling to Give Up Co-Sleeping

You're finally ready to reclaim your bedroom, but your mini roommate isn't interested in their lonely crib. And the longer you've co-slept, the harder this process is going to be.

Sleep Solution: "This takes a while, so make the break gradually," says Dr. Mindell. First, have them nap by themselves; once they're used to sleeping alone, do their bedtime routine in their room. Then move their crib into your room or put them down in their own room but continue to bring them into your bed if they wake up during the night. If they don't seem able to make the final transition to spending the whole night alone, you'll have to let them fuss in their room for a while. But once they realize you're not coming to get them, they'll learn to soothe themselves.

You Can't Stand to Let Them Fuss

Think about it: Do you fall asleep the minute you get into bed? Probably not. Well, neither does your baby. So when you burst into their room at the slightest whimper, you may be distracting them from falling asleep, or even waking them up.

Sleep Solution: Fight the urge to check on them for a few minutes. "If you don't give your baby a chance to calm herself, she won't learn to do it as quickly," says Dr. Tobin. And if you're glued to the baby monitor, just turn it down so that you only hear the major screaming—not the murmuring that babies naturally do in their sleep.

Parents Magazine