Getting a baby to sleep may seem simple enough. Cozy up with an infant and they’re bound to nod off on your chest sooner or later. Getting them to sleep in a crib, however, is another story entirely. As far too many parents have experienced, whether you’re shifting a baby from a bassinet to a crib or dealing with sleep regression, the struggle is real. But if your baby won’t sleep in a crib, what can you do? How can you get them to sleep in a crib? And how can you make your life a little less stressful in the process?
How to Get A Baby to Sleep in Crib
Fortunately this is a question science has been studying for decades. In fact, there are entire organizations dedicated to the question of infant sleep, such as The Pediatric Sleep Council. Their experts work to research sleep questions and offer advice to parents on the precipice of lack of sleep-induced insanity to help them find solutions for their kids.
Understand Infant Sleep
It can be so easy to think that your baby is an outlier in not sleeping in a crib. But take heart. This is something many, many parents deal with and at various stages in an infant’s development. It’s also important to understand how babies’ sleep cycles work.
“Remember, we all have sleep cycles alternating between deep dream sleep and light sleep,” says Dr. Andy Bernstein, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
That means babies do and should wake up multiple times in the night. Babies sleep in cycles of 50-60 minutes, so consider that waking up is actually a natural part of this routine. Plus, they need to feed frequently, so waking up isn’t a disorder, it’s part of their cycle.
Ergo, don’t beat yourself up if your baby can’t stay asleep in their crib. “If a baby is not sleeping well, it's neither helpful nor accurate to assume this is because the parents have done something wrong,” says Dr. Honaker, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and the director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Riley Children’s Hospital.
Have A Plan About Sleep
“The first thing parents need to do is have a plan about sleep,” says Dr. Melissa Moore, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Sleep Center.
“Decide what your initial thoughts are on co-sleep, which is not recommended until after age 1 because of SIDs. Will you room share? Will your child sleep in your bed until they are 10? What is your initial plan?” says Dr. Moore.
She notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents, although not sharing a bed, for one year. So consider that in your planning as well.
Make sure your household is on the same page, as it pertains to your baby sleep plan. You can always change the plan, of course, but she says it helps when there is a road map to follow.
Teach Baby To Fall Asleep On Their Own
Babies love to fall asleep while being held or during nursing. They’re cozy and snuggly and their bellies are full. But inevitably they need to learn to fall asleep on their own. Reason being?
“If they can't fall asleep independently at bedtime, there's not a high chance that they're going to be sleeping through the night,” says Dr. Moore.
"Giving a baby opportunities to learn to self-soothe can be helpful in preventing sleep difficulties later,” says Dr. Honaker.
“After a routine feeding with the lights on and parents talking about their day, when baby’s eyes start getting heavy, pop them off the breast or bottle and put them in the crib,” says Dr. Bernstein. This way the baby has to soothe itself rather than be comforted by its parents.
Dr. Honaker agrees. “Parents can try placing the young infant down awake to see if she or he is able to fall asleep without parental help. Sometimes parents are surprised to learn that their baby can soothe themselves to sleep at a young age, say at two or three months,” she says.
Why try this so early? “If you take a nine-month-old and put them down awake and they cry for 10 minutes and you then pick them up, that child has now learned that if they cry long enough a parent will come. This will make any subsequent attempts at behavioral sleep intervention more difficult. If you try the same thing with a three-month-old, that learning hasn't necessarily occurred and you can try again the next night,” Dr. Honaker adds.
Will this magically work on day one? Most likely not. That said, if you can stick with a routine, a baby can learn the drill fairly quickly, Dr. Bernstein reassures. But don’t expect a full night’s sleep even if your baby is an overachiever and quickly falls asleep on their own.
“Whatever you need to fall asleep is what you need to do to get back to sleep,” says Dr. Moore. “Whether that's a pacifier, a bottle, being rocked, being held, snuggling with their parent, whatever you have when you fall asleep is what you need to return to sleep on your own during the night.”
Try The Check In Method
“I think of behavioral sleep intervention, often called sleep training, as a spectrum of behavioral interventions that encourage babies to fall asleep independently. This can range from a full-fledged cry it out approach where a parent leaves the room and doesn't return until morning to a gentler approach where a parent is in the room, providing some comfort and gradually lessening the amount of comfort over time,” says Dr. Honaker.
The easiest method? Shrink your check-ins to 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, as your baby slowly starts to settle itself.
“Don’t go for more than 15 minutes,” says Dr. Bernstein. “If this goes on for more than an hour, throw in the towel and try again the next night.”
The hardest part of getting a baby to sleep in its own crib, which really means fall asleep independently, is not giving up. Parents have to make a plan, stick to it, and keep going even when the going gets tough. That doesn’t mean nixing night feeding or not comforting a baby when they wake, but continuing to try to let baby self soothe every night.
"Parents have a range of options to choose from,” says Dr. Honaker. “And I think it's important that they choose an option that is aligned with their goals and values.”
Dr. Melissa Moore, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Sleep Center. She is also a member of the Pediatric Sleep Council, babysleep.com
Dr. Andy Bernstein, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School, northsuburbanpediatrics.com
Dr. Sarah M. Honaker, a Clinical Psychologist with board certification in behavioral sleep medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine