Updated: Mar 26
Those first few weeks are HARD. Then baby curls up on you and you snuggle together and s/he falls asleep and looking down at your child is so blissful. It has all the emotions. S/he cries and cries and you are just so tired so you let baby sleep on you more and pretty soon baby only wants to sleep on you. Now don't get me wrong, skin to skin is beautiful, crucial for bonding, and it has plenty of health benefits for mom (or dad too!) and baby.
Contact napping is great, until it's not anymore. As baby gets older, contact napping gets harder. The naps get longer, and you have stuff to do, your arms are heavy, you feel trapped, and you are exhausted. You are ready for baby to stop sleeping on you.
When you get to this point, you probably have found yourself wondering or Googling, "how do I get my baby to sleep in her crib?!" Rest assured; it can be done!
Safe sleep space
Healthy sleep hygiene always begins with safe sleep practices. It is essential for healthy sleep habits!
Follow AAP's recommended ABCs of Safe Sleep.
If you are not already familiar, it means baby should be Alone on Back in Crib. Nothing should be in the crib with baby but tight fitted sheets, a firm mattress, and an optional pacifier. AAP released updated guidelines in June 2022. Learn more about the AAP's new recommendations.
Use a swaddle or sleep sack
for sleep time. A swaddle does not prevent SIDS but it does wrap baby up all cozy like a baby burrito, mimics mom's womb, and limits the Moro Reflex which causes baby to startle awake from jerky arm or leg movements. Swaddling is safe for baby from newborn up until she can roll (typically happens around 3-4 months of age).
When baby can roll to her belly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends transitioning to a sleep sack (I call them sleep bags!). A sleep sack is a great alternative to a blanket for warmth, to practice safe sleep, and to keep baby cozy.
Back to Sleep
The AAP recommends putting baby on her back to fall sleep for every sleep until she is one year old. When she begins to roll to her belly and back again, it is safe to let her remain sleeping on her belly but she should always be put in the crib on her back to start.
Create an environment conducive to sleep
Pitch black room
Use blackout curtains to block the light. Ideally, and particularly at night, you shouldn’t be able to see your hand when the lights are turned off. That includes no nightlights or star/image/sound projectors.
Use a white noise machine
This helps block outside sounds and mimics the womb. Place it on the other side of the room so it is not by baby’s ears and keep the decibel below 50-60 to reduce the risk of damaging baby’s eardrums.
Set the room temperature to 68-72F year-round
A good rule of thumb is to dress baby in one more layer than you are wearing. Generally, a cotton onesie with a lightweight swaddle or sleep sack will do for warmer weather. During cooler weather consider footed pajamas and a swaddle or sleep sack will suffice.
Avoid hats as they are not considered safe for sleep. If you want to double check them, use your hand to feel their belly or the back of their neck (this is more reliable than their hands/feet or forehead!) If it feels comfortable or slightly warm to your touch, then they are good!
Another helpful warmth tool is TOG Ratings- Thermal Overall Grade. Baby clothes and sleep sacks like Kyte often use these identifying ratings to help demystify how to dress your baby. The higher the TOG, the warmer the fabric. (Living on the East Coast, I always put my daughter in TOG 1.0)
Make the nursery a familiar, comfortable place
Make the nursery a familiar, comfortable place by spending time during the day, during her awake windows, letting her hang out in her crib and playing in the nursery. Change her and feed her in her room, read to her and play on the floor. You can do tummy time on the floor as well as in her crib. Make baby feel safe and ‘at home’ in her room. Give her some toys to explore while you play music and talk with her or put away laundry. If you and baby never hang out in her room, you can’t expect her to sleep well alone, in an unfamiliar space. Help her adjust to the sights and smells of her room and exposing her to this sleep space during the day will help her feel comfortable in her crib.
Start a Bedtime routine
If you don’t already have a bedtime routine in place, start tonight. Start with dinner, bath, pajamas and night-nights and end with books, song and putting baby in the crib awake, ready to sleep. Sleepy but not sleeping. For more on my recommended bedtime routine, check out my Bedtime Routine Guides (or my Neurodivergent Bedtime Routine Guide!)
Do a mini-version of your bedtime routine at naptime
This routine should take about 5-10 minutes and incorporate the major elements of the bedtime routine on a smaller, quicker scale to cue baby that it is time for a nap. If it takes longer than that, baby may get a second wind and become overtired.
Practice before you move
Do the bedtime routine in the nursery a few times before you transition to the crib in the nursery. If baby is used to sleeping elsewhere, spend 2-3 days doing the bedtime routine in the nursery to adjust to the environment before putting baby down to sleep in the crib in the nursery. This progression can help with the transition.
Begin using the crib at BEDTIME NOT NAPTIME
Bedtime is the best time to start adjusting to anything new. Whether it is using a sleep sack instead of a swaddle, introducing a blanket when your child is old enough, or starting a sleep method to teach independent sleep, bedtime is always easier to adjust to changes than at naptime.
Follow age-appropriate daytime sleep schedules
Follow age-appropriate wake windows and sleepy cues so baby doesn't get over/under tired. As baby gets older, sleep cues are less reliable as the main indication of sleepiness so it is important to watch age-appropriate wake windows to get your baby into the crib for sleep before they get over/under tired. Daytime sleep impacts nighttime sleep! To check to see if your child is on an age-appropriate sleep schedule check out my Master Infant and Toddler Sleep Chart Cheat Sheet.
