Sleep Strategies for Babies 101

2:12 pm |

mommy and sleeping baby

Some of my worst memories from when my kids were babies are related to sleep.

I’m pretty sure I have a tiny bit of PTSD from listening to them cry in their cribs and having NO CLUE what to do about it.

Now and again I find myself thinking, ‘I should have just relaxed and not made such a big deal out of it‘. But if I let myself remember for a moment what it was like holding and rocking a cranky, overtired, sleep-resisting, squirmy, sweaty baby, I remember why I couldn’t ‘just relax‘.

One memory comes back to me vividly and often: Aliya was about 6 months old, and as usual was resisting her nap. I had sat with her in the rocking chair for probably an hour, and the crying was just intensifying. Her little eyes were red and puffy, and it was obvious she was desperately overtired. But yet she fought.

Finally I put her in her crib, shut the door, and slid down the wall next to her room until I was in a heap on the floor. She was screaming in her bed, and I cried right along with her. After a while of this, our upstairs landlord even called to make sure everything was OK. No, it wasn’t OK at all…I was exhausted, at the end of my rope, and had no idea how to help her sleep.

So, I won’t say I have the answer for how to get your baby to sleep. There is no one answer. And with fussy babies, you all know that what works today often won’t work tomorrow.

That said, there are some basic strategies I believe often help, and can’t hurt to try. At the very least, it will give you something to try if you’re in that place of desperation.

Try an Ultra-Early Bedtime

My daughter sucked at napping until she was about a year old. But one thing she did well right from about 6 weeks on was to sleep well at night (maybe because she was so exhausted from not napping).

We noticed that the evenings were when she was at her fussiest, and really, she was just unmanageable at times. She was so obviously tired, but we were scared to put her down too early for fear she would wake up a couple of hours later, or wake up ultra-early the next morning.

What we found however, was that she usually went to sleep much easier, usually didn’t wake up several hours later, and actually SLEPT IN LATER the next morning. I have heard the same story time and time again from parents.

Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and Your Fussy Baby talks about giving your sleep-resisting baby a chance to catch up on sleep at the beginning of the night, rather than expecting them to sleep in later in the morning (because we know that just doesn’t happen).

Aliya’s standard bedtime was around 6pm AIC (ass-in-crib), or even earlier if she was extra-fussy. When Sammy came along, we used an early bedtime for him as well (not right at the beginning, but once he had a bit more of a routine).

He has always been an early-riser (sometimes 4-5am), so if we didn’t give him an early bedtime, he would have been even more sleep-deprived (Note: Sam is 5 now, and regularly sleeps in until 7-8am. There is hope!).

Shorten the Amount of Awake Time Between Naps

Especially at the beginning, you’d be surprised at how much sleep these little ones actually need to function properly.

Sure, if you have an ‘easy baby’, you can get awake with a few hours of awake time. But with fussy babies, I’d definitely say the shorter, the better.

As newborns, they may only be able to handle 20 minutes of awake, alert time, and then it’s time to soothe them back to sleep (especially if it takes a while to soothe them). As they get a bit bigger, 30-60 minutes, and even as older babies, some kids can only handle 1.5 hours of awake time before going down again.

It’s crazy, but true. At least this is the way it was with mine.

If your baby is resisting naps but is obviously overtired and needs to sleep, try reducing their awake time until you notice they fall asleep a little easier. Now you’re getting closer to figuring out how long they can comfortably be awake.

Cat-Napper? Put Him or Her Down More Often

Although Sammy was the ultimate fusspot, naps were one of his (few) strong suits. I knew that if I wore him in a sling and kept moving, he would usually get the sleep he needed.

Aliya on the other hand, would not sleep in a car, plane, train, carrier, sling, in my bed, or anywhere but her crib. By herself (one of the few exceptions is the picture above).

And during the day, she would nap 45 minutes – never a minute more, never a minute less. And when she would wake up, she was just as fussy as when she went down.

And basically because I couldn’t deal with being with a baby who was grumpy ALL DAY, I would put her down for 4 45-minute naps each nap. Mainly because I needed the break. It was torture having to go through our elaborate soothing routine 4 times a day, but I strongly believed that sleep begets sleep, and if I just gave up and let her stay awake, her sleep would spiral out of control.

I know if you have older kids, it may not be possible for you to do this. But I’d encourage to keep trying to help them get their rest, any way you can.

Which brings us to my last strategy…

Do Whatever it Takes to Help Your Child Sleep

Will your baby sleep beside you? On top of you? Attached to you? Let him.

What about in the car, stroller, or carrier? Do it.

Don’t worry about people criticizing you or saying you’re spoiling him. Fussy babies have trouble self-soothing, yet they need sleep more than other babies. Do whatever you have to do.

There comes a time when they’re a bit older when it’s time to help them learn to self-soothe, fall asleep on their own, etc, etc., but when they’re really little and fussy, you have enough to worry about. Don’t even worry about it until your baby is at least 6-8 months old (this is my personal opinion, I know some would disagree).

We laid down with Sammy until he was about 2.5, but you know what? He slept. We all slept. And then when we stopped being able to sleep, he was old enough that we could gently teach him how to fall asleep on his own.


While I know you can’t ‘just relax’, do try to remember that this stage will pass. It ALWAYS does.

Don’t feel guilty about ‘spoiling them’, teaching bad habits, or doing whatever it is your gut tells you is right. Sometimes these are the only ways to survive this stage of infant-hood. And if your baby is older and sleep doesn’t seem to be improving at all (or if it’s getting worse!), there is no shame in talking with a sleep consultant to get some advice or help!

