3 Ways to Get Baby to Sleep in the Crib

We’re guessing that your newborn prefers to get most of her shut-eye in your arms. Use this guide to make the transition to the crib for deeper, safer slumber.

mother soothing baby Grace Huang

There’s a reason we devote so much time to selecting the right crib, not to mention a whole afternoon assembling the blasted thing. We assume it’s where Baby will spend night after blissful night, right? But a whole lotta moms find that the crib is not so much for snoozing as for screaming. Sweet Pea will drift off only — really, only! — in your arms or after 45 minutes of driving aimlessly. Don’t give up, though! A crib is the safe place for your infant to recharge, and this is the time to teach her to sleep there. “After babies hit the 6-month mark, their napping and nighttime habits become harder to change,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night. And since babies get less sleep and wake more often when they’re not in their crib (studies have proven it), you have a serious incentive to act now. But if your baby is older, don’t sweat it; just realize that easing her into the crib may take more patience. Follow our pointers to help your peanut settle into a dream routine.

    Baby will doze off only in your arms

    Why she loves it there: “Young infants understand the world in a very sensory fashion, which is why they find the warmth and softness of your arms so soothing,” says Polly Moore, Ph.D., director of sleep research at PAREXEL Early Phase in Glendale, California, and author of The 90-Minute Baby Sleep Program. “In fact, research shows that a baby can tell if she’s being held by one of her parents or someone else. She knows what Mommy feels and smells like.” It’s one of the most common traps parents fall into. Your sweetie nods off after a feeding and, well, what mom doesn’t adore cozying up with a snuggle bug? So there Baby stays. Bobbie Lipe remembers the days when she couldn’t put her baby boy down for a second. “Before Aydyn was diagnosed with lactose intolerance, he was miserable all day. Holding him was the only way to calm him. So he slept in my arms, ate in my arms, everything. I would have put him in the crib, but he just wouldn’t have it,” says the mom from Ottumwa, Iowa.

    Your snooze solution: Make the crib feel more Mom-like, says Dr. Moore. “One reason a baby gets upset when you try to transition him to the crib is the drastic change in temperature. He goes from the heat of your body to a relatively cold bed,” she says. However, never place a blanket, pillow, or lovey in the crib with your baby because they greatly increase the risk of suffocation. If your baby’s under 3 months, swaddle him, feed him, and ease him into the crib. That worked for Dr. Moore’s daughter. “The swaddle was warm and smelled like me, which seemed less jarring,” she says. For babies who are beyond the swaddle, try a sleep sack. If your cutie still protests, stand next to the crib for a few minutes with your hand on her tummy to soothe her, Dr. Mindell adds. “A belly rub is fine, but avoid picking her up. It will confuse her.”

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    Baby will nap only in her infant carrier

    Why she loves it there: Could there be anything more soothing? A carrier or sling is a bliss-inducing trifecta. “First and foremost, there’s the chest-to-chest contact. That kind of kangaroo care is very calming for infants,” says Dr. Mindell. “Add to that the warmth and smell of your body and the motion from walking around.” Plus, if your child has reflux, the upright position can make for a happier, less fussy baby. Gravity helps keep stomach acid down; lying down does the opposite. Ruth Logan, of Trumbull, Connecticut, got into the carrier habit with her son. “When Brent wouldn’t stop crying, I discovered that if I put him in the Baby Bjorn, he’d calm down and eventually doze off,” says Logan. “I was just so happy that he had finally nodded off that I rarely tried taking him out and putting him down. But then he came to expect that every day. It was rough!”

    Your snooze solution: The best way to wean your baby off the carrier, according to Dr. Mindell, involves a few tears (so worth it in the long run, though). “It’s easiest to start with bedtime. Put her down in her crib when she’s awake, but sleepy,” she suggests. “Then check on her as frequently as you wish, say, every five to ten minutes. The goal is for her to fall asleep on her own.” And when the crying starts? “Remind yourself that a baby who sleeps is a happier baby,” says Dr. Mindell. Once bedtime is going well, put her down awake for one nap during the day but keep the others as usual, so she doesn’t become cranky or overtired. Master that siesta first and then tackle the next.

    • Learn more baby sleep tips with our guide.

    Baby will sleep only in her swing or car seat

    Why she loves it there: “They both involve motion, which is calming in and of itself,” says Dr. Mindell. And often the movement is similar to what it was like in your belly. That’s exactly what Samantha Silver found with her daughter. “For the first three months, Ava would only sleep in her bouncy seat with the vibration turned on. God forbid the batteries died in the night! And she would only nap during the day if I drove her around,” says the Dobbs Ferry, New York, mom. “She loved that combination of motion and a confined, secure space.”

    Your snooze solution: “Start by eliminating the movement,” says Dr. Mindell. “Put her in the stroller but don’t stroll it. Pop her into the swing but don’t swing it. Buckle her in the car seat but don’t drive anywhere.” When your babe is used to that, put her in the crib when she’s rubbing-her-eyes tired but not quite out yet. “Each step will probably take three or four days, so it’s a process,” Dr. Mindell says. “But be consistent. And try these steps only when you’re ready. If you keep changing the routine, you’ll confuse Baby and prolong the whole thing.” If her naptime sobs have you on the verge of tears, check on her after a predetermined amount of time and say, “I guess naptime is over! You must not be sleepy.” Once she shows signs of tiredness again, you can try the routine once more.

      4 Steps to Sweeter Slumber

      A bedtime routine is so important! Establish one from the moment your little one comes home, and she’ll be more likely to sleep well later on.

      1. Limit distractions. Babies need to wind down, just like you. So start switching gears (low lighting, little noise) about 30 minutes before bed.

      2. Get in a habit. Choose a few activities, like a bath or book, to do each night. If feeding is part of that routine, do it first so Baby doesn’t rely on it to fall asleep. Put her to bed when she’s obviously drowsy, but still awake.

      3. Try white noise. A simple machine is comforting, and you won’t have to whisper the rest of the night!

      4. Stick with it. Put your baby to bed at the same time and in the same place each night. If you’re thrown off schedule because of a holiday or vacation, don’t worry. Just try to get back on track ASAP.

        Baby Sleep: Get the Facts

          Originally published in the February 2014 issue of American Baby magazine.

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