Sleep is essential to a child’s growth and development. In fact, it’s so important that not enough of it can affect mood, academic performance, behaviour, appetite and general health and wellbeing. Sleep is no less important than food, drink, or safety in the lives of children.
While researchers believe there is no “magic number” in terms of the number of hours a child needs to sleep, there is a wealth of evidence to show that children benefit greatly from the following recommended hours per day:
Yet evidence also shows that 35-40% of parents aren’t encouraging the critical sleep their children need. It’s certainly not something we do on purpose - we often don’t think about it. And that’s the problem.
With parents working long hours, schedules packed with school and after-school activities, and other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, mornings start earlier and nights may be anything but peaceful. Missing a nap or going to bed an hour later than recommended might not seem like a big deal, but it all adds up, with consequences that could last a lifetime.
As parents, it’s our responsibility to be sensitive to and protect our children’s sleep, just as we ensure they have a safe environment, just as we ensure they have a healthy breakfast, and just as we ensure they have varied learning opportunities. Primarily responsible for their sleep habits, it’s crucial to start healthy habits early and instill the importance of sleep from a young age. Give sleep the daily attention it needs, and you’ll be rewarded with a happier, healthier and more sociable child.
Newborns have a hard time distinguishing between night and day, which explains their maddeningly short bursts of sleep around the clock. But once they hit a few weeks old, you can start to teach them the difference and begin to start instilling healthy sleep habits.
When getting your newborn used to typical sleep hours, it’s important to keep your baby’s days bright and their nights dark. Lights push your baby’s biological ‘on’ switch, whereas darkness triggers the release of melatonin, a key sleep hormone.
Sleep consultant Christine Hansen says:
“I always suggest taking baby out for a stroll around twice a day so that the sun can work its magic on their eyes and help them regulate their rhythm naturally.”
During the day, allow plenty of sunlight into your home or enjoy as much of the outdoors as you can. When putting baby down to sleep, do so in a well-lit room. As evening comes, lower your lights if you have dimmers. Once bedtime comes, ensure the room is dark except for one small, dim night light with a bluish tone. (The yellow and bright ones are too stimulating.)
If your child wakes during the night, refrain from turning the light on and don’t carry them out into a brighter space. Instead, soothe them back to sleep in their dark bedroom.
A bedtime ritual helps your baby to understand what’s coming next. It can help your baby know when to calm and when to prepare for sleep. Find a ritual that works for you - i.e. a nightly bath or shower, and stick with it. Dim the lights, play some calm music or give your baby a little massage.
“I also like white noise as a soothing tool as it resembles the sound babies experienced it the womb and has a great calming effect on some.”
Whatever you choose as a sleep trigger, it will work as long as you are consistent.
According to Scarlett Hyde, the founder of White Glove Services:
“The most important thing to do is provide consistency. If you are changing your child’s routine or trying new things every other night - it won’t work. Children feel secure and comfortable when they can predict what’s going to come next.”
Hyde’s personal favourite thing to do before bed is to rub The Divine Company’s Soothing Baby Moisturiser into her son following a bath, which she says helps her son settle and provides a wonderful start to the bedroom routine.
This is no easy challenge for breastfeeding mums especially, but try to place baby in their bed when they are drowsy as opposed to asleep. Master this timing and both you and your baby will rest easier.
Babies who go to bed awake learn from an early age how to self-soothe themselves to sleep. Try creating a sleepiness scale (where 1 is wide awake and 10 is asleep) and once baby hits around 7 or 8 on the scale, lay them down.
Try not to make eye contact with your sleepy baby, as this will inadvertently encourage them to snap out of their sleep zone. Keep your interaction to the bare minimum.
If you run to your baby every time you hear a sound on the baby monitor, you are teaching your child to wake more often. Wait a few minutes to see if they will settle themselves back to sleep. If they shows no sign of sleepiness after a couple of minutes, go to them before they start crying.
Once they have hit this stage they will be too worked up to drift back to sleep. Resist the urge to check or change their nappy - they likely won’t need it changed and you will only wake them more. Give a gentle pat and see if they resettle.
By avoiding giving your baby the silent treatment, you teach your child that it’s okay to sleep when something’s going on. Besides, your baby heard sounds 24/7 in the uterus that were twice as loud as a vacuum cleaner, so why protect them from noise?
You can start weaning your baby off his bedtime feed from around the age of six months.
“Formula-fed babies tend to go without their feeds earlier than breastfed babies and it also depends on your personal preferences. Technically, if your baby has a healthy weight, you can stop feeding at night as of six months.”
Babies are good at self-regulating their feeds, so your baby may even “tell” you when they’re ready to drop the bedtime feed. This could come in the way of a turning of the head, or by consistently not finishing a bottle.
Whether or not your baby has a bottle or breastfeed at night might not seem all that important, but carrying on a night time feed when it is no longer needed can affect your baby’s ability to learn to fall asleep on their own. The longer you offer the bedtime feed, the more attached your baby will become to it, and the harder it will be to fall asleep without it.
