How to put a baby to sleep

This post is going to be a bit of a departure from my regular posting topics. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about all I’ve learned about getting babies to sleep and how much better I am at it now that I’m on my third child. There are some mistakes I made with my first, especially, that I wish I could go back and undo to save myself months of frustration and sleep deprivation, not to mention stress for him.

I wrote a post about Craigslist etiquette a long time ago, and for some reason, it comes up among the top results when you do a Google search for “Craigslist etiquette.” I doubt the same thing will happen here, but if I can help someone looking for advice, I’d like to.

I don’t know any parent who hasn’t at one point wondered, “How do I get this child to just GO to SLEEP?” or, “Is there an off button?” or even, “Would it be so bad to give him or her benadryl?” (Yes, it probably would, by the way.)

I hope for this post to be a short guide to getting young kids to go to sleep. You’re on your own with your teenagers. Sorry ’bout that.

0–6 Weeks

Babies this age should be pretty easy to put to sleep. The key is to determine your child’s preference: held or left alone. I’ve had both kinds. Both are easy to soothe, but if you try to rock a left-alone baby to sleep, it probably won’t work very well. Likewise, if you put a baby this young down who wants to be rocked to sleep, you’ll end up with a lot of crying. I’ll give instructions for both varieties of baby.


  1. Feed the baby. Usually this does the trick.
  2. Swaddle the baby.
  3. Cradle the baby in your arms and slowly move your hips side to side while the baby stares at the ceiling. This will kind of hypnotize the baby and put him to sleep before long.
  4. Say “Shhh!” at a moderate volume as you rock if the first three steps don’t work on their own.

Left Alone

  1. Feed the baby.
  2. If #1 doesn’t work, swaddle the baby.
  3. Place the baby in a crib, swing, bouncer, or car seat, and leave the room.

IMPORTANT: For both types, if your baby starts drifting off to sleep in your arms, place her in her crib and let her fall to sleep there. This will save you all sorts of headaches later.

Also, start putting your baby to sleep when he first appears drowsy. Do not wait until he’s crying if you can help it because everything will be much more difficult then.

6 Weeks to 3 Months

This is the age when your baby first starts learning to self-settle, but also learns to dislike going to sleep. What I didn’t know with my first child is that if your baby hasn’t ever experienced something like self-settling before, you’re going to have to do some painful teaching. That’s why putting her to sleep in her crib when she’s almost there anyway is so important in those first weeks. If you are reading this too late to start doing that, you may have to let your baby cry it out for a few minutes to go to sleep a few times until she figures out how to do it more calmly.

  1. Start when your baby is a little drowsy, not too tired.
  2. Begin speaking softly to your baby and saying soothing things like, “Are you getting tired? I love you, baby. Let’s snuggle.” Use a voice not much louder than a whisper.
  3. Go into a dark, quiet room. If your baby’s room has windows, put up some curtains that will block out the light some. Babies this age increasingly respond to darkness as a signal that it’s time for sleeping.
  4. If your baby is hungry, feed him. My babies begin to like to nurse lying down in a dark room (like on my bed) when they’re tired, so I often do that. Then I carefully move the baby to his crib.
  5. If your baby is not hungry, hold your baby in a way that he likes to be held. Swaddle if your baby still likes it. The rocking side-to-side method you used when your baby was littler may or may not still work.
  6. When your baby seems calm, and when his eyelids start to droop, place him gently in his crib. Your baby may complain a little, but soothe him by stroking his hair or cheek and saying, “Good night, baby,” and smiling.
  7. If your baby is still crying 5 minutes later, go get him. Do not leave the dark room. Repeat steps 5 and 6. [Aside: I have actually found that if a baby is REALLY upset about being left in his crib and you’ve done everything right otherwise, he may not actually be tired enough for sleep yet. You have to be careful, though, because babies this age usually shouldn’t be awake more than 2 to 3 hours in a row. The longer you go past that, the harder it will be to eventually get your baby to sleep.]

3–6 Months

The main difference between this age group and the previous is that babies begin to be more aware of their surroundings, including noise and movement. This is the age when babies start to wake up when you move their car seat, or if they hear a loud noise. Thus, it becomes more important to allow your baby to sleep in her crib with the door shut as often as you can. If you have done a good job teaching your baby to self-settle, this won’t be hard. She will probably prefer sleeping in her crib to sleeping anywhere else. (Unless she’s like my current baby and loves her car seat instead.)

  1. Go into a dark, quiet room.
  2. If your baby is hungry, feed her.
  3. If not, hold your baby gently in a way that she likes to be held. Rock slowly side to side. Gently stroke your baby’s hair with your entire hand, from the crown of her head to her forehead. Repeat slowly, occasionally brushing your hand down over her eyes to gently close them.
  4. If your baby likes lullabies, sing one at an almost inaudible volume.
  5. Place your baby in her crib before she falls asleep.
  6. If she stirs or begins to fuss, place one hand on her chest gently, so she feels the weight. Speak or sing a little to her if necessary, but mostly just stay there quietly until she calms down a little, then leave the room.

