Baby sleep problems and solutions

by Dawn Kelly. Most parents will have a sleep issue with their child at some stage.

Sleeping baby

Introduction

Go to any baby group and the main topic of conversation will be about sleep - or lack of it!

Very often we feel that we are the only ones with a baby who is up half the night. Everyone else seems to have the perfect darling who sleeps through the night, with no problems whatsoever.

Yet most parents will have a sleep issue with their child at some stage. And when a child is waking up, so are the parents. Lack of sleep is a nightmare - it's exhausting, debilitating and can cause a huge amount friction at home. It's worth trying to nip small sleep problems in the bud before things worsen.

Extra information

When we sleep, we alternate between active, dreaming sleep and quiet sleep.

Babies do the same but, whereas adults take between 90 minutes to two hours to go through one cycle of each type of sleep, newborn babies whizz through in just under an hour or so. The problem with this is that in between these two types of sleep we all rouse slightly. Which means that your baby could potentially wake up (and wake you) every hour.

In addition to this, babies tend to only sleep for 2 to 3 hours at a time. So, although newborn babies sleep a lot - around 16 hours in every 24 - their timing doesn't match ours, and it is perfectly normal (and expected) for babies to wake frequently through the night in their first few months.

Thankfully, as babies grow, they start to put two lots of those 2-3 hour sleeps together - giving you up to 6 hours of undisturbed sleep (if you're lucky you may get longer!).

We all want our babies to sleep through the night as soon as possible and there are a number of things we can do to help this process.

Bedtime routine. Babies thrive on predictability. Sleep problems can improve when the build-up to bedtime is the same each night. A typical routine for a baby may be as simple as milk, cuddle, story'. What the routine consists of is irrelevant, but it should be the same every night.

Avoid rocking off to sleep. Many sleep experts say not to rock or cuddle your baby to sleep. The important bit here is 'to' sleep. If we cuddle our baby until they are fast asleep and snoring they are learning that this is how to settle. When they wake during the night they will expect to be cuddled and rocked off again - until they are asleep. Whatever cue we give our baby will eventually stay with them and is what they will need to go to sleep. Of course, not cuddling your baby to sleep is much easier said than done. There's nothing more cosy than holding your baby in your arms and allowing them to doze off - it's a treasured moment and one we should enjoy - but it can become an issue later so try to pop them down before they are absolutely out for the count. Many babies fall asleep when feeding so aim to feed your baby before story and cuddle time. Eventually, when he wakes in the night, he will not associate needing another feed with falling asleep. Instead, being drowsy and in his cot will be his cue for sleeping.

Fit in baby's feeds during the day. After the first couple of months or so you may wish to start to encourage night-time sleep by giving your baby most of his feeds during the day. This can sometimes take a bit of effort, in that you need to be feeding your baby every 3-4 hours and not letting him have those 5 hour gaps between feeds during the day. That way he should only wake up for a feed once during the night.

Dark Room. Sleep problems and an abundance of light can go hand in hand because light interferes with the body's natural sleep process. We produce melatonin, a hormone, to help bring on sleep but exposure to light reduces melatonin production and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. The same happens in the morning. A reduced amount of melatonin wakes you up. Thus, the summer sun or any light can interfere with melatonin production and create sleep problems for children by preventing sleep at night and encouraging an earlier than necessary wakening. So keep up those heavy winter curtains or use darkening/blackout blinds to keep your child's room dark. If you need to go into their room it's a good idea to use a gentle night light.

Try to avoid letting your baby become overtired. It sounds ironic but babies can become over tired. Newborn babies rarely stay awake for longer than 2 hours. So, if your baby becomes grumpy after just a couple of hours of being awake (and has fed reasonably well), he or she is probably tired and needs to be allowed to settle. Prolonging his wake time so that he becomes more exhausted is likely to backfire with a baby who is over tired and just cannot settle! You don't need to become an obsessive clock-watcher but bear this in mind and look out for signs of tiredness such as yawning, looking away, becoming grumpy, etc.

How to make a magic moment

It's so wonderful when the bedtime routine is calm and gentle and our baby feels loved, nurtured and ready to drift off to sleep.

Little ones should enjoy going to sleep and we should enjoy putting them to bed. We can create this by having a gentle bedtime routine with stories, cuddles and kisses (but no excitement).

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Expert opinion

Some sleep problems become well established and very tricky for parents to overcome.

If your baby is not sleeping well it may affect the whole family in so many ways. There are lots of gentle techniques that work brilliantly for young babies and toddlers that don't involve controlled crying.

Dawn Kelly, Baby & Child Development Expert, (RGN, RSCN, BSc, PGDipHV, PGDipEd, RNT, PGDipRes)

Top tips

  • Establish a consistent bedtime routine that you do every night. Start to wind down at least 30 minutes before bedtime for babies under 12 months (longer for older babies).Try to have your wind-down time (milk, story, cuddle) in the room where your baby sleeps.Keep your baby's bedroom dark or use a night-light (on a dim setting).Try to put them into their cot when they are sleepy - but not actually asleep - as this helps them learn to drift off by themselves.If a baby wakes crying it often means they are still tired so encourage them back to sleep.

Parent's tale

My grandmother always told me not to rock a baby to sleep as they will never learn to go to sleep on their own. So, after I used to feed my baby, I would make sure they were winded and clean and then I'd pop the little one into their cot to settle. I now have three young children that sleep all the way through the night without me rocking them to sleep.

Debbie, From Birmingham

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