You're desperate for your baby to sleep through the night but have no idea how to achieve it. You rock your little one in your arms until the early hours of the morning, and when he's finally fallen asleep you lay him in his cot. You tip-toe back into your room and snuggle down under the covers, only to hear your baby start howling again…
You're ready to tear your hair out, but don't panic – you're not alone. Babies' sleep patterns are a huge issue for mums, which is no surprise. We all worry about getting our babies to sleep. And now we've come up with a guide that will make your dreams of a good night's sleep for you and your baby come true.
Sleep patterns in the early days
Your tiny newborn baby will spend most of his time sleeping, and much of the rest of his time feeding. By three months, however, his sleeping and feeding patterns are more settled. Many factors affect how much sleep he gets; for example, if you've been out and about, had a quiet day or he's ill.
How much is enough?
It's vital your baby gets lots of sleep, because this is when he does most of his developing. Your baby's brain is growing rapidly; while he sleeps his body develops more nerve proteins, the building blocks of the brain. His tiny body also produces hormones that help him grow up to a millimetre a night.
Sleep helps your baby fight infections, too. While he dozes, his body produces chemicals that build up his immune system. Your baby also uses his time asleep to process all the stimuli he's encountered during his time awake. He cannot process what he's learnt unless he has enough good-quality sleep.
A newborn baby needs about 16-18 hours of sleep every 24 hours, and his sleep rhythms are as follows: slumber, light sleep, deep sleep, light sleep. It's during periods of light sleep that your baby dreams. Your little one will repeat these stages several times a night. Sometimes, you may think he's waking, but don't disturb him; he may settle himself and begin a new sleep cycle. However, babies often wake throughout the night before beginning a new cycle.
At birth, these sleep stages are relatively short, becoming longer and longer as the weeks and months progress. The more your baby practises the stages of sleep without interruption, the sooner he'll be able to establish longer sleeping rhythms – and the sooner you'll get a peaceful night's sleep.
Time for bed
About 80 percent of sleep problems are caused by babies being unable to fall asleep on their own. As adults, we wake several times a night, but can put ourselves back to sleep and rarely remember waking. When your baby wakes at night and finds that you're not there, he may feel insecure and need to be soothed back to sleep.
You need to teach him to put himself back to sleep. A good bedtime routine early on helps him do this – if he can put himself to sleep in the first place, he'll be able to resettle on his own later on.
At first, your newborn will wake frequently during the night for feeds. Don't rush the feed just because it's 2am and you're tired; your baby will only pick up on your stress and become upset. Stay calm, keep the lights dim and try to enjoy these precious moments together. They won't last forever. And take time to burp your baby, too. He definitely won't settle with an upset tummy and could end up vomiting.
Once your little one's established on solid food, at about four to six months, he may begin to wake later and later for his night feed until he stops needing it altogether. Some babies don't wake for a night feed from as early as six weeks; for others it takes much longer. Remember, all babies are different.
A lot depends on your baby's food intake during the day. Even if he's on solids, your baby still needs about 550ml of milk a day. If you're trying to wean your baby off night feeds, look at ways to increase his daytime eating – perhaps offer extra milk at meal times or add another solid feed.
There's no set time to stop feeding your baby at night, but if you notice he isn't taking much milk at his late-night feed, try stopping it and see what happens. Often your baby isn't hungry, he just wants comfort and has fallen into a habit. If you stick to your guns about not giving him a feed, eventually he'll cut it out completely.
The best way to help your baby understand that night is a time for sleep is to make it different from the day. Darkness and quiet encourage sleep and help your baby to understand that it's a different part of the day, and is time to settle for bed. Keep everything calm and quiet, and try to:
- keep the lights low
- minimise chat and eye contact – try not to stimulate your baby
- only change nappies when necessary
- keep feeds short.
Set a time for bed that suits you and work out a simple routine – for example, bath, pyjamas, feed, cot. If you do this every night your baby will soon understand that the routine signals time for sleep.
- Lie your baby on his back in the cot or bassinet, with his feet at the bottom so he can't wriggle down under the covers.
- Keep the room temperature around 16-20˚C – overheating is a risk factor in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, or cot death).
- Tuck in covers securely at shoulder level so they can't slip over your baby's head.
- Use pillows, doonas, quilts, sheep skins, baby nests or bedding.
- Put your baby to sleep on an electric blanket or with a hot water bottle, next to a radiator, fire or in direct sunlight.
- Allow smoking in the same room as your baby.
- Sleep with your baby if he is under eight weeks old, if you or your partner smoke, have recently drunk alcohol, taken medication or drugs or feel especially tired.
