How to resettle your baby
You’ve made a cup of tea and just started to relax when “waaaah!”, baby is awake again. We asked our resident baby whisperer, Dorothy Waide, for her best advice onresettling a baby who really should still be sleeping.
All babies stir in their sleep and sometimes they wake up at this point of stirring even though they need more sleep. Babies need good long chunks of sleep. Not just cat naps here and there, but a routine of regularly timed sleeps of at least an hour and a half during the day.
Parents also need their babies to have good naps because, let’s be honest, daytime sleeps are our windows of opportunity for resting ourselves, getting jobs done or catching up on daytime TV. It’s a win-win. But sometimes the window is slammed shut prematurely and a tired, unhappy baby is awake again.
Firstly, we need to keep at the forefront of our minds the reality that resettling can be difficult and frustrating. Dorothy says you are not alone if you find resettling your baby stressful but, like anything we do in life, it requires practice and commitment. And plenty of deep breathing!
“Resettling teaches your baby how to progress from light to heavy sleep,” she says. “This is essential to avoid the pitfalls of frequent waking and cat-napping.”
Babies need us to teach them how to resettle themselves and encourage them to stay asleep. Your patient efforts will reap rewards for the whole family.
It will take a while, says Dorothy. Teaching your baby to settle by himself can take anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on your baby’s personality and the home environment.
It will require you to be consistently practising settling and re-settling techniques at least 80% of the time.
But it’s well worth it, especially because a baby who has been taught to sleep well during the day sleeps better at night. So how do you go about it?
45 minutes later
Forty five minutes. Collective parenting sigh. Most of us are familiar with this pattern, some can even set their clocks by it. Baby is settled and sleeping for precisely 45 minutes and then he is not. Dorothy reminds us that during the first 45 minutes of a nap baby is in a light sleep cycle. He then progresses into a deeper sleep, and in doing so he stirs. At this point, alas, some babies stir themselves awake.
When babies cry after 45 minutes many parents get them up, conceding that nap time is over, but then find they face a long afternoon with an overtired little darling.
In general terms, Dorothy suggests the aim is to combat cat naps and encourage your baby to sleep for the ideal length of time (at least an hour and a half, longer is also fine).
A baby up to 12 weeks old can be resettled to sleep in the cot or in your arms. Many parents find holding their baby to resettle is easier and they enjoy the contact and intimacy that is so important during the “fourth trimester”.
However, avoid doing anything in the arms that cannot be done in a cot. That includes moving, rocking or pacing, as movement is the hardest sleep prop to later eliminate. Instead, sit down and make yourself comfortable holding your baby in an “engulf hold” (see Dorothy’s resettling techniques on page 95) and “cup” (which is a movement that can be repeated in the cot) until he goes back to sleep. Some babies will respond to “shushing” as well as cupping and patting. When they are deeply asleep again you may be able to return him to the cot for the rest of his nap or you may find you have to keep him in your arms. If that’s the case, use this time as a rest yourself. Dorothy is quick to remind us that this is not failing. This is nurturing and just what your baby needs.
If you choose to transfer your baby to his cot when he is in a deep sleep then continue to cup/pat his bottom during the transition. Once your baby is in the cot then place your other hand firmly on his chest, providing as much connection as possible. This is what Dorothy calls “engulfing in the cot”.
Slowly remove your hand from your baby’s chest and reduce your patting to the point where you eventually withdraw your hand to end up patting the air, then leave the room. If your baby wakes, repeat the process and stay with him until he returns to sleep.
Over 12 weeks
If your baby is over 12 weeks old you can approach resettling differently. Go to your baby as soon as you hear him start to cry, as a sleepy baby is easier to resettle than a wide-awake crying baby.
Gently turn him onto his side but away from you, and use Dorothy’s “engulfing” technique to cocoon him with your arms so he feels secure. He will be comforted by your presence but won’t need to see your face or hear your voice talking to him. Use cupping/patting and shushing if need be, and stay there until he’s deeply asleep.
