Ten Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Baby to Sleep at Night.
I feel a bit awkward writing this post, it seems a bit of a contradiction to my usual feelings – that is: listen to your baby, go with your instinct and have realistic expectations - but it is something I’m often asked about a lot and definitely something I struggled with as a new parent.
I remember asking my health visitor for her advice. “Well he probably needs weaning, he’s a big lad and he’s nearly 16wks” was her reply, closely followed by “and if you let him cry a bit rather than always picking him up he will learn to get himself off to sleep”. So there were my options, weaning and controlled crying. I tried both. He did sleep through at 17 weeks and now at age 9 takes ages to get to sleep, always asking for more hugs, more kisses, door open, lights left on – he has been this way since he was 1. He is also a diagnosed Coeliac – which may or may not have anything to do with his early weaning, we do have a family history but I still kick myself for weaning so early, even though at the time 16 weeks was the recommended government guideline.
I though I would put together a little list of things that helped us over the years with our three subsequent children, ways we managed to all get more sleep without resorting to weaning and controlled crying.
1) Understanding normal baby sleep
I had no idea about the differences in baby’s sleep when I had my firstborn, Tracey (Hogg), Gina (Ford) and my “What to Expect” book didn’t cover it at all, neither did any of the classes I had attended whilst pregnant or after his birth. Did you know then that it is perfect normal for 12 month olds to wake regularly through the night? (yes I did say 12 months and not 12 weeks!). I have devoted a whole blog post to baby sleep HERE if you’re still interested.
2) Listen to your baby
About 6 years ago one of the new mums I had taught antenatal classes to phoned me, she had had a beautiful home waterbirth and bonded instantly with her daughter. She called me when her baby was about 8 weeks old “Sarah, her sleeping is awful, I don’t know what to do”, me: “what happens then?”, new mum: “well she will go to sleep during a feed and she’ll sleep in my arms, but the minute I put her into her basket she screams and screams and screams”, me: “but she’ll sleep in bed with you?”, new mum: “oh yes, pretty much all night, she just hates her basket”, me: “how do you feel about not moving her to her basket?”, new mum: “oh I wouldn’t mind, but my mum and health visitor say she has to learn to sleep alone”. They went on to share a bed peacefully for the next two years. Babies may not speak, but they are excellent at communicating their needs!
3) Trust your instinct
Like the above post, I remember vividly the wonder of snuggling next to my babies and drifting off to sleep together, then awakening and thinking “oh no, I must put him back in his crib”. If only I had trusted that my instincts knew better than the books I had read I may not have ever felt the need to repeatedly ignore my feelings and put him back in his crib.
4) Expectations (massage and light)
We can use our understanding of sleep training and classical conditioning to help us realise kinder, gentler ways of settling babies. Babies definitely do learn from an early age, but not in the same way we do as an adult. What they do learn very quickly is an expectation of what comes next. I quickly learnt that if I bathed my baby after dinner, massaged him in his room, fed him with only a dim lamp for light and closed my eyes too whilst feeding he drifted off very quickly and it didn’t take long at all for him to click onto the fact that bath + massage + low light + food = bed and sleep.
5) Conditioning & cues (sound and smell)
Again, working with the above I added two cues to our bedtime “routine” (hey, not all routines are bad ;-)!) – smell and sound. I bought a battery operated aromatherapy vapouriser and added a drop of chamomile and a drop of lavender oil each evening whilst we massaged and fed, I also bought an instrumental lullaby CD which I played at the same time. That smell and the music became equally strong cues and at night, even at age 4 my children would go straight back to sleep when their music was played at night (it made me sleepy too!), or if they were finding it hard to sleep the smell did wonders, this worked particularly wonderfully on holiday when everything was new to them, but they still had the reassuring triggers of home. They must always be conditioned first, that is don’t expect a lullaby CD or lavender to work magic alone, you have to teach your baby “this smell = calm” and “this music = calm”, you have to work with the association. If your baby is newborn you may find white noise may work better than actual music.
