Helping your baby to sleep through the night

By Michelle Fisher · 14 October, 2017

Helping your baby to sleep through the night

Are you getting enough sleep?

If you are exhausted and looking for ways to encourage your baby or young child to sleep through the night then this blog is for you. Have you have tried everything and/or decided that modern day sleep training methods are not right for you and your baby? If so I am confident that what you read here will help you and your family all to get a better night’s sleep. In this blog I am going to talk about what is normal when it comes to sleep for babies and young children and look at things you can do to help children sleep as soundly as possible using methods that mean they feel safe and secure.

You are not alone

Being a parent of a baby or young child is exhausting! I don’t think I have ever met a parent with a young family who has said that they feel full of energy and ready to spring out of bed in the morning! What they often talk about it is how they long for the peaceful, unbroken nights of sleep that they used to get before their little ones arrived. Being deprived of sleep is far from fun and can have a detrimental effect on our health and well-being. So getting enough sleep has been a key topic of conversation for parents for as far back as we can remember and finding ways to help babies sleep through the night is one of the first things parents find themselves researching. If what you are doing when it comes to helping your baby sleep well is working, and you are happy with the techniques you are using, then that is great! If not I hope this blog helps you to think about why this might be and to find new ways to help you all get a better night’s sleep.

How is modern life affecting our sleeping habits?

Is it normal for children and adults to sleep through the night without waking up? First I’d like to have a look at what is ‘normal’ when it comes to sleep in the hope that, if we understand what to expect, it might change our expectations of how we and our children should be sleeping, and therefore alleviate some of the pressure we feel when we are told our babies ‘should’ be sleeping through the night.

Historically people around the world have not always gone to sleep in the evening and slept all night for one long period of time. Research has shown that this has only been the case for the last 100 years or so. Before then adults and children used to sleep for two periods during the night, being awake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night and even socialising during this time. But over time it became unfashionable to sleep in two blocks and a medical journal from 1829 actually urged parents to force their children out of a pattern of first and second sleep.

In some cultures it is still common to have two periods of sleep, taking a siesta in the afternoon. There are several reasons that babies and children wake during the night, which I will discuss later, but the fact that not so long ago it was normal to be awake for a period of time during the night could be why sometimes our children wake in the middle of the night and seem wide awake! But what good is knowing this to me I hear you cry?!! Yes, I get it, in modern day society when our work and childcare routines don’t allow for a quick nap in the afternoon we need to sleep well at night and in order to do this, understandably, we want our children to sleep through the night. I guess I’m hoping that having some understanding of what is ‘normal’ for us and our children when it comes to sleep might just  help alleviate some of the pressure and stress caused by trying so hard to make this happen.

So before we move on to look at what is normal when it comes to how babies and children sleep, let’s look at another dramatic change to our sleeping habits in more recent years that may be affecting the way they sleep. In many cultures around the world babies and children still sleep in bed with their parents or in the same room. This is often because parents believe that their children will sleep better if they are close to them because they will feel safe and secure when they wake during the night because they know their parents are close by. In Western cultures today this is often not the case. Instead of allowing our children to stay close to us after birth and in their early years, we have moved to thinking that it is important for our children to be independant and to sleep alone in their own rooms. But is this normal for children? And if it isn’t, what impact does being by themselves during the night have on them being able to sleep through the night? If we are expecting nowadays that our children are going to sleep in their own rooms and sleep through the night is this a realistic expectation? And if it isn’t then are we putting huge expectations on our children and causing ourselves lots of stress when this doesn’t happen? For some families, having baby in her own room from an early age will be working wonderfully and baby will be calm and happy. If this is your situation, and you are all sleeping well, I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this and it’s great that you have found something that is working well for your family. This blog is for those of you out there who aren’t getting enough sleep and are looking for ways to improve this. Could the fact that your baby still needs to be close to you at night be affecting their sleep and if so, could changing where they sleep be a factor in helping them sleep more soundly?

What is ‘normal’ when it comes to babies and children’s sleep?

Every living creature needs to sleep and during early development it is the primary activity of the brain. It takes time for the Circadian rhythms (or the sleep-wake cycle) to develop. These are regulated by light and dark resulting in irregular sleep patterns for babies. The rhythms begin to develop at about six weeks, and by three to six months most babies have a regular sleep-wake cycle. For the first two years of life most children have spent more time asleep than awake and a child will spend 40 percent of their childhood asleep. Getting the right amount of sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development.

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or “quiet” sleep – During the deep states of NREM sleep, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occur, and important hormones are released for growth and development.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or “active” sleep –  During REM sleep, our brains are active and dreaming occurs. Our bodies become immobile, breathing and heart rates are irregular.

Each sleep cycle is made up of both NREM and REM sleep. Babies spend 50 percent of their time in each of these states and the sleep cycle is about 50 minutes. At about six months of age, REM sleep comprises about 30 percent of sleep. By the time children reach preschool age, the sleep cycle is about every 90 minutes. When health professionals refer to babies ‘sleeping through the night’ they actually mean are they sleeping for a period of about five hours. Babies are generally not capable of doing any longer than this due to hunger and for very young babies they will be feeding, and so waking, even more regularly.