When to start
Babies thrive on routine, as it helps them feel secure and able to rely on the people around them. But like nothing else, routines divide new mums. There are a few bedtime routines to choose from, ranging from gentle to strict – so what will suit you and your little one, and how do you do it?
Most experts recommend feeding on demand for the first six weeks, so it's hard to start a firm routine before that stage. But provided your newborn is a thriving, healthy baby who's feeding well, there's no reason why a schedule can't be aspired to from the outset. It's harder to teach a one-year-old to go to sleep on his own than it is a newborn, so start early.
So which routine is right for you? Here are three of the most popular to choose from, to ensure that eight hours' sleep a night is no longer just a dream.
The strict routine
The New Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford
'I offer real and practical advice on how to establish a good feeding and sleeping pattern from day one, thus avoiding months of sleepless nights, colic, feeding difficulties and many of the other problems that the experts convince us are a normal part of parenting.'
- Organised mums who like strict routines and early starts, and first-time mums who feel more secure being given an exact timetable to follow, hour by hour.
- Newborn babies who are breast- or bottlefed, although the routine goes up to one year, so older babies can be switched on to it.
Gina instructs mums to teach their babies from day one the difference between night and day, naps and long sleeps, and exactly how to structure feeds. Her philosophy is that everything you do affects your baby and his sleep pattern.
She believes your baby should be asleep by 7pm, tightly tucked into his cot. She recommends putting your baby in his own room from the start, with blackout curtains, and that he should be swaddled and left to settle himself to sleep with the door shut.
Gina is confident that all babies will sleep through the night within the first few months if put on her routine.
Critics say it's hard to stick to the rigid daily routines and many mums dislike being told what to do every moment of their day.
Gina's plan also goes against current advice by health experts and the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) on keeping your baby in his cot in your bedroom for the first six months to reduce the risk of cot death.
With Gina Ford, it's a love/hate thing amongst many mums. Some first-time mums live by her routine and with one child they can make it work, but some find it harder to follow when they have subsequent children.
The 'natural' way
Baby Wisdom by Deborah Jackson
That wisdom passed down through the centuries and from other cultures can help us deal with our babies' sleep patterns. In a nutshell, she believes it's not the baby's fault he can't sleep through the night – it's ours for expecting him to.
- Laid-back mums who believe in responding to their babies' natural demands.
- Babies who are breastfed or who hate sleeping on their own.
Your baby sleeps in your bed. As your newborn in unable to regulate his own body temperature, Deborah recommends bodily contact with you to keep him warm. Sharing your bed also helps bonding with your baby, as you learn to respond to his needs even while half-asleep.
Breastfed babies can feed at night without unduly disturbing you and cry less, too. Your baby will also fall asleep more quickly when you're lying next to him. A major benefit is that your baby inhales your exhaled breath, which helps regulate his breathing.
Your baby may never learn to fall asleep on his own if he gets too used to being with you. Some experts have also expressed fears that you could smother your baby.
Never sleep with your baby if you smoke, are ill, tired or have been drinking, taking drugs or any prescription medicine that could cause drowsiness. Use a firm mattress and keep pillows and bedding away from your baby. Never fall asleep with your baby on a sofa.
The flexible approach
Kiss and Retreat by Jackie Walsh
All babies are different and what works for one won't necessarily work for another – you have to discover what's right for yours. 'But you can teach your baby to sleep on his own, even if he cries. It's about teaching your baby a vital new skill,' says Jackie.
- Mums who want the best for their babies and want to teach them to sleep through the night in a gentle way.
- Babies from six months.
The key is having a routine and putting your baby to bed while he's awake. On the evening you start, lay your baby awake in his cot after his bedtime routine. Say goodnight, give him a kiss and leave the room. When he cries, don't rush back in. Wait for a fixed amount of time, then go in, settle him (but don't pick him up) and leave. Each time he cries, increase the time you wait before returning. 'Start with a time limit that suits you,' says Jackie. 'If you can only bear 30 seconds, that's fine.'
Don't pick up or feed your baby when you go to him – there shouldn't be a 'prize' for not going to sleep. Repeat the routine you used when you first put him in his cot. For example, tuck him in, say goodnight, kiss him and leave.
Eventually, your baby will fall asleep. But if he wakes in the night, repeat the same routine. 'Within days it should be sorted,' says Jackie. 'I've never known it fail – but you have to stick to it.'
'Controlled crying is hard work,' says Jackie. 'You must be committed. If you're not ready, it's best to wait.'