How to put a baby to sleep

It’s completely normal for your baby to wake up at 6:00am or 6:30am, all ready to start the day. However, if your little one routinely wakes up before dawn and that schedule is leaving you, the baby, and the rest of your family seriously sleep-deprived, there are tricks you can use to help move the baby’s wake-up time to a later hour.

Sleep Training Tips for Children

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Check out these common solutions:

Make Sure Your Baby is Getting Enough Sleep. It sounds counter intuitive, but sleep-deprived babies will actually sleep less and not more! If your baby isn’t napping enough during the day, he or she will be more apt to wake up at the crack of dawn—or even before. Sleep needs vary by age, so find out what amount is likely best for your tot.

Adjust the Bedtime. Putting your baby to bed too late may actually lead to sleep deprivation and cause your child to wake up earlier than he or she is ready. Try putting your baby to bed 15 minutes earlier each night and see if he or she sleeps slightly later in the morning.

Do a Dream Feeding. If your baby is less than eight months old and you suspect that he or she is waking up before dawn because of hunger, try giving your child a bottle at about 11:00pm, taking care to rouse him as little as possible. This might be enough to stop any hunger pains from luring him awake all too early.

Keep it Pretty Dark. Lots of bright sunlight shining through the curtains at sunrise may be waking your baby up, so use blackout shades to keep the room dark and make it easier for your baby to stay asleep. But you don’t want the room to be too dark. Plugging in a very dim nightlight may soothe a child who is afraid of the pitch black and help him or her see the familiar, comforting surroundings.

Block Out Noise. Sirens, a running shower, and even chirping birds can trigger your bundle of joy to rise and shine a bit too soon. Try using a sound conditioner, often called a white noise machine, to mask loud interruptions and help your baby associate that sound with sleep.

Keep Your Baby Comfortable. A wet or dirty diaper may be waking up your baby, so if this is a problem, try switching from regular diapers to overnight diapers. A room that’s too hot or too cold can also disrupt sleep, so keep the temperature between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Adults generally need a cooler room (60 to 67 degrees) but smaller children are often more comfortable with a bit more warmth.

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Let Him Be. Going to get your baby as soon as he or she wakes in the early morning hours may reinforce that it’s okay to get up at that time. Consider letting the child be for about 30 minutes and see if your baby can soothe himself or herself back to sleep. If your child is old enough to sit up, try placing a few soft toys in the crib, so that if your baby does wake up, he or she can play for a little while before possibly going back to sleep for a bit longer.

Set an Alarm. Think about using an alarm or a light with a timer on it and setting it for a more acceptable hour (say 6:00am, rather than 4:30am) to help your baby better understand when it is time to get up. Do not let your child get up for the day before the light or music alarm goes off or they will not take the timer seriously (though you might go in and tell them it’s not time to get up yet if they’re really crying).

Here’s a few tips from the experts and moms who’ve tackled the task with confidence:

Understand the natural sleep cycle

Most babies sleep lightly for the first 45 minutes of a nap or at night. This is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. “In this light sleep state, your baby might jerk or twitch and can be easily woken by sounds and other sensory input in the environment,” explains Meg Faure, occupational therapist, speaker and author of Sleep Sense. Your baby then transitions into non-REM sleep where she won’t move much and will be hard to wake.

However, after 30 to 45 minutes (or around 60 minutes for toddlers), your baby will begin to move back into a lighter sleep again where he’s likely to wake, explains Faure. The process of becoming drowsy and falling asleep again into a light and then deep sleep is known as one sleep cycle. Your little one will go through many sleep cycles during the night, as well as during a nap.

It’s important to keep these sleep cycles in mind when your baby naps during the day. If you need to transition her to her cot, it might help to let her fall into a deeper sleep before attempting to move her. If she wakes fully after a sleep cycle, she might appear to be awake and refreshed, but as Faure explains, babies need to move into a deeper sleep at least once a day. So if you know your little one needs more sleep, try to re-settle her by patting her on the back or resting your hand on her so that she feels secure.