As a general rule, aim to have the nighttime feed out of your child’s life by their first birthday. By 12 months, your baby should be getting all their nutritional needs met with their daytime meals and snacks. Prolonging a bottle for longer than this can promote erosion of tooth enamel and tooth decay, and it can contribute to extra calories that lead to excess weight gain.
There are two ways in which you can break the habit of a bedtime feed. You can do it gradually, or your can do it cold turkey. While gradual weaning can take time, it’s by far the kinder option and the one that will leave you feeling less guilty.
Nurse your baby for a shorter period of time on each breast or give them a smaller amount of milk in their bottle at night. Try to prolong the intervals between feeding and sleep by patting and comforting your baby following their feed.
Make sure your baby gets plenty to eat throughout the day, or they may be reaching for their feed come night time. To make sure they gets enough to eat, take scheduled breaks during the day for a quiet bottle or nursing session free from distractions. If you are unsure whether or not your baby is getting enough to eat, check their growth with your doctor or healthcare nurse.
Avoid night-weaning during times of transition, such as a family holiday, your return to work or following a bedroom move. If you’ve recently become less available in the day, make sure to give your baby extra cuddle time when you are together. This may mean putting the housework on hold, but it will allow your baby to feel a greater connection with you and will result in them being less likely to seek comfort during the night.
If you are struggling with your baby smelling your breast milk, consider having your partner put baby to bed instead. If you are sleep sharing, you may also consider placing baby’s bassinet on your partner’s side of the bed.
If baby wakes, gently soothe and comfort them and explain that it’s time to sleep and not to eat. Tell them they can have a feed in the morning after the sun has risen using a firm but calming voice. Even though they’re too small to understand your words, they will gradually understand the meaning and your presence will be soothing. Don’t be tempted to pick them up and instead pat their tummy or back.
When baby is bottle-fed, a trick that’s useful is to make the bottle less appealing. Start by serving the bedtime bottle chilled rather than warm, which will make it much less enticing. Then replace the milk with water, which they will like even less. Eventually, they won’t really want a bottle at all.
Some parents find it beneficial to offer milk in a spill-proof cup with a spout especially designed for babies. This can ease the transition from the bottle. Each time the cup is used, offer plenty of praise with words such as, “Look at Patrick - what a big boy we have”.
Once you’ve said goodbye to night time feeds, keep them away. Many parents choose to pick up a night feed again as a way of comfort when on holiday, during teething or during a cold, but this will mean starting all over again.
Despite learning all the little tricks and tips for getting baby to sleep, sometimes babies and sleep just don’t go together. You’ve read all the advice books. You’ve visited your health nurse over and over. You’ve spent time at a sleep centre. You’ve stoically smiled through endless hours of advice-giving friends. But nothing is working. Your baby still wants to wake.
What do you do? Do you curl up in a coffee-stained ball and cry, feeling as if you’ve failed? Do you continue with your brave face and muster on in the hope that one day he’ll finally learn on his own? Or do you let him “cry it out”?
If you feel comfortable about the “crying it out” method, there are two things you should know about it. First, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Second, it’s going to be hard - not for baby, but for you. For mum and dad, hearing your baby cry is awful.
But according to Hansen, crying it out works:
Statistically, it is the most effective form of sleep training”.
By six months old, babies are wise to the fact that crying often results in them being picked up, rocked, or fed. But once they get the message that mum’s not playing this game anymore, most will give this practice up - and usually within three or four nights.
Crying it out allows baby to find their own way to fall asleep instead of rely on mum or dad to do it for them. If you feel like you’re ready to try this somewhat unconventional method, then set some plans in place:
The cry it out method should not be considered until your baby has reached at least six months. According to Hansen:
“Newborns should never be left to cry it out. They have no concept of you leaving and knowing that you’ll come back. When a newborn cries it is because of a vital need and once that is catered for the crying will stop”.
A night vision monitor could be a worthy investment if you are worried for your baby’s safety as they cry. The reality is that your baby is unlikely to reach toxic levels of tears, but if it’s peace of mind you’re after, a visual monitor will help you relax.
A tired baby sleeps poorly, so you want baby well rested when it comes time for bed. Investing in a day sleep can help to minimise crying at night, so if this means taking your baby for a drive in the car, a walk in the pram or whatever else it takes to get baby to sleep in the day, do it before a cry it out session. You also want this sleep to be solid, so author and mother-of-three Candice Meisels suggests investing in a Fly Babee for prams and bassinets.
“I recommend Fly Babee which is a brand new product. It is a pop up canopy that blocks out light and distraction and is 100% breathable. It clips onto both prams and air line bassinets to help babies sleep when travelling on a plane or when going out in a pram. I have three small kids and this product only came on the market when my third was born. It is a world first game changer.”
Your baby’s cot should be clear of any potential hazards, such as dangling cords, unprotected outlets, curtains, stuffed animals, blankets and bumpers. The only thing in your baby’s cot should be baby. If their old enough to climb out, check the rest of the room to for any possible hazards.
A solid bedtime means having the same routine. It should take 20-30 minutes to complete and consist of a wind-down period, decreased levels of activity and light and a final dose of comfort in baby’s room BEFORE sleep.
