A lot of new parents struggle with how to get their newborn to sleep at night. Another common issue is how to get a newborn to sleep in a crib without being held.
So I’ve put my 12 best newborn sleep tips into a sort of “newborn sleep training manual” to help you get your baby to sleep fast so you can finally get some rest.
(You may want to bookmark this page to come back to because there is A LOT of information here that you’re going to want to have access to later)
Now, this isn’t going to be the “just do this and that and ta-da! Your newborn will sleep through the night!” type of advice. (Quick tip: don’t believe anyone who tells you newborns can do that. It isn’t possible. I’ll explain why).
It also isn’t going to be the “let your baby cry it out” advice. I have some strong feelings on why you shouldn’t do that which I’ll talk about in another post.
Here’s the thing: I’m not offering you a “quick fix”…
I’m offering you an understanding and a long-term solution that will change everything and will actually help you get your baby to sleep well consistently.
(And babies’ brains develop most when they’re asleep so they need this as much as you.)
This post may contain affiliate links. You can find details in my disclaimer.
How is this different than other newborn sleep tips?
In the NICU where I work, we have an area full of relatively healthy newborns. These babies get fussy like most newborns do. And when you have a unit full of babies like this, it’s important to soothe them quickly when they get upset so that every baby in the unit doesn’t wake up.
Needless to say, NICU nurses are pretty good at getting babies to sleep.
So I’m going to teach you some tips and tricks we use to help even the fussiest newborns get to sleep quickly and stay asleep between feeds.
Let’s get into it.
Routine. AKA “sleep training”
Babies do well with routines. Not rigid, timed routines. But they learn to associate things that happen with other things. Adults do this too – it’s called “conditioning”.
The simplest example of how conditioning works is with dogs (and no I’m not comparing your newborn to a dog – I just think most people will easily understand this explanation).
Dogs usually learn when it’s time to eat based on something you’ve conditioned them to. Whether that’s making a certain noise or saying a certain word or walking toward the area where they know you keep the food.
They may run to their food bowl because they associate eating with one of those actions.
If you were to start doing something different before giving him food, like saying a different word, it would take awhile for him to associate the new word with eating.
So with babies, if you change the routine they’re used to, it’ll take some time for them to get used to the new way of doing things.
And they may resist the change for awhile.
So just be aware that, for example, if you’ve already unconsciously taught your baby that your arms are where sleep happens, it will take time to break that habit.
But it can be done. Just have patience.
Here’s the routine we usually use in the NICU to promote consistent sleep, in this order:
- Diaper change with cold wipes (no wipe warmers)
- Feed enough
- Burp well
- Keep baby upright for a bit after eating
- Swaddle tightly or place in sleep sack (sometimes we do this before feeding so that we don’t wake them back up after feeding trying to get them swaddled)
- Place in crib
This is the gist of our routine. But there are a couple tricks in between and after that we use if we have a particularly fussy baby. I’ll explain what those are and why they work below!
1. Change the diaper FIRST
Before you feed your little one, the first thing you want to do is change the diaper. And I would suggest not using wipe warmers.
Well first off, a cold wipe will help to wake baby up.
Second, you want to change the diaper before feeding because otherwise –
- Baby won’t be able to focus on eating because they have a wet/dirty diaper.
- You’ll have to change it after the feed which could wake baby back up.
If baby has a dirty diaper while feeding, you may have to change it after the feed anyway. In which case, have all the other things I talk later about ready to go to encourage sleep.
2. Use the right bottle (unless you’re exclusively breastfeeding, then go on to #3)
There are a hundred different types of bottles on the market. So how do you know which one to choose?
There isn’t necessarily a wrong choice. Some babies do just fine with any bottle.
But, there is a special bottle that has a unique ventilation system that actually simulates breastfeeding and helps with digestion.
It can reduce gas, spit-up, and even colic. Which means it can help baby sleep better and longer.
The Dr. Brown’s bottle was actually created by a physician in 1996 and is now the number 1 selling bottle in the United States.
You can check it out on Amazon by clicking the picture to the right.
Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) who specialize in infant feeding sometimes specifically recommend using these bottles with babies in the NICU who are having difficulty with some aspect of feeding.
But these bottles aren’t just for difficult feeders. This article written by an SLP who specializes in infant feeding discusses why these bottles are beneficial for all babies.
So, if you don’t already have a Dr. Brown’s bottle, it may not be a bad idea to get one! Especially if your little one’s sleep problems are due to gas, spit-up, or colic.
And if you want to make life a little easier, they make a special scrub brush to clean the bottles with (and it’s very inexpensive – like 5 bucks!). You can check it out on Amazon as well by clicking the photo.
3. Make sure baby eats enough
This seems simple, but I’ve watched enough new parents feed their little ones to know that it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Newborns have a pretty predictable amount of milk they can eat at one time, especially for the first week or two.
At birth, their bellies are about the size of a cherry and grow to about the size of an extra large chicken egg by day 10.
The first few days, baby will usually eat about ½ to 1 ounce (1-2tbsp). And by day 7, they’re usually up to about 2-3 ounces (4-6tbsp).
Their bellies also have an “emptying time” of 2-4 hours. So even if they do get their bellies full, for the first few months they will still need to eat about every 3 hours.
That’s why it’s not possible for newborns to “sleep through the night”.
It takes time for their stomachs to grow enough to hold more food so they can sleep through the night.
The problem is that babies sometimes start to get sleepy halfway through a feed before their bellies are full. And if you stop feeding and let them sleep, they’ll likely wake up hungry in an hour.
Some tips to keep your baby awake during feeding:
- Burp often (which I’ll talk about more in #4)
- Unwrap or unswaddle them
- Use a cool baby wipe on their skin
- Sit them upright, touch their head/face, and talk to them
- Gently, but with some pressure, rub around their shoulder blades or the soles of their feet.
- (Warning – they don’t particularly like this, but it works. Sucking soothes them so they will want to start feeding again.)
There are 2 caveats in this section:
- Don’t overfeed or force feed baby
- If you try the suggestions above and still can’t wake baby, they may truly be full. Let them sleep.
- If you’re exclusively breastfeeding it’s hard to judge the amount and therefore harder to tell if baby fell asleep because they’re full or because they got sleepy eating.
- You’ll learn your baby and what is a normal amount of time to feed at the breast.
- Also exclusively breastfed babies do tend to eat more often, especially for the first couple weeks (sometimes every 2 hours instead of 3).
4. Burp often: during and after feeding
This one is huge. It may not seem super important at first but think about it.
Babies tend to suck a lot of air into their bellies while feeding (although the Dr. Brown’s bottle I talked about earlier can help with this) and they can’t burp well on their own.
If they can’t get rid of that gas, one or more of these 3 things will happen:
- They won’t eat as much as they should during the feed because their belly feels full because of all the gas in there
- They’ll spit up their food because there was too much air and food in their belly at once. Then they’ll get hungry again sooner because they spit up the food.
- They’ll get a tummy ache because they’re gassy
- This is seriously one of the biggest reasons for a fussy baby
All of these things equal baby not sleeping well or for long. So we usually say
Try to burp after about every ounce and at the end of the feed.
Some babies are stubborn with their burps so here are a few techniques you can try if you have a baby who doesn’t burp well:
*Always be sure to support the head and neck for each of these*
- Make sure their chin is up while burping so their airway is open to let the gas out easier.
- You can try holding a paci, if you use them, in baby’s mouth while burping to open the airway even more.
- Pat them firmly in the center of the back with a flat hand – you should be able to clearly hear the sound of your hand patting their back.
- Don’t pat too hard, but you can use a little more pressure than you may think.
- Use some pressure to rub up and down on their back. Then try to rub in a small circle in the center of their back.
- Try patting lower on the back then moving higher for a bit.
- Position changes can also help get a stubborn burp out!
- Try having baby’s belly rest on your chest while you burp them over your shoulder.
- Try laying baby’s belly across your lap, supporting the head and neck, and burp them this way.
- Try sitting baby’s bottom on your lap and leaning them forward, supporting their head and neck with one hand and burping with the other.
