I thought I’d better start with this because it’s one of the parenting topics I’ve had the most questions about, and I’ll probably forget it soon!
One of the first questions I was asked when the babies were small is ‘how is he sleeping?’ or the one that used to always make me laugh was, ‘Is he good?’ which basically meant the same thing . It is such a big topic for young babies because if they don’t sleep the parents don’t either! I also think it is important because the parents’ sleep deprivation leads to other problems, like depression, irritability and marriage issues. For the baby I believe a long period of uninterrupted sleep does them the world of good and I think it really goes a long way towards them being more contented during the day.
All three of our babies slept through at or just after 6 weeks old, not 12 hours of sleep, but from my bedtime to getting up time – 11pm to 6/7am, and gradually getting longer. I am just going to mention some of the things that I think really helped to achieve this – it wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy, but I definitely think it’s worth a lot of effort, especially as those sleep habits then continue through childhood! Please don’t think I am saying that you have to do any of these things though – it’s just what I did, which may help you, and they were just guidelines, not rigid rules.
I put all three of our babies on a routine from the start, with the important side-note that if they were hungry I would feed them, regardless of the time, and I stayed flexible. Routine feedings mean that they get a lot of milk and awake-time during the day so they won’t need as much at night and will be more inclined to sleep. I set a time, usually 7am, and got them up every day at that time whether they were already awake or not. The reason this is so important is that if they sleep longer in the morning, then it will often have a domino effect on the rest of their sleep and make them have more difficulty sleeping at night. This is also a great way to help them get on track if you go on holiday to a different time zone! I then fed them every 2.5-3 hrs and woke them up for the feeds if they were asleep. I would make sure that they were getting full feeds – around 40-45mins as newborns. If they stopped early which very new babies usually do because they fall asleep, then I would gently lay them down or take their top layer off to wake them up so they could finish. Then I would change their nappy and give them awake time with a nappy change a good way to start this (longer as they got older) followed by a nap time of about 1.5hrs before their next feed. As they got older I gradually increased the timings to 3.5hrs apart and then 4 hrs. I would try to feed them their evening milk in a nice calm environment at around 6pm, then change them and put them in bed at 7pm. Then I would get them up at 10pm for another feed, but this one I would change their nappy mid-feed to make sure they were awake for the last half so they got a full feed. After that I would then put them in bed and not wake them up for any feeds until 7am in the morning, but I would be on call – so if they woke I would feed them in dim light to keep them sleepy, and put them straight back in bed without changing them, unless they had a dirty (not wet) nappy. At first they wake 2 or 3 times, then 2, then 1, then not at all – yay .
Watching Daytime Sleep
I wouldn’t let them sleep for longer than about 2 hours for naps in the beginning, partly to get all the feeds in but also so that they got used to only short naps during the day and extended sleep during the night. Of course this means going against the tradition of letting sleeping babies lie! Also there are certain times of day that if they sleep past they don’t sleep well at night. So with small babies if they have a nap that extends into the 2hrs before bed time then they won’t usually go to sleep well. As they get older this time limit moves forward of course, so for my daughter who is 3 I won’t let her nap past 4pm or she doesn’t go to bed well at 7.30pm or wakes in the night.
Teaching them To Go To Sleep By Themselves
This is easier said than done, but I think it is one of the things that helps the most with getting a baby to sleep well. If they are rocked to sleep all the time, then when they wake up in the night, they will not be able to get themselves back to sleep without being rocked again. So I tried to teach them from very early on to go to sleep by themselves. For the first few weeks they need some help with a bit of rocking, but even then if you can prepare them for sleep well by winding down, and getting them in there early enough for a nap that they are not over-tired then you can lay them down and they will go to sleep by themselves. Some babies do this easier than others though.
Just as we don’t usually do well going to bed straight after being busy socially, babies don’t seem to either, although some babies are more sensitive than others in my experience! I was always careful to make their most stimulating time right after their feed, and then have a little winding down time before they went to sleep. So maybe changing their musical toys for some soft toys, and making sure no-one was making faces at them making them laugh right before naptime. It does involve sometimes telling people to back off a bit unfortunately, but it worked as it helped them to fall asleep by themselves a lot more easily. If they were wound up and overstimulated then they wouldn’t go to sleep, but instead just cry and have to be rocked to sleep.