Put baby down relaxed and ready to sleep; sleepy but not sleeping
You’ve probably heard all about “putting baby down drowsy” but I believe drowsy sleep is the enemy of sleep. You risk baby dozing off on you, thus reducing their sleep pressure and then they struggle to fall back to sleep. Instead, I recommend putting baby down relaxed, chill, ready to sleep, sleepy but not sleeping. You can also try giving baby a pacifier to help them soothe themselves to sleep. It is a great soothing tool as long as you do not go in to replace it for them.
Time the transfer!
So you tried to put baby down sleepy but not sleeping and baby still fell asleep on you. Don’t fret. The best time to transfer baby is around the 15 to 20-minute mark after they have settled into the sleep cycle. This is particularly true for those 4 months and younger who still have just two sleep cycles “Active and Quiet”.
If you put baby down too soon or, conversely, wait too long (a sleep cycle is about 40 minutes) they will wake right up. Have you ever put baby in the crib only for them to wake immediately? This is why. The first and last parts of the cycle are the lightest parts of their sleep cycle and if they are disturbed at this point, it will be hard to get them to go back to sleep.
Instead, if you put them in their crib after they’ve been sleeping about 15-20 minutes, they are deep in the sleep cycle by that point and the transfer should be easier.
Speaking of – how to master the transfer?
Keep baby as close to you as you can for as long as you can while you bend as low as you can, putting baby down at the very last second. Place baby on their side and slowly, gently roll to the back while keeping your hands on baby. You may want to pull away and sneak out but not yet. Instead, put some heavy and loving pressure with your hands on their chest or back and butt. Slowly remove your hand from their butt first followed by your hand that is on the check or back. Stay standing where you are to see if they start moving again. If so, put her hands gently back in place. As baby gets more comfortable with their own safe sleep space and transfer you can use less and less of this physical support.
Consider Warming the safe sleep space before the transfer
Warming the sleep space makes it a little cozier and mimics your body's warmth, allowing for a smoother transfer. You can use a heating pad for a few minutes prior to the drop.
However, it comes with a big fat warning for this: Be sure to remove it before putting baby in the crib! To limit the risk of fire, never leave it unattended! And watch the temperature so it doesn’t burn baby!
Start small and slow- Start with 1 nap/day in the crib
Start with one nap a day; a nap when you are home and baby can sleep on a flat, safe sleep surface. Typically, baby is most receptive to the 1st nap in the morning being in the crib because baby still has melatonin in their system from the night before. Try starting with that nap and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go well and they only sleep for 20-30 minutes, give them some time to try to fall back to sleep and if that doesn’t work, you can try to save the nap by recreating what you did to get them to fall asleep, comforting them or assisting them back to sleep (but being cautious to avoid the usual sleep association).
If it doesn’t work, there is always another nap or another day to try again later. Don’t let it ruin the day and definitely don’t spend your whole day fighting to get that nap. That will just exhaust and frustrate mom and baby. Depending on how much sleep baby did get, you can consider shortening the next wake window. Be patient and kind with yourself and baby.
Once baby is getting more comfortable with falling asleep in the crib for the first nap, add in the next crib nap. The more you do it, the more your child will get used to this new way of sleeping! Preventing a sleep debt so baby can sleep soundly and get restorative sleep at night is the goal of naps, so if one or two contact naps are still needed to ensure baby gets adequate day sleep, that’s ok.
If baby is on 3 naps, try for 2 crib naps. If baby is on 4 naps, try for 3 cribs, etc. Even if your baby only naps in the crib (or other flast, safe sleep space) for 30 minutes, that is still progress! Don’t give up!
Choose a sleep method
If your little human is 4mo+, and you want to sleep train, now is a great time! Sleep training will complement and help the transition from contact napping to crib and it will teach independent sleep skills, too. Choose a method that fits your parenting style, family dynamics and your child’s temperament. Did you know there are more method options than just CIO? Read about common CIO Concerns in my recent post.
To learn how Sleep Tight Tonight can support you in reaching your sleep goals, schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE SLEEP ASSESSMENT TODAY.
If you still have questions about how to get your child to sleep in their crib, would like support through this transition or if you have any sleep-related questions for that matter, send me an email! Perhaps you're ready to make a change in your child's sleep situation but don't know where to start. Let's schedule a sleep assessment and together we can choose a sleep method that is right for your child.
Speaking of transitions, another tough one is when to drop a nap? Is your child fighting naps making you wonder if it is time? Check out my Complete Guide to Nap Transitions!
Caryn Shender, founder of Sleep Tight Tonight, and author of My Scar is Beautiful is a mother, certified pediatric sleep consultant, and safe sleep ambassador who has guided thousands of families through the exhausting world of newborn, baby, and toddler sleep. She is trusted by parents and parenting coaches. As an entrepreneur, author, and mother of a heart warrior, she understands the weight and frustration of being sleep deprived, and the anxiety that crying can cause parents, while also understanding the power and importance of getting restful, restorative sleep. She is dedicated to helping families turn sleepless nights into easy, peaceful nights and sweet dreams. Being a mom is hard. Being an exhausted mom is next to impossible. Together, we’ll make sleep easy.