- Lean baby forward, backward, side-to-side – sometimes that’ll do the trick!
Pro-tip: some babies have wet-burps. Hold a washcloth or burp rag under their chin where you’re supporting their head while burping so you don’t get milk vomit on your hand!
Some babies may not swallow much air and don’t need to burp. But unless you know that your baby doesn’t burp and doesn’t have any issues from not burping, I’d still try!
5. This is seriously the secret ingredient
Oh my gosh. Gas drops.
We love gas drops in the NICU. Like I said in the last section, gassy tummies are one of the most common causes for baby fussiness. And we have lots of gassy babies.
These little miracle drops are usually made with a medicine called simethicone, which is the same thing that’s in gas relief tablets for adults. But these are in yummy liquid form for babies.
The brand used in many hospitals and recommended most often by pediatricians is Mylicon.
And according to parents, many babies seem to prefer the taste of this over other brands.
You can give these before feeding, in the middle of the feed after a burp, or after the feed. Different babies respond better to different timings, so you’ll have to experiment to see what works best for your little one.
Pro-tip: if your little one doesn’t love it and spits it back out as soon as you drop it in, just mix it in their bottle before feeding like you may do with other nasty medicines and they’ll never know!
These drops can usually be given with every feeding, up to 12 times a day!*
If you prefer a more natural solution (without medication), you can also try gripe water.
I have no experience with it personally, but some parents swear by it.
However, while Mylicon can be used from birth, gripe water isn’t recommended until 2 weeks of age.
*Always talk to your pediatrician before giving your baby any medication and read the labeling for administration information.
But seriously…gas drops. Load up on this stuff. It’s probably the simplest, most effective fix on here.
6. Keep baby semi-upright after feeding
Quite a lot of babies have problems with reflux.
This is when food starts coming back up the esophagus, which obviously doesn’t feel good. It can also cause baby to spit up their feed, which means they’ll be hungry again sooner and won’t sleep as long.
So to help prevent the pain and hunger that can be caused by reflux, you can keep baby semi-upright for at least 15 minutes after feeding.
This gives the food that baby just ate time to move from the stomach into the intestines where it isn’t as likely to come back up.
You can either hold your little one in a position where they’re semi- upright for 15+ minutes or put them in a bouncer/rocker while you clean the bottle, do some dishes, or just relax for a minute and drink some water!
Here’s a Fisher-Pricer rocker that would work great for this.
Parents in the Amazon reviews even talk about how it helped with their babies’ reflux!
Plus it’s portable, has a machine-washable pad, and converts to a chair for toddlers so you can use it for a couple years.
SAFE SLEEP WARNING – the AAP states that it is not safe to let baby sleep in swings, bouncers, car seats, or anything other than a crib. It also isn’t safe to put a wedge or anything else under their crib to prop it up unless you’ve been told to do so specifically by your pediatrician. You can read more about sleep safety and how you can protect your little one in my post on sleep safety for babies.
7. Try not to rock baby to sleep
I know this is hard. It’s like natural instinct to rock when a baby is in our arms. But if your little one gets used to being rocked to sleep, that’s a hard habit to break.
And of course it’s nice to have your baby sleeping in your arms sometimes. But when it’s 2am and you haven’t gotten any sleep because they will ONLY sleep in your arms…then it’s a problem.
I’m not saying don’t rock your baby ever.
If they’re crying – rocking, bouncing, and swaying can be very soothing. But once they calm down, try to slowly stop the movement.
Because like I said earlier, swings and rockers are NOT safe for newborns to sleep in. And most cribs don’t move.
If baby is already used to this, I have some bonus tips for you after #12.
8. Use a swaddle or sleep sack
Newborns have been crammed in your warm, cozy uterus for their entire lives up until now. They’re used to pushing and kicking against something and then returning to the fetal position.
Now, try to put a newborn in a crib without a swaddle or sleep sack (like the baby pictured above). Most of them will flail around and not sleep.
This is partly because newborns have a startle reflex (called the Moro reflex) until they’re a couple months old. Sometimes the slightest noise or movement can trigger that reflex which causes their arms to jerk.
