“Is he a good baby? Does he sleep all night?”
If you are a first time parent and the pressure to have a ‘good baby’ is making you feel like a failure, take heart.
Despite a conspiracy of silence among parents (nobody wants to feel judged), little night owls are more normal than you might think.
15 Great Tips to Help Your Baby Sleep Better
According to long-term research at Bristol University, at six months only 16% of babies were sleeping straight through (in infant sleep studies, ‘all night’ means only five hours!).
Over 50% woke occasionally, 9% did so on most nights and 17% woke more than once every night.
Why Do Babies Wake?
In the early days, babies need to wake and feed to maintain an adequate supply of breast milk. They also have short sleep cycles and frequent arousals and the younger the baby, the more arousals are normal.
According to researchers such as Professor James McKenna, from the university of Notre Dame, Indiana, these arousals may play an important protective role against SIDS. Babies need to arouse if there is a breathing obstruction or if they are too hot or too cold (both SIDS risk factors).
As well as reasons such as discomfort or hunger, it is also common for babies to wake as they reach new milestones and these can be physical (such as rolling or crawling), emotional (separation anxiety) or neurological.
One common example of this is at about 26 weeks, babies start to perceive distance so can become confused when they realise mummy or daddy are moving away and as a result, they become more clingy.
Babies spend around 50% of their sleep cycles in active (REM) sleep. It may be easier to accept your baby’s light sleep if you see this as ‘smart sleep’, playing an important role in brain development.
During active sleep there is an increase in the production of certain nerve proteins – the building blocks of the brain.
Blood flow to the brain nearly doubles compared to the deepest sleep state.
It’s also thought the brain uses active (light) sleep to process information.
This may explain why babies begin to wake again as they enter new developmental stages and ‘practise’ new skills (such as crawling) in their sleep.
Helping Your Baby To Sleep
Of course, simply knowing you’re not the only one soothing little night owls or your baby’s wakefulness isn’t your fault, won’t solve your sleep problems.
So, if you’re thinking even five hours uninterrupted sleep would be a dream come true, there are some gentle strategies you can try to help your baby, and you, to sleep better.
Sleep Tip #1: Know Your Baby’s Sleep Signs
None of us like being kept awake when we’re craving sleep.
So rather than waiting until your baby is ‘past it’, put her to bed as soon as she shows sleepy signs.
Look out for signs such as:
- Becoming quiet
- Making jerky movements
- Frowning or knitting eyebrows
- Clenching fists into tight balls
- Losing interest in people and toys
If you miss this window of opportunity, your baby is likely to become grumpy and find it difficult to settle.
Sleep Tip #2: Introduce Bedtime Rituals
Bedtime routines can become cues which help even tiny babies wind down and become conditioned to fall asleep.
From the earliest days, give her a warm relaxation bath just before bedtime (tip – wrap and cuddle your newborn dry so she isn’t upset by her startle reflex).
Sleep Tip #3: A Magic Touch
Silent nights could be at your fingertips: Research from Miami University showed infants and toddlers who were massaged daily for one month, for 15 minutes prior to bedtime, fell asleep more easily by the end of the study. To learn infant massage, see Pinky McKay’s Baby Massage DVD.
Sleep Tip #4: Soothing Sounds
The calming, repetitive sounds of traditional lullabies recall the ‘womb music’ your baby heard before birth (your heartbeat, and fluids whooshing through the placenta). Baby music that incorporates elements such as the rhythm of the maternal heartbeat can have remarkable soothing effects, especially if played continuously through the night.
Sleep Tip #5: Rock A Bye Baby
The motion of a rocking chair or being carried in a sling will lull baby to sleep. So will a special-purpose baby hammock, and as baby moves and arouses during the night, her movements will start the hammock rocking.
Sleep Tip #6: All Snuggled Up
The startle reflex, a primitive survival reflex that produces spontaneous, jerky movements, even in sleep, can be disturbing (literally). Provide a sense of security by swaddling your newborn, wrapping him firmly in a gauze or muslin sheet (in summer) or a soft shawl in winter. Gradually wrap more loosely and discard the wrap as this reflex disappears (by around three months).
Sleep Tip #7: Cut Out Caffeine
If you are breastfeeding, caffeine can create a vicious cycle: you drink coffee (or tea or cola) to give you a hit, baby gets a boost of stimulant through your milk – and becomes restless.
Newborns are particularly vulnerable to caffeine: a newborn may take up to ninety seven hours to get rid of caffeine in single cup of coffee (through your breast milk), so several cups of coffee could mean a very wakeful baby!
Sleep Tip #8: Daytime Feeds
Tiny tummies need frequent refills, but soon your baby will start sleeping at least one longer stretch between feeds. If baby sleeps more than four hours between feeds during the day, it is reasonable to GENTLY unwrap him and offer a feed, then he might save his longer sleep for nighttime. However, be patient if he is not ready to alter his pattern.
Sleep Tip #9: Try A Top Up Feed
Whatever time your baby was last fed, gently offer a feed just before you go to bed yourself (don’t wake him, he will suck in his sleep) and, with luck, his longer sleep may coincide with yours.
Sleep Tip #10: Teach Baby Day From Night
Teach baby the difference between night and day by keeping the lights low and attending to him quietly during night feeds. Save animated play and chatter for daytime.
Sleep Tip #11: Do Not Disturb
Avoid waking baby during night feed times by changing the nappy either before or half way through a feed, not when baby is all ‘groggy’ and full.
If baby is falling asleep during feeds, so only having a short feed, try changing the nappy half way through, then offering the other breast.
Sleep Tip #12: Let Baby Suck Up To The Boss
Falling asleep on the breast is one of the easiest ways for most babies to settle. This is due to hormones released while your baby feeds but if you are concerned about it becoming a habit, alternate feeding with other sleep cues and take heart: he may still like to snuggle up to a breast when he’s twenty one – but it won’t be yours!
Sleep Tip #13: Share Sleep
Research shows mothers and babies who sleep together (co-sleeping means within reach of each other, not necessarily in the same bed) share the same sleep cycles, so these mothers get more sleep overall.
Remember SIDS risk reduction guidelines: maintain a smoke-free environment (don’t bed share if you or your partner are smokers); put baby to sleep on his back; avoid overheating (use blankets rather than doonas); keep baby’s head uncovered and use a firm mattress (no waterbeds).
Sleep Tip #14: A Little Bit Of Mummy
It’s not exactly a substitute for you, but if you slip your own soft, unwashed tee-shirt over baby’s mattress, she will be comforted by your familiar smell as she sleeps.
Sleep Tip #15: Stop The Clock
Simply knowing how long you are awake can be enough to make you too tense to get back to sleep, or it may encourage you to rush your baby and make him feel anxious.
If you see your baby’s waking as a genuine need, it could help you to enjoy this precious cuddle time: feel the softness of his skin, breathe in his delicious smell and snuggle!