Pretty much as soon as my eldest, L, was born and we were home from the hospital, the questions started: ‘is she a good baby? How’s she sleeping? Are you getting any sleep yet?’ The first one in particular annoyed me – what parent responds ‘no, she’s a really bad baby’ to that question?! Even if they never sleep a wink they aren’t ‘bad’. The older the baby the more questions you get.
It’s well-intentioned but difficult – if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night then what do you do? You get bombarded with conflicting advice and essentially the message seems to be that if they’re not sleeping then it’s because of something you are doing or not doing. You’re exhausted and emotionally fragile and being told that you’re ‘doing it wrong’ (even if that’s not what people are actually trying to say) is enough to break you. So let’s look at the truth about how to get a baby to sleep through the night!
The Unfortunate Truth
If you’re a new parent reading this then I realise that all you want is a solution and that being told that there isn’t one is likely to make you violent and vengeful. There is no-one more desperate and on-the-edge than a parent who hasn’t slept for several months!
However, the unfortunate truth is that, much like any other milestone, your baby will sleep through the night when (s)he is ready. My firstborn didn’t sleep through the night until she was eight months old and even then every little thing would disrupt her again – a change in routine, teething, illness, a full moon… she’s now three years old and occasionally still stops sleeping through the night, I think primarily for the entertainment of seeing how long it will take to break mummy’s spirit!
In contrast my youngest, J, is currently three months and has understood the difference between day and night for as long as I can remember, sleeps 6pm to 7am with a single feed despite being exclusively breastfed and naps well during the day. Had he been my first I would probably have been one of the smug mummy’s chatting about routines and feeling that I was a parenting guru! Thankfully I know that it’s just sheer luck. Some babies were just born to sleep.
That being said, there are things that you can do to help or hinder their sleep. I can’t promise to teach you how to get a baby to sleep through the night, but I can share what I’ve learned to hopefully give you the best chance of them sleeping through as soon as they’re ready!
Sleep Breeds Sleep
Basically this very annoying phrase means that if your baby naps well during the day then they’re more likely to sleep better at night. I did not understand this – I kept trying to keep my eldest awake so that she would be more tired at night. I was making the huge mistake of assuming that a tired baby will sleep.
Unfortunately, babies have only a small window of tired before they tip in to ‘overtired’. Basically ‘overtired’ is when your baby screams and screams because they’re tired but won’t go to sleep no matter how hard you try. If this seems completely and utterly insane – it is. Welcome to parenthood!
It’s worth having a look at how much sleep your baby should be getting to give you a rough guide. This is essentially what a lot of baby routines are based on – making sure your baby has sufficient (but not excessive) sleep during the day and so is tired but not overtired at night.
Here is the NHS guide to roughly how much sleep children need at different ages. Note how much sleep they need at night – embrace the early bed-time. We spent hours trying to get L to sleep at 9pm and thought she wasn’t tired yet, turned out she was overtired and needed a 6.30pm bedtime instead!
If you do not yet have kids you might look at this and think ‘wow, 10 to 11 hours a night at 3 months, that sounds great’… sadly babies do not like to group all of these hours in to a single block. Some wake hourly just to keep their parents on their toes. If you have one of these babies, try to get naps sorted first, then worry about night-time (and don’t ever google the effects of sleep deprivation!)
Don’t Wake the Baby (Unless They’re Very Little!)
This is clearly a controversial one – many sleep programmes involve periodically waking babies, preventing them from napping too much during the day, waking for dream feeds, etc. If this works for you then great, but I tried it with both of mine and it was not for us.
L considered a dream-feed (where you basically feed the baby whilst (s)he is still asleep) as an invitation to wake up and party. Whether breast or bottle, she always woke up when we tried to feed her. If I woke her from her nap then she would punish me by not napping for the rest of the day, becoming overtired and then refusing to go to sleep at night as she was too distressed. I learned to stop waking her.
When J was born I was determined that he would be a better sleeper, so I started following the ‘contented little baby‘ routines at birth. It was a nightmare – he absolutely hated being woken when he reached the end of his allotted nap time and he fed far more than Gina Ford had recommended.
