It can be extremely worrying to see your baby cry and wail while they are sleeping. But you’ll be surprised to know that this is considered normal behavior and that you don’t have to stress when this occurs. To help you navigate through this situation, you need to know what’s causing it in the first place.
Virtually every parent would wish for a consistent sleep schedule for their baby, and, let’s face it, their sanity. If you want to change your baby’s sleep schedule, here is some advice on how to do this and how to track their progress.
“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one” Leo J Burke
Ask any sleep deprived mother and she will attest to the fact that her ability to function and parent well is hindered by lack of sleep. We crave the energising and renewing feeling sleep gives us and yet for many, sleep becomes an enigma or fond distant memory during our baby’s first year.
The first step to dealing with sleep deprivation is in fact not getting more sleep, but being realistic about what we should expect from our babies. As soon as we know what to expect from our babies in terms of sleep we have made the first step towards acceptance. By knowing what to expect, we stop unrealistic cravings for sleep and start to deal with sleep deprivation constructively.
Many common misconceptions abound about baby’s sleep:
If you sleep well, you sleep like a baby!
You should aim for your baby to sleep through the night at 6 weeks
Once your baby has slept through a feed for three nights in a row it will not require that feed again and should be ‘dummied’ to prevent feeding at that time.
All babies sleep through the night at 3 months
By waking your baby at 10pm for a feed you will encourage them to drop the early morning feed
A full nights sleep is 7pm to 7am
These misconceptions are not true and by expecting your baby to do them you set your self up for disappointment and frustrations on the path to developing good sleep habits.
So the question is what can you reasonably expect from your baby?
All babies wake or at least stir at night
The young baby has a sleep cycle of 45 minutes. A sleep cycle stretches from one light sleep state through a deep sleep state to the next light sleep state.
All babies stir every 45 minutes as they come into the light sleep state. Good sleepers can resettle themselves without needing intervention, whereas poor sleepers signal to their mothers, needing help to fall back asleep. So the notion that if you sleep well, you sleep like a baby is incorrect as all babies are in fact stirring every 45 minutes.
Her baby slept through the night from 6 weeks when will mine?
The idea that some babies ‘sleep through’ at six weeks or all babies should sleep through by 3 months is not correct. Some babies will sleep through the night earlier than others, if your baby does this enjoy it but know it may be short lived as many babies start to wake again after six months.
Babies should be allowed to expect a night feed until they are on full solids (6 months), if they need it. As a rule of thumb, babies under 6 weeks are feeding almost as frequently at night as they do during the day, possibly stretching to four or five hours once at night.
Between 6 to 12 weeks your baby will probably drop a night feed, usually the 10pm to 11:30pm feed and therefore only require one feed in the early morning and then another at dawn. Do not wake your baby for the evening feed to prevent the morning one as this frequently leads to problems as you are not allowing your baby’s natural sleep rhythms to develop.
At three to six months your baby can be expected to sleep from the early evening to a very early morning feed – after 3am. During this period, your baby will probably need to start eating solids but not proteins until after 6 months.
So what is ‘sleeping through’ and when should my baby sleep through?
Sleeping through entails sleeping from early evening (approximately 7pm) for a stretch of 10 to 12 hours, which means waking between 5am and 7am. During this time, your baby may stir but a ‘good sleeper’ resettles himself.
By understanding your baby’s sleep and having reasonable expectations, night feeds and night wakings become more bearable. As exhausting as this early mothering period is, it is precious and short lived. By instilling good sleep habits from early on you will soon enjoy a longer night’s sleep, but not for many years will your sleep habits resemble those blissful pre-pregnancy sleep-ins or a solids night’s sleep.
By Meg Faure
‘Put your baby down to sleep awake’ is common advice and very frustrating for many parents. It is frustrating because many babies just begin to cry when they are put down awake and it is just easier and shorter if you rock your baby or feed your baby to sleep.
Try to imagine that you are told to go to sleep, 3 minutes after an exciting sports game or in the middle of a birthday party. The chances are that you would battle to fall asleep, just as you do when on a long distance flight abroad. The fact of the matter is that the how and when of sleep are so important that unless they are focused on your baby will not just drop off to sleep.
Your baby is most likely to fall asleep during her natural dip in alertness. Just as you have a natural dip in alertness in the early afternoon, your baby has similar but more frequent dips. We call these periods of time awake times. By watching how long your baby has been awake, you will know when you should put your baby down. Watch for your baby’s signals of tiredness:
Sucking her hands in attempt to self sooth
Busy and irritable
Once the awake time is up, take your baby to her room and enact a bedtime routine to help her go from alert and awake to drowsy and ready for sleep:
Dim the room Lack of light stimulates the release of melatonin, our sleep hormone, prepping your baby for sleep
Change her nappy Make sure she is dry and comfortable for sleep
Swaddle your young baby or wrap your older baby with hands free
Hold her calmly in your arms and rock her gently humming a lullaby or use white noise
Rock her until she has a double long blink – in other words she shows you she is really drowsy
Put her down to sleep Keeping her swaddled and without dipping her head down, lower her into her crib.
