Establish a Baby Bedtime Routine to Get Your Newborn to Sleep

In honor of Sarah making the successful transition from her bassinet to her crib at five months (just in the nick of time–she almost outgrew that tiny bassinet), I thought I’d share our baby bedtime routine, which I truly feel saved my sanity when she was a newborn, and helped us both get a (fairly) good night’s sleep!

Now before I get started, let me say that I know every baby is different. I’m lucky, because Sarah typically had one four-hour stretch of sleep every night as soon as she came home from the hospital. And I’m certainly no expert–she’s only five months old and I’m sure we have plenty of challenges ahead of us. But we’re good now, and when I was a brand-new mother, I really wanted specific descriptions of bedtime routines for babies, so I hope this is helpful to someone.

When we first came home from the hospital, I was recovering from a c-section and couldn’t go up and down the stairs too often. Since our bedroom is on the top floor of our house, my husband set us up in our finished basement. This was a perfect solution at first: we had a futon, a cozy leather chair for feeding, the TV, a bathroom with a shower, and our laundry room, all on one level.

Baby Bedtime Routine

Sleeping in her car seat in the basement!

However, after more than a month of this, I was ready to reclaim my bedroom–and my sanity. So we brought her bassinet up to our room and set up a Pack N’ Play in the basement.

Things did not go well. This move coincided with Sarah reaching about six weeks–prime fussy time. This meant she could cry off and on for hours for seemingly no reason, while we futilely tried to soothe her. This also meant that when she finally fell asleep, we’d just leave her wherever she was–which was mostly in her car seat, parked on the carpeted floor of our basement, while I slept fitfully on the futon. Sometimes I would start her in the bassinet (and me in my bed!), but if she got fussy, I would take her down to the basement and try to put her to sleep in the Pack N’ Play (with me, again, on the futon). Or her car seat. Every night was different–the location, the time, I couldn’t depend on anything.

Finally, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about getting a newborn to sleep: various sources on the Internet, a book called The No-Cry Sleep Solution (which was extremely helpful), and another book titled Bringing up Bébé (which outlines the French parenting methods that supposedly produce polite, cultured children who sleep through the night and eat grownup food).

Baby Bedtime Routine

Little Sarah in her bassinet.

After digesting all this information, I realized I needed to start a consistent bedtime routine with Sarah: by doing the same things every night, in the same locations, at the same time, I could teach her to understand when it was time for bed and help her go to sleep. Which would help me get some sleep. In my own damn bed!

I read that parents could start as early as six weeks. I think I fully committed to it by eight weeks (before that I would still sometimes try to manipulate her schedule to fit my desires–not a good move). So without further ado, my method:

  • I observed Sarah at night to try to determine when she got sleepy. In the beginning, this was about 8:00 (this later changed). This became my consistent start time.
  • To start off, I take Sarah into her room, change her diaper, and get her into pajamas.
  • Then we go into my room, where I have the lights dimmed and a small table lamp lit.
  • Next, I put a heating pad into her bassinet or crib (it was November when I started this, and pretty chilly in our room–plus I’m very warm, so I wanted to make the transition from me to her crib less noticeable).
  • At this point, I nurse her, playing an album called Classical Lullabies: Relaxing Piano Music for Sleep. I wanted to create a strong association in Sarah’s mind between this album and bedtime!
  • Midway through nursing, I used to swaddle Sarah, then nurse her until she fell asleep. (She started rejecting the swaddle at about three and a half months, so now we use a sleep sack, which I put her in before nursing.)
  • Then I remove the heating pad (NOTE: DO NOT PLACE ANY ELECTRICAL CORDS WHERE BABY CAN COME INTO CONTACT WITH THEM, STRANGULATION HAZARD), place Sarah in her bed, and switch from Classical Lullabies to The Happiest Baby on the Block: Soothing White Noise Sounds (I keep an old iPhone in her room now for this).

In the beginning this could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half. Sometimes Sarah would go right to sleep, sometimes she would wake up and start crying, and I’d have to repeat the process two or three times.

Baby Bedtime Routine

Getting bigger . . .

However! The longer we maintained this routine, the easier it got. After awhile, if I didn’t start putting Sarah to bed on time, I swear she’d start fussing at me to get started! Also, something that surprised me: as time went on, Sarah’s bedtime got earlier. She’d start getting fussy and rubbing her eyes at 7:30, then 7:00, and now her present bedtime is 6:30.

The next hurdle: Sarah’s middle-of-the-night feeding. Even now, she generally wakes up anywhere from 12:30 to 4:00 to eat, and while I’m actually used to this now and enjoy these quiet moments with her, it would take an hour, and sometimes two, to get her back to sleep, which was extremely frustrating at 3:00 in the morning!

Here, again, is where the basic principles of our bedtime routine were a big help: I needed to pick a consistent place, and make sure as many of our “sleepy cues” were set up for her.

The place was a bit of a conundrum; I didn’t want to feed her in bed, because I didn’t want to wake up my husband. And unfortunately, the rocking chair in Sarah’s room was a big mistake–too small, and super uncomfortable for both of us (plus I think if I’m physically stressed, Sarah picks up on it). The good old leather chair in the basement was again the preferable choice, but that meant taking her down (and up) two flights of stairs, safely.

Once I committed to this, I thought about all the things that could possibly wake her up, as I wanted to keep her as sleepy as possible. One big one was turning on the lights, so I picked up a handful of night lights and put them near the stairs and in the basement, so we could go up and down the stairs safely, without blinding ourselves.

The next obstacle: diaper changing. I switched her to overnight disposable diapers so I could avoid changing her at all. That worked for a little bit, but then she started soaking through, so I do change her after all. However, because we’ve now established a firm nighttime feeding routine, I find that this isn’t a problem (I change her via nightlight as well).

So here’s our nighttime feeding routine, which is much like our bedtime routine:

  • I go get Sarah, and place the heating pad back in her bed.
  • Diaper change by nightlight.
  • We go downstairs and nurse, again playing the Classical Lullabies album on my phone.
  • Here she generally goes to sleep; I take her back upstairs, remove the heating pad, and put her down (after she reached about four and a half months, I could put her down while she was still awake, but sleepy, and she’ll go to sleep by herself).
  • Then I switch the music to the Happiest Baby on the Block white noise.

Again, especially in the beginning, this could still take an hour and a half or so–she would wake up and fuss when I put her down, and I’d either have to cuddle her for awhile, or take her back downstairs and start all over. However, after a couple of months of this, it very rarely takes more than half an hour, and sometimes as little as 15 minutes. Also, she used to have a neat trick of waking up about 10-15 minutes after I put her down, just as I was falling back asleep–that too rarely happens any more, in part because after she reached four months, I would force myself to wait 10 minutes if she started fussing. She would usually fall back asleep within five minutes.

Baby Bedtime Routine

Uh oh. Time to switch to the crib before it’s too late!

The other benefit of establishing this baby bedtime routine is, it made transitioning her to her own room (and then her own crib) much easier. Shortly after she reached three months, I wheeled her bassinet into her own room, next to her crib (tears were shed, on my part). However, our routine remained largely unchanged–I just walk her to her room after nursing. The various associations, like her sleep sack, the music, the warmth from the heating pad, etc., were all familiar, even in a different room, and then a different bed!

Baby Bedtime Routine

Success! Sleeping in her crib like a boss.

So there’s my “trick” to getting a newborn to sleep. Hopefully it won’t all be shot to hell when she begins teething!

Do you have a bedtime routine to share? Any tips you could offer about teething babies? I’m starting to really dread that . . .

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