When J was two weeks old my husband (very tentatively, having learned not to mess with the hormonal new mum) asked ‘why do you keep waking him up? He seems like a really good baby, have you thought about just leaving him alone?’
Revelation – I stopped waking him up, he put himself (almost immediately) in to a routine that fitted in well with our family and I accepted that some days he naps more than others, in the same way that some days I’m more tired than others. When he’s awake I try to make life interesting for him and play, but if he goes back to sleep then I just assume he’s tired and go with it.
By all means have a ‘routine’, most of us have a rough sequence of events we follow each day in order to fit around work, nursery and other commitments, but if your baby isn’t following a routine you’ve found in a book, consider getting rid of the book (definitely not the baby!).
The one exception to this rule is from birth until your baby regains their birth weight – babies need fed every 3 hours (day and night) until they have regained their birth weight, even if you have to wake them up to achieve this.
Babies Cry in Their Sleep
I honestly did not know this, it wasn’t mentioned in medical school or in any of my antenatal baby books or classes. I had a fear of L being distressed and needing me when she was a tiny baby so if she cried in the night I picked her up almost immediately. I thought I was doing the right thing but it was only when she moved in to her own room and it took me longer to get to her that I realised I’d actually been pissing her off! Often by the time I made it down the corridor she was asleep.
Babies sometimes cry or murmur whilst sleeping, give them a few seconds to see if they settle again before picking them up or intervening. They might surprise you!
Embrace the Sleep-Aids (if they work for you) but try to teach your child to self-soothe
There are a million different sleep-aids that you can try, from a dummy (pacifier to our friends in North America) to sleep positioners to the many, many toys and accessories. Frankly, if you’re tired enough you’ll try anything.
People like to scare you about sleep-aids by telling you that you’ll never get the child off them. This is nonsense, I’ve yet to encounter a grown adult who needs a dummy and a lullaby tape to sleep at night (although actually J’s ‘my hummy‘ does seem to help all of us sleep better so maybe some sleep aids are adult applicable)!
During our desperate sleep-deprived months with L my husband and I tried: cot mobile, lullabies on our baby monitor, a light show on the ceiling projected by the baby monitor, Ewan the sheep, a Sleepyhead deluxe, comforters, putting used breast pads and the shirt I had worn that day in the cot with L… we spent a small fortune on things to help the baby sleep and books to tell us how to get the baby to sleep.
It’s worth trying these things if you want to, but don’t be fooled in to thinking that money can buy you sleep. If it did I would have sold everything we owned for a full night’s sleep when L was young.
Whether you use sleep-aids or not, it’s helpful to teach your child how to self-soothe.
Babies need to learn the difference between day and night as fast as possible, for their sake but mainly for their parents’ sanity! L loved to sleep most of the day and then socialise with us all night. We adored her, but we loved her the most at night when she was sleeping!
Make the room baby sleeps in dark at night-time – we used a Gro-blind as it’s portable so you don’t need something extra when away from home and it can be easily removed if for some reason you suddenly decide you want your child to get up with the sunrise at 5am in the summer!
Keep night-time interactions calm and quiet, lights dim and minimal noise. We used to turn lights on so we could change L’s nappy every time she woke up. It’s no wonder she thought it was time to get up! With J we had learnt to get him in a decent night nappy (personal preference is Pampers Baby Dry – 12 hours of dryness and they’ve yet to let us down) and only change him overnight when he had a dirty nappy.
Make Sure They Aren’t Hungry
Most babies will need to feed at least once overnight until they are about 4-6 months old and many still need a night-feed for significantly longer. If they wake in the night and seem hungry then feed them, a hungry baby isn’t going to sleep well! However if they aren’t getting enough milk during the day then they will make up for this by feeding more at night so your best chance of getting some sleep is to make sure they are feeding well in the daytime.
See here for a guide to roughly how much milk babies need. Between 7am and 7pm they will usually need to feed every 3-4 hours to meet these requirements.
Trust Your Instincts
I hope that some of these tips help, but if you’re in the middle of sleep deprivation and looking for an immediate solution for how to get a baby to sleep through the night, please don’t despair. Every baby is different and no-one knows your baby better than you, trust your instincts on what to try and know that it won’t last forever. If all else fails you’ll be able to get your revenge when your child is a teenager!
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