The wisdom and experience of our resident sleep expert Jo Tantum will have both the little and large people in your household sleeping better in no time.
I often go into babies nurseries and they are pristine, all shiny and new and never been used. Expectant parents often get excited about planning the nursery, so why do many babies never get to enjoy their beautiful room?
Once parents bring their baby home they want be as close as possible to their little bundle, and rightly so. The moses basket or cradle usually starts downstairs, before being taken up to the parent’s room at night time. I suggest after the first month or two you start to introduce your baby to their room in the daytime for naps, so they get used to the smell and layout of the room. This way once they start to sleep in it at night time it will be familiar.
Try and get a mattress that isn’t too hard. Baby was soft and cosy in your womb so a hard plastic mattress will come as an unwelcome shock and they are unlikely to settle. Your baby doesn’t need lots of toys, gadgets or gizmos in their room, these will just stimulate and confuse you baby at sleep time. Ensure that there are no soft toys near baby’s face or head until they are older and can hold it properly, otherwise it poses a suffocation risk.
To help your baby with the transition from moses basket to cot, consider putting the moses basket in the cot for a week, before transferring baby from one to the other.
I try and keep a baby’s cot nice and cosy, a lovely place that feels safe and happy. I suggest cot bumpers – one down each of the long sides of the cot. They prevent head bumps or arms getting stuck in-between the bars. Tuck them right down at the side so they are in line with the mattress so baby can’t get their head stuck underneath. I also tuck the sleeping bag, once baby is in one, at the bottom of the cot, so they don’t wriggle themselves into a corner.
Swaddling and sleeping bags
I always suggest that parents swaddle their baby. Swaddling has been around for thousands of years and benefits both baby and parents, because it helps baby to feel secure which aids sleep. Swaddling also prevents babies waking themselves up with their startle (Moro) reflex.
Swaddle baby with a stretchy, natural, breathable material that will keep baby comfortable. It will also mean your baby is kept safely on their backs to go to sleep, in keeping with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) guidelines. Don’t swaddle your baby’s hips too tight, it is primarily the arms that need to be secured.
I find that girls like to be swaddled until around three months, and boys until around four months, as they are often more physical. Once your baby has reached this age you can half swaddle them, by just tucking in one arm. In this way your baby can get used to controlling one arm at a time, once they have mastered the first free limb they can have both arms out.
Sleeping bags give peace of mind once baby has out grown a swaddle. They will stop baby getting too cold or kicking blankets onto their faces. I suggest a merino wool sleeping bag, the fabric is temperature controlling; insulating baby if it is cold and drawing heat away if they are warm. This saves you worrying about what tog to use.
As a guide try and put one more layer on baby than you have on you as they cannot control their temperature. If you are worried about them getting too hot check their tummy rather than hands or feet, as these are usually cold.
Keeping baby in your room
Most parents prefer to keep their babies in their room with them for the first few months. SIDS guidelines suggest that you keep your baby in your room until they are six months. This is not always possible if the parent’s room is not large enough for a cot, so baby may go into their own room once they are out of the moses basket.
Some parents struggle to sleep if their baby is very noisy at night, so again baby may be into their own room before the six month mark. As a parent it is your choice when baby goes into their own room. We are very lucky to live in an age of video monitors and sensor pads but even if you invest in these gadgets don’t rely on them, you should still check on baby yourself.
You could always have a mattress on the floor for the first few weeks of transitioning baby into their own room at night, so it’s a gradual approach.
Self-soothing is the key to getting baby to sleep better at naps and night time. The goal is for your baby to learn to settle themselves to sleep, negating the need for you to sooth them.
You can teach baby to settle themselves back to sleep by putting them down for a nap at the correct time. Watch for sleep signs; rubbing eyes, ears, staring into space, getting grizzly – and then take them to their room.
Babies make lots of noises before they go to sleep; grunts, groans and mmm, aarr sounds, these are sleep noises that help them to relax and wind down for sleep. Try not to rush in prematurely during this period, they may not need settling and you will disturb them and prevent them from settling themselves to sleep.
Start this practice with the morning nap, as this and bedtime are usually the easiest ones to start with.
Parents often question if it is ok to leave their baby to cry and sometimes consider the merits of ‘controlled crying’ (where baby is left to cry for timed intervals that increase in duration) or ‘cry it out’ (where baby is left to cry until they are asleep, however long it takes).
Most parents are so desperate to get some sleep they will be tempted to try these methods at some point. When I started working with babies this was the only way to get babies to sleep longer through the night, and when I spoke to parents they felt that they wanted an alternative.
My ‘spaced soothing’ technique is all about listening to your baby and responding when they need you, but taking a step back to encourage them to settle themselves. Take you baby into the Nursery, following the naptime steps below, then leave the room and give your baby the opportunity to settle themselves. I suggest five minutes but if your baby is upset in that time then you can go in sooner.
If your baby gets upset find a soothing technique your baby responds to, it can be patting or stroking. Try and soothe your baby in their cot as soothing them out of the cot then putting them back down will upset them further. After soothing for up to five minutes, leave the room again for five minutes. You are encouraging you baby to have the confidence to sleep by themselves.
Many people underestimate the importance of naps and some mums keep their babies up all day expecting them to then sleep well at night. This is a mistake as baby will become overtired and therefore more likely to enter a light sleep cycle rather than a deeper more restful one.
Look for tired signs that will signal a nap time; yawning, rubbing eyes and ears, and staring into space. Your baby will need sleep triggers during the day; total blackout is very helpful as research shows that if light hits the retina (the back of the eye) for more than two minutes the brain is fully stimulated. Babies don’t understand they need to close their eyes to go to sleep so a blackout helps calm and de stimulate them.
Use a swaddle or sleeping bag during naps and then they can also be a trigger for sleep at night.
Common sleep mistakes
Letting your baby sleep in different places as you go out and about can confuse them. Consistency of location and routine teaches them sleep signals and associations that can all help them to settle themselves more easily at night.
Sleeping through the night
Most babies need to be taught how to sleep through the night. All babies wake as they move in and out of light and deep sleep cycles. If they can self-settle they will go back to sleep without having to disturb you.
Babies who can’t get through the night unaided are used to something happening before they go back to sleep, consequently they need this each time they wake. You can teach your baby to sleep through the night without sleep props (like rocking, motion in the pram or car seat, a dummy, or feeding) in as little as seven days and nights. Start at the beginning of the day at nap time and use my spaced soothing method – before long everyone will be in the land of nod.