At your wits end and trying to get baby to sleep? This will help!
A baby’s sleeping habits or patterns can be a regular source of stress and anxiety for parents. However, in Brisbane, there are many professionals who provide support for parents experiencing ongoing and persistent sleep issues with infants and young children. We asked the Ellen Barron Family Centre to write for us to discuss some of the most common questions parents as about sleep and settling:
How babies sleep
It’s useful to have an understanding of how babies sleep to know that what is happening in your home with your little one is relatively normal.
The biological basis of baby sleep changes between 2 and 12 months. In the early months of life, when sleep patterns aren’t well established, baby sleep tends to be divided into 50% active sleep and 50% quiet sleep. Babies often wake after phases of active sleep.
At around three months, sleep patterns become more regulated and can be divided into cycles of light sleep and deep sleep. The amount of light sleep decreases, and the cycles of light and deep sleep last 20-50 minutes (compared with 90-minute sleep cycles for adults).
By six months, baby sleep patterns are closer to those of grown-up sleep – which means less waking at night.
By eight months, 60-70% of babies can settle themselves back to sleep without a parent’s help. Others keep waking if they need help to settle back to sleep, or if they’re still having breastfeeds or bottles during the night.
Why does my baby wake during the night?
It’s normal for a baby to wake between sleep cycles (both day and night), and most babies will go back to sleep by themselves. Newborn babies need to be fed regularly and as they grow, the time between night feeds increases until they reach the point that they no longer require a feed during the night.
Infants will sleep through the night when they are old enough. This varies from child to child, but generally happens from around five to six months onwards. Sleeping ‘through the night’ usually means from the last feed at night (about 11pm) to between 4am and 5am.
Night waking only starts to become a problem when a baby will not go back to sleep by itself, and cries for a parent’s assistance each time a sleep cycle ends. Some babies will wake up to 15 times or more a night. When this pattern is persistent, a baby becomes overtired and more difficult to settle. The result can be exhausted parents after months of disturbed sleep.
What am I doing wrong?
Nothing. Firstly, it’s important to ensure that your baby is well and that there is no underlying medical cause for their waking. Once you are happy that your baby is well, look at how they go to sleep in the first place. Do you or your partner nurse the baby until it falls asleep? Do you pat the baby off to sleep? Or feed them each time they wake (when it is not age appropriate)? Mums and dads need to be able to read their baby’s cues for tiredness and hunger.
For example, a tired baby may start to become disinterested, or start to yawn.
If parents misinterpret these cues, they can feed a baby when in fact he or she is tired. It is important for parents to recognise these cues because if they are missed, a baby will become overtired and more difficult to settle.
Babies tired signs
At 3-6 months, your baby might be tired after 1½-3 hours awake.
At 6-12 months, your baby might be tired after 2-3 hours awake.
At 12-18 months, your baby might be overtired if he misses out on his morning or afternoon sleep.
If your baby is tired, you might see some of the following tired signs:
- grizzling or crying
- demands for constant attention
- boredom with toys
- fussiness with food
Getting ready for getting baby to sleep
If your baby is showing signs of tiredness, it’s a good idea to get them ready for sleep by reducing stimulation.
You can do this by:
- taking your child to the place where they usually sleep
- putting toys away
- talking quietly and soothingly
- closing curtains and blinds
- turning overhead lights off – use lamps if you need to
- playing music quietly – this will help cut down on background noise
Making quiet time
Some quiet time before bed in the place where your child usually sleeps will help her settle to sleep.
Quiet time with your child might include a gentle cuddle, a story or a quiet song.
Your baby might need only a few minutes of quiet time before s/he is relaxed and ready to be put in bed. If your household is noisy and active, your baby might need some extra quiet time before it’s time for sleep.
What can I do if my baby wakes up?
This all depends on the baby’s age. If a baby is premature or a newborn baby they will need to be changed, fed and then settled back to sleep. If a baby is older (around six months) and has been fed, changed and you feel comfortable that the baby is well, reassure him or her that you are there by just quietly and soothingly ‘shushing’, giving them a quick pat and then leaving the room to let them settle back to sleep.
How do I know when I need to get help?
Some babies will wake many times during the night and never be able to settle themselves back to sleep. When they wake, they will cry until someone either feeds them, gives them a dummy or pats/rocks them back to sleep.
When this becomes a habit, parents, over time, become exhausted, confused and may even feel that they are a bad mother or father. This will sometimes lead to parents fighting with each other about parenting and how best to solve the sleep issue.
Parents usually know when they have had enough and need to seek help. Child health nurses are a great source of support for families with infants and young children. A visit to a child health nurse can reassure parents that they are doing nothing wrong and provide them with practical tips and strategies to try to assist with settling the baby.
What can I do about persistent sleep issues?
Initially seek support from your local child health nurse or friends and family. If the issues cannot be resolved at this level, then a referral to a sleep centre can be made. At the centre, staff provide parents with the skills and support they need to implement responsive settling strategies. The strategies can include settling in arms, hands-on settling, comfort settling and toddler in a bed. These strategies are evidence-based and ensure that infant-parent attachment is maintained. These strategies are very successful when used consistently and persistently by parents.
Written by: Karen Berry
Ellen Barron Family Centre
Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service
This article was published in Issue 3 of our print magazine, April/May 2014.