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The Best Time to Start a Baby on a Sleeping Schedule

Photograph by David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images

A predictable schedule ensures that your infant, and the rest of the household, get adequate sleep. But it doesn't matter how bleary you are after a week of sleepless nights—your baby isn't ready for a set sleep schedule as a newborn. He needs to set his own sleep routine at first, but once his patterns are clear, you can wield some influence. Once he's on schedule, sleepless nights and cranky days should be rare.

Baby's in Charge

There's no perfect, predictable time to start easing your infant toward a sleep routine; every infant is ready at her own time. Give your baby a few months to start to acclimate to the cycle of sleeping at night and playing during the day. By the time she's about 3 months old, she should have a basic routine down, says KidsHealth: she'll probably sleep during two to three shorter periods during the day and sleep for a longer period of six to seven hours overnight, typically with one feeding breaking up that time. Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, echos this, suggesting parents create a sleep schedule when a baby is between eight and 12 weeks old.

Plotting Baby's Patterns

If your baby's sleep follows an erratic schedule—say, he naps four times one day but only once the next day—he may not ready to be guided toward a set routine. Track his sleep when you're considering starting him on a schedule. Ask all caregivers to note in a log when he falls asleep and wakes up; then look for patterns. For instance, he might take a two- to three-hour nap in the late morning and a shorter snooze in midafternoon. Once he's fallen into a fairly consistent rhythm, he's probably ready for a schedule.

Creating a Schedule

Use your baby's natural patterns to guide your sleep schedule, suggests Mindell. Build the schedule around the baby's nighttime sleep. The more consistent his nighttime routine, the better sleep you'll get too. If he tends to show signs of sleepiness at 8 p.m., make that his official bedtime—but if he wakes every morning at 4 a.m., shorten his daily nap periods so she'll be more tired at night. Your written schedule should allow the same number of hours of sleep that he currently gets. Build in feedings at the times when he typically starts to get fussy.

Making Sleep Work

So you've figured out he needs a two-hour nap starting at 2:30 p.m. to be sleepy by bedtime, but he's still wide awake at 2:45. It may take weeks for your baby to adjust to the schedule you've created. To help him acclimate, create a clear difference between awake time and sleep time. During the day, play with baby in a well-lit space, engaging his interest with toys and music. Fifteen to 30 minutes before sleep, move him to his dim bedroom. Lower your voice, rock him and play soothing lullabies, gradually darkening the room the closer it gets to sleep time. During nighttime feedings, keep lights low and your voice quiet.

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