Let’s talk baby sleep (and yours for that matter!). There’s no topic more hotly discussed among new parents. Unsolicited advice flies from all directions with what feels like pointy fingers probing “Is he a good sleeper?” or “Is she sleeping through the night yet?”. Before you know it, your baby’s sleeping habits are the talk of your baby sensory class, and the Costa coffee queue for that matter!
Everyone seems to have an opinion on how baby should be sleeping, which can leave you feeling like you’re on the bed backfoot. Add to the mix an exhausted state of mind from countless sleepless nights and it becomes even harder to separate fact from fiction.
Here’s what I can tell you; it’s not your fault that your baby is not sleeping. You are not a bad parent. There is also nothing wrong with your baby. They are not developing at a slower level because they are waking up throughout the night.
There is no such thing as a text book baby. Text books are guidelines in any case, not gospel. And, in fact, there is no such thing as sleeping through the night. We all wake-up at some point, sometimes partially and sometimes fully. It’s human nature (and I’ll talk more about this shortly).
What is important is to go with what works for you and your baby. And for the benefit of parents everywhere, here I separate truth from tale.
- Myth: Your baby should be sleeping through the night by six months.
Fact: There is no set age when a baby should sleep through.
Ok, let’s firstly define “sleeping through the night”. No baby (or grown-up for that matter) sleeps through the night. Some babies immediately start a new sleep cycle once one ends without adult help. Some will wake-up, but remain quiet in their cot, while others will wake and cry for help to start a new cycle. But no baby sleeps solidly through the night.
What the term “sleeping through the night” should really mean is your baby being able to sleep unassisted throughout the night. The true goal is getting your baby to be able to transition between sleep cycles without crying and without needing you to help them fall back asleep.
- Myth: Your baby is waking up at night because it is hungry.
Fact: Hunger is one of many reasons as to why your baby may be waking up.
Waking at night isn’t just to do with hunger. Yes, newborn babies have tiny tummies so have to feed little and often. However, all babies, no matter how old they are, can wake for all sorts of reasons, just like adults do. They may need a nappy change, they may be too cold (or too hot), they may have misplaced their favourite comforter, or simply want comfort from you. It could be down to trapped wind or perhaps another tooth is on its way.
Just because it’s dark, and they are in their sleep space, it doesn’t mean that they won’t need your support. Busting common baby sleep myths.
- Myth: Once your baby is on formula or solids it will definitely sleep better.
Fact: There is no evidence to suggest that formula or solids will positively impact on sleep.
The old wives tail of “topping up” with formula or giving baby a bigger meal shortly before bedtime won’t help your baby to sleep through the night. Why? Because this doesn’t mimic their bodies’ natural feeding patterns. In fact, for a period of time, it could actually cause further night wake-ups as their digestive system is trying to cope with these changes.
Imagine yourself going to bed after drinking an extra-large milkshake or three-course meal. Would it help you sleep better, or make you more likely to wake-up feeling over full?
- Myth: Skip daytime naps if your baby isn’t sleeping well at night.
Fact: Naps are an essential ingredient to a settled night’s sleep.
A baby who doesn’t sleep enough in the day is likely to be overtired, irritable and fussy by the time bedtime comes around. And an overtired baby is harder to settle and more likely to wake at night.
I work with lots of families and a lack of daytime sleep is a common reason for little ones fighting bedtime. My advice is not to pass-up naps, but prioritise them. It’s your call as to how and where your baby naps – there is no right or wrong here. What’s important is to have a good nap schedule that works for you and your baby. And if your baby wakes earlier than usual from their nap, or even resists a nap, you may need to bring bedtime forward a little. Let your baby be your guide and watch out for those cues for tiredness.
- Myth: Co-sleeping, feeding to sleep or staying with them to get them to sleep are making rods for your own back.
Fact: There are no rods to be made with a baby.
Most parents have been on the receiving end of the classic “You’re making a rod for your own back”, or the unhelpful “You don’t want to get into that bad habit”.
Ok, so you’re feeding your baby to sleep because they need comfort. Or you’re sitting by their cot holding their hand through the wooden bars to help them fall asleep peacefully. All the while, you’re thinking “Should I be encouraging her to self-soothe”, or “How will he learn to be independent”.
But this is what you have to ask yourself; is your baby happy right now? Does this feel right for you right now? If the answer is yes, then don’t ever doubt what you are doing. There is no right or wrong. It’s about what is right for you and your baby, and by making them feel safe, secure and attached, they will be more settled in their sleep.
Nobody ever makes a rod for their own back when it comes to parenting. You make your own decisions because you know your baby the best.
If you feed to sleep THAT’S OK.
If you lie down with baby to get them to sleep THAT’S OK.
If you walk them round the block in the pushchair THAT’S OK.
- Myth: Your baby should be in bed by 7pm.
Fact: Create a bedtime routine that’s right for you and your baby.
Of course, the time your baby goes to sleep does make a difference. We all have a biological clock and your baby’s circadian rhythm (once it kicks in) can help them sleep if they are put to bed at the right time. Moreover, maintaining a consistent bedtime is pretty central to helping baby be at their bedtime best.
However, all babies are different, and a 7pm lights out may not work for your little one. That said, a too-late bedtime may lead to difficulties getting your baby to sleep as they’ve passed their natural “sleep window”, with cortisol (aka baby Red Bull) kicking in. It could also result in more frequent night and early morning waking.
- Myth: The only way to get a baby to sleep better is to use controlled crying or cry it out methods.
Fact: There are gentle ways to help improve your baby’s sleep.
I work with so many families to improve sleep without training or leaving baby to cry. I’m sure you’ll have heard of lots of methods being banded around your mum friends at soft play.
There is a lot pressure everywhere for parents to ‘train’ their baby to sleep better, and many end up going against their gut instinct and doing it because they think it’s the only way. Pin pointing why your child wake-up and gentle tweaking can make a huge difference to their sleep overall. So next time someone suggests your baby should cry to learn how to sleep on their own, just ignore them. All babies eventually learn to sleep on their own and so will yours.
- Myth: Your baby should want to sleep when it gets dark.
Fact: Babies are not born on our time zone.
Newborn babies are naturally nocturnal and not biologically programmed to sleep through the night. This stems from survival needs from our cave man days. It was far safer to feed at night, plus food was more available at night after a day’s hunt. Added to that, when your baby was safely tucked up in your womb, your movement and heartbeat during the day would soothe them to sleep. So, by night time they were often ready for a little party (remember those 3am bouts of kicking?!). It will take then time to adjust to day and night but with regular routine, this can really help.
So remember, waking at night is normal. It’s common. And you’re in the majority. So the next time you feel like you’re the only parent settling your little one for the 10th time, remind yourself that the wide-awake parent club is there with you!