6) Comforters (touch and smell)
I think people often misunderstand comforters as being items for babies to cuddle and calm themselves with by touch (indeed Harlow’s monkeys illustrated the importance of soft touch in relation to comfort over food), but I have always believed the most important thing about comforters (for my firstborn it was simply a knotted muslin with a silky label he liked to feel) to be the smell and most importantly the smell of the mother. In the Social Baby there are some amazing photos of newborns turning towards breastpads that had been in their mothers’ bras. We used this same principle which worked wonders for our babies. Winnicott refers to comfort objects as mother substitutes and an important bridge between dependence and independence, I don’t think they are important for all babies, but they can be very helpful if you need to take a bit of a break sometimes or leave your baby with someone else for a short time before they may be ready to leave you.
If you baby is still very little (under 12 weeks) and you don’t feel co-sleeping or babywearing is for you, swaddling can work magic, particularly for formula fed babies – I think it works in three ways: 1) to help the baby still feel as if she is being held by you, 2) by inhibiting the startle – moro – reflex and 3) by keeping your baby snug and warm. There are however several safety rules to bear in mind when swaddling and FSIDS recommends swaddling with caution due to potential links to SIDs.
• Never swaddle over your baby’s head or near his face
• Never swaddle your baby if he is ill or has a fever
• Make sure your baby does not overheat and only swaddle with a breathable/thin fabric
• Only swaddle your baby until he can roll over**
• Always place your baby to sleep on his back
• Do not swaddle tightly across your baby’s chest
• Do not swaddle tightly around your baby’s hips and legs, his legs should be free to “froggy up” into a typical newborn position.
• Lastly start to swaddle as soon as possible, do not swaddle a 3 month old baby if he has not been swaddled before.
** The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends swaddling for babies 0-14wks.
8) Daddy Cuddles
On nights when I was truly exhausted and my babies were older I used to sleep in our spare room and leave the baby in bed with my husband, still cuddled, still responded to as soon as they cried, but not straight on the breast. I only advocate this if the mum really is exhausted and would also suggest you go to bed with earplugs as it is heartbreaking laying in another room hearing your baby cry and knowing that you could calm them instantly with a feed. It does help though, as does turning over and pretending to be asleep whilst in the same bed and letting daddy cuddle the baby back to sleep, this though is much harder with a 3yr old who knows you are feigning sleep and resorts to prising your eyelids open and removing the bedclothes from you to get your attention! (yes I have been there many times!)
9) Breastfeeding to calm - not to sleep
The last thing that helped us, particularly with my boob obsessed last baby who still wanted to suckle at least 4 times through the night at age 2 was to allow her free access whenever she wanted (denying seemed to make her more fervent in her search!), but to de-latch her once she was calm and just starting to drift off to sleep. She knew she could always have “boo” (as she called it) whenever she wanted, but that boo was not for going to sleep with, it was simply for getting calm. I think at some point something clicked when she realised she could feed whenever she wanted in the night, but not to actually go to sleep so she seeemed to be far less interested and now at the age of 4 the only time she wants to nurse is if she is ill or hurt, not to sleep. I love watching her play with her dolls and rocking and singing them to sleep, sometimes she pretends they are poorly and she always pretends to feed them if they are!
10) Sleep breeds sleep
Quite a few people used to say this to me when I first became a mother and I never really understood what they meant, but now I do. I was discussing my non sleeping 1 year with a wise old ex midwife friend one time and she said “Sarah, do you think you maybe do too much with him? he might be overtired?”, this shook me as I did everything in my power to fill our days with activities, thinking that the more I did the more tired he would be and the better his sleep would be. We did babyyoga, baby swimming, baby music, baby signing, baby dancing, coffee mornings, baby groups. I used to do at least one activity a day, sometimes two and I thought it helped, I thought I tired him out (goodness knows *I* was tired!), so we experimented, I had a week of staying at home, lots of cuddles, reading and play, going for quiet walks, just day to day general life and chores and the resulting change in his behaviour shocked me. He slept better than he had done for months and not only that he was calmer too. With my younger three we did barely any groups and classes and they each slept significantly better, coincidence? I am often shocked at the packed social lives of tiny babies and can’t help wondering how difficult all of the stimulation must be for such tiny little things. I always stress the importance of calming the parent in my classes too – adrenaline is catching. In order to have a calm sleepy baby we must first have a calm parent!
Sarah (Mum to Four, Parenting Author and Founder of BabyCalm Ltd)
You can read more of Sarah’s articles HERE.