Top tips to take the guesswork out of baby sleeping
Baby whisperer Dorothy Waide takes the guesswork out of sleep routines, sharing her top tips for newborns through to preschoolers.
Sleep is a perennially hot topic for parents, and an area where one size certainly doesn’t fit all. There are various elements, such as your baby’s food intake and routines, which can have a bearing on their sleep patterns. In this article I’ll cover sleep issues that can arise for babies at different ages and stages, but first, here are some sleep-related guidelines that apply to all young children, no matter their age!
1. You need T.A.C.T
Good routines involve time, acceptance, consistency and touch. Firstly we need to reassure ourselves and accept that good things take time. Consistency refers to what we do 80 per cent of the time. For older babies and toddlers, touch can simply be your presence in the room.
2. Crying is baby’s communication
When your baby cries, be mindful about where you are and what you’re doing, and think about what your baby might want before you go to them. I’m not advocating that you leave your baby to cry on their own or for long periods of time, I’m suggesting that you listen to your baby, and pause before you take action. When it comes to sleep, I’ve noticed there are three main parenting styles. There’s the no-cry sleep solution; there’s crying it out, where you leave baby to get on with it; and there’s the one I advocate, which is somewhere in the middle. Whichever method you use, you’re essentially parenting your child on how to sleep (ie sleep training). It’s important not to judge others here, because we all parent differently. And although there’s no right or wrong way, I’d say there are certainly easier and harder ways.
3. Differentiating between naps and sleep
Many parents wonder whether to recreate a night-time effect in their baby’s room for daytime naps. During the day there are always household noises and babies do pick up on this. Alert and overstimulated babies find it very difficult to go to sleep anyway, so having a pitch black and quiet room for your baby to sleep in during the day will help them to nod off. Besides, melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, is only released in the dark, so if your baby sleeps well at night but cat-naps during the day, you could try darkening their room for that daytime nap.
Now, with those guidelines in place, let’s get started on tips for sleep for each stage.
The good news is that your automatic responses to your newborn mean they experience a routine as soon as they’re born. When your baby wakes and cries, naturally you respond by feeding, burping, changing, cuddling and swaddling them – then Baby goes back to sleep. A newborn’s feeding schedule is based on their napping rhythm, for example, if your newborn is awake for 45 minutes to an hour and napping for 45 minutes, then Baby will feed every 90 minutes to 1¾ hours. Or, if your baby is awake for 45 minutes to an hour and napping for an hour, then Baby will be feeding every 1¾ hours to two hours. As you can see, nap length determines how often you feed your baby. In my experience, there’s no such thing as three-to-four hourly feeding for newborns.
SELF-SOOTHING & RESETTLING
It’s important to understand that your little one won’t develop the ability to self-soothe or resettle until they’re somewhere between 12 and 16 weeks old. What you do to help your baby sleep in these first 12 weeks has consequences. My recommendation, at this stage, is to try not to do anything in your arms that cannot be replicated in a cot. For example, if you’re holding your little one until they fall asleep, then your body is effectively the ‘mattress’. I recommend using cupping (rhythmic patting) to comfort babies, as this same movement can be replicated on a baby’s body when they’re in the cot. Yes, Baby may cry, grizzle or whinge on and off, but this is normal (crying is normal!). However, what isn’t normal is Baby crying with nobody responding for prolonged periods of time.
TWO NEWBORN MILESTONES
Newborns go through two progressive milestones. The first is very soon after birth, once the maternal melatonin that was passed through the placenta to your baby dissipates; the second is when your baby is about six weeks old and ‘wakes up to the world’. At this second stage, they’ll be looking around more and it can be increasingly difficult to get your little one to fall asleep and stay asleep.
It will be hard work however you manage to get your baby to sleep in those first 12-16 weeks, but hard work tends to pay off! I avoid using sleep props unless essential. If you’re thinking of using a dummy/pacifier, remember not to ‘plug’ your baby as soon as they come off the breast or go into the cot. Remember, what you do in those tedious and exhausting first 12-16 weeks is what sets your baby up for good sleep habits. You can either settle your baby to sleep in your arms or in the cot, supporting them and being there when they need you.
If you’ve been putting your little one to sleep with a large movement like rocking, now’s the time to think about whether the cot can make these large movements too! Obviously the answer is ‘No’, so my best advice is to stop. Yes, your baby will cry while you show them how to fall asleep without the movement, but again, this is normal. (However, inconsolable crying or screaming here is totally different.) If your little one has been sleeping (or falling asleep) on your body in an engulf hold for the first 12 weeks, then it’s time to slowly transition them into their cot. Replicate in the cot whatever you did in your arms to help Baby settle and sleep. The aim is to teach your little one to resettle by themselves as they stir and move from one sleep cycle into the next (approximately 45 minutes after they’ve fallen asleep). It’s harder to get to your baby quickly when they stir in the cot, but time it right and you’ll be able to resettle them more easily. If you don’t get there quick enough, it can take up to 45 minutes to resettle a baby. Again, while your baby may cry on and off, this isn’t letting your baby ‘cry it out’. Eventually they will fall asleep again in this time frame. If at any time it’s easier to resettle your baby in your arms while your body is stationary, then do so. Return your little one back to their cot after approximately 40 minutes.
