There are a number of ideas and suggestions below for getting your baby to sleep and helping them to stay asleep.
What works for one family may not work for another family and you may even need different routines for different babies within the same family.
A baby’s personality and temperament can have a big effect on their sleep, so keep an open mind and be flexible in your approach.
Recognising your baby’s tired signs is one of the keys to successful sleep in young babies. It can be difficult for a first-time parent to recognise the signs of tiredness, which are often misinterpreted as boredom or unhappiness, causing the carer to wave more toys in front of the frazzled youngster, over-stimulating them more and setting up a cycle of crying.
During the first year, in particular, baby goes through lots of different stages. You will need to adapt your routines as your baby gets older. Other development stages can ‘upset’ their system – starting solids might give them a tummy ache, teething might cause pain, nappy rash might make them uncomfortable. Add to that seasonal colds and other illnesses and it all makes for a baby that needs extra comfort and a little more attention from time-to-time.
If you can keep a calm and relaxed approach to bedtime, that will come across to baby who will, in return, feel calm, safe and secure – all prerequisites to good sleep! (But we know that is easier said than done!)
Getting baby to sleep
The key signs of tiredness are:
- jerky movements
- pulling ears
- fussing & wimpering
- rubbing eyes (when older)
When you start to see these tired signs, start putting baby to bed straight away before they become over-tired.
Have a routine, but be flexible
Babies react well to routine – establish what works best for you and your family. An evening bath, a soothing massage, and a bedtime story are all relaxing, calming cues that teach baby to prepare for sleep. Try not to make the routine so rigid that if anything changes that routine, such as an evening out or a holiday, you are lost!
Have a variety of calming cues that you can use, such as:
- warm bath
- gentle soothing massage
- rocking baby
- singing lullabies or soft rhythmic background music (you can buy CDs of baby settling sounds and music)
Take it in turns with your partner or other carer to put baby to bed too so that if one of you is out for the evening, or ill, you still have options!
Try to keep a consistent bedtime
Whenever possible, try to put baby to bed at a similar time each evening, even if you are at another house for the evening, or baby is with a different carer. It all helps to establish a routine that baby feels safe and secure with.
The same goes for daytime naps. Try to be consistent with the routine and time of daytime naps – for example, reading a book and having a sleep immediately after lunch. Again, you need some flexibility to change as your child grows and has different sleep requirements.
Try to teach your baby to self-settle
As your baby gets to around the six-month mark, you can start to encourage a degree of self-settling. Sound impossible? Well the key here is to recognise the signs that your baby is getting tired, then, while they are still calm, put them in their cot in a calm, sleepy state. Soft, rhythmic music, and dim lighting should help induce sleep.
If your baby is a little older, maybe add a toy to play with until they drop off to sleep. Any toys in the environment of the cot must be safe with no loose cords – for example: hanging mobiles that are out-of-reach are suitable for a very young baby that can’t crawl or stand; or activity toys that attach to the side of the cot.
If your baby can self-settle, they may just put themselves back to sleep if they wake in the night.
Having said that, don’t worry if baby regularly falls asleep in your arms or baby will only settle by being rocked or cuddled – or falls asleep being breastfed. If that works for you and your baby, go with it, particularly for young babies!
Try to avoid any artificial sleep aids
If you get yourself into a routine where baby will only fall asleep in the car, you could condemn yourself to a nightly ritual of driving around the neighbourhood, and then trying to carry a sleeping baby gently to their cot without waking them. Stress all round. By all means, use these methods occasionally when the stress levels are high, but try to keep this to a minimum.
Never leave a child asleep in a car – on any kind of day, not just hot ones, the temperature inside a car can rise dramatically at an alarming rate, even with the windows ajar.
Keeping Baby Asleep
Like adults, babies will have trouble sleeping soundly if they are too hot, too cold, are uncomfortable, in pain, or they don’t feel safe or secure.
Baby needs to be at the right temperature. Ensure warm, safe clothing – some babies like to be tightly swaddled in a babywrap, others prefer to be able to move. Swaddling wraps, baby grows, and baby sleeping bags are all good sleep aids. In the hot Australian summer, a lighter all-in-one with a light wrap, or sheets might be all that baby needs. If in doubt, put a thermometer in the bedroom and adjust the room temperature with safe heaters or fans. Fans should not be directed at the baby but should just be there to ensure good air circulation.
A good temperature range for a baby’s room is 16-20oC. Keep the room dark, with perhaps a small night light so that you can see to baby in the middle of the night, if required, without putting a full light on. Soothing background sounds can help too.
If baby wakes
- try not to stimulate baby too much if he/she wakes at night
- keep the lights very low
- have everything ready in the room so that you don’t keep needing to leave the room to get nappies, wipes, more clothes, etc.
- try putting your hands gently on baby so that he/she knows you are there
- make quiet, rhythmic, soothing sounds
- if a nappy needs changing, try to do it quickly and quietly without engaging baby too much
- if baby needs feeding, do so in the bedroom in a dark, quiet environment – a rocking chair is great for this
- share the load – take turns with your partner at going in to baby, if possible
It is important to ensure that your baby has a SAFE sleeping environment. Sleep is the time when your baby will be left on their own and you may well be asleep yourself and less responsive to noises that your baby may make. Please take the time to read our guide to safe sleeping and SIDS.
If you want a little extra help, in person, with sleep problems, try the services listed on the following pages – some offer telephone advice or courses in sleep techniques, others will come to your home to assist you with settling and sleep problems:
- parenting telephone helplines
- child health clinics
- parenting & sleep clinics and specialists
- at-home postnatal carers, such as mothercraft nurses
- chat online with other parents about their sleep dilemmas and solutions
Useful further reading:
- Sleep in Early Childhood article from the Parenting & Child Health section of the Child & Youth Health website, CYH, South Australia
- Sleeping and Settling strategies from Karitane (PDFs)
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