Differentiating Day and Night
It helps babies to relate night-time to sleeping and daytime to playing if it is kept that way, so if they wake up in the night I do my best to keep the room dark with just a dim light, talk very quietly, keep them in their room to get them back to sleep if possible and definitely not play with them. If you play with them in the night then they will remember that and want to do it again!
Dark and Quiet Room
I always tried to make sure the babies slept in their own room in the dark with the door closed during naps and at night time. A controversial subject I know, with everyone saying to help prevent cot death they should be in the parents’ room until 6 months. My view on this is that it may be fine keeping the babies in your room for some, but it wasn’t good for our sleep or the baby’s as our noises would disturb each other, so I felt that it would be better to keep them in their own room right from the start. I was still flexible though – I think I ended up with all of them in bed with me for the first night after they were born because they were so unused to being out of the womb they just couldn’t seem to settle! Naps can also be taken out and about but after they reach about three months old they usually wake up after 45 minutes so when we were in America for a time and out a lot I would make their morning naps shorter and let them nap while we were out, and then come home for the afternoon nap so they could stay in the routine of having a longer sleep.
I hate hearing my babies cry but there are some occasions when it is so much better for them in the long run that I endure it. Like when I am trying to get them to go to sleep by themselves, after I’ve put them in bed awake they sometime cry, and then I will leave them to it for a while – often they go to sleep after about 15 minutes. The only thing with this is that with small babies they also often have wind and dirty nappies so it can be good to go in every 5-10 minutes and just double-check that it’s not that. And once they are sleeping through, if they wake in the night I always check my watch and leave it 10 minutes because they will often cry for up to 10 minutes and then go back to sleep. Whereas if you go in there then they will wake up and be very hard to get back to sleep. If that doesn’t work then I will try and settle them back down without actually rocking them to sleep – just calming them down – and then leave it another 5-10 minutes and go in again if they are still crying. That way they don’t think you’ve left them, but it also saves you from going insane because you know you are going back in there in a few minutes so they’re not going to die. But you’re also not tiring yourself out by staying with them the whole time! And with the checking back, they will usually fall asleep at some point if there is not something else going on like wind / dirty nappy etc.
Babies often won’t sleep well if they are too hot or cold, just as we don’t, so I always keep a cheap card thermometer in their rooms and go with the recommended layers of clothing. baby sleeping bags, like Grobag, are great for making sure they don’t get out of their covers and get cold in the night. I always change their nappy before naps and sleep too.
I had a lot of different books about babies and went mad in the beginning with my first baby because i was trying to figure out which one was right as they were all different! then it was like a lightbulb went on one day and I realised that God has given me a brain!!! So I can read the books, take all the advice into account, but at the end of the day I need to use my own instinct that God has given me, and common sense. And of course bear in mind that every baby is different. So while I recommend these books, I do think it is also very important that you use your own mind too and figure out what is best for your family and your child. I think the best resource for more details in how to do routine feedings is Gary Ezzo’s book Babywise. In there he is very good at spelling out all the signs you should look for to make sure your baby gets enough milk if you are breastfeeding. The Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg is good for a nice easy to remember 3-hrly routine and she explains overstimulation and how to prepare them for sleep beautifully. There are a few different books I used to help guide me to how much daytime sleep they could have at different ages. The New Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford is good but I don’t think the early feeding routines are good here for breastfeeding, and also my babies did well with longer naps than she laid out in there, but I liked it as a general guideline. My First 300 Babies is good at giving the opposite end of the spectrum – a lot of sleep! As the babies get older my favourite book is The Complete Sleep Guide For Contented Babies and Toddlers by Gina Ford – as it is a great problem solver for different ages and you don’t even have to use a routine to benefit from this book. In general though, a problem with nighttime sleep as they get older is usually caused by something to do with their daytime sleep.
A good thing to remember is that all babies are different and you may have to adapt things depending on their personality, and stay flexible. But having said that, I used these guidelines with all three of our babies and they all worked fine. Also it is good for new mums to know that the first 6 weeks it can be bumpy no matter what, as they are not used to having a daytime and a night-time and everything is different in the big world.