For many of us, our very first experience of getting a baby to sleep is when we have our own child. It can be quite a puzzle to work it out.
If you are a new parent, feeling confused, and finding yourself googling things like ‘How to get a baby to sleep’, then you need to know, you are not alone.
How Do You Get Your Newborn To Sleep?
Good news! There are some very handy tips, tricks and hacks that might help you find your groove with your unique baby.
But first you should develop a filter, to make sure that you only allow into your heart and mind the sleep advice that feels right for you and your baby.
Infant sleep is a big industry, and it’s built on making parents feel as if their baby has a ‘sleep problem’.
In the vast majority of cases, the problem is not with the baby at all. It’s more to do with unrealistic expectations, and lack of knowledge about what normal infant sleep looks like.
How Can You Make Sure You Have Realistic Expectations?
It is well worth doing some reading on the biologically normal sleep behaviour of babies and toddlers. It will set the scene and reassure you about your own child’s sleep.
It’s also important to be informed about normal sleep behaviour, so if there is something out of the ordinary disrupting your baby’s sleep, such as reflux or allergies, then you can recognise it.
Check out Baby Waking Extremely Frequently? Here Are 4 Things To Consider for more information.
Here are some links to get you started:
- BellyBelly has numerous informative articles about Baby Sleep.
- Evolutionary Parenting has a series of articles about Normal Infant Sleep that are well worth reading.
- Professor James McKenna of Notre Dame University has written many informative articles about the relationship between breastfeeding and sleep.
- Dr Pamela Douglas and Dr Koa Whittingham of The Possums Clinic also offer an evidence-based approach to infant sleep. It’s a great help for setting up realistic expectations.
How To Get A Newborn To Sleep
The best way to explain how to get a newborn to sleep is to say it is like a slow dance. But it’s a dance where you and your baby will take it in turns to ‘lead’.
Following your baby’s lead when it comes to nursing and sleeping is the most natural way to ensure he is getting what he needs. Trust your baby to know what he needs; he will communicate it to you.
You can then take the lead to help him find peace. Meanwhile you’ll be listening, learning, adapting and flowing as you find the unique rhythm that suits you both.
Taking the lead doesn’t mean following external guidelines for what your baby ‘should’ be doing. It means tuning in, with your instincts, and recognising what your baby needs.
As your baby changes and grows, it’s okay to try different things. It’s normal for you to keep balancing and re-balancing, as your baby’s needs change.
You’ll find three suggestions about how to help your newborn to sleep listed below. It isn’t a set of instructions or an external guide. The ideas might or might not work for you and your baby. Perhaps they’ll work for a day, a week, or a month – or for your baby’s entire infancy.
#1: Feed your baby to sleep
Feeding your baby to sleep, either at the breast or with paced-bottle feeding, is the biologically normal way for human infants to find sleep.
Health care professionals often advise new parents to implement a Feed-Play-Sleep routine, but this advice is not backed by evidence.
Scheduling feeds or waking a baby after a feed can teach the baby to fight off the naturally occurring sleepiness induced by feeding.
Feeding to sleep helps a baby’s sympathetic nervous system dial down, allowing him to succumb to the need for sleep.
Night time breastmilk is also high in cholecystokinin, a hormone that induces sleepiness – not only in the baby, but also in the mother.
Our very clever bodies know how important it is for both mother and child to feel relaxed and sleepy while meeting the baby’s night time need for nursing.
#2: Recreate a womb-like environment
Newborns have just arrived on this earth after many months living and growing in a warm, snug place that was perpetually in motion – your womb.
It makes perfect sense that your baby will feel at his safest and most secure when he is warm, snug, held close and in motion.
Here are a few ways you can recreate the environment of the womb. Some babies might feel at peace with just one of these methods; the majority will need a combination.
Swaddling your baby might be enough to give him the feeling of security he needs to drift off. There’s a wide variety of options for swaddling your baby – blankets, muslin cloths, swaddle bags, some that allow arms up, and others with arms down.
It is important you swaddle correctly, to protect your baby’s hips.
To learn more, check out How To Swaddle Safely: Step By Step Video.
Holding your baby firm and close against your body will help him to sleep. Some babies enjoy the classic cradle hold, lying on their back in their mothers’ arms; others prefer to be on their side, tucked in close, and near the breast.
Experiment with a range of positions to find one that is most comfortable for your baby.
Over your shoulder or upright on your chest might be a comfy position for your little one. Or he might prefer to lie like a little sloth, draped over your arm, on his tummy.
Listen to your baby as you try different positions. Don’t be afraid to change, if he is unsettled.
Moving with your baby is a reminder of your baby’s days spent tucked up inside you, in perpetual gentle motion. Outside the womb movement is soothing and calming as well as being good for your baby’s vestibular function.
Rocking, swaying, bobbing, dancing, and walking, and car rides, pram rides and hammock swinging are all ways you can make movement part of your day and help to settle your baby.