Are you struggling with sleep issues? Have you tried any of the strategies above? Do they work for you?

Holly Klaassen has been running The Fussy Baby Site since 2007. Inspired to start the site after giving birth to her second child, the site aims to provide support and information to parents of fussy, colicky, high need or 'spirited' babies and kids. The main message of this site? You are not alone! When Holly isn't writing for The Fussy Baby Site, she can be found writing for other businesses on topics related to digital marketing, social media, business, and of course, parenting.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Category: Sleep, Stories

Comments (9)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erica Desper says:

    Great advice!

  2. Melissa says:

    I can relate to a lot of this. For the longest time my daughter would easily go down for nap after being awake for only 1 hour. She’s almost a year old now and in the mornings, it’s 1.5 hours and then she needs to be put back to sleep. We also learned that going to sleep earlier was way better for her, even though we felt like 5:30, 6pm was way too early. It worked for her! Now that she’s a little older, she’ll go to bed around 6:30. Still feels early but it’s working. Sure, she gets up at 5:30, 6 but I try to remember what Dr. Weissbluth said in his book: she’s been sleeping for 12 hours so just because it feels too early for you, it’s not for her! I’m just happy we learned fairly early on that she needed a lot of sleep and that we were able, for the most part, to help her get it. Which is not to say she’s been sleeping through the night since day 1 or that she always wants to nap! There are good days and bad days.

  3. Wendy says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This sounds just like my daughter, especially the 45 minute nap maximum…you can almost set your watch to the minute that she will wake up. I have been a ball of nerves since the first night she was born, when she screamed her head off for 5 hours in the hospital. She’s 7 weeks old now, and it hasn’t gotten much better. I basically have to hold her to sleep during the day, and sleep with her at night. She fights sleep like a ninja on crack, refuses to close those beautiful little eyes..some days she will only sleep 8 hours in a 24 hour period, and then she is a complete nightmare from being overtired. It’s crazy because when she is awake, she is smiley and coos and wants to play ALL the time..and stare at lights, and shadows…
    Anyway, all this to say that I am glad to hear that I am not alone..and that I have to let go of trying to conform her to a routine, and really just do whatever it takes to help her get some rest…and more importantly, stop punishing myself for spoiling her or being the type of parent I swore I’d never be. Thanks again.

  4. Leslie says:

    All of this is GREAT advice and all has proven to be true with both my kids. Both have had very early bedtimes (600-630 max), and if they’re up later, they wake up earlier, without fail. And both had crazy short awake-times. 45 minutes was as much as either could handle in the first months. Some kids really really like and really really need their sleep.

  5. This is so true Holly – I’ve always said “you do what you gotta do”. You have some experts say to never sleep with your baby in your bed, or don’t do this, don’t do that…but honestly, you just do whatever you need to get through it. You find what works for your baby and just go with it. As long as you’re putting the health and well being of your baby as a priority, you’ll do just fine 🙂

  6. Sean Sutton says:

    Holly, it’s amazing that, despite each child’s differences, there are some common tricks that work for most fussy and or sleep deprived babies. We used all of what you suggest above. And they were very effective.

    We found that sleep training worked for us at around 5 months. But we were completely desperate by then. Chloe was litterally living on 4 hours of sleep a day. And about PTSD…. I know the feeling. I will never be able to listen to a baby cry again without becoming anxious and stressed.

    I think that one of the reasons cry-it-out generates such controversy is that it is completely missunderstood – and very unfortunatly named. It’s not about neglecting your child or letting them cry. It’s about teaching them routine and expectations. They need to sleep. And they will rise to the challenge. Babies don’t stop crying because they’ve given up on your love and support. They don’t feel abandoned – that’s pure nonsense. They stop crying because they learn that they are expected to sleep – just as soon enough they learn to stop crying when playtime is over or when they have to share their things.

    I think it’s interesting that for the French, this is a non-issue. For them, babies have always been tought to self-south at 3-4 months of age. Parents there have very high expectations of young children, and the children usually rise to the challenge beautifully. Yet I’ve rarely seen another country where family is closer.

    • admin says:

      Very interesting Sean!! (about the French).

      When I interviewed Dr. Weissbluth I told him I couldn’t do CIO with Sammy because I had heard him crying too much already in his short life, and it was too hard for me. He replied, “Hearing them cry is hard, sleeplessness is harder”. Not sure I always agree with this, but definitely at times. When it comes to a point where nothing else is working, sometimes it’s the least ‘bad’ option!

  7. Jenifer says:

    My 2 year old (just turned 2) has been going back to old sleep habits of his infancy. He stopped napping on his own at 18 months, and a week before his birthday he decided he can’t get to sleep at night on his own…he wakes numerous times SCRESMING for mommy. He’s also never slept with us (his choice) and now that’s all he wants. I’m st wits end..

  8. Traci Tran says:

    Yep! I totally agree with "do whatever you gotta do" approach! For so long I would read books and hear from family and friends about "not spoiling the child", "let them learn to self-soothe", "let them cry it out" etc. To be honest it all just made me feel more guilty and confused when all i wanted to do was to have a few hours of continuous shut eye so that i didn't lose my mind from the sleep deprivation. I tried to be strong and continue to let her sleep in her own room, but my daughter was still waking up every 1-2 hours even by the time I had to return to work, and I couldn't take it anymore! In the end I gave in and let her sleep in our bed. We are all the happier for it, and I don't feel an ounce of guilt when I know I'm a much better mum (with more energy to focus on her the next day!); i also notice she is less fussy and clingy after a good night's rest, with more patience to learn and play the next day – so it's been amazing for us!! Just go with your gut! 🙂