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ALSO SEE: 4 ways you could be sabotaging your baby’s sleep

Avoid overtiredness

An overtired baby will have more trouble settling down, going to sleep and staying asleep, explains mom, sleep consultant and founder of the Baby Sleep Site, Nicole Johnson. “My boys always fell asleep easiest when I caught them before they started to fuss and cry. Some babies are much more sensitive to being overtired than others, so it’s important to watch their wake time,” she says. Wake time is the duration of wakefulness between sleep times, counting the time it takes to soothe your baby to sleep, explains Nicole. These zones vary greatly depending on your baby’s age and temperament, but knowing the best wake time for your child will help you avoid your little one becoming overtired and missing the optimum sleep window where she’s likely to stay asleep for longer. For example, a newborn will generally only be able to stay happily awake for around 40 minutes, a six-month old around 90 minutes and a toddler, from 12 months onwards, can stay awake for anything between three and six hours between naps. (The duration will increase as the child gets older.)

ALSO SEE: 10 ways to calm an overstimulated baby

Set the stage for sleep

If you’re out and about with your baby, but still want her to have a decent nap, or you need to transfer her to a bed or camp cot at a friend’s place, it will help to mimic the calm sleep space you have at home.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep the light out. Whether she’s sleeping in the pram or in a room, use darker curtains or a breathable blanket over the pram to block out the light.
  • Ensure the temperature is right. Your baby will sleep best in a room or space that’s between 16 and 20°C. Use blankets or a sleeping bag to cover her in winter and a fan and/or lighter cotton clothes in summer.
  • Use white noise. Studies have shown that a constant sound such as a fan or sound of the ocean or water (from a CD or iPad) helps babies to sleep deeper for longer. You can also use this noise to re-settle her if she wakes up during a transition.
  • Avoid talking or eye contact. If your child happens to wake up while you’re moving her, simply pat and shush her back to sleep without talking or looking at her.
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ALSO SEE: A guide to help your baby sleep through the night

How to re-settle your baby if she wakes up

Five moms share their top tips for transitioning their sleeping babies into their cots:

1. Don’t let your baby nap on the go

“I know this strategy isn’t for everyone, but I try not to let my six-month-old nap on the go. I talk and sing to her in the car or stroller and make sure I get home for her nap times. This way, she hardly ever catnaps and she’s used to her sleep space, which really helps her to sleep longer and deeper in the day.” – Tarryn Piennaar, Johannesburg

2. Have a comfort blankie

“Before my baby falls asleep on my shoulder, I let her rest her head on her soft blanket, which is draped over my shoulder, so that when I transfer her, I put her down with her blanket too. She takes so much comfort in her blanket she rarely notices that I’m not holding her anymore.” – Simone Venter, Johannesburg

3. Dummies work really well

“I’ve always encouraged my baby to use a dummy as I find it a great pacifying tool when transferring him from his car seat or pram to his cot. If he falls asleep with the dummy, he generally won’t wake up when I transfer him, but if he does wake up, either when I’m picking him up, or midway through his nap, I just pop the dummy back in his mouth and make a constant “Sssh” sound so that he goes back to sleep easily.” – Sam Wilson, Cape Town

4. Invest in a carrier

“My kids were famous for falling asleep in the carrier on my chest, so I made sure I used a carrier that was easy to unclip and lift them out of when they fell asleep. I loved the Baby Bjorn Carrier but a light, cotton sling will work just as well as you could use it as a swaddle once they’re down.”  – Julia Perry, Cape Town

5. Implement a pre-sleep routine

“From the time my now 12-month old was a newborn, I always had a pre-sleep routine that involved singing, rocking for a minute and then patting her on her back once she was drowsy in her cot. If she happens to fall asleep in the car or pram, and wakes up while I’m transferring her, I simply repeat the pre-sleep routine and she settles again pretty quickly.” – Lisa Bain, Johannesburg

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  • sleep tips
  • toddler sleep
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