So having looked at what is normal, it’s safe to say that we can expect our children to wake often during the night. I am going to look at ways to help babies get to sleep at bedtime and return to sleep if they wake at the end of one of these sleep cycles so you can get a better night’s sleep.

Will sleep training methods help?

If we have to go to our babies every time they wake from a sleep cycle then naturally we are going to be exhausted. Yes, it’s true, we need good sleep to feel happy and healthy and to be able to function well. And in modern day society, when so much pressure is put on parents to fit in work, housework, social events,  kids clubs etc etc etc on a daily basis, it isn’t surprising that we are desperate to cram all the sleep we need into one period in the night and for our children to sleep through the night to enable us to do this. In my attempt to get a good night’s sleep I, like most parents when their babies are small, tried out many different ways to get them to go to sleep and stay asleep. I was exhausted and would try anything. There are many modern day ‘sleep training’ techniques that will probably work in the short term for example:  the Extinction Method, the Chair Method and the Check-And-Console Method (aka Ferberizing). Unfortunately there hasn’t been much research into what the long term effects of these sleep training methods are and so there are different views as to whether these methods are harmful to children or not. What we do know is that sleep training methods encourage parents to leave babies alone for periods of time when they wake because, they state, it is important for babies to learn to ‘self- sooth’ so that they don’t need your help every time they wake from a sleep cycle. The issue with this is that before the age of around five years of age the brain of a baby or young child isn’t developed enough to be capable of self regulating or ‘self-soothing’. What we are beginning to understand is that what actually happens during these sleep training methods is that a baby begins to cry less each night, and eventually not to cry anymore when he wakes, because he learns that nobody comes when he cries. I’m not suggesting that this is the case with all babies. There are some that are capable of going to sleep by themselves because they have the type of temperament that makes them happy to be by themselves when they go to sleep and so fall asleep calmly. What I am saying is that for some this is not the case. Only you can decide what is right for your baby and If you feel that the methods you are trying are not right, the ideas below are to assist you in finding ways to help your baby fall asleep calmly and sleep through the night. Babies and young children cry because this is the only way they can convey to their parents that they have a need. For a child to become independent it is vital that, in their early years, they are able to trust that their needs will be met by their parents. Leaving a baby to cry when he needs you, or not comforting him in the ways he is used to during the day, may leed him to develop feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. In the short term these feelings could mean sleep issues go on for longer and in the long term mean a child becomes clingy and more dependant of you.

Is there an alternative to sleep training to help my baby sleep through the night?

So we want to get a good night’s sleep but how do we encourage our children to sleep well and to go back to sleep easily when they wake from a sleep cycle without compromising their feelings of safety and security?

Unfortunately there is no miracle solution to get your baby to sleep through the night but there are many things we can do to encourage sound sleep in our children. I am not suggesting that you will want to use every one of these, or that all of them will be right for your family. But I am confident that by using some of them your child will sleep better and then so will you. Remember that change takes time and whatever you do choose to try from the six points below , give it time to work. Change and new approaches can often take up to six weeks before improvement can be seen.

1.What are your expectations?

As I discussed earlier It is a modern day Western culture belief that babies and children should sleep through the night from a very young age. If you are aware that this is not normal and that children under five do not sleep like adults and are unable to self sooth due to their developmental stage, then hopefully this will take some of the pressure off and you will realise that it isn’t because you are doing something wrong but it is just what is to be expected. When children wake up at the end of a sleep cycle they will want comfort and reassurance, this is totally normal. But obviously we want to minimise the times they need us to go to them during the night so that we can get as much sleep as possible. A child that has fallen asleep in a calm and restful way will be more likely to sleep soundly and less likely to need you every time he wakes from a sleep cycle because he is calm and relaxed. One of the best ways to help a baby or child to fall asleep at bedtime feeling calm is to help them understand what to expect around bedtime and form good sleep associations. I discussed this in part one of this blog – Bedtime Routines . Help your child to settle before they become over tired by putting a good bedtime routine in place. Get to know the physical signs that they are getting tired such as rubbing eyes, yawning, becoming hyperactive, being more emotionally sensitive or playing with hair. A child that is helped to settle down to sleep before they become overtired and irritable is much easier to settle and more likely to sleep soundly and to sleep through the night.

2.Keeping your baby or child close to you

Bed sharing, having your child sleep in the same room as and ‘wearing your baby’ during the day when they are very young is historically normal all over the world and in many countries still is the norm. So don’t feel pressured to put your baby down or move your child into their own room before you or they are ready. Some children sleep much better when they have had a lot of human contact during the day and they know their parent is close by at night. It also makes it much easier for you to tend to them in the night if they are near you. It is however vital that they only sleep with you in your bed if it is safe to do so – see Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)  guidelines. It is best to follow your child’s lead as to when is the right time for them to move into their own room but if long term bed or room sharing is not for you the best time to move them is six to eight months. This is after they have settled into their new world after birth and before they hit the separation anxiety stage. Don’t worry that a child who is allowed to stay in your room will never want to leave or will become clingy, in fact quite the opposite is true. If they are allowed to move when they are ready this will instill feelings of security and help them develop independence.

