Not all babies are the same so there is no ‘one size fits all’ perfect sleep solution, and often what works for one baby doesn’t work for another. If there is any chance that your baby’s sleep problems could be caused by something physical, you need to get medical help. Babies who are sick, or in pain or discomfort do not usually sleep well. This includes babies with colic, reflux and allergies like excema. But in the absence of these if your baby sleeps very badly, have him checked out for any less obvious physical problems!
Even when your baby has a simple cold, he might not sleep well. Sick babies become very clingy and needy and they feel scared to be away from their moms, or dads or caregivers. So when your baby wakes up and he’s alone, he’ll cry for you so that you can be close and make him feel safe.
It is really difficult to be the one who takes care of an unhappy baby who cries a lot and who battles to sleep. It causes such dreadful chaos and disruption and it can take a toll on your mental health and even contribute towards postnatal depression. If your baby is seriously disrupting your own sleep patterns, that sleep deprivation can make you feel quite emotionally unhinged! This can cause you to forget – or lose sight of – some of the most fundamental truths about your baby and what he really needs from you.
There is a real fixation these days in certain circles and in certain cultures on getting babies to ‘sleep through the night’ and there is actually a lot of pressure on new parents to achieve this goal – but the goal is not always realistic. You’ll see, when parents of babies get together, often the opening line is ‘how was your night?’ or ‘how did your baby sleep last night?’
Babies are notorious for waking up at night – for feeds, for comfort, and for attention, love and contact. Cross-cultural research has shown that mothers from certain cultures don’t experience this as unusual or as a problem. They see it as just how babies are.
Of course for your own sanity, and for your baby’s sake as well, it makes sense to do what you can to help your baby to sleep as well as possible, especially during the night, but it’s also important to remember that he isn’t and never will be (hopefully) a robot that can be programmed not to bug you during the night. In fact babies have great vulnerabilities and sensitivities and they really need their caregivers to help them with those. And this often means – disturbed sleep
What is normal sleep for babies?
Generally if all is going well, babies sleep most of the day and night for the first few weeks of life. They only wake for short periods during the early weeks, mainly to feed. But this changes gradually, and they become more wakeful as time goes by. For the first 6 weeks or so they need to be fed about every 3 hours roughly, and that means you can expect to be woken up at night…every night. But as they get older they can stretch a bit longer and hopefully this will happen in the early hours of the morning so that you can get your much needed sleep.
As your baby becomes more aware of himself as a separate being, he might get more worried about being away from you. In the beginning he doesn’t notice it all that much (although research has shown that babies do recognize their biological mothers, mostly by smell, from just after they are born). But from about 4 months, he gets a much clearer idea that he is he and you are you, and that if you are not there, that might be a serious problem for him. Sleep problems sometimes start at this stage for this reason. A kind of separation anxiety is often the cause of sleep problems for babies. This separation anxiety can be triggered by emotional problems that the mom might be experiencing, or even grief that she might be carrying from past losses – say an earlier miscarriage or even the death of a parent! Separation anxiety and babies sleep problems have been linked to this.
About half way through the first year, babies will often sleep most of the night (many of them continue to wake for feeds) and they have 2 or 3 sleeps during the day. By the end of the first year, they have often progressed to one long sleep during the middle of the day.
How can you help your baby to get to sleep?
Practically speaking, babies love movement, and they are most easily lulled to sleep in this way. They are probably soothed to sleep best in the presence of their moms, dads or trusted caregivers (nannies, grandparents, au-pairs), being rhythmically rocked or pushed – perhaps in a pram, or carried on the mother’s back or in a pouch on her front, or in her arms. A swinging cradle or a carry cot with wheels are both very useful in getting babies to sleep.
Low lights help of course, as does white noise and the sound of your voice, either singing, or talking or ‘shushing’ (the shushing might resemble the sound in the womb).
All of this usually comes naturally to parents, except that they are sometimes advised against it.
I am very aware of the current trend back to a few decades ago when parents were encouraged to leave babies alone to cry themselves to sleep.
Of course there are times when you’ll have no choice but to do this, like if you are exhausted, pushed beyond your own limits, hectically busy, or struggling with your own sanity. You also are not a robot who is going to be able to give your baby what he needs every single time he needs you. This isn’t a train smash at all, as long as MOST OF THE TIME you (or someone your baby trusts) is able to be there for him if he is distressed, either in the process of going to sleep, or when he wakes up at night. (By the way, there are actually psychological benefits for your baby when you don’t magically appear every time he yells for you. But the crucial factor here is that you should be there for him most of the time, although not 100% of the time. You don’t have to force yourself to ignore him because you think it’s good for him. It will happen naturally from time to time when you physically cannot respond to him as quickly as he wants you to.)
You will probably read in lots of different places that babies should be left ‘happily awake’ in their cots before they go to sleep. This really does make theoretical sense and it’s wonderful if you have one of those kinds of babies, but lying alone ‘happily awake’ is just not in the repertoire of plenty of real babies in this world. Sadly! Unless they have their caregivers with them. If you have one of those babies, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or with your baby.
The other confusing message that parents are often given is that babies shouldn’t be given anything to calm and soothe them to sleep, like a dummy or a soft blanket, because they’ll need that to settle again and they theoretically should not need anything except themselves to fall asleep.
You are welcome to try this and see if your baby can manage it, but again, many of them can’t and they need either you or a dummy or a special soft toy or blanket that reminds them that they are safe. From a psychological perspective babies are in their oral phase of development and so they have an innate biological need to suck, and this gives them a feeling of safety and security. A dummy, for this reason, is a good idea for this stage of development. Giving up or relinquishing things from babyhood, like dummies, is part of normal development. Don’t make the mistake of depriving your baby of appropriate baby things, because you’re scared that he’ll hold onto them forever. And don’t worry, the vast majority of 6 year olds don’t suck dummies.
Remember that babies have one fundamental psychological task that they need to accomplish during the first year or 2 of life: they need to learn to trust! If you find yourself putting a lot of energy into trying to make your baby independent, then developmentally you are a few steps ahead of him. He isn’t there yet. Give him a couple of years and you’ll be on the same page.
Don’t be too hard on yourself or your baby when it comes to sleep. Keep realistic and remember that your baby needs to feel safe and secure and he needs you to help him with that.
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TIPS FOR SLEEP DEPRIVED PARENTS
- Get your baby checked by a pediatrician if he is experiencing disturbed nights and treat any physical problems
- go to bed early in case your night is disturbed
- catnap, meditate or do relaxation exercises when your baby has day-time naps
- arrange to have a spare bed somewhere in the house so that you can lie down with your baby if that means you both get more sleep
- do not exhaust yourself during the day. Conserve energy and beware of over-committing yourself and trying to do too much
- before you go to sleep at night, get everything ready in your baby’s room for an anticipated night-time awakening. For example, an extra bottle, a torch, or whatever you might need
- be kind and forgiving with yourself. Do not be critical of your parenting abilities
- try not to see your baby’s sleeplessness as a pathology, a weakness or a failure, unless it is very severe
- remember that many, many babies wake during the night.
- It is not abnormal or unusual and it is not an indication that you are doing anything wrong
- accept that this is going to be a time of disrupted sleep and don’t waste too much energy fighting against this reality
- try to ascertain the kind of sleep pattern that best suits your baby at this particular stage
- do what you can to facilitate a daily rhythm that facilitates his sleep