While still awake, lay baby in their cot and give them a gentle pat on the back. Tell them you love them, then leave the room. You can expect some protest, come definite tears, maybe a little coughing and a few possible sobs. Be strong. Let them cry for five minutes, then go back in to offer a gentle pat. DO NOT PICK UP AND SOOTHE! You may also find it’s better for Dad to go in at this point.
Repeat this process for as long as baby cries, extending the time you leave your baby alone by five minutes each time. Stretch the times they spend on their own by a few more minutes the second night, and again on the third. Most parents find that baby is quick to fall asleep by night five.
Archaeological evidence suggests that parents have used lullabies to soothe their young for at least 4,000 years, but you don’t have to be a baby to reap a rock-a-bye benefit from music. Music causes vibrations from the air to enter our ear canals, tickling the eardrum to create an electrical signal that travels through the auditory nerve to the brain stem. This signal is then reassembled into what we perceive as music - a process in which your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of. While all this is happening, your brain goes into a state of relaxation.
When lullabies are sung, they have the added benefit known as the “triple meter” or “6/8 time”. This gives music a rocking or swaying rhythm, closely matching the movements your baby felt while in the womb. By recreating this womb experience through song, you can comfort your child and send him off to sleep.
“Rhymes and lullabies help as babies react to our voices, our heartbeat and pulse and those two elements automatically help us to calm down - therefore helping our babies to relax as well.”
More than just relaxation, however, lullabies can create a physiological response in the body, which can have far reaching effects on health and wellness. In one study, it suggested that lullabies can improve respiratory function, reduce heart rate, lower stress and promote better sleeping and sucking patterns.
Singing lullabies and telling nursery rhymes also help when used as part of a bedtime routine, as they can create a consistent theme to help babies predict what’s coming next.
Newborns love to sleep and need a lot of it. A newborn’s sleeping pattern can range from anywhere between 14 and 18 hours, and their wake time can be as low as 30 minutes. For these reasons, most sleep experts recommend allowing your baby to sleep as they need to, and not to impose any kind of rigid schedule.
That said, you may need to do a little controlling of naps when you have issues of night time sleeping, day/night confusion or feeding issues.
If your baby is happy to sleep for three hours in the day but is keeping their night sleeps to just an hour, your baby could be napping too much. After the newborn stage, your baby’s total nap time shouldn’t surpass three to four hours. If naps are too long, it can impact night sleep, since the amount of total sleep in a day will remain constant.
Founder of Parenting Central Australia and mother of two Rachel Stewart suggests a stroll to break up naps.
"The most effective way I've found to settle babies to sleep is to “wear” them in a baby carrier (my favourite brand carriers is Ergobaby). It's fool-proof; works practically every time. Even when I worked as a nanny and babysitter, babywearing was my go-to move for getting an unsettled baby to sleep”.
On the flip side, a tired baby can also struggle to sleep at night, so if your baby is getting less than two-three hours of total sleep in the day, you may need to push for more.
In order to help your newborn distinguish day and night, they need awake time during the day. This will stir their internal clock into action, create a circadian rhythm, and adjust to life outside the womb. If your baby is struggling to adjust, try limiting naps to no more than two hours, and stretch awake time to one hour in between.
Your baby should be waking every two to three hours for a feed. If they’re not, you’ll need to wake them yourself to ensure they have the support to grow properly. It’s normal for newborns to have one long stretch of sleep in the day, but if you are worried about weight, then wake them up to feed.
As babies get a little older, you may need to consider shortening a nap to entice another. While you may think that a 2.5 hour nap in the morning is fine, it will likely mean no afternoon sleep. If a baby doesn’t have sleep from his morning nap until bedtime they are going to be extremely tired and will struggle to learn the things they need to. It will also mean a very long afternoon for Mum.
Alternatively, a long morning sleep runs the risk of a late afternoon sleep, which in turn leads to a late bedtime - setting your baby up for all kinds of bad sleep habits.
Many parents inadvertently create a bridge between themselves and their baby’s sleep, such as a feed. This causes baby to become reliant on the bridge and without it, getting your child to sleep can prove difficult. According to Hansen, the eat, wake, sleep cycle can help parents avoid such a bridge.
The Eat, Wake, Sleep (EWS) cycle is pretty simple. It starts off with a feed in the morning (preferably at a consistent time). Baby wakes, is hungry, so they EAT. Baby then enjoys some activity time or WAKE time. Baby gets tired and ready for SLEEP. Baby takes a nap, wakes hungry and eats again. They’re then ready for wake time. Get the picture?
Much of the time the EWS cycle for healthy newborns is 2-3 hours. This is the case if baby is having long naps, taking full feeds and isn’t sleeping during those feeds. As your child gets older, the cycle length increases. By six months of age, the cycle should be around four hours. See what works for your baby and continually adjust things as they need change.
Remember, the make up - or biological basis - of baby sleep changes from the time they are born to around 12 months. There will be challenges. There will be hard times. But like all aspects of a child’s development, the strength of your relationship with your baby and the quality of your interactions during wake time can affect both the quality and quantity of your baby’s sleep. Your baby needs sleep, and guess what - so do you. Look after your baby’s sleep and life will quickly become easier.