Getting through the night: coping with common baby sleep problems

Why don’t babies sleep like adults?

When you’ve got a newborn baby, an energetic toddler or a young child, it’s easy to feel as if getting eight hours sleep a night is just something that happens to other people.

Babies and children have very different sleep needs and patterns than grown-ups do. Most parents will encounter a sleep-related problem at some point – whether it’s coping with the sleep-deprivation of life with a newborn, or handling night terrors or bedwetting in older children.

Here are some of the commonest sleep problems you might come across at different ages and stages, and some strategies to survive them.

Why don’t babies sleep through the night?

All babies need different amounts of sleep, and one baby’s pattern of waking and sleeping is likely to be completely different from another’s.

A baby’s sleeping habits may change as they grow and move into a new stage, as well as being affected by things like illness, growth spurts or teething – but one thing that’s true of all babies is that the way they sleep is quite different from the way their parents do.

When an adult is sleeping, they will move between four or five different types of sleep, taking between 90 minutes and two hours to complete one cycle of each type of sleep. Babies do the same thing, but they have only two types of sleep – active and quiet, and their cycles are much shorter – a newborn baby will whizz through a sleep cycle in just under an hour.

It’s normal for everyone to rouse slightly in between different types of sleep. That means that a baby could potentially wake up every hour or so, as they complete a sleep cycle.

On top of this, young babies tend to only sleep for 2-3 hours at one time. Although newborns sleep a lot (up to around 16 hours out of every 24) their timing doesn’t really match ours, so it’s normal (and expected) for a baby to wake up frequently through the night in the first few months.

Thankfully, as babies grow, they do start to put two chunks of 2-3 hours’ sleep together, potentially giving you as much as six hours of undisturbed sleep! Babies can starts showing signs of sleeping through from 6 months onwards but sleep issues can occur in toddlers and older children too.

Following a night-time routine can help your baby get to sleep.

What can I do to help my baby sleep?

Parenting is a really personal thing, and what works for one family might not suit another. There’s lots of advice out there, and sleep is perhaps one of the most debated areas in all of childcare – perhaps because sleep (or lack of it) becomes so central to your life once you have little ones! However, there are some tried and tested approaches that are worth considering to find one that feels right for you and your baby:

  • Stick to a routine

Babies thrive on predictability, so a simple bedtime routine can really help settle your little one for the night. That could be something as straightforward as ‘milk, cuddle, story’ – whatever works for you and your child.

The key is to keep the pattern the same every night so that your little one knows what to expect and comes to associate the familiar routine with bedtime.

  • Settling your baby

It’s up to you how you decide to settle your baby into sleep – some experts suggest putting them down when they’re calm and relaxed but before they’re fully asleep so that they begin to learn how to settle themselves. Of course, not rocking or cuddling your baby to sleep is easier said than done, and others believe that such soothing is vital and that babies will thrive on it. Follow your instincts, and try to be as consistent as you can. You can listen to the calming sounds from CBeebies Radio.

  • Waking in the night

Similarly, some experts advise keeping interaction to a minimum when little ones wake up at night so that they don’t get the idea that night-time is play time. Whatever you choose to do, using low lighting and quiet voices when your baby wakes at night can be a great way to help your little one starts to recognise that night and day are different (and night is for sleeping!).

  • Night feeds

As your baby gets a bit older, some parents try and encourage increased night-time sleep by giving them more of their feeds during the day. This can take a bit of effort – in that you might be feeding your baby every 3-4 hours rather than leaving longer gaps between daytime feeds – but it could mean that they’re only waking once for a night-time feed. Of course, use your instincts to not over-feed a child. 

  • Overtiredness

It sounds strange, but overtired babies can struggle to get to sleep too – look out for signs of tiredness such as yawning, looking away and becoming grumpy.

It's important that you make sure you get some rest when you can.

Coping with lack of sleep

Don’t forget to look after yourself too – if you can, it’s a great idea to try and grab some sleep when your baby sleeps, especially in the early days.

If that’s not possible, it’s worth thinking about strategies to help you handle tiredness such as sharing out tasks with your partner, or arranging for a friend or relative to come and be with your little one from time to time while you grab forty winks.

If you struggle to nap during the daytime, taking ten minutes to relax (or even meditate) while your baby is sleeping can help to recharge your batteries.

Go easy on yourself, and in particular try to ignore pressure from other parents, friends or relatives asking whether your little one is sleeping through yet!

Sleep deprivation and postnatal depression

Remember that tiredness and sleeplessness can make it easier for other anxieties to creep in, and may make minor problems feel bigger than they really are. Be kind to yourself when you’re living with a baby or small child, and remind yourself that a lack of sleep might be affecting how you feel.

Symptoms of some conditions like postnatal depression can feel similar to extreme tiredness, so if you’re really struggling, or think that your feelings could be down to more than just lack of sleep, it’s a good idea to talk things through with your GP or health visitor to work out a way forward.

Telling someone that you’re finding things difficult can feel like the hardest part, especially when you’re a new parent, but there’s lots of support out there. Finding the right approach for yourself and your baby can make all the difference to how you feel.

The NHS website has lots more advice on baby sleep.

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