“Resettling is not about calming down or staying until he just starts to drift off, it is about staying with your baby until he goes into a deep sleep,” says Dorothy.
Always try to settle your older baby in his cot but if he doesn’t go into a deep sleep you could pick him up and resettle in your arms which, again, shouldn’t be seen as failure but as nurture.
“You can’t spoil a baby at this age. They need lots of nurturing and reassurance.”
Over time, you will need to step back and allow baby time to resettle on his own and intervene if he’s unable to do this. The time frame depends on you and your baby. But when baby wakes in the night the resettling time frame should be similar to the daytime routine.
It’s all about being patient. Dorothy says, “There is no instant fix, prepare for at least the same amount of time it took your baby to find sleep when he first went to bed, if not longer.”
Dorothy’s motto is TACT — Time, Acceptance, Consistency and Touch. Babies take their signals from us and read our body language so we need to feel relaxed when approaching resettling. This may mean not going into your baby’s room until you are calm and ready to approach resettling in a gentle way, committed to seeing through the teaching process. Be kind to yourself, take a break and some deep breaths, reminding yourself of the value and pay-offs of teaching your baby to get all the sleep he needs.
The micro nap
New parents often find their newborn baby will fall asleep calmly and easily, but 10 minutes later will be screaming the house down. Chances are, this sort of passionate cry is about discomfort caused by trapped wind, exacerbated by lying down on his back.
It is tempting to feed a tiny baby back to sleep, but he is probably not hungry, especially if you gave him a top-up feed. (Dorothy endorses giving your newborn baby a top-up feed before a nap, but don’t feed him to sleep. Put him in bed while still awake. Dorothy tends to feed then swaddle (or sleeping bag) and then put baby into bed. Swaddling in between avoids the feed/sleep association.)
What baby probably really needs after a 10-minute micro nap is a burp. Dorothy suggests baby should have a straight back for burping so pick him up and hold him over your shoulder. If he’s curled up you may need to straighten his body by lifting his pelvic area slightly. As babies get older they need even more help to get burps out with gentle but firm patting.
Once you have heard a burp, place baby back in the cot and help him find sleep again. Stay until he is deeply asleep.
Is it possible to transfer a sleeping baby from a carseat to a cot?
If a baby has been taught to resettle then, yes, you could expect to successfully transfer from carseat to bed. First make sure the bedroom is dark, creating a “cocoon for sleeping”. Don’t talk to your infant, just quietly place him into his cot and leave. If some resettling is then required, go back in and follow Dorothy’s resettling techniques.
Dorothy’s resettling techniques
Shushing is a long, low sound, resembling air being released from a tyre. It should be loud enough so your baby can hear it over his cry. It is thought that babies respond to shushing because it is similar to the sound they experienced in the womb.
Cupping and patting
Cupping or patting your baby’s bottom or lower body mimics your baby’s heart beat and reassures your baby of your presence. Cupping is a stronger action and is done with a cupped palm, incorporating both cupping and a short but gentle thrust forward of baby’s body. Patting is a repetitive rhythmic and firm action done with your palm flat. Both cupping and patting can be done when holding baby in your arms or when he’s in his cot.
The ‘engulf’ hold
As its name suggests, this hold provides as much body contact as possible, giving your baby the sense of being completely contained, as if in the womb. It positions your baby in such a way that you can initiate other settling techniques simultaneously. In addition, it provides warmth, intimacy and the meditative beat of your heart.
Hold your baby so that his head is resting on the upper region of your non-dominant arm. For mothers, this ensures that their baby is not too close to the breast where the baby could be easily drawn to feeding again.
Draw your baby in close so that you are pressed tummy to tummy with his face nestled just below the top of your shoulder. Your palm will be on his bottom with his legs tucked up into your body and supported by your forearm.
With your non-dominant arm, reach around your baby’s shoulder and take hold of his arm to steady it, in other words to control the startle movement.
For this technique to be effective, there should be no eye contact or direct communication between you and your baby. Allow your own body to do the nurturing.
Photography: Sam Mothersole
Thanks to our model, Baby Benjamin