This can actually scare baby awake – then they may scream and cry and be difficult to get back to sleep. But having their arms contained helps dampen the exaggerated movement so baby won’t wake as easily.
There’s a reason pretty much every baby you see in a hospital is swaddled.
Swaddling with a swaddle sleep sack or swaddle blanket is good for the first few months until baby can break free easily.
Once baby can break out of the swaddle or roll over, swaddling should be stopped.
The reason is because if they get out then there’s a loose blanket in the bed which is a suffocation risk.
There seems to be less risk with the swaddle sleep sacks than swaddle blankets because they tend to be harder for newborns to get out of (unless you can get a really tight swaddle).
Regardless of which one you use, make sure baby has room to move their legs somewhat freely. Too tight of a swaddle or too small of a sleep sack restricts normal movement and isn’t good for baby’s hip development.
The Halo brand swaddle sleep sack is the one used most often for newborns in hospitals.
This one in particular is nice because it allows baby to sleep with arms in or out (there are some babies who don’t like their arm movement restricted, though most prefer it).
I’d still only recommend the newborn size for the first few months and then transition to a sleep sack without wings
Because once baby can move that much, the wings can ride up and become a choking hazard.
The Love to Dream Swaddle Up pictured below is very unique and seriously awesome because it lets baby move their hands to their mouth to self-soothe while still being contained.
This same brand also makes a transition sack. This helps your baby transition from total containment to not having their arms contained after they’re a few months old. It works by allowing baby to get used to having only one arm out at a time.
Because remember, this is a change in routine and the smoother and slower you can make the change happen, the better it will work and the happier baby will be.
If you don’t know how to swaddle with a blanket, check out my post on Instagram that walks you through it!
And feel free to follow me if you want more newborn/preemie tips on your Insta feed!
9. Let baby sleep in your room
I know what you might be thinking…”wait, I thought you wanted to help me sleep?”.
But not only is room-sharing with your little one recommended by the AAP for the first year (at least 6 months), it can also help baby sleep better.
If baby’s in your room, you’re able to get up and respond to baby crying more quickly. This means you can settle them back down before they get so worked up they can’t get back to sleep.
This is especially useful if you’re breastfeeding
Because like I said, breastfed babies tend to wake up to feed more often. And with baby by your bed, you can easily bring them to the breast to feed! Then place them back in their crib/bassinet and both of you can go back to sleep.
Not to mention, some people think babies can tell when you’re in the room and it calms them down. I don’t know about that, but who knows…maybe!
Another important safe sleep note: while it is recommended to room-share, you should never bed-share with baby. This is a whole long topic itself but earlier I linked to my post on safe sleep if you want a better idea of why this is so important.
10. Keep the room very dark
Babies aren’t scared of the dark and don’t need a night light – they lived in your dark belly for the last 9 months! (Maybe a little less if they’re a preemie, but you get the point).
Try to condition baby to associate darkness with sleep.
This means for both naps and nighttime sleep, try to have baby in their crib in darkness whenever possible. (I know that’s easier said than done, but it may be easier the first few weeks if you get maternity leave from work. And the earlier you make it a habit for baby, the better).
During the day
Move baby to a bright room when they’re awake so they associate light with being awake.
Try to use a dim night light when feeding/changing diapers and turn it back off as soon as you’re finished.
This helps prevent them from getting their days and nights mixed up (which is never fun)
It might be beneficial to invest in some blackout curtains too! My husband and I both work night shift and we couldn’t sleep during the day without our blackout curtains.
Word of caution though, don’t try the cheap ones. They suck. We did that then had to go right back out exchange them for the slightly more expensive ones.
We just went to Wal-Mart to get ours, (and I don’t remember the brand) but if you want to try Amazon (because getting stuff shipped to your door is always fun) here are some curtains that have a lot of great reviews.
11. Have white noise in the room
I always go back to the womb because I think that makes babies easier to understand.
Baby has listened to the blood rushing through your body their entire life up until now! They aren’t used to total silence.
This is why shushing babies works so well.