If all is going well and your baby is not overtired, you should be able to put your baby down within five minutes of starting the winding-down process. In fact, some days, your baby will get sleepy on her own. If you notice this happening, place her in her crib with a smile and a “good night,” and she will probably go right to sleep without crying for more than a moment, if that. It’s such a great feeling when you have this down!

6–12 Months

This is the age where sleep habits become true habits and become harder to break. If your baby is a poor sleeper and still hasn’t figured out how to fall asleep on his own, putting him to sleep will become a real chore. If he is used to falling asleep in his crib alone by now, putting him down will be almost effortless. There are a few things that do change at this age, though.

The first is teething. Many parents find that a baby who had been sleeping well suddenly wakes up screaming at night and won’t go back to sleep. The second is increased mobility and strength—each of my babies has gone through a phase where he can stand up in his crib when he doesn’t want to sleep, but he can’t or won’t lie back down. Luckily for you, this is only a phase, and a pretty short one at that. Your baby will be sleeping normally before long. (Teething not so much. It goes on and on and on.) The third is increased intelligence and awareness, which necessitates the introduction of a true bedtime routine.

For the purposes of this guide, I will only discuss how to put a baby at this age to bed for the night. Use the 3–6 month guide for naptimes.

  1. Tell your baby it’s almost time for bed.
  2. Give your baby a warm bath, if desired. (In fact, this is a good idea for any age of baby, as long as your baby is the kind that winds down instead of up with baths. My boys are not that kind of child, unfortunately. They love baths, so it’s like I am putting them on a roller coaster before bed.)
  3. Put on your baby’s pajamas. Talk the whole time about what you are doing: “Let’s put on your pajamas so you can go to bed. Mmm, aren’t these comfy?”
  4. If your baby has any teeth, brush them.
  5. Read a story or two that your baby enjoys. Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book, Peggy Rathman’s Goodnight Gorilla, and of course Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon are some of our favorites for kids this age.
  6. Take your baby into his darkened room. Snuggle for a moment or two if you want. I mean, that’s part of what makes babies so much fun, right? Sing a lullaby if you’re the lullaby type. Give your baby one last feeding if needed.
  7. Place your baby in his crib and leave the room.

The biggest trick is to keep the whole process positive, easy going, and subdued. Keep your voice low, and turning down the lights in the house doesn’t hurt either. Mention sleeping and how great it is often. Soon your baby will look forward to the routine, even if he still doesn’t like the actual going-to-sleep part.

12+ Months

I want to focus the most here on transitioning your baby out of the crib. Many parents dread the move to a toddler bed or the day their baby learns to climb out of the crib. I went through a horrible time with my first child once he realized he didn’t have to stay in his bed until morning. He was a little boomerang, returning to us only moments after we put him down. This went on for months, and it was not only exhausting but often even more of a problem because sometimes putting him down for nap took over an hour, while his younger brother also needed me (like to nurse). I had to decide between being consistent with the Super Nanny method of quietly putting the child back in his bed over and over and over and over (I never had it work, by the way) and taking care of my baby but giving up on the nap that my two-year-old clearly needed.

I got lucky and found out how to put him to bed and get him to stay there while on vacation with my parents. Turns out they know a thing or two about raising kids. Funny how that works. Anyway, one night Lego was doing his usual thing of climbing out of bed over and over and getting more and more exhausted and fussy/hyper/stressed with each moment. Finally my dad sat down with him on his lap and talked to him about what he was looking at. Then he kind of stopped talking and just stroked Lego’s hair (the same method I mentioned earlier). Sometimes his hand would go down over Lego’s eyes, and eventually, after about 15 minutes of this, Lego fell asleep.

Of course, it isn’t practical to put a two-year-old completely to sleep and then put him to bed each night. But I learned that being extremely soothing while the child is in bed is of utmost importance. What I learned is that if a child has been lying in bed in a dark room for 5 or 10 minutes calmly listening to a story or a lullaby or, honestly, even a grocery list in a hushed voice, he’s going to get sleepy enough that he doesn’t really want to get out of bed even after you leave.

I put this method into practice after we returned from vacation. At first I had to stay and do the stories/songs thing for a long time. Maybe close to an hour. Each night, though, I stayed a little shorter, and eventually that was just 10 minutes of his bedtime routine. He, and Duplo, have never really done the out-of-bed-every-two-seconds thing since. There are bad nights, but they’re the exception to the rule.

The short version:

  1. Do your child’s bedtime routine (pajamas, teeth, whatever).
  2. Place your child into her bed and turn off the lights in her room.
  3. Sit beside her bed and tell her a story and/or sing her lullabies for about 10 minutes, or longer if you’re trying to undo a long history of bouncing out of bed the moment you leave.
  4. Say goodnight, give her a kiss, and leave the room when you feel she’s tired enough to stay put. Ideally, don’t leave the room when she’s still wound up because you’ll have to go back in and redo step 3, and then she might learn that getting up gets more time with you. What you want at first is to make it so that she successfully stays in bed, even if you have to stay a while that first night (or even the first week).

Well, those are the basics. Of course, all sorts of problems crop up, even with the best sleepers. I’ll deal with solving specific problems in a future post, hopefully before long. Stay tuned!


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