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To Get Babies & Kids to Sleep Well (Even After Daylight Savings), Follow the Science

From the moment anyone knows you’re pregnant, you get it from all sides: weird tips, contradictory advice, dire warnings, and some actual useful information on how to get babies to sleep. How can you tell whom to follow? If your kid fails to “sleep like a baby” (world’s cruelest phrase), how do you know whether you followed the wrong advice or just failed? Will you live to regret it if you opt out of baby sleep training altogether? And will changing clocks for Daylight Savings or traveling to a different time zone destroy all your hard work?

Just writing those questions made me a little panicky, which is why I’m so glad that children’s sleep expert Dr. Jodi Mindell, professor of psychology and director of graduate psychology at Saint Joseph’s University and the associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was able to share her sage advice for all of us this week. Just days before that dreaded “spring forward,” her words might be quite soothing to us all.

Choose your own baby sleep adventure

Mindell has been researching children’s sleep for decades now, so it would be so perfect if she could just tell us which method is the gold standard for getting babies to sleep through the night. Cry it out? Ferber? The Owlet Dream Lab? Happiest Baby on the Block? Not exactly.

“It’s clear that there’s no absolute right way to do it,” Mindell told SheKnows. “If you look at every sleep training method, they all have the exact same mechanism. … The mechanism is that that you want that golden moment of your child falling asleep on his or her own. How you get to that moment doesn’t seem to matter.”

c-section mom and baby

So, that could mean you’re staying in their room and patting them on the back until they fall asleep. It could mean you leave the room and check on them at varying intervals. It may involve a number of rituals that add up to a bedtime routine even infants can recognize — a bath, a song, a sound machine, etc. Your goal is to get to the place where a baby falls asleep without being in your arms.

“It’s all about parenting style and about the child’s personality,” she said.

By the way, none of this will happen until your baby is old enough (somewhere between 4 and 6 months, but it varies).

“Babies are supposed to be fairly light sleepers, so if they get into any trouble, they wake up,” Mindell explained of why very young infants just won’t sleep through the night. “Being a light sleeper is a safe sleeper.”

Consistency is key

Just because she doesn’t recommend one method doesn’t mean you should dabble in a different one each night to see which works. The one thing that really helps babies and children (and heck, even adults) go to sleep every night is a routine.

Baby swaddle

Switching up methods makes going to bed feel “like a slot machine” for babies, Mindell said, with random outcomes they can’t learn from. “They’re like, ‘I’ll just keep crying because who knows what’s gonna happen?'”

But if you pick one method and stick to it, they’re more likely to respond.

“The more consistent parents can be, the better off everybody is,” she said. “Every additional day your baby takes a nap at the same time, they will get tired at that same time. Every additional day they go to bed around the same time, they get tired around that time. Same with like what you do at bedtime every additional day that you do the same things. Babies know what to expect and it all goes easier, especially with toddlers.”

This is a good time to mention that Mindell is on the Johnson’s Baby Advisory Board, and I met her at an event promoting the Johnson’s Bedtime Collection, which encourages parents to use its lavender-scented baby wash and lotions in a soothing nighttime routine. But again, it’s about the consistency of the routine, not the brand name.

“Every kid knows, even when they’re like 8 months old, this is what happens when the next thing happens and next thing happens,” she said.

Just little bit of training is OK (and so is none at all)

Some of the studies Mindell has authored showed that sleep interventions for kids are what she calls “dose dependent,” and that they work on kids of all ages. That first part means that even if you implement a bedtime routine only three nights a week, it’s better than nothing, and if you increase that routine to four nights a week, it’s even better. Five nights a week is just about ideal. That’s a relief for parents who get thrown off-track on busy nights, and for those who alternate with another caregiver.

The second bit of good news is that sleep interventions work for older kids too. Which is great for parents on the brink of giving up on sleep training their babies.

“If that’s not working for you as a family, and it’s not comfortable, then don’t do it,” she said. “You can either never do it, or you can do it another time.”

Don’t fear Daylight Savings Time

As much as we’re looking forward to having more sunshine in the afternoons, moving the clock forward for Daylight Savings in March is often a source of anxiety for parents.

swaddled baby on blue background

Mindell pointed us to the advice one of her colleagues gives on the Pediatric Sleep Council’s site BabySleep.com. Erin S. Leichman, PhD, a research psychologist at Saint Joseph’s University, writes that you have two choices: Do nothing until Sunday night, when their bedtime will feel like an hour earlier than normal; or gradually start going to bed earlier, maybe even spacing it out over four nights and moving up by 15 minutes each night beginning on Thursday.

This is the crucial bit: “Regardless of which path you choose, keep waking him at his normal wake time rather than letting him sleep in to compensate for the lost sleep,” Leichman writes. “This will help him make the transition more quickly. He may be cranky from being tired, but this should last only a few days.”

Turn to experts, not the most expensive devices

Before you go into debt to buy the latest bassinet favored by celebrities or fancy machine hyped online, and before you book a trendy sleep consultant, take a minute to question the source. Check a person’s credentials before you take their advice, Mindell said.

“There’s so many people who want to come at [parents] and tell them different things that work for them,” Mindell said.

Instead of listening to everyone, ask your child’s pediatrician for recommendations first. This is especially important if an underlying medical condition such as reflux might be the cause of their sleep trouble. Next, you can turn to a source such as BabySleep.com, where medical doctors and PhDs share advice and the latest sleep research.

“I think what parents need to do is pick one or two trusted sources and turn off all the other voices,” Mindell said. “Every baby’s different. Every family is different. You need to figure out what works best for you as a family.”

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