Your baby’s awake time will become longer as they grow. I recommend extending the wake cycle by 15-minute increments every 10 to 20 days. At the end of 10 days you can assess whether your little one is ready for the change. If your baby is not, then maintain the same wake cycles for another 10 days, and then reassess. Only you can do this, as your little one looks to you for guidance. As the awake cycles increase, Baby will start dropping naps. By the time your baby is six months old, the ideal routine is three wake cycles a day, with two naps no longer than 1½ hours each. For families with older siblings, you may find that your baby will take a ‘band-aid’ nap in the car at some point during the day, as you fit in activities such as picking siblings up from school.
If Baby is waking in the night, check the length of their last wake cycle. If it was longer than their other wake cycles then Baby could be going to bed overtired, which may encourage night waking.
If you’re having issues with self-settling and resettling, it may be time to rethink your routine. Count how many feeds Baby is getting during their wake cycles (I recommend two feeds). Also, think how much you’re doing to get your baby to sleep – perhaps you need to ‘do’ less. For example, you might hold Baby but give them space to find sleep by themselves, without rocking or cupping Baby to sleep. I’d also take note of how long Baby’s wake cycles are (refer to my helpful table).
As mentioned, I believe you need to consider your baby’s food intake when dealing with any sleep issues. At around four to six months, your little one may be looking for more than just milk, so this is a good time to introduce solids. Then at eight months you can introduce a routine of solids, then milk, then play, then more milk before bed. Your baby’s milk feed with solids will only be a small one; the feed before Baby’s nap will be the main milk feed.
If your little one has a dummy and you’re finding you’re doing one too many ‘dummy runs’ overnight, take a look at how you’re using it. To help Baby self-settle without the dummy, you can bring it in (even after a few minutes) if they cannot settle without it. If you go cold turkey and just remove the dummy, you may find you end up using the breast or a bottle to help Baby resettle instead! It may help to think about how you would feel if I were to remove your pillow, or something that was a great comfort to you, all of a sudden...
How do you know when your toddler is ready to transition from two naps to one, or from one nap to none? Babies who are ready to drop a nap tend to protest more at nap-time and take longer to get to sleep. They may take longer to fall asleep at night too, and some may also start waking earlier in the mornings.
Here’s how to manage nap transitions. Decide which is the longer nap and then work to ensure it stays the longest. Move that nap over a period of time so your toddler has their nap straight after lunch. For example, for a toddler who has a longer morning nap, I would start moving that nap out by 15 minutes, hold it there for 10 days, then move it out again by 15 minutes until finally I have the toddler having their nap after lunch (which could be anywhere from 11.30am to around 1pm).
As you move the nap out, the afternoon nap also gets moved out and eventually becomes a ‘band-aid’ nap, which is less than half an hour. Again, over time your toddler will need to drop that band-aid nap so they don’t end up sleeping too late in the afternoon, which could have an impact on the time they go to bed. Now, for toddlers who have a stronger afternoon nap: just do the reverse!
WAKING BEFORE DAWN
I find the two most common reasons for toddlers waking at this time are the outside world waking up or the light creeping in around the sides of curtains. The pre-dawn sleep cycle is also the lightest sleep cycle, so while your toddler may normally sleep well through the night, I’m afraid there is not much you can do to avoid their waking with the birds. Having low white noise on a timer may help, as may good-quality blackout curtains and blinds that don’t let any light filter through.
This really is the most difficult time to resettle toddlers since they feel they have had their sleep and are ready to start the day! One thing that may be a factor in your toddler’s early waking is the time they go to bed at night. As surprising as it may seem, bringing bedtime forward by 15 minutes may actually help some toddlers to sleep longer. Another factor to consider is how you are resettling your child at this time of the morning. For example, they may actually be waiting for you to come into their room to help them get back to sleep. It’s pointless leaving a toddler to cry themselves back to sleep at this time of the day, so you may need to go into their room to ‘be there’ for them, while letting them find sleep again themselves.
Like toddlers, some preschoolers will still have a quiet time or a nap during the day, and sleep through the night. However, by the time they’re three years old, most preschoolers won’t have a nap, but may need a half-hour or so of quiet time to help them make it through the evening routine. Hopefully by this stage you’re enjoying regular night sleeps and are recovering from the sleep deprivation you experienced during those early months. If your little one is still struggling to sleep through the night but is able to self-soothe and resettle, then it could be time to look at their diet, or seek professional advice. In my experience, if your preschooler is waking regularly at night, it’s worthwhile assessing their diet. I’ve found that fruit, processed sugars, cheese and yoghurt can all contribute to night issues. I’m not recommending you remove these foods from your child’s diet altogether, just that you avoid them after lunch. It’s well known that cheese can contribute to nightmares for adults and children.
All babies and toddlers are different so it’s important to go with your gut and work with your child.
Dorothy Waide started her career training as a Karitane Mothercraft nurse in the 1970s and is one of New Zealand’s leading sleep experts for babies and toddlers. Dorothy is the author of You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn, which is also available on Kindle and audiobook. Her next book, Simply Parenting – from 12 weeks to 3 years, can be found at facebook.com/BabyWithin and babyhelp.co.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 47 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW