Help My baby won't sleep

Is infant sleep more like an elusive dream in your household? New Zealand's 'baby whisperer' Sharlene Poole shares her techniques for settling even the most stubborn non-sleeper.

Every parent will surely agree - sleep is one of the most treasured elements of the parenting journey, for both babies and parents. It can also be one of the most fraught and frustrating. In my work I am inundated with questions and requests for help with infant sleep issues. New mums and dads are often particularly desperate for methods to help them attain peaceful slumber.
     Babies all need sleep, some slightly more than others, but I believe that all newborn babies and young infants need very similar amounts of sleep. Both developmentally and physically, babies can cope with only a limited amount of time awake before they need to sleep again, allowing their minds and bodies to rest and grow.
     When a baby is not sleeping for long enough over a 24-hour period, he will struggle to cope with the stimulating environment in which we live. A common snowball effect from lack of sleep can include not eating or drinking enough, which then causes an inability to sleep for long enough later due to hunger. Snack-feeding can become a habit and behaviour can change, with tired babies unable to entertain themselves if left to play alone for a while. A common symptom of tiredness I see with newborn babies is their inability to cope as well as they could with wind and digestion discomfort. As with adults, tiredness makes babies less tolerant of certain situations.
Reasons a baby won't sleep include:

  • Wind discomfort (particularly in the first three months)
  • Insufficient weight gain or feeding issues
  • Over-stimulation (out and about a lot, {or awake for too long). Stimulation is wonderful for babies, in small amounts to begin with, slowly increasing as the weeks progress and they can cope with more, but it is very important to carefully monitor awake time as babies get over-stimulated more quickly than we realise
  • Too little stimulation. Babies need to be awake for slightly longer periods as they grow older, but often show tired signs out of habit at the previous time for their nap
  • Digestion discomfort or pain such as wind or reflux symptoms
  • Temperature (too cold or too hot)
  • Inconsistent days (no pattern or routine to the day or week)
  • Settling technique
  • Position

     After many years of working with babies, I'm convinced that all babies can be shown how to sleep well, most days. Some babies just need a little more help than others. When it comes to advice on sleep and how to settle a baby, parents are bombarded with many options and opinions. They often try anything and everything but struggle to find something that is consistently successful.
Issue13Sleep2    There is no right or wrong way to calm and settle a baby to sleep. Parenting styles vary greatly, but when nothing seems to be working, parents often seek new ideas and even contemplate methods they would not have previously considered.
     The method I find most successful, and most readily accepted by parents, is a way of settling baby in his own bed without leaving him to cry for too long, thus teaching the baby that bed is a happy place to be and encouraging longer sleep. By using an "in and out of the room" settling technique that I call "supervised settling", I find every baby will respond well, so long as their parents have the patience and trust that it will work. Supervised settling gives parents guidance and eventually confidence, which is reflected in their babies, who consequently feel happier about spending longer in their beds.
     The supervised settling technique I use does allow babies to complain or have a small cry, as I believe it is natural for a baby to cry. In crying, they communicate that they are hungry, tired, in discomfort, or just do not want to go to sleep!
     It's all right, I believe, for babies to complain about going to bed. They are smart and most babies who cry about going to bed are the "social babies" who don't want to miss out.
     But if you don't believe in leaving a baby to have a short cry, that's okay. What I see, though, as I visit people in their homes, are parents who want both things: They would like their baby to self-settle and sleep in his own bed, but they don't want him to cry. I think most babies don't need to be left to cry for more than three to five minutes; however, there are times when parents may have to leave them for longer - if they are exhausted and unable to successfully use a settling technique.
     After supervising a baby's grizzle, complaint, or small cry (or before a baby is crying if you prefer), I enter the room and roll baby onto his side to begin my settling technique. In turning baby onto his side (facing away from you), I find that the "out of sight, out of mind" and limited stimulation enables him to settle better. 
     Once he is on his side, I start a tapping/jiggling motion with my hand patting his bottom. This moves his body gently in the bed, reminding him of the movement he had in the womb. This motion distracts, calms and gives him comfort through touch. It can be used to settle children anywhere (on a plane or even in a boat, as I once did with a toddler!), rather than relying on rocking in a buggy, bassinette or car.
     Many parents find rocking in their arms works to settle baby, but as soon as they transfer baby to bed, baby wakes up and you're right back to square one, by which time some babies are overtired and overstimulated. During the settling process, while I am letting a baby complain, I assess issues such as whether he fed well before he went to bed. Is he mouthing and looking to suck, but when I offer him some milk he falls asleep? In this case, I might use a dummy to help calm him, in conjunction with the bottom tap.
     I also think about whether he burped after his feed. If he is squirming in his bed there is no point in doing any settling technique, as wind is most likely causing discomfort. Check for a burp quickly and tuck him back in. Are his eyes wide open and are they overtired? If so, reduce visual stimulation.
     Is he getting very distressed and are you feeling uncomfortable with how things are progressing? Pick him up, calm him down and then try again. Alternatively, rock him to sleep and try the supervised settling method again the next day or next sleep.
     I use a safety wedge while I am going in and out of the room, to ensure that the baby doesn't roll from his side to his tummy. It is essential that your baby's lower arm, the side that you have rolled him onto, is forward of his body and that he is swaddled in this position (rather than swaddled with arms directly at his sides, as this will give him a numb arm and also enable him to roll onto his tummy). Once your baby has calmed or is asleep, you can carefully turn him onto his back and leave the room.
     A regular routine complements an effective settling technique. A routine guide gives parents an idea of how long a baby should roughly be awake for, how long they could sleep for, and how often he needs to feed. With many parents returning to work or travelling to schools and playgroups, having a routine helps them manage their schedules but still meet their babies' needs when it comes to allowing time for adequate sleep and quiet time at home.
     Don't suffer sleep deprivation in silence. Seek help if you need it. Even comparing notes with other parents going through the same thing can be encouraging. Your mental and emotional wellbeing relies on rest, and with support, you can make your days more enjoyable.

Sharlene Poole was dubbed New Zealand's "Baby Whisperer" by TVNZ's Sunday programme, and has been known as such ever since, highlighting her gifts and knowledge regarding babies. A trained early childhood educator, Sharlene has worked in the UK and around the world as a maternity nurse. She now runs her own company, Little Miracles Postnatal Care, and works with families in their own homes or through organised seminars and TVNZ's Good Morning show. Learn more at


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