Help your baby to sleep well

Looking after infants is challenging, particularly if they are not settling or sleeping well. While there may be nothing as peaceful as a sleeping baby, going to sleep is actually a skill that each child needs to learn in the first year of life.

If you are having difficulty settling your baby to sleep, it may be of comfort to know that it is a common problem. Around one third of families report difficulties with their children's sleeping patterns.

However, by following a few simple principles and techniques, parents and carers can help babies settle more easily and learn to sleep through the night, which is the key to helping everyone get some good-quality rest.

These techniques can take some time and persistence as your baby adapts to a new way of doing things, but it is well worth the effort.

Sleeping patterns

The sleeping patterns of newborn babies will vary, but they may sleep up to 16 hours a day. This will gradually decrease to around 13 hours by the time they reach their first birthday.

A sleep cycle for a baby is between 30-50 minutes, after which the baby will wake briefly and then go back to sleep for another cycle. This occurs even for babies who appear to sleep through the night. What happens is that they are able to settle themselves and drift back off to sleep without needing someone to comfort them. Babies who frequently wake and cry have not learned to settle themselves.

Crying

Crying is a baby's way of communicating and signaling that they need something, from food or a nappy change to closeness and comfort. Persistent crying can be distressing to deal with, although it is important to remember that normal crying patterns can vary quite considerably between children - some babies cry very little, while others cry for hours.

Persistent crying can be a sign that a baby is ill, although this is not always the case. Persistent crying in otherwise healthy babies is sometimes called infantile colic and is more likely to occur in the late afternoon or early evening. If you are concerned about your baby's crying or their health, your doctor or child health nurse can provide advice.

Calming a crying baby

Methods to help calm a crying baby include:

  • Holding your baby and comforting them;
  • Taking them for a walk;
  • Taking them for a drive;
  • Using repetitive, rhythmic movements;
  • Using a dummy, and;
  • Giving the baby a warm bath or a massage.

 

Routine and sleeping

Developing a regular routine for your baby is an important step in helping them sleep well and avoiding overtiredness, which can make your baby irritable and more difficult to settle.

Steps you can take include:

Routine

You do not have to stick rigidly to a schedule, but developing a regular routine can help your baby learn when it is time to sleep.

Limiting distractions

By staying calm and placing your baby in a quiet environment away from noise, bright light and other people, you can help them settle more easily.

Developing a wind-down routine

Developing a going-to-sleep routine, such as a bath, cuddling, a massage, a quiet story or singing can help to signal to your baby that sleep time is coming up.

Making things easier at night

You can make tending to a crying baby in the middle of the night when you are tired and sleepy a little easier. Being prepared - by having nappies, wipes and anything else you need close at hand - can help to make night feeds and comforting sessions quicker and less stressful.

It can help to:

  • Get up reasonably promptly when your baby starts crying, to avoid them becoming too distressed to feed;
  • Keep your voice soft;
  • Keep the lights low;
  • Avoid playing or too much activity, and;
  • Put your baby back to bed after feeding.

Healthy babies, older than six months, can generally be taught to sleep through the night without a feed.

Avoiding overtiredness

Babies who become overtired are more likely to be irritable and difficult to settle. By following a routine and looking for signs of tiredness, you can settle your baby before they become too upset to settle.

Signs a baby is overtired can include:

  • Yawning;
  • Grimacing and frowning;
  • Rubbing their eyes or pulling at their ears;
  • Squirming and making jerky movements, and;
  • Sulking or crying.

Wrapping

Lightly wrapping or swaddling babies in the first three months of life can be helpful. It is important that the wrapping is not too tight, that your baby's face is uncovered and they can move their arms up to their face.

It is important to stop wrapping your baby once they are able to roll over in bed (which occurs around 3-6 months) and to follow recommendations to avoid sudden infant death syndrome.

Using a dummy

Using a dummy can help to settle some babies, as the sucking motion can help to calm them. However, using a dummy can also cause night-time crying if it falls out of your baby's mouth and they wake. It may also interfere with breastfeeding, so if you are breastfeeding, waiting for 3-4 weeks before introducing a dummy may help to give you time to establish your baby's feeding habits.

To avoid infection, it is important that dummies are sterilized regularly. Avoid placing the dummy in your own mouth or using sweeteners such as honey on them.

If used on an extended basis (when your baby becomes a toddler), dummies may contribute to speech development problems or dental problems.

Infection

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Settling techniques

Initially, babies may need to be held in order to relax enough to go to sleep. As they grow older, using techniques that provide less physical contact, but which still give reassurance and comfort, can help your baby to learn how to go to sleep more independently.

When using these techniques, it is important to be consistent, particularly if you are trying to change your baby's sleeping routine. It is normal for it to take some time for babies to adjust to changes.

Soothing in arms

In the first months, holding your baby in your arms until they sleep can be an effective technique. Gently and rhythmically rocking or patting your baby can help them to relax enough to go to sleep. Softly talking or singing may also help.

Hands-on settling

This technique represents a first step in your baby learning to sleep more independently. Hold and cuddle your baby until they are calm and settled, then place them in their cot while they are still awake. Comfort your baby with patting, stroking and rubbing until they go to sleep. If your baby becomes distressed, pick them up and begin the cycle again until they fall asleep.

Controlled comforting

This technique is appropriate for babies between six months and two years of age.

As with hands-on settling, hold and cuddle your baby until they are calm and then place them in their cot. Comfort them with patting and stroking and then, when they are calm, or after a short time, move away or leave the room.

If your baby becomes distressed, return and comfort them and begin the cycle again, but it is important to first give them an opportunity to settle on their own. As you use this technique, you may gradually leave it a little longer each time before returning to comfort them.  

If your baby is ill, it is important to stop controlled comforting until they recover. It is also important to attend to anything, such as wet or soiled nappies, that might distress your baby.

Looking after yourself and seeking help

Looking after a baby is demanding, particularly if you are not getting much sleep yourself. It can be frustrating when a crying baby does not settle easily.

If you feel very frustrated or overwhelmed, it is okay to leave the baby in a safe place and take a short break in another room to give yourself some time out. It is also important to persist and be consistent with your settling technique. Babies can take time to adjust to change and it is not harmful for them to cry for short periods.

Partners may want to consider taking turns at getting up at night to help make sure you both get enough sleep. Other family members or friends may be able to help, particularly at times of the day when babies can be unsettled, such as in the late afternoon and early evening, when you may be busy with preparing meals and looking after other children.  

If problems persist with your baby's sleeping, you can discuss it with your doctor or child health nurse. Baby or pediatric sleep clinics may be available in your area and able to offer more specialized support and advice.

Parents whose babies do not sleep well may be at greater risk of postnatal depression. If you are concerned you may be experiencing depression or have feelings that you may want to hurt your baby, it is important to speak to your doctor or mental healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Postnatal depression

Depression that develops in a mother following childbirth, usually due to a combination of factors such as hormonal and psychological changes and fatigue.

Support

Postpartum Depression Support Organizations - This website includes a list of organizations offering postpartum depression support, or postnatal depression or postnatal illness support, in a number of countries including the US. They have expertise in this area, and can offer support and resources that you can access where you live.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Lifeline Call 1-800-273-8255 - The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Postnatal depression

Depression that develops in a mother following childbirth, usually due to a combination of factors such as hormonal and psychological changes and fatigue.