3.Environment

As well as following  a good bedtime routine, it is important to consider the type of environment that will help promote sound sleep in your child. The type of light a child has during the daytime and at night in the room that they sleep in can affect the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Therefore, make sure your baby has at least 20 minutes natural daylight each day, daytime naps should be in a room with the curtains open, no screen time for two hours before bedtime and minimise screen time throughout the day (as well as the light from screens affecting melatonin, computer games and some television shows can be overstimulating), only dark or red light in the room that they sleep in and dim lights around the baby after the sun sets to help them develop circadian rhythms and a good sleep/wake cycle. Smell can also play an important part in creating an environment in which a baby sleeps well.  Lavender oil is known to reduce stress, use it in your child’s night time bath or base massage oil or in a safe fan device in their bedroom. It may help for them to have a comfort object that smells of you.  Children love sound so sing to them at bedtime as part of their bedtime routine to calm them. Use white noise for babies under six months and soft relaxing music for older children in their rooms at night and during nap times. Ensure that this plays all night so that they can hear it when they wake from a sleep cycle.

4.Time for you

Being a parent of young children is exhausting. It is vital that you have some time for you so that you do not get to the point that you are ‘burnt out’. I know this is easier said than done, I was useless at taking a break when my children were young, but babies pick up on parents who are stressed and exhausted and this can then increase their stress levels and won’t help to promote good sleep. Take any help that is offered, give yourself a few hours in the day to sleep if possible or just relax and do something nice for you. If you don’t have family or friends who can help you could consider contacting Homestart, an organisation who offer free support to parents.

5.Comforters

Consider using a  comforter that is safe for the age of your child. A comforter that smells of you can help a baby make the transition to independence from the mother. You will need to hold the comforter often so that it begins to smell like you. Hold it when you are feeding your baby or playing with your child for a few weeks. The smell of you will help your child feel safe and secure when she is not with you and help her return to sleep if she wakes from a sleep cycle. It is really important to follow the guidelines on safety when choosing a comforter:

  • Avoid non-cotton fabrics as they make it harder for your baby to breathe if the comforter goes over his face during the night. Choose cotton ones.
  • Be sure that the comforter doesn’t have any ribbons, ties, or loose threads in it, or anything else that could get wrapped around your baby’s neck.
  • Avoid toys with bean fillings, as these could come out and be a choking hazard.
  • Give the comforter a good tug and try tearing it. Check that nothing can come off or be pulled loose, including fur.
  • It’s best to avoid soft toys with fur as babies can breathe in fur and bite it off, which can cause discomfort and coughing.
  • Make sure you avoid anything too large or heavy; anything that could obstruct your baby’s breathing if he put it over his face.

Comforters aren’t recommended for babies under 6 months because of the risk of suffocation. There are comforters however that have hooks and loops on them so you can attach them to the bars of the cot.

6.Your baby’s diet

Bottle fed and breastfed babies may sleep differently. Talking to your GP or health visitor and having an awareness of the way your baby may sleep due to how they are fed will help you know what to expect. If your baby or child’s sleep is really unsettled it is worth looking into whether they may have any allergies or intolerances or physical reasons that are preventing them from feeding well and being able to sleep through the night. If you are at all worried about anything that may be affecting the way your baby feeds and/or the impact this is having on their sleep consult your GP or health visitor. For older children try and give them their evening meal at least two hours before you start their bedtime routine so that they have time to burn off the energy that this food will give them. A light, healthy snack can be given 30 minutes before the bedtime routine if you feel they need to avoid hunger during the night.

And when your baby does wake in the night….

I am confident that if you implement some or all of the above strategies (including a good bedtime routine), have patience and give at least six weeks for change to occur,  then your baby or child will feel relaxed and learn to sleep more soundly. After a little while this should mean you are having to tend to them much less often during the night. As we have discussed, it is totally normal for children to wake during the night and need you to be with them. Rest assured that this won’t last forever. You cannot spoil a baby by going to them in the night when they need you. Help your baby develop feelings of security by being close to them in your bed, in your room or in their room. Comfort them in a calm and affectionate way, keep the lighting low and your voice soft. If they are comforted by you stroking their back then great, but don’t worry if you feel they need to be picked up and cuddled. Feed them if they need feeding, use white noise or soft music that continues playing all night, but put this back on if it has stopped. Most importantly be easy on yourself, know that this is normal, it won’t last forever, and what you are doing is playing a huge part in your baby growing into a happy, confident, independent person.

If you would like advice and support on implementing changes that will help your child to sleep well at night please contact GoParenting via the form or call us on 01622 792804