How to Get Your Baby to Sleep for Longer
Whoever coined the phrase ‘sleeps like a baby’ had clearly never met a baby. Unless they meant ‘sleeps peacefully on your body but wakes screaming the moment you put them down’, or ‘never sleeps for longer than 30 minutes’, of course. Babies and sleep are uneasy bedfellows at best (no pun intended). All the baby books and experts tell us that babies need a lot of sleep to grow, but babies often don’t seem to have gotten the memo. If your baby is best described by the movie title ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (or whatever city you live in), then we’ve got a little trick we hope will help.
Babies and sleep: the science
Your baby needs to sleep to grow, a lot more sleep than most people. It can seem, especially in the first few weeks, that your baby sleeps really well. Many brand new babies will sleep for hours during the day and night, giving their parents some much needed time to rest themselves. But at around 3 or 4 months, babies start to wake up more, interacting more with the world around them. And while it’s great fun to see their personalities start to emerge, it can also be exhausting. Sleep is a learned skill, and while some babies catch on really quickly others can take years to sleep well. Before we can realize the full extent of childhood nighttime problems, we need to know how much rest our kiddos need.
Naps, catnaps and night sleep
Depending on what you and your baby struggle with, you might decide to focus on one area of sleep first. Baby sleep can be divided roughly into daytime naps and nighttime sleep. Many experts recommend focussing on improving the bedtime routine and night time sleep, as that is the time that we parents also want to rest and sleep ourselves. However, if nap time is your nemesis, learning to help your baby to link sleep cycles can significantly improve your day. Many babies seem to switch overnight from long stretches of daytime sleep to catnaps of 30-40 minutes. These short naps can leave babies cranky, and mean that they need to be helped to sleep far more frequently.
We’ve all heard or read about sleep cycles. Light, deep and REM sleep form the basis of all human sleep cycles, and the amount we need of each type varies throughout our lives and even within each sleep period. At the end of each sleep cycle we wake up, though usually we are not conscious of this waking. Babies, however, who have not yet learnt to link their sleep cycles, can become fully conscious at these times.
How do you get your baby to sleep?
Think about how you get your baby to sleep at night and to nap during the day. Do you feed to sleep? Rock your baby until they doze off? Drive them around in the pram or the car? Walk around with them in a baby carrier? While all of these methods are tried and true, they also all provide baby with a variety of sleep crutches. Think about it like this: if you fall asleep in your bed on your pillow and during the night someone removes your pillow. When you surface at the end of a sleep cycle, you’d also be jolted fully awake if your pillow had disappeared, right? So if your baby falls asleep cradled in your arms, and wakes up in their bed alone, it makes sense that they wake up with jolt and start to cry.
Getting baby to link sleep cycles
Now that we understand what wakes babies up, we can look at how to keep them asleep. If you can, transition them onto a sleep prop that they can control or that isn’t a part of your body. If your baby likes a dummy or has a lovey toy or blanket, this is where they come in.
- Pay close attention to your baby’s catnaps: does your baby wake at 30 minutes? 45 minutes?
- A few minutes before they would usually wake up, go into the room where they are sleeping and gently pop their dummy in or make sure their lovey is close by.
- If your baby likes to have their back rubbed or bum patted, you can do that very gently.
This has the effect of gentling them to link one sleep cycle with the next. Your presence, and the presence of the thing they love, helps to bridge the gap into which they would usually awake. Keep this up across as many naps as you can for about a week or so, and your baby should start to learn to bridge the gap themselves.
There are also other reasons that babies wake up, of course. External noises, temperature and their startle reflex, among others. If you think that ambient noises are waking your baby, consider using white noise in their room. You can use a dedicated white noise machine, or just tune a small radio to a bandwidth that doesn’t have a station on it. White noise helps to provide an aural blanket, muffling other noises so that they are less disturbing. If you think your baby is too hot, let them sleep in just a nappy with a fan close by (but not directly at the baby, as it can chill them too much). Too cold? A baby sleep sack helps with keeping baby warm without the danger of smothering. If your baby still startles themselves awake, look at swaddling them or using a sleep sack that keeps their arms under control, too.
Sleep is important for us all, babies and parents included. It is crucial to regulating mood, digestion, growth and normal bodily functions. We hope these sleep tips and tricks help you to help your baby to sleep longer and better, in turn getting you the rest you need, too. Let us know in the comments what worked for you, especially if you’ve had any luck trying these tips out!