Here’s a fact: all babies wake up at night. The difference between the so-called good sleepers and bad sleepers is what they do when they wake up. Some roll over, grab their blankies or loveys, tuck their knees under them, and fall asleep again. Others call out for help to be soothed back to sleep.

In our book, The Happy Sleeper, we outline three techniques for babies four months or younger, that will help you develop their ability to get back to sleep without crying out for mum or dad:

Discern your baby’s sounds

Babies are noisy! Why didn’t anyone warn you about the grunts, squawks, and gurgles your baby produces at night? One of the keys to promoting your newborn’s sleep development is to listen and discern your baby’s nighttime sounds.

Talking, whining, fussing, grunting, grumbling, kicking her legs, even pivoting and traveling around the crib—these are all normal noises and movements your baby will make as she figures out how to get comfortable and fall asleep again. These sounds don’t necessarily mean, “Come and get me, I need you!” so when you hear them, try to resist jumping to pick your baby up. Give her some space to work things out on her own. Your baby will wake up multiple times a night (as will your older child, and as do you). What matters is whether she can get settled and fall back to sleep again on her own. Wait, listen, and see if she can figure it out.

Put your baby down awake

There’s nothing more natural than your baby dozing off in your arms. As mums ourselves, we both remember it as one of the sweetest experiences of new parenthood. And let’s face it, especially if you’re breast-feeding, your newborn baby falling asleep in your lap is practically an unstoppable force. Soak up this beautiful time.

The hitch is that, as your baby reaches 3 months of age, the learned association between feeding, rocking, bouncing, or swinging and falling asleep becomes stronger, and your baby becomes very aware of, and reliant on, that pattern. Gradually fading these sleep associations in the early months, when a baby’s awareness is lower, can be very effective and easier than doing it later. For this reason, we recommend that you look for opportunities to put your baby down drowsy but awake. Do this as often as it works for you, so that your baby has the space to fall asleep by himself if he can.

Going to bed slightly awake also helps your baby sleep much better through the night, because he won’t need as much help from you to settle back to sleep every time he briefly wakes (which all babies, children, and adults do throughout the night as they cycle through stages of sleep). Imagine, from your baby’s perspective, what it’s like to be put down in his crib or bassinet already asleep:

He drifts off warm and nestled in your arms, feeding or rocking. A few hours later (or even a few minutes later), he wakes up alone, on a flat surface in the dark. Understandably, he cries out because he’s thinking, “Wait a minute, something is wrong. Where am I? Come back and make all that happen again so I can go back to sleep!”

After your baby is about 2 months old, he’ll be drowsy after not more than 90 minutes of awake time so watch the clock, swaddle, and place your little one down when his eyes are still open (often the first nap of the day is the easiest). If your baby cries for more than about a minute, you can use the Soothing Ladder to calm him and then try to put him down drowsy again. You can do this over and over until he falls asleep. The more you do it, the sooner you begin to see progression. This technique is much more effective with young babies, under about 4 to 5 months. It takes a lot of patience initially, but it can really pay off.

The Soothing Ladder Method

When your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, use the Soothing Ladder to respond to her with the least intrusive means possible. Start at the bottom of the ladder and spend roughly 30 seconds trying to soothe her, moving up a step if it doesn’t work. During these early months, if your baby wakes up and you think she’s due for a feeding, you’ll go up the steps of the Soothing Ladder fairly quickly, only spending about 10 to 15 seconds or less on each step before feeding her.

A typical sleep ladder for a young baby is:

7. Feeding her
6. Picking her up to gently rock until soothed but still awake
5. Jiggling baby in the bed
4. Your touch, patting on the back, rubbing head or tummy, hand over top of the head, and so forth
3. Replacing the pacifier and/or lovey
2. The sound of your voice, talking, singing, shushing
1. Your presence in the room

by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, authors of The Happy Sleeper