By James Slater, Clinical Scientist & Children’s Sleep Expert
Babies are amazing. That’s a fortunate blessing, because when it comes to sleep, they can be really difficult!
But just why is sleep so hard for some babies, and why does it even matter?
Why sleep is important
Sleep is when the developmental magic happens. We need sleep for physical rest and repair - and this is extra important for babies, given how rapidly their bodies are growing.
Sleep is also when our brains do the ‘housekeeping’ for learning and memory. Sleep helps baby’s brain to develop.
So why is it so hard?
All babies are born with the ability to sleep, but need to learn the how. Baby learns from you what the time of day is, and what to do. In the womb there was no family life to fit into, and they could catnap all day long!
Newborns will sleep for about 16 hours a day, about as much in the daytime as they do in the night. By around six months old they will sleep for about 12 hours a day, and sleep becomes more consolidated - with more of the sleep at night than during the day.
But just when you think you have it all figured out, here come the growth spurts! These accelerated periods of growth can affect sleep (and feeding). Babies love to keep us on our toes.
So how can we help our little one sleep?
Ensure baby’s room is dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature. Sounds that your baby finds relaxing are okay. Soft lighting can be okay, your baby may even find it is relaxing, just keep it low and remember that darker reds are better for sleep than bright blue lights. (Also a reason to avoid using the flashlight on your phone!)
These can be sensory cues like sounds, touch, aroma or light – or activity cues like bath or massage. When repeated consistently, they let baby know it’s time to rest. And don’t forget – you are the most important cue. Babies are very in tune with mum and dad and respond to our touch, voice and mood… all the more reason to look after yourself!
Try and see what works. All babies are different, and some respond better to some cues than others.
Rocking and feeding are lovely ways to settle before sleep, but avoid relying on these as a way to get your baby to sleep. They need to experience the cot as a calm space so they feel at ease when they wake naturally during the night. Ideally place baby in the cot relaxed but awake.
Whatever your bedtime routine, try to keep it consistent. Same activities, same cues, same order and same time of day if possible. It should be simple, with just enough clear cues to let baby know it’s sleep time.
Other things to consider…
We’re learning a lot in terms of sleep technology and how it may help make that transition to a restful state easier.
Pink noise and red light are two elements which may be useful to incorporate in your routine.
Pink noise: this is similar to white noise, but has a soothing, deeper sonic ‘hue’. When you hear steady rain or rustling leaves, you’re hearing pink noise. Pink noise can help relax and calm little ones for a restful sleep.
Red light: The natural sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced when we have enough darkness. It is why we feel tired at the end of the day. Bright lights and blue lights stop us from producing melatonin (that’s why mobile phone screens keep us up at night!). Red light, on the other hand, encourages melatonin production.
A soft red light may assist baby to feel sleepy quicker, and settle through the night.
As much as we teach our baby cues, we also learn cues from them! Babies tell us that they are tired, but it looks very different to a tired grown-up. Some babies will cry, others might look dazed, some will be hyperactive.
Parents should observe these and, over time can make connections between what baby is doing and what they need. Putting baby down when tired but before they’re overtired, is the sweet magic spot for good sleep.
Wake drives sleep
Sleep and wakefulness are connected. What we do while are awake affects how we sleep.
There are two types of awake time for babies: active wake time, and quiet wake time. Both are important.
You don’t need a rigid routine for all wakeful hours, but it does help to have some consistent daytime activities and cues, such as playtime, movement, music, massage and chatting.
Ensure there is a transition between the playtime environment and the sleeping environment. Play and sleep in a different area of the home. Make a clear change in the home and in the baby’s bedroom. Put toys away, close the blinds, make the home quiet, and turn on some pink noise.
If baby wakes from sleep and it is not yet time for them to be awake (especially overnight) then it is extra important to keep it simple. Go to your baby, attend to their needs in their bedroom (such as changes or feeds), settle, and then back to the cot for more sleep.
Remember too, babies sleep differently. Compared to adults, it is normal for them to move around and even babble. Sometimes we jump in to care for them, accidentally waking them from what is actually a good (if noisy!) sleep.
Massage is wonderful for bonding and it helps a baby to grow. For newborns, avoid using essential oils, and be sure to check any baby oil, lotion or moisturiser (including those you use for yourself) are appropriate for the age of your baby. After 3 months of age it is okay to use a wider range of oils, lotions and moisturisers, however always read the label to confirm. There are many ways to use massage. You can just do it from time to time when it’s easy and relaxing for both of you, it can be a once-a-day routine such a part of the routine before bed at night. You can even get creative and use a different aroma for bedtime massages and waketime massages.
Time for you
What is good for parents is good for babies. Parents benefit from massages, playtime, and rest too!
If your sleep problems seem insurmountable, it’s always a good idea to talk to a health professional about it.
It is very normal to struggle with your baby’s sleep. Their sleep is mysterious and ever changing, and being sleep deprived yourself makes everything harder!
There are wonderful products and services out there that can help you. If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask your GP, maternal child health nurse or family and friends for help. People are very compassionate and helpful. It really does take a village to raise a child.
Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, speak to your healthcare professional.