Written by MyTamarin, childcare and maternity nurse specialists
When it comes to babies, sleep is one of the most talked about topics among parents and is one of the biggest causes of distress for many. Some parents will thrive regardless of how much sleep their baby (and consequently they!) are getting, but the majority will be pulling their hair out and searching for solutions in desperation.
If only you could wave a magic wand and make all your sleep problems disappear. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic. Sleep is a complicated topic and the way forward will differ depending on the age of your baby and their unique personality. That said, if you’re a first-time parent who is struggling with sleep in the early months, the answers to these four questions should set you off along the right path.
1. Is my baby getting enough sleep?
Fact: 80%+ of new babies do not get enough sleep during the day
Does this sound familiar? Your baby isn’t sleeping (enough) during the night, so you try to keep them awake for as long as possible during the day to tire them out. Or, what about this? Your baby isn’t sleeping (enough) during the night so you wake them up if they sleep for too long during the day.
It’s logical (right?) – my baby’s not sleeping so I’m going to tire him out. It’s actually counter-productive. Contrary to popular belief, sleep breeds sleep. So, if your baby isn’t sleeping it may be because they’re not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprived babies will come across more revved up and consequently sleep less; not more!
It’s hard to deal with this when your child is 18 months or 2 years. That’s why setting the foundation for good sleep programming so that your baby is getting enough sleep is so important from day one.
2. Is my baby overstimulated?
Fact: 70%+ of parents overstimulate their babies
It’s been proven that too much stimulation can cause sleep problems for babies, especially when it comes to sleeping during the night.
How does your baby know when it’s time to sleep? Have you introduced a consistent routine with positive sleep cues to start preparing them for sleep? And what does a sleep routine look like?
Here’s an example you might want to try but bear in mind you need to find a routine that works for you and your baby.
When you’re ready to start getting your baby ready for sleep, move them away from the hustle and bustle of the day into a calm and quiet space. Cooking smells, deliveries, the TV, the washing machine, other children are all stimulants that will distract your baby and make it hard for them to fall asleep.
Give them a bath or a massage, take them into a room with calming music (or white noise), give them a calming feed, put them in their sleeping bag, lay them down in their cot and let them settle.
Letting your baby settle themselves is such an important step. But it’s often hard for parents as your instinct is to pick your baby up at the slightest murmur or noise. This isn’t always necessary, or the right thing to do. Listen to their noises. Sometimes it may be a case of them crying for a short amount of time before naturally falling asleep themselves. If they are crying for a little while try soothing them before picking them up; you could try patting their belly or stroking their head. Let them know that you are there. If they are obviously distressed then pick them up and comfort them.
3. Is my baby crying because he is hungry?
Fact: Pretty much every new parent gets confused
Hands up if your first response when your baby wakes up crying is that he’s hungry? You’re not alone; it’s very common for behavioural cues to be mistaken as signs of hunger.
It can be so hard to distinguish between a tired cry, a hungry cry, or a cry for some other reason and it takes time to learn and understand your baby’s cues through the different stages of growth.
Counter-intuitively, most crying early on is due to tiredness. Not hunger, or anything else.
The problem with feeding a baby every time they cry (apart from the fact that you’ll end up feeling like a feeding machine!) is that it leads to snack feeding. If you feed your baby every couple of hours, he will quickly become used to taking only enough to sustain him for an hour or two. And if that’s the case, those long sleep stretches are going to be a distant dream.
What’s more, if you feed your baby to sleep it can lead to cat napping, especially if you transfer him to his cot once he is asleep. He may sense you’re not there, or miss the sound of your heartbeat, and he will wake up shortly after you’ve put him down. It is probably better to not let them sleep during a feed; put them down while they are sleepy.
Finally, if you’re feeding an overtired baby, they won’t have enough energy to feed properly which in turn will make them hungry again too soon and shorten their sleep.
4. Is my baby relying on props to sleep rather than self-settling?
Fact: different props have different impacts on parents and babies
In the same way that positive sleep associations included in our example sleep routine can get babies into good sleep habits, sleep props can become addictive and have a detrimental effect on sleep patterns.
Sleep props include (and are not limited to) nursing your baby to sleep, walking up and down stairs, driving around, motion such as rocking, sleeping with your baby and dummies. If your baby becomes too reliant on a sleep prop, they’ll quickly become reliant on you offering the prop in order to sleep.
A lot of babies use dummies, and until it’s time to wean them off dummies, this is quite a parent-friendly prop. However, having to nurse your baby to sleep or needing to drive them in a car are quite exhausting.
So, while props may help your baby sleep in the short-term, they can very quickly become addictive. If your goal is a long-lasting, fulfilling sleep, you may want to reconsider the role they play in your baby’s sleep routine.
Babies are not born knowing how to fall asleep. (Shock!) They need to learn and you need to teach them this important skill. That’s especially important because babies’ sleep cycles are very short, and if they don’t know how to fall asleep on their own they could wake up every 20 minutes. “Teaching” will involve light-touch soothing such as gentle rocking, patting on their back or singing.
The key to a successful sleep routine is to start addressing it the minute you get home from the hospital. It’s too early for sleep training – that needs to wait until your baby is fully weaned at round six months. But the sooner you start building the foundations the better off you and your baby will be in the future.
Please share your comments, experiences and questions in our interactive forum below. What’s worked for you? Or what are you struggling with?
If you’d like more help or advice with your baby’s sleep then check out MyTamarin. Their experienced maternity and night nurses are available to come and support you in your home; or if you prefer, they are accessible via video call and on their new online newborn support.