Every baby comes into the world with a unique mix of genetics and a personality that separates them from others. Yet despite their differences there are some universal needs that have to be met, to grow and reach their potential. Sleep is one of those essential requirements. Yet, for something so important and basic to good health, why do so many babies resist what should just come naturally?
The answer is we don’t really know. Babies can’t communicate why they resist sleep even though generations of parents have done their best to find out. Often, the first step in improving our children’s sleep, is deciding when and how the problems started and then look at what realistically can be done to help.
Note: What some parents consider a sleeping problem isn’t an issue for others. If you are happy with your baby’s sleeping behaviour and they are content, don’t feel as if you need to change what you are doing.
Common sleep problems
When a child has developed sleep associations and needs their parents to feed, rock, cuddle, or sleep with them to fall asleep. Then, when the child progresses through normal phases of light sleep and waking, they can’t go back to sleep without their parent providing the same conditions every time.
Problems going to sleep or staying asleep. The child is reluctant to settle in the first place and resists going off to sleep, or they wake before they have had enough deep, restorative sleep.
Physical discomfort causing the child to be unsettled. This often seems to be gastro-intestinal and may be due to reflux, colic, hunger, overfeeding or teething.
A change in the baby’s regular routine causing them to change their sleeping habits. A house move, going on holidays, or reaching a new developmental stage, can all mean a need to adapt to a new pattern of sleeping.
Older children can have nightmares, night terrors, and generalised fears around going to bed. Some parents worry that their baby’s sleeping problems may be due to fears or phobias.
Parents that think there is a sleeping problem, but the child doesn’t seem to mind. This happens with babies and children that don’t seem to need much sleep and thrive, despite not sleeping for the “recommended” length of time.
Parents feeling unsure about the best way to settle their child to sleep, and who may be inconsistent with their settling management. This can affect children who are more sensitive than others and not as adaptable.
Parents may have unrealistic ideas on how much sleep their child needs. It helps to have a realistic understanding of what is considered “normal” and what are sufficient amounts of sleep.
What you can do
The first thing to consider is, is it fair to expect your baby or child to sleep better than they are? Matching our expectations with what our children are realistically capable of seems only fair.
Most babies don’t have a long, continuous stretch of sleep overnight until close to 3 months of age. At this age they also sleep in stretches of at least 5 hours at a time. Until then, they cannot learn the difference between night and day.
Many will still need to be fed overnight until they are around to 6 months old, when night-time stretches of nine to 12 hours becomes possible.
Babies have much shorter sleep cycles than adults, and they pass from phases of deep sleep to being awake every 50 minutes or so. Waking overnight is normal and you will not be able to change this.
Sleep is not a stable and unchanging state. It is dynamic and changes all the time. Just because your baby may have been sleeping well before, does not mean they will always do this.
Change in the family is a fact of life. We can’t put our lives or decision-making on hold to avoid potentially upsetting our children. The key is, to be flexible in times of change, and to do what works. There are no rules when it comes to sleep management; other than following safe sleeping guidelines.
Babies who have a tummy ache or colicky pains need to feel comfortable before they will calm and settle to sleep. Deep warm baths, massage, rocking and comforting will help to relax them so they can drift off to sleep.
When children are having nightmares, it is distressing for parents to watch. Helping your child to understand reason and logic depends on their age and cognitive ability. Often cuddles, reassurance and just being with them, is enough to support a child to feel they are safe enough to go back to sleep.
Lots of babies develop learned behaviours around their sleep, as a result of how they are cared for. As parents, it can help to try to look objectively at our children’s sleep problems, and ask ourselves if we are somehow contributing to them. This is difficult, but is often the first step towards improving how much sleep everyone in the family is getting.
How easy is it to reward waking behaviour?
In our efforts to get sleep ourselves, we sometimes fall into patterns of “rewarding” babies and children when they wake. Before long, habits are formed where the child learns to rely on some form of intervention from their parents before they will resettle. If this sounds like your situation, here are some tips:
If you are feeding your baby back to sleep
Make sure they are feeding enough through the day and evening, so they aren’t hungry overnight. It is fair to expect a baby to sleep for around 10 hours overnight from 6 months of age if they have been well fed.
Aim to place your baby into their cot when they are clean, dry, comfortable, fed and still awake, for all their sleep times – even during the day.
If your baby is in bed with you
Try putting them in their own cot or bed when they are still awake, not when they are already asleep. Pat, stroke and reassure them until they are calm.
Transferring a sleeping child to their own bed often wakes them up. If they fall asleep and are left undisturbed, they tend to stay asleep.
If your child is old enough to understand, explain to them what you want them to do. This can include going to sleep in their bed and, if they wake through the night, they can call out to you, but need to stay in their bed and you will come to them.
Up to the age of 12 months the safest place for a baby to sleep is in their own cot, beside the parent’s bed. This is seen as a protective measure and is recommended by the SIDS organisation.