Darria Long Gillespie, MD MBA

Do not even whisper the words “baby” and “sleep” in a bookstore or around other moms. You’ll be inundated with so many tips, advice, and promises that your head will spin, and you’ll realize—like Ava Neyer did in her blog excerpted below, “I Read All the Baby Sleep Books”—that there’s absolutely no consensus.

Don’t let your baby sleep too long, except when they’ve been napping too much, then you should wake them. Never wake a sleeping baby. Any baby problem can be solved by putting them to bed earlier, even if they are waking up too early. If your baby wakes up too early, put them to bed later or cut out a nap. Don’t let them nap after 5 p.m. Sleep begets sleep, so try to get your child to sleep as much as possible. Put the baby to bed awake but drowsy. Don’t wake the baby if it fell asleep while nursing.

You’d think that children haven’t been sleeping for millions of years. You’d think that there’s some magic unicorn trick that makes a baby a “good sleeper.” Nah. It’s time to simplify baby sleep.

Have you ever bought an appliance or electronic device—such as a TV—that came with both a Quick Start Guide and also the more detailed instruction manual (in five languages)? You open the quick guide—and it gets you going quickly. You can go to the detailed manual afterward if you need, but 80 percent of the time you get what you need with the quick guide.

That’s the way baby sleep is. Jumping straight in with all the sleep philosophies and training practices and miracle-sleep-fairy-nap-tips is like jumping straight to the detailed manual in German—before you’ve even figured out how to plug in the TV. Put down the detailed manual. Let’s start with sleep’s equivalent of the Quick Start Guide, which is building your child’s sleep foundation.

Once you’ve instituted a sleep foundation, many children will sleep well and not need any more guidance. For those who do, it’s still much easier to troubleshoot or sleep train, once the sleep foundation is in place.

As LA-based certified child and family sleep consultant—and author of the upcoming 4 Pillars of Sleep Hygiene—Jenni June told me, “Without a sleep foundation, none of the sleep-training methods will work. And even if it does, it will come undone when real-life circumstances come your way—such as travel and illness.” Because the easiest way to minimize bedtime tears has nothing to do with “cry-it-out” or “no-cry” philosophies but everything to do with building a sleep foundation from day 1.

"It’s time to simplify baby sleep."
    • The sleep foundation components that work for you also work for your child. Incorporate components of a sleep foundation as early as possible: a consistent schedule, stable wake-up and bedtime routines, a relaxing sleep environment, and plenty of physical activity and outdoor time. (We’ll delve into each of these in detail shortly.) The exact components will change as a child grows, but the groundwork is the same.
    • Aim for a flexible routine, not a strict schedule. Some baby books come with such strict schedules, you’d think they’re for the Supreme Court, not a four-week-old. Everyone loses their mind a little trying to adhere to these. Forget it. Instead, adopt a flexible routine where you still have a consistent general timing and order of activities but aren’t fixated on the clock. Along those lines, once you have a good routine in place, the 80/20 rule is okay for the kiddos, too: if you’re staying consistent 80–90 percent of the time, missing a nap or a late bedtime here or there is fine.
    • Limit their device time, especially two hours before bed. As soon as your child uses a device, make a firm power-off time. Devices in the bedroom at night are linked with later bedtimes, less sleep, and poor sleep quality, so keep them out.
    • Thou shalt not listen to nonexpert “experts.” Do not—I repeat, do not—automatically internalize advice from your mother-in-law/neighbor/lady in the grocery line. They’ll tell you how their child slept through the night at three weeks. “I wonder why yours isn’t doing that? Hmmmm.” Ignore that judgy vibe. At three weeks postpartum, we’re all such an exhausted, hormonal mess, we wouldn’t know our baby from the Dalai Lama. We don’t remember baby’s schedule twenty minutes ago; there’s no way they accurately remember twenty years ago. Don’t let them get into your head.
    • Good sleep takes a sleep foundation . . . and a little luck. I say this because we moms internalize how well our children sleep (and eat, and poop, and burp, and . . . ), as a critique of our mommy-ness. Keep doing your best, but know that some babies just sleep more easily than others. It doesn’t make a baby a “good baby” or a “bad baby,” or you a “bad mommy,” it just . . . is. And, no matter what you do, it will change by next Thursday because baby likes to keep you guessing.

 

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Darria Long Gillespie, MD MBA
Dr. Darria Long is a Yale- and Harvard-trained emergency physician, author of bestselling book Mom Hacks (Hachette), and a TV host and expert on HLN, CNN, The Dr. Oz Show, and other networks. A mom of two herself, Dr. Darria has become the national "make-life-better-for-women doctor”. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School and residency training from Yale School of Medicine.

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