If she starts to cry immediately, keep your hand on her and rock her gently or pat her until she settles. If she cries really hard, pick her up and start the process of getting her into a drowsy state all over again.These little tips will work well for most babies. If you still are battling, get hold of our bookSleep Sense which deals with the problems of sleep and babies and toddlers in great detail.
By Meg Faure
The expectations of the pregnant woman: ‘My baby will sleep and be awake in equal amounts and we will play and feed and I will have time to do it all, no sweat.’ The mom of the newborn says: ‘Wow my baby sleeps all day and is so good yet I feel like I have got time for nothing – I barely get myself to make a cup of tea in a day.’ Which a few weeks later becomes: ‘Oh my word I can’t get my baby down – he is awake all day, and now I don’t even shower in a day never mind make a cup of tea!!’ So what is reasonable – what should we expect – how much should our babies sleep?
Newborns sleep more than most people imagine. I believe this is a coping mechanism to deal with the busy world and in fact works very effectively. You will probably find that in the first two weeks your baby will sleep an enormous amount and may also be very calm. Your sleepy baby may sleep from one feed to the next and often fall asleep during a feed. This is good for your baby so do not follow any advice to wake your baby unless he is not gaining enough weight. The only other exception is if your sleepy baby is going to stretch more than four hours between day feeds. In this case, wake your baby to feed. The newborn needs to go back to sleep after only being awake for 40 – 50 minutes, which means your newborn may well sleep for more than 16 hours a day, being awake only for feeds.
2 weeks – 3 months is when day sleep frustrations raise their ugly heads. Your sleepy newborn may now start to fight going to sleep and may only cat nap when he does finally fall asleep. It is not uncommon for moms to report that their baby is awake most of the day, sleeping fitfully in short spells during the day. These babies classically feed very frequently, have colic in the evening and wake often at night. If you find yourself in this predicament, it is probably directly as a result of a young baby not getting enough day sleep. Your young baby needs to go to sleep after only 45 – 80 minutes of being awake. This will result in around 15 hours sleep a day.
3 – 6 months down the line, you will probably be craving some routine or pattern to your baby’s sleep and may well have a very alert baby who is fighting sleep. During this stage day sleeps are regular and essential and you can start guiding your baby in a little routine. Put your baby back to sleep every 90-150 minutes and your baby will probably start developing a routine of two or three naps plus one longer day sleep. Your baby should be having about 14 – 15 hours sleep in a 24 hour period.
6 months to a year is the time when a proper day sleep routine emerges and your baby should start to link the sleep cycles during one day sleep, resulting in a longer midday sleep. Encourage this sleep and the one or two other naps, as your baby needs to sleep to help his brain process all the exciting information he processes during his waking hours. Your baby sleeps for 14 hours a day, usually 11 hours at night and three hours during the day broken into sleeps and short naps.
Toddlers and preschoolers really resist day sleeps and it’s tempting to just ‘let it go’ and let your frazzled two year old collapse at night without a day sleep. The truth is these busy beings really need sleep. The common problems overtired toddlers have are fighting sleep at bedtime, frequent night wakings and night terrors. If you are facing this, you should really focus on having your toddler maintain the good habit of a midday sleep. If your preschooler won’t sleep, just a rest at midday will do. Toddlers sleep 13 hours a day and preschoolers need about 12 hours a day.
In summary it is clear that babies and toddlers need a lot of sleep to process the stimulation of the world. The myth abounds that your baby or toddler will sleep as much as he or she needs – it is important to understand that this is not the truth and many babies need a bit of help to make sure they get enough sleep to develop well and be happily awake.
By Meg Faure
When your baby wakes for the fifth time and sleep seems an unreachable ask, you may find yourself wondering if you should just shut the door and ignore your little one in an attempt to extinguish his cries and let him ‘learn’ to fall asleep independently.
The debate on whether ‘crying it out’ and other similar methods should be used with babies, and whether these techniques are in anyway damaging emotionally for babies, rages on.
As with almost every other contentious parenting issue, you will readily find an equal amount of research showing that ‘controlled crying’ does no harm as you will find research showing long term emotional damage.