The shhhh sound we instinctively make when a baby is crying is similar to what blood flowing through the body would sound like, so it’s familiar and comforting.
Now, white noise can be as simple as a fan (as long as it isn’t blowing on baby) or as fancy as a white noise machine (which some parents swear by).
If you’re considering a white noise machine, the LectroFan is one of the best affordable ones on the market (some are hundreds of dollars which I personally think is a little crazy, but hey if you have the money, go for it!)
The reason I would encourage you to consider this machine over others is because it has 10 variations of the best 2 types of noises to help baby sleep.
Fan and white noise.
This also means you have 20 options to find which works best for your baby. Then keep it on the same one consistently, unless baby stops responding to it.
For baby’s sleeping area, I wouldn’t recommend machines that light up, play lullabies, or move.
All of these things are too interactive and baby will want to pay attention to them instead of sleep. Then they associate their crib with play instead of sleep and you have another problem.
White noise, however, is soothing and relaxing.
We use white noise in the NICU with our fussiest babies, because it’s one of the only things that calms them.
Another positive to white noise is that it helps block out other sounds so you don’t have to worry about being extra quiet when baby is asleep. There’s a funny video in the link for the white noise machine above that shows this perfectly.
BUT DO NOT let baby listen to the white noise machine all day. 2 reasons:
- Baby will get used to it and it won’t be as effective when it’s bed time.
- Babies needs to hear other sounds when they’re awake because it helps them develop skills such as language and memory.
12. Give baby a pacifier
Pacifiers for newborns are not a bad thing. They only really become a problem if the child is allowed to continue using them as a toddler.
Also, it’s not recommended for exclusively breastfed babies to use a pacifier until they’re 1 month old and consistent breastfeeding has been established.
(Unless of course your baby has to go to the NICU after birth, because the benefits outweigh the risks of using pacifiers for NICU babies).
Now on to why pacifiers are good for sleep.
Back to the womb we go!
Babies begin sucking their fingers as early as the second trimester. Sucking is a primitive reflex that all babies are born with, even preemies, unless they have other issues (e.g. problems in their brain or genetics).
So this is comforting to them. It’s a skill they know how to do and it actually releases the happy hormones, regardless of whether they’re sucking to eat (a nutritive suck pattern) or just for fun (a non-nutritive suck pattern)!
So giving baby a pacifier when putting them down for sleep helps relax them. But it also helps them transition from feeding to sleep. They likely just got done sucking on a bottle or at the breast and want to keep sucking, even if they aren’t getting milk.
Funny note: If you breastfeed, you’ll notice that sometimes it seems like your baby is just “using you as a pacifier”. They kind of are sometimes! They like to non-nutritive suck for comfort even if they aren’t hungry or if they just need a break from eating.
The other reason you should offer a pacifier when putting baby down to sleep is that the AAP actually recommends this for protection against SIDS!
HOWEVER, DO NOT use pacifiers with toys or straps or anything connected to them. Yes this includes the Wubbanub pacifiers with the stuffed animal on the end that everyone loves. They aren’t safe for sleep.
Baby can be strangled by a strap or suffocated by a stuffed animal. It may seem unlikely, but I personally wouldn’t take the chance when over 3,000 babies die every year in the U.S. alone from sleep-related causes. I’d prefer to minimize that risk wherever possible.
Instead, try these Phillips Avent pacifiers for use during sleep.
As with most of my product recommendations, these are the ones most frequently used in hospitals for newborns! There’s no need for expensive pacifiers as these work great.
Just pay attention to the size/age range because you don’t want one too small for your baby as it could become a choking hazard (the one I’ve linked to is for 0-3 mo.)
You can use these Wubbanub pacifiers for older kids or when your baby is awake and supervised, just don’t use them for sleep.
If you’ve tried all of this and are still having problems with baby being too fussy to sleep…
So you’ve tried everything above and still no luck? Well fortunately for you, I’ve got a couple more tricks up my sleeve that may help.
If baby cries as soon as you put them in the crib
Your baby may already associate being held with sleeping. Make sure they are freshly diapered, swaddled tightly, and warm (which mimics you holding them). Make sure the room is set up properly like I suggested earlier.
