While having a baby can be exciting in many ways, it's also riddled with challenges. Raising tiny humans is hard. And it's particularly tough in the early days when you're exhausted and sleep-deprived. But don't worry: This sleepless phase won't last. This too shall pass, and with our expert-approved baby sleep tips, you may even manage to catch some Z's.
Here our resident baby sleep expert, Hannah Love helps us understand which bits of advice really are keepers and those that are not!
When parents are faced with sleep deprivation they are often bombarded with all kinds of advice from all kind of angles. Well-meaning friends, relatives, the internet and healthcare professionals chime in, then add in your own sources like books, apps, Facebook communities, baby groups, NCT groups, WhatsApp threads and Instagram.
This can become incredibly confusing and lead to what I call the ‘try everything’ approach to sleep, where a parent decides it’s time to change their sleep situation and tries everything simultaneously to achieve that. They start with a little shush pat, then a little pick up-put down, then a rock, a bounce on a ball, nothing is working so they try a little controlled crying and that doesn’t work so they go back to what they were doing before! Unfortunately, this approach will never work to change your baby’s sleep situation. The only thing various research seems to agree on is that the one important factor in sleep training is consistency. Unfortunately, with so much information around this is often the one thing parents find it hard to do. I do wonder whether this is the reason why sleep issues ‘in our parents’ day’ were rarer (this falls into the not so useful advice section that we will come to later!), simply because there was less information, therefore less confusion and as a result parents were more consistent with their approach to baby sleep.
So what advice is actually useful? Here are some pieces of advice that I feel every new parent would benefit from having:
- Ensure you have a consistent approach. Swapping and changing never works. Choose one way of helping your baby sleep and stick to that and they will adapt. Imagine trying to learn how to do something new and the person teaching you kept on changing how to do it!
- You must be relaxed. If you aren’t relaxed when you are trying to put your baby to sleep then they will never be able to sleep. Babies pick up so easily on body language. If you aren’t relaxed, they won’t be and no one can sleep when they are stressed.
- Add in sleep triggers. Having a good routine that includes triggers for when your baby needs to go to sleep (such as a sentence you say, some music, a sleeping bag) lets your baby know when sleep is to be expected of them. This makes bed and nap times more predictable.
- Remove sleep props. Anything that your baby is relying on to go to sleep they will need each time they need to sleep, including at each wake overnight when they naturally stir. In order to get baby sleeping well you need to remove these sleep props so they aren’t relaying on you for help.
- Remember every baby can learn to sleep well. I haven’t ever found a baby that can’t learn to sleep independently. Whether your baby is newborn, walking, talking, has reflux, other medical issues they can all learn to sleep independently. Once they are then they will rely on you less to sleep.
- You do not need to wait for your baby to grow out of it. If what you are doing isn’t working for you then you can change it. You don’t need to wait ‘until they wean’ or ‘until they can talk’ or ‘until you stop breastfeeding’. Resolve it now and save you and your baby more sleepless nights.
- Feeding and sleeping are very much connected. In order to resolve sleep issues I always look at the whole picture. You must address your baby’s routine, feeding, weaning and ensure they are all compatible.
- Total sleep hours very much vary from baby to baby. Once a baby is sleeping independently then they will be able to manage that themselves, and go back to sleep if they need more sleep. If a baby is napping in the daytime it is very rare they need 12 hours sleep overnight, unless they are waking up lots.
- A 7pm bed time will mean a very early wake up time. If your baby is napping in the day then aiming for a pre 8pm bed time will usually mean a pre 6am wake up. Early mornings are largely dictated by bed time (and a few other factors, please see my free handout for this).
And now for the not so helpful advice that you might find people offering, and why you have every right to ignore it:
He/she will grow out of it!
“I know, mine were up for hours in the night too. I’ve been there, it’s exhausting but it is absolutely normal for babies not to sleep, those first few years are exhausting.” (Usually followed by the ‘they’ll grow out of it” line for good measure!)
Although it may be common for babies not to sleep well that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. If your baby is not sleeping, waking lots, needing you, contact napping, you have no evenings and are exhausted then you CAN change that
It’s just colic, it’s very common in small babies.
Your baby is crying for hours every evening, every day you dread from 4pm onwards, you are trying to get baby to settle for HOURS, they eventually crash out at 1am and you cry yourself to sleep. You contact your GP as you know something isn’t right and they ‘diagnose’ colic.
The actual medical definition of colic is “crying for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks”.
I always think it is far more useful to find out the reason for the crying. Often it can be linked to tummy issues, wind, routine or sleep and once identified then the crying will reduce/ stop.
Babies can’t sleep independently; they need to be close to you.
You’re exhausted from being awake all night cuddling your baby on your chest, you can’t get anything done because you’re contact napping and you need to go to bed at the same time as your baby, but “It is natural for a baby to want to be close to you, they need your presence and closeness to sleep, it’s not natural or right for a baby to be away from you and sleep on their own until they are much older, enjoy the cuddles”.
Babies will learn to sleep how we teach them to sleep. If we cuddle and hold them then that is what they will need. This doesn’t mean that you can’t move forward from it. Babies don’t come into the world thinking “I need to be walked around, bounced up and down with an extractor fan on for white noise”! You teach them how to sleep that way, therefore you can also move forward and teach them how to sleep in a different way, and once they sleep more independently they will need you less and it will be less exhausting for you.
They didn’t have these kinds of sleep issues 30 years ago
Your well-meaning older relative drops this comment in when you have been up all night feeding your baby. I would like to give you a huge congratulations for managing not to punch them in the nose!
I think there is a combination here of looking back with rose-tinted glasses and also the fact that there was a lot less information around then. I think as a result, parents were more consistent with the way that they managed their baby’s sleep. There weren’t different techniques like pick up put down, shush pat, Ferber, cry it out, bouncing, rocking, there weren’t devices like gym balls and automatic baby rockers. It was simpler then, which meant that babies had a more consistent environment.
This is why I try to strip back what parents are doing to help their baby to sleep in order to achieve better sleep. I’m always stressing how important it is to be consistent and this is so difficult with so much information out there these days.
There was also less safety knowledge back then. There was more casual co-sleeping, more bedding, yes all comforting but now we know – and try – to be safer about it, which means more research and thinking or talking about it. If they didn’t do this then they are less likely to remember any difficulty.
As you can now see, there is lots of useful and not so useful advice out there I really hope reading this has helped you realise that there are bits of information that you can absolutely listen to no matter what age your baby is.
If you need more help with baby sleep head over to Hannahs free workshop.