Healthy sleep habits can make a huge difference to our overall health and wellbeing. But when we become parents, it’s a given that our sleep will become more disrupted in the short term. New-born babies aren’t designed to sleep for long periods and need to feed regularly but as your baby grows it’s possible to teach them to sleep well.
Some babies are naturally better sleepers and will fall into good patterns and habits themselves. Others might need a little more support, but broken nights and feeling exhausted don’t need to be a long-term feature of parenting.
Why is sleep so important?
Studies have shown that children who regularly get enough sleep have improved attention, behaviour, learning, memory and overall mental and physical health. Sleep is essential for growth too, as it’s only in phases of deep sleep that the growth hormone is released. Our bodies repair themselves while we sleep and this is also the time when our immune systems produce the necessary proteins to fight infection, which is key for babies and toddlers.
Sleep is also essential for adults too. I think we’ve all experienced reduced patience, irritability or feeling low as a result of a poor night’s sleep and this can really start to take its toll over a number of weeks and months.
Sleeping through the night
A phrase that is often used in relation to our little one’s sleep is the much sought after “sleeping through the night”. I had numerous conversations about this elusive concept when my son was a baby and doing nothing of the sort. But in actual fact, babies don’t really sleep through the night and nor do we as adults.
We all wake several times throughout the night as we move between sleep cycles. For adults, this is every 90 minutes, and for babies and younger children, it’s more like every 45 minutes as their sleep cycles are shorter. If you wake for less than a minute or two, you might roll over or change your position but it’s most likely you won’t remember waking up at all.
When we talk about babies and children sleeping through the night, what we actually want is for them to be capable of putting themselves back to sleep during those brief wake ups. Even if a baby is feeding at night, it’s still possible for them to sleep well and without frequent or lengthy time being awake.
Tips for better sleep
The tips below are the foundation of good sleep and my starting point when working with babies and toddlers.
1. Early bedtime
Early bedtimes are best to avoid your baby becoming overtired. In children, overtiredness can manifest as more wired behaviour so it’s important to get them to bed before this stage. Once you pass this point it can be harder to get to sleep and once they do, the sleep can be more restless. An ideal bedtime for babies and young children is somewhere between 6.30pm and 7.30pm. Bedtime does not need to be set in stone, so you can always move it earlier if your baby seems tired or grumpy.
2. Have a bedtime routine
Consistency and predictability are important to babies. When they know what to expect at bedtime it makes it easier for them to make the transition to sleep. That's why creating a bedtime routine is so important and it’s best to implement it right from the start. The routine should last around 30 minutes ideally. It might be something like; feed, bath, pyjamas, story, song and into the cot.
Try and keep it the same every time and the last few steps at least should be in baby’s room.
A short nap time routine can also help cue your baby’s body and brain that it’s time for a nap. This might be as simple as a nappy change and a story or song, then into the cot awake. Try to keep the cot clear of toys so they understand they are there to sleep.
3. Sleep begets sleep
Skipping naps and late bedtimes will affect the next 24-hour cycle. Day-time sleep is just as important as night-time sleep and skipping naps won’t help your baby sleep better at night. Less sleep will mean an overtired baby who is more restless and wakes earlier in the morning.
Keeping the room dark will help your baby to settle into sleep and prevent early wake ups. Darkness promotes melatonin production which is the hormone that helps us sleep. If even the smallest amount of light starts to get in as morning approaches, it can cause earlier wake up calls. Going into winter, this obviously becomes less of a concern. A dark room for daytime sleep can also result in longer naps.
Whatever happens in one sleep situation should ideally be replicated in all sleep situations. This sends a clear message to baby about what is expected. Babies learn by repetition. If you’re able to put your baby down to sleep in the same place as much as possible, ideally in the cot, this will help them to fall asleep more easily.
6. Look at how your baby is falling asleep
As I mentioned before, babies, children and adults will wake up several times every night. The difference with babies is they will likely start to fuss or cry when they wake up. If your baby relies on something external to fall asleep such as feeding, rocking, cuddling, a parent’s presence or the pram, they look for this as part of their strategy.
So, the key to babies sleeping well at night and taking longer naps in the day is learning to fall asleep on their own. This is not to say that mums need to stop breastfeeding in order for baby to sleep, not at all. The majority of families I work with are breastfeeding and continue to do so once their baby is sleeping well. It’s more about separating the association of feeding and falling asleep. Feedings on waking rather than just before a nap can be a good way to change this.
Given our current situation, it’s a great time to work on sleep as all of us are spending more time at home. If you need further help find me on Instagram.
Katy Huyerman is a certified children’s sleep consultant in Surrey, and the proud owner of Slumbertots Baby and Child Sleep Consultancy.
Katy has been through an extensive training and mentoring programme and has the tools and knowledge to help get your little ones sleeping through the night and napping well.