So when your baby is crying and won’t settle to sleep or cries repeatedly at night, how quickly should you respond? Is there a principle that can be applied to allow your baby to learn the skill of self-soothing at night? Donald Winnicott, who examined the question of attachment (a foundation for emotional development), has answered this question brilliantly.
In the first few months it is essential a mother responds as quickly as possible to her baby’s cries as this teaches the little one that his ‘voice’ is important and that he is recognized and important in his mother’s world. At this time the baby sees himself as an extension of mum and needs to be soothed by her or helped significantly to settle. If your little baby cries at night, respond with love, cuddles and a feed if appropriate. In these early days, the night feeds and night wakings can feel interminable but they do come to an end. If your baby is waking and crying more than three hourly at night, try to find out the root cause for the wakings as this is unusual.
After five months of age, babies need to develop the skill of self-soothing. This does not happen overnight and takes time and love and energy from you as a mum. Winnocott proposed that the skill of self soothing develops in the context of graduated failures, in other words – you begin to ‘fail’ your baby in tiny increments by not getting to him as quickly as when he was a newborn. In fact, you do this unconsciously and in tiny gradual steps. In this way your baby learns he is separate from you and how to sooth himself when you take a second or two longer than he expected. This is not ‘controlled crying’ it is simply an unconscious process whereby you and your baby begin natural, healthy separation.
The principle should be – respond quickly and consistently to your young baby when he cries. Allow your five-month or older baby short periods in which he can learn to self sooth to sleep. But overall, go with your gut. If it feels wrong – it is.
By Meg Faure
In a very funny episode of ‘Mad about you’ – a 90’s sitcom, Paul and Jamie have a ‘conversation’ about the merits of letting their baby, Mabel, cry it out. It is the funniest clip but all too real. When we are sleep deprived and at the end of our tether, we will try anything (well almost) to get a good night’s sleep. But the controversy around controlled crying can be overwhelming.
Controlled crying entails leaving a young baby or toddler to cry until it falls asleep in an attempt to ‘extinguish’ night wakings. Those pro controlled crying say it is short lived pain for long term gain and that babies learn very quickly to settle themselves. Those on the other extreme talk about long term emotional damage as the baby enters a despair state and stops crying out of hopelessness. To say the least both are confusing messages, especially for a sleep deprived adult who is clutching at straws.
There are three different levels of Sleep Training:
Controlled crying (The Ferber Method) involves leaving your baby to cry for incrementally longer periods each time until she settles to sleep. While this method does work, it involves separations and personally I don’t think these separations when your baby is trying to learn a new skill are good for her or you.
Sleep coaching (Sleep Sense Method) involves ruling out the basics first, then sitting with your baby while she unlearns a bad habit (e.g. rocking to sleep or feeding to sleep) and learns a new habit. While you may not necessarily hold her much during this process, your presence is a comfort (as long as you remain calm and confident)
Controlled settling involves sitting with your baby and repeatedly settling her with contact and love but always putting her down awake so the final part of the process of falling asleep is down independently.
When NOT to even think about controlled crying:
There are very good reasons why babies may wake and these real reasons need to be attended to before one can even contemplate any form of sleep training (benign or extreme).
Do not sleep train
• Your baby under six months of age as little ones have nutritional needs at night that are very valid until on full solids.
• A sick baby or a baby who has recently been hospitalized
• Your baby close to the birth of a sibling
• Just as you are about to return to work
• At around 8 months when separation anxiety is a real issue
• Your baby if he has not learnt to self-sooth on a comfort blanky – he needs a strategy that he can access in the middle of the night
• If you and your partner are not in agreement
• If you have PND
• If you feel anxious or depressed enough to harm your baby
Can controlled crying ever be a reasonable plan?
When a parent’s ability to parent a little one and function is impacted negatively by sleep deprivation, there can be a time and place for sleep training. If you have gone through the steps outlined in the next section (How do you sleep train sense-ably?) you may be able to reasonably look at sleep training your baby. The key issue in terms of emotional considerations is:
Ensure that your baby’s basic needs are met
Increase the positive interactions and emotional availability during the day
Do not leave your baby when she is distressed
How do you sleep train sense-ably?
If you have gone through the previous list; When NOT to even think about controlled crying, and feel your baby may be a candidate for sleep training, follow the 9 steps in Sleep Sense:
Have reasonable expectations for your baby’s age
Set up sensory input (during the day, bedtime and night) that is conducive to good sleep
Set up a sleep zone that encourages sleep
Check that your baby’s nutrition is adequate for a good night’s sleep
Rule out medical causes of night wakings
Set up a good day sleep routine
Ensure your baby’s sleep soothers can be used independently once age appropriate
Deal with emotional issues, such as separation anxiety
Sleep coach calmly, consistency and collaboratively.
By Meg Faure