Seven Sleep Tips That Stand the Test of Time

What new mother doesn’t wonder, “How will I get my baby to sleep through the night?”

Even the experts change their minds about what’s “best.” Keep in the baby in her crib? No, she’ll do better in your bed. Rock him to sleep? No, let him cry it out.

Baby-care trends come and go. But babies today are no different from the ones my mother cared for. “Mae” (Mother) never went to school, never read an advice book, but all the women in our run-down neighborhood in São Paulo trusted her and came to her with their children. As the oldest of seven, I was always at her side. She would take a crying infant from the mother, hold him close to her heart, and massage his little back. “You can’t rush babies,” she’d say. “They do things in their time.”

If even experts change their minds about babies and sleep, how can a new mom know what’s “right”?

That includes sleeping through the night. Actually, no one “sleeps through the night.” Adults and babies wake every 45 minutes or so, cycling in and out of deep (REM) sleep. The only difference between you and your baby is this: When you wake at 3 a.m., you fluff up your pillow, roll over, find your favorite position, and put yourself back to sleep. Your baby still hasn’t learned how.

In Brazil, we say Vamos devagar até acertar, which translates roughly as, “The way we do things is little by little ‘til we get them right.” The old wisdom still applies. There are no magic tricks or formulas for baby sleep but these time-honored techniques will at least keep you moving in the right direction:

1-Let your baby feel your heart. When your baby cries, always hold him very close. When he feels the thump-thump of your heart, he calms down. Feel his heartbeat, too. Don’t try to squeeze in a phone call. Let go of the to-do list. Just be with him.

2-It’s more important to know your baby than to “train” her. Your baby is a unique individual–a tiny one. Pay attention to how she reacts to light and noise. Does she startle easily? Watch her body. Is she active or tense or calm? Listen to the tone of her cries. Eventually, you’ll be able to tell hunger from gas, and boredom from over stimulation. The more you understand her personality and her likes and dislikes, the better you will meet her needs.

3-Stick to a routine. Care for your baby in more or less in the same way and in the same order, day after day. Your baby learns best when his mind and body knows what’s next. Consistent routine helps your baby understand the difference between night and day. It reinforces good eating habits; he’s more likely to sleep for increasingly longer stretches when his tummy is full. And as my mother taught me, Mais vale prevenir do que remediar. It’s better to prevent than have to fix.

4-“Baby” Her Body, too. When you hold and touch your baby, she feels safe–and connected to you. She becomes aware of her body. And, when done right, tender touch also calms her. Start slowly; get your baby used to the stimulation by, first, touching her through a soft towel, ideally after her bath when she is most open and relaxed. Don’t rub; just apply light pressure on each of her limbs. In time, using an all-natural fruit oil, like avocado, you’ll be able to touch her bare skin without alarming her.

5-Create a “space” between waking and sleep time. A consistent sleep ritual, before naps and at bedtime, signals a change of pace. Close the curtains, lower the light, change his diaper, and swaddle him. You can use a special swaddle blanket or any cotton receiving blanket to tuck your baby’s arms at his sides and wrap him like a papoose. All babies twitch in their sleep, some more than others. Even if yours has a hard time settling down, he’ll feel cozier and sleep better if his arms and legs aren’t flailing around him. (He doesn’t know yet that they’re his!)

6-Give your baby extra sucking time–but not necessarily on you. Your baby needs to suck–and not just to take in nourishment. Sucking is soothing and therefore helps her drift off to sleep. If she is on formula, start using a pacifier immediately–pop it in her mouth as you lay her in the crib when she’s still awake. If you’re breast feeding, wait seven to ten days until she learns how to latch on properly. She won’t be confused. And it will prevent her from using you as a sleep aid.

7-If you have a “difficult-to-calm” baby, get lots of sleep yourself. You’ll need it. Some infants resist a routine, no matter how consistent you are. They cry more and need to be held longer and more often than other infants. Some have digestive problems or allergies. It takes them a while to settle down. They sleep fitfully and wake frequently. What’s a mother to do? Hang in there and take care of yourself. Sleep when he sleeps. Eat well and exercise to reduce your own stress level. Get help from others. And remember that love, patience, and attention gives any baby a good start.

Get more tips and advice on my book Eat, Play, Sleep.

Luiza DeSouza