Now, read ALL the steps because if you stop somewhere in the middle, it’s not safe sleep.
Continue holding them and patting their back/bottom for a couple of minutes. Slowly lay them in the crib on their side with their paci and continue patting their bottom. You may even need to gently rock baby side to side with the other hand. The idea here is to keep baby moving.
SLOWLY take away one movement at a time.
If baby starts getting fussy when you slow/stop a movement, speed it back up/restart the movement. We’re trying to slowly transition them to no movement at all, instead of going straight from all the cuddles to an empty crib.
If you’re rocking side to side, slowly stop and remove that hand.
If you’re patting their bottom, slowly stop but keep the hand holding pressure on their bottom. If they stay comforted, slowly turn baby to their back (this important for sleep safety, babies should always be on their BACK TO SLEEP) but continue holding pressure on the hip/leg as their bottom is now on the crib.
If they start to get fussy, tilt them back to their side and repeat the above.
This may get frustrating but try to resist the urge to pick baby up. Don’t ignore the crying. But respond in ways that don’t involve taking baby out of the crib (unless they’re losing their mind and there’s no chance they’ll settle – then you may have to pick them up to calm them down and start from the top.)
The above method is also good to use when baby wakes up and gets fussy in the middle of the night way before they should be eating again.
If you can calm baby back down without picking them up before they escalate to full on tantrum, you’ll have an easier time getting them back to sleep.
It may take awhile of doing this for baby to finally accept that they can’t always sleep in your arms. But eventually they should get used to the crib.
If baby absolutely will not sleep without movement
If even the last trick doesn’t work and they will seriously not sleep without movement/being held…
DO NOT let your baby sleep in a swing or bouncer or car seat.
I know it’s tempting when you have a baby that will not sleep without the movement, but unless you’re keeping your eyes on them the entire time, it’s so dangerous and can be fatal. And you can’t watch them while you’re asleep, so this isn’t a solution.
What may help is the SNOO bed (which you can now rent!). You’ve likely heard of this and if not, it’s going to blow your mind.
This bed (more like a bassinet) has a swaddle sleep sack that hooks into the base on each side. You place baby in the sack and TURN THE BED ON (crazy to me that a bed can be turned on).
And it will start gently rotating your baby back and forth while playing white noise.
Now as if that’s not cool enough –
If baby starts crying, the bed can hear it and progressively increases the rotating speed and white noise.
It’s magical, I’m not even exaggerating. We use them for babies going through drug withdrawal (NAS) who are particularly difficult to get to sleep otherwise and they are incredible.
This bed is only recommended for babies up to 6 months old and they aren’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination (I’m talking $1300…to only use it for 6 months…yikes).
But now you can RENT THE SNOO BED.
For like $3/day. If you rented it from birth to 6 months, it would cost about $600 total – HALF of what it costs to buy the bed…
And here’s the thing – you rent on a month by month basis, so there’s no commitment. You can rent it for a month and if it doesn’t work for you, you send it back and don’t pay for a second month.
Plus you get free shipping both ways and they usually have a deal where you can get your first month for only $2/day.
But seriously, just go to the website and read some of the reviews at the bottom of the page.
There are parents saying they feel like they’re cheating by having one.
They’re that good.
And they’ve done safety testing (you probably can tell by now that I’m all about sleep safety). You can listen to the creator of the bed talk about the safety features in the video below.
What has and hasn’t worked for you?
I hope this post gave you at least a couple new ideas to try and a better understanding of how newborns operate and why they react the way they do!
Babies are complex, and every one is different. I could literally write an entire book about a hundred things to try to help a baby sleep. (But I think this post is already long enough and hits the high points!)
So what tips do you have? Has something else worked well for your little one?
Let me know in the comments!
I’d love to hear more ideas to share with other moms and dads who are having trouble helping their newborn sleep.
“Babies used to make me nervous, but these squirmy things are awesome once you’ve read the manual”,
(-David Z. Hirsch)
Carol-Ann, the NICU Nurse