Everything about baby sleep can seem frighteningly high-stakes at 3 A.M. You might worry that making one tiny mistake in their training could seriously affect your child’s development. Concerns range from them waking up throughout the night well into high school to developing anxiety, depression, or mood swings. With every sleep expert offering slightly different advice, you may feel unsure about whom to believe, how to proceed, or which sleep training method to follow. This article aims to help you separate sleep fact from fiction by zeroing in on six science-backed strategies proven to promote healthy sleep habits in babies and young children.

Strategy #1 – Learn to Spot Your Child’s Sleep Cues

Just like adults, babies have a sleep window of opportunity—a period when they are tired but not too tired. If this window closes before you tuck your child into bed, their body will start releasing chemicals to fight the fatigue, making it much more difficult for them to fall asleep. Here are some sleep cues indicating your baby is ready to wind down for a nap or bedtime:

  • Calm and less active: This is the most obvious cue that your baby is tired.
  • Less tuned-in to surroundings: Eyes may be less focused, and eyelids may droop.
  • Quieter: If your baby usually babbles, the chatter may decrease as they get sleepy.
  • Slower nursing: Instead of sucking vigorously, they may nurse more slowly or even fall asleep mid-meal.
  • Yawning: A clear sign that your baby is sleepy.

For very young babies, start their wind-down routine within one to two hours of waking up. If you miss initial sleep cues and notice signs of overtiredness like fussiness and irritability, plan to initiate the wind-down routine about 20 minutes earlier next time.

Strategy #2 – Teach Your Baby to Distinguish between Night and Day

Our circadian rhythm operates on a 24-hour cycle, but slightly out of sync with the planet’s 24-hour clock. Daylight regulates our biological cycles, affecting the production of melatonin, the hormone that synchronizes our internal clock. Exposing your baby to daylight shortly after they wake up and keeping their environment brightly lit during the day helps set their circadian rhythm. Studies have shown that exposing your baby to daylight between noon and 4:00 P.M. increases the odds of them getting a good night’s sleep.

Strategy #3 – Let Your Baby Practice Falling Asleep on Their Own

Some experts recommend putting your baby to bed in a sleepy-but-awake state from the newborn stage so they can practice self-soothing. Others suggest giving your baby at least one opportunity each day to try falling asleep on their own. The sleep-association clock starts ticking around six weeks, the point at which your baby begins to tune into their environment as they fall asleep. If they get used to falling asleep in your arms, they will expect the same when they wake up at night. Introducing variety in sleep associations, such as rocking them to sleep only sometimes, can prevent strong dependencies.

Strategy #4 – Make Daytime Sleep a Priority: Children Who Nap Sleep Better

Research shows that babies who nap during the day sleep better and longer at night. Skipping naps can make it harder for them to settle down at bedtime, resulting in poorer nighttime sleep. Prioritize your child’s daytime sleep just as you ensure they receive nutritious meals and snacks. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who nap are generally in better moods and have improved attention spans.

Strategy #5 – Know When Your Baby No Longer Needs to Be Fed at Night

Your baby may wake up out of habit even after outgrowing the need for nighttime feeding. If they sometimes go without that feeding or don’t seem interested in nursing at night, it might be time to eliminate the feeding and use non-food methods to soothe them. Breaking the food-sleep association can lead to fewer nighttime wakings and help your baby develop self-soothing skills.

Strategy #6 – Remain as Calm and Relaxed as Possible about the Sleep Issue

If you are frustrated and angry when dealing with your child at night, they will inevitably pick up on your vibes. Accepting that some babies take longer to learn good sleep habits and feeling confident in your ability to solve sleep problems will make it easier to cope with nighttime interruptions. Studies have shown that parents who have realistic expectations and feel confident in their parenting abilities handle sleep challenges better.

By following these science-backed strategies, you can help your baby develop healthy sleep habits, leading to better rest for both your child and you.