As a parent you'll be keenly aware of how important sleep is. Newborn babies sleep an almost obscene number of hours because they have an innate need for it, whilst somehow as the parent, you seem to be left feeling utterly sleep deprived and exhausted. How does that happen?!
The problem is, it's not just the total number of hours sleep you get in a twenty-four-hour period that matters, it's how well consolidated that sleep is that makes all the difference.
And as your baby grows and develops their sleep needs change almost constantly, throwing you from an intense feeling of satisfaction as you get into a rhythm with your baby’s sleep, to despair when it all changes again and you need to find a new pattern.
Promises that your child will sleep through every night and you will feel like you did before children would be false. What is guaranteed is your baby will have an ever changing roller-coaster of developmental leaps and shifting sleep needs. All isn’t lost. You can start shaping your baby's sleep so that you lay the foundations for healthy sleep habits, encouraging them to sleep for as long as their little tummies allow and smoothing out the shifts in sleep patterns so that life, and sleep, become a little more predictable and manageable.
To help you and your family on that journey Natalie from Sleep Rocks has set out six simple steps which will become your foundation stones:
- ESTABLISH A FLEXIBLE ROUTINE
The mere mention of routine can be enough to send some people running for the hills whilst others breathe a sigh of relief. Whichever camp you fall into, this doesn't mean you're going to become a prisoner to nap times, but it is going to make your life a bit more predictable. And, even more importantly it's going to help you better understand your baby's cries because you can more easily eliminate certain things knowing that at this moment in time your baby shouldn't be tired or shouldn’t be hungry, for example.
To help you establish a routine for you baby, keep a log of their feeding and sleeping times for a few days and try to work out a pattern of lengths of awake times between naps and between feeds. This is a good place to start, particularly for babies under 5 months. After this age you can start moving towards nap schedules based on clock times rather than awake times.
Aim for your baby's routine to go along the lines of feed, then play, then sleep.
This is to try and avoid them constantly feeding to sleep and developing the most common sleep association that causes problems for parents further down the line.
- HAVE MULTIPLE SOOTHING TECHNIQUES
Having a series of different techniques that you use to calm and soothe your baby is a key element in not creating one solo sleep association. This is vital if you want to avoid having just one thing that helps to settle them like feeding them to sleep or having to stand over their cot stroking their hair until they hit deep sleep.
As lovely as this is now, believe me it's less exciting a year down the line when you're painfully sleep deprived and the cot is now on the lowest setting and you've got a bad back from all that leaning over!
Dummies are a big comfort for many babies and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using one.
A dummy only becomes a problem when it falls out in the night and your baby can’t re-plug it themself. Avoid re-inserting the dummy each time it falls out and encourage your baby to sleep without it. Sometime a good suck as part of the bedtime routine can be enough to soothe a baby and then he’ll go down to sleep without it once soothed and drowsy. This is obviously less successful for long-term dummy-addicts, but if you’ve got a newborn give this a try.
- ALLOW OPPORTUNITIES TO SELF SETTLE
From about 6 weeks of age, it's a good idea to start putting your baby down drowsy but awake at least once a day. You should give your baby a chance to settle them self to sleep, but if they don't succeed then step in with your soothing techniques before they become hysterical as it'll be a lot harder to calm them down then. If you can make this the norm at bedtime by eight weeks you're winning!
If despite your best efforts your baby falls asleep whilst feeding, don't wake them, just put them down in their cot and try again next time.
If your baby wakes early from a nap or in the night at a time you wouldn't have expected to feed them, give them a few moments to see if they'll settle themselves back off to sleep. It’s all too easy to respond immediately and end up interfering with their ability to self-settle.
- ENCOURAGE A CONSISTENT SLEEPING PLACE
From eight weeks of age your baby will be getting much more alert and much less able to just block out their environment to fall into a deep and restorative sleep. So from eight weeks you should start trying to get your baby to take the majority of their naps at home in the crib. Being on the move or in a swing makes it easy for your baby to drop off but it keeps them in a very light and less restorative state of sleep.
However, don't be so intent on getting them to nap in their cot that you become a prisoner at home, there's a happy middle ground in there somewhere.
Whilst I'm on the subject of cots, your baby's cot should be free of bumpers, mobiles and cuddly toys. It should be BORING! This helps reduce the risk of SIDS (read more here) and also stops them being stimulated when you want them falling asleep.
Your baby's bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet...think cave! The exception to this is white noise, a great tool for soothing a young baby and also blocking out household sounds.
- CREATE A BEDTIME ROUTINE
This becomes important from about six weeks of age, or when your baby starts smiling. The developmental leap that leads to smiles means that your baby can now make associations, and therefore remember that after a bath comes bedtime.
Your chosen routine should be simple and able to be carried out away from home in case you actually want to go on holiday or to visit family! It should be relatively short, no more than 30 minutes, but can be as little as ten minutes.
You should watch for your baby's sleepy cues and if they're looking very tired and you're just starting the routine, ditch the longest part, probably the bath, and go
straight to the final element. So long as this part remains the same they'll still know bedtime is coming.
Now is also good time to introduce a bedtime phrase which you say each time you are asking your baby to go to sleep. Something like "shhh, it's sleepy time" will do just fine. This is now part of your bedtime routine.
- AVOID OVER-TIREDNESS
The final and possibly most important techniques to sleep happiness is avoiding an over-tired baby. Anyone who’s been at the mercy of an over-tired baby will tell you just how hard babies find it to fall asleep when they’ve missed their window of sleepiness, and then to make matters worse they then have a really disturbed night’s sleep with lots of night wakings.
Prevention is definitely better than cure with this one. As soon as you see signs of tiredness, drop everything and get your baby unto bed. If you’ve kept a sleep log you should have a fairly good idea of how long your baby can happily stay awake between naps.
Start your nap routine 5-10 minutes before you know they’ll be tired so that you’re placing them into their cot as their tiredness peaks, not 10 minutes afterwards.
If you miss their sleepy window and end up with an over-tired baby you’ll find that they can get quite agitated and find it difficult to calm down. If this is the case, a good response is to take your baby into a dark room and put on some loud white noise to block out all external stimuli and soothe them using your most trusted soothing technique, this is particularly effective for younger babies.
Getting your baby into an age appropriate routine and knowing how to safely start stretching their periods of sleep at night can be hard for parents as each baby is different and often you’ll need to make some minor adjustments to suit their personalities. Even so, the six steps are an amazing foundation and a great place to start, and often it’s all you’ll need to get things running smoothly from the outset.
If however, you want some support to tackle either some trickier sleep habits or just to have someone to help you work out what is the right fit for your baby then you can contact Natalie via her site: www.sleeprocks.co.uk or send her a message on firstname.lastname@example.org. If you quote ‘Munchkin and Bear’ then you can get a free 15 minute chat and 10% off a full consultation package.