Some babies settle to sleep easily and don’t need much help from their parents. Others are a little more resistant and need soothing and persuasion to calm down and drop off to sleep. For lots of babies, actually staying asleep for longer than a few minutes is something they need to learn.
There is no “one size fits all approach” when it comes to settling management. Every baby has their own little personality and temperament which influences a range of behaviours, including sleep. Similarly, every family will have their own ideas on what is normal and acceptable. If your baby is happy and thriving and their sleeping patterns are working for you both, there is no need to change what you are doing. If not, here are some options and tips on how to improve your baby’s sleep habits.
First things first
Tired babies are generally cranky. Although they can’t say they’re tired and want to go to sleep, they do try to communicate this in a number of ways.
Young babies will often show tired signs by:
- Becoming tired after feeding or within 0.5 – 1 hour after finishing a feed. The best time to settle is them is when they have been fed, aren’t hungry or due for a feed.
- Being irritable and hard to please. They might have trouble focusing on your face, start yawning and even look a little pale. They can’t be as easily distracted with talking and playing and may keep crying even when you are cuddling them.
- Clenching their fists, grimacing up their face, looking away and having jerky movements.
- Stay awake for a little longer after feeds. They often follow a feed/play/sleep pattern. They may rub their eyes, yawn, put their head on your shoulder or point to their bed.
- Their cry is louder and it becomes easier to interpret what they want. Some will have better developed patterns of being awake and asleep. From 3 months onwards babies often have a 6 or more hour sleep overnight without waking for a feed.
- Can be so busy they get overtired and resist sleep, even though they need it. Parents with older babies are often more confident, with a good understanding of what their baby needs in the way of sleep and play times.
Toddlers from 1-3 years:
- Are often wake from around 6am onwards and are back in bed by 7.00 pm. Day time sleeps are common until the pre-school years. Some toddlers lie down on the couch, the floor or into their parent’s bed when they are tired.
- Tired toddlers tend to have little “melt downs” and many have temper tantrums; making them hard to manage. Although toddlers may protest about going to bed, parents are usually well attuned to them, knowing the only solution is to have a little rest.
No matter what age your baby is, it is never too early to start encouraging good sleep habits.
Encouraging your baby to fall asleep on their own
- Try looking for and being sensitive to their tired signs. Babies get overtired, making it harder for them to settle to sleep.
- Think about how important sound sleep is to your baby. Good sleeping habits support your baby’s growth and immune function. When they are well rested, being around them is generally more pleasant. Looking after a tired and cranky baby is hard work.
- Some babies love to be wrapped securely. Swaddling them in a light cotton or muslin wrap can help some babies settle, but it is important that swaddling be done correctly to make it a safe practice. If you choose to swaddle your baby what is paramount is that the baby is sleeping face-up (on the back) and with a clear face that will stay clear throughout the sleep. Make sure you take a look at the Safe Swaddling guidelines for sleeping babies developed by Change for our Children if swaddling is something you choose to do. The Change for Children website also includes a demonstration on how to swaddle safely.
- Aim to be consistent and predictable with how you settle your baby. Placing them into their cot for all sleeps gives them the message this is where they go to sleep and where they will wake up. Regular routines before settling help babies to feel secure and safe.
- Good feeding habits directly influence sleeping habits. Babies who are thriving and getting enough nutrition generally have better sleeping habits than those who don’t.
- Babies whose routine has changed, who are sick, who have reached a new developmental stage or who are feeling insecure will not sleep as well as they would normally. Aim to be patient, sensitive and kind when you are settling them. Your emotions will have an effect on how safe your baby feels.
Different options for settling
Settling in parent’s arms:
- Small babies often go to sleep when they are being fed or cuddled. For lots of parents, their baby settling in this way it isn’t a problem as long as they stay asleep when they are put into their cot. If this happens, try to interpret their cry as either a genuine need for cuddling or one which is telling you they are just tired and grizzling. This is a learned skill and one which may take some weeks.
- Gentle patting, shshshing, rocking the cot, playing music or singing a lullaby often helps to calm a crying baby. Loving human contact is important for young babies and helps with their brain development.
- There will be times when it just works to cuddle your baby until they go to sleep. Small babies need their parents to comfort them when they are unsettled because they do not have the skills to soothe themselves.
Hands on settling:
- This is a good mid-way point for babies who are used to being cuddled to sleep but parents are keen for them to learn how to settle in their cot.
- Place your baby into their cot, clean, dry, and comfortable, fed though awake and rest your hands gently on them. Rocking, patting, stroking or just leaving your hands gently on their body will be reassuring.
- You can stay until they are calm and then leave before they are asleep or alternately, stay until you know your baby is sleeping.
- This is a good way for older babies to go to sleep in their cots more independently. Try leaving the room before your baby is actually asleep and give them a chance to settle on their own.
- If your baby cries go back in to them and offer reassurance. Again, listen for their cry and try to interpret if they really need you to go back in to them.
- Leaving your tired, older baby to settle on their own is fair and reasonable as long as all of their needs have been met.
- There are other options for older babies who are used to having a parent with them to go to sleep.
These techniques require consistency and time to work effectively. There are other options available to parents who may find them too difficult to try on their own without support. Check the following pages.
For more information see Baby not sleeping or Baby Care