Babywearing, using a carrier, sling or wrap, has so many benefits and can be an incredibly helpful settling and sleeping tool for you and your baby. It is natural for a baby to want to be held close. Your baby will feel most secure when in the arms of his loved ones.
As babies grow and gain weight very rapidly, extended periods of holding and rocking them can leave parents feeling fatigued and sore. A well fitted carrier, sling or wrap can help a baby’s carers support their own physical health while also supporting their baby.
These days, most towns and cities have babywearing groups. They often have ‘sling libraries’ so you can borrow and try a range of options and be taught how to fit them safely and correctly before you invest in the model that best suits you and your baby.
Sounds can be soothing to your baby as he finds sleep. The inside of your body was a noisy place. While he was growing, he constantly heard your voice, your heartbeat and various other body sounds.
The noises of your home and environment will also be familiar to your baby, and familiarity often means comfort. Working out a way to use noise that suits you and your baby is often a process of trial and error.
Some options to consider:
- Simply having baby out and about among whatever daily activity is occurring (environmental noise)
- Radio (I know a baby who easily falls asleep to heavy metal music; no prize for guessing what mama and daddy enjoy listening to)
- White noise (there are plenty of free options online, or you can use specific machines)
Please be mindful of the volume of noise as it can have an impact on baby’s hearing.
#3: Consider holding your baby for his sleep
If your baby wakes the moment he is placed down, please don’t panic! This is an evolutionary protective behaviour and perfectly normal, Your baby is not manipulating you and you cannot ‘spoil’ your baby.
Some babies are easy to place down to sleep; most are not. This is also normal and something they will naturally grow out of, in time, as they feel more confident in sleeping independently.
Humans are in fact ‘carry mammals’. The need to be held close in the early months of life is essential as very young babies continue to grow and develop outside of the womb.
Babywearing is often the saviour for many families with little koalas who need near-constant holding to feel calm.
What If My Baby Fights Sleep?
If your baby fights off sleep as if his life depended on it, here are a few things to consider.
Is he simply not tired enough?
The baby books and the experts love to tell you when your baby should be tired, and how long he should sleep. Your baby hasn’t read these books. There are no ‘shoulds’ for a baby.
The amount of sleep your baby needs is highly variable and heavily dependent on his individual nature. Just as some adults only feel well rested after 10 hours sleep at night, and others are up and perky on just 5 hours, our babies sleep needs are unique too.
If you’ve been trying for 15 minutes and your baby is still not asleep, consider stopping for a while. Change the scenery, make a cuppa, go for a walk … break it up and try again a bit later.
Is there an underlying feeding issue?
Dr Pamela Douglas of The Possums Clinic sees many babies who wake extremely frequently, or have marathon feeds. She is adamant that there is nearly always a feeding issue. This is highly disruptive to the babies’ sleep, as their sympathetic nervous system cannot dial down properly when they don’t feel satiated enough.
If this sounds possible in your case, an appointment with a skilled International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) is highly recommended.
Is your baby bored?
Babies need a healthy sensory environment for their rapidly developing brains to make necessary connections. From birth, it’s possible for your baby to fight off sleep if his need for sensory stimulation hasn’t been met.
This doesn’t mean you need to be rushing out the door and scheduling your child from the moment of birth. It simply about understanding that a change of scenery would be a sensory relief from time to time.
Your newborn’s immune system is very new and still developing, so there’s no need to head into big social gatherings or other busy places where he will be exposed to many potential illnesses.
What you can expect, however, is:
- Your baby will be bored looking at the same four walls each day.
- He will get sick of being in a darkened, low sensory environment.
- He will crave new things to look at, touch and hear.
Simply stepping outside to rest on a mat under a tree can provide so much rich sensory input for your new baby. Gentle walks in the carrier or pram, meeting up with a friend for a coffee, going for a drive to Grandma’s house…. This is all added sensory stimulation that will break the monotony for your little one.
Mainstream sleep advice focuses heavily on ‘tired cues’ and ‘sleep windows’. You might want to consider your baby is possibly not tired for sleep in that moment, but instead he is tired of the space he is in.
Meeting your baby’s need for sensory input allows his sympathetic nervous system to dial down beautifully. Often, after a rich sensory experience, a feed will quickly see your baby off to sleep.
Your baby might sleep only for short periods during the day. Day sleep is only meant to take the edge off his sleep pressure. Sometimes, 20 minutes will be enough; other times, he’ll need 2 hours.
Confused? Does this go against everything you’ve been told?
Read Catnapping Could Be The Answer To Better Baby Sleep for more information.
If your baby wakes and still seems tired and cranky, offering him the breast and a cuddle might help him drift back off if he needs to. If it doesn’t work, don’t stress. You cannot make your baby sleep; all you can ever do is offer him the opportunity.
So, with these tips in mind, keep dancing that beautiful, unique slow dance you are choreographing together.
And remember, nothing lasts forever with babies. They won’t always need you as intensely as they do right now, and meeting them at their point of need is all you can ever do.