When your baby is born, it might seem that they know very well how to sleep! After all, besides feeding, they do little else… But teach them the fundamental skills of good sleep during their first few months and they’re likely to enjoy healthy sleeping habits for life.
1) Teach the difference between night and day
A typical newborn spends 16 hours a day sleeping. This is split evenly between night and day and punctuated by two-hourly feeds. “In your womb, your baby will have sensed the difference between night and day from your movement — or lack of it,” notes sleep expert Mandy Gurney. “But she doesn’t connect this with light and dark once born.”
The first step is to differentiate between day and night. “During the day, immerse your baby in the bustle of normal life,” Gurney advises. “Spend plenty of time stimulating them. Take them outside for fresh air and daylight every day.”
For daytime naps, put them in their cot but leave the curtains open and don’t try to minimise noise. At night, make the room dark. During night feeds, avoid stimulating your baby. Keep your voice low and make minimal eye contact.
“Only change the diaper if it’s necessary,” Gurney says.
By 4 weeks of age, a baby will typically sleep for a total of six to seven hours during the day and eight to nine hours at night. A 3-month-old baby who has been taught that night-time is for sleeping will typically sleep for around four hours in the day and 10 to 11 hours at night.
“The very first sign that your baby is tired is being quiet and still.”
2) Look for sleep cues
An overtired baby is very difficult to settle and will require a lot of help, whether in the form of rocking, milk or cuddles. If you want your baby to learn how to settle themselves, you must make it easy for them and put them into the cot as soon as they appear tired. “For the first few weeks, there’s likely to be little pattern to your baby’s sleep, so it’s your job to look out for sleep cues,” Gurney notes.
“The very first sign that your baby is tired is being quiet and still. If you miss this cue, they may rub their eyes, yawn, become fractious or cry. Respond straightaway and put your baby down for a nap.”
3) Indicate when to expect sleep
A succession of events every night which ends in your baby drifting off teaches them the simple message that it’s now time to go to sleep.
“While your baby might settle easily now, in nine months’ time when they have rather more say in that decision, this understanding will be of huge value,” Gurney points out.
A bedtime routine should take 20 to 30 minutes and start with a short, warm bath, which can help stimulate melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Then wrap your baby in a towel and take them straight into the room in which they’ll sleep. Dress them for bed with minimal stimulation. Stick to the same routine every night, adding a bedtime story from 3 months.
“Make your routine as simple as possible, so you can keep it the same wherever you are,” Gurney suggests.
Four more tips coming right up…
4) Separate milk from sleep
During the early weeks, your baby will most likely need a feed right before bed. But as early as you can, separate this last feed from bedtime. Gradually bring this feed forwards until it is before bath time, so your baby becomes less dependent on sucking to sleep.
“A baby is far more likely to wake up in the night because they have fallen asleep during the last feed and is startled to find themselves in the cot, than they are because they are hungry after feeding a little earlier,’ Gurney explains.
5) Lay her down awake
While being pushed in a stroller or rocked in your arms calms a baby too agitated or over-tired to sleep, try not to make it a habit. And, while it’s lovely to let your baby fall asleep on you before laying them in their cot, don’t make this the norm. “If your baby is to eventually learn how to sleep through the night, they must be aware that they are in a cot when they fall asleep at the beginning of the night,” Gurney says.
So, after the bedtime routine, place your baby in the cot when they are drowsy rather than asleep. “That way, when they stir in the night, they won’t be alarmed to find themselves in the cot and be startled into being fully awake,” she notes.
“If your baby is ever to sleep through the night, she must learn to settle back to sleep when she stirs at the end of each cycle, without you soothing her.”
6) Remove yourself from the equation
It’s tempting to comfort your baby to sleep, but this is likely to make them dependent on you for sleep. Instead, give them a cuddle and kiss, then lay them to sleep with minimal fuss.
“This a trickier task for you than it is for your baby — they may settle quite happily!” Gurney points out.
“Ultimately, your aim should be to lay your baby in the cot with a kiss, say goodnight, and leave them alone to settle contentedly to sleep.”
7) Let her learn to settle
Humans sleep in cycles, naturally rousing from and sinking back to sleep throughout the night.
The sleep cycle of a very young baby lasts for 60 minutes but at the age of 3 months, this extends to 90 minutes, followed by a period of wakefulness.
“If your baby is ever to sleep through the night, they must learn to settle back to sleep when they stir at the end of each cycle, without you soothing them,” Gurney points out.
If your baby’s night-time cries are merely grumbles, briefly check that they are comfortable, warm but not too hot, and that their diaper is not wet or dirty. If all is fine, encourage them to resettle in the cot without a feed or a cuddle.
If they cry, soothe them by stroking or patting them. Or try rolling them onto their side and gently rocking their body to and fro until they resettle, then reposition them on their back.
Rock them in your arms if you need to, but place them back in the cot and comfort them there as soon as they begin to calm.
By 6 months, if your baby wakes for a feed in the night, it’s likely to be out of habit rather than hunger.
“Offer a feed if you wish, but as soon as they have had enough, burp them well and put them in their cot, comforting them there if needed,” Gurney advises. “This will help them end the association between milk and sleep, so night feeds can be dropped completely.”
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