Helping your baby to sleep and settle
We spoke with leading Australian baby sleep expert and author of the best-selling book Baby bliss, Jo Ryan, about all things sleep and settling. Read on for expert tips on how to get your baby to go to sleep and stay asleep...
Newborns don’t typically follow a set sleep routine, but you can have a general pattern to your day which can help you feel like you have some control over things.
Your day should be focused around how long your baby can be awake. For very young babies, they can really only cope with being awake for about 60 minutes at a time. If you watch them you will notice they will start to display tired signs around the 45 to 60-minute mark. This is the way they tell you they are ready for sleep. In that 60 minutes of awake time, you will feed, burp and settle your baby, that will be about it!
Most babies will start to extend their night-time sleep around the 8 to 10 week period. If you have your baby on a very strict routine, this can override their natural rhythms and cause sleep disturbances.
You can help your baby find their rhythm by encouraging sleep patterns. Things like having the same ritual every time you put your baby to bed and sleeping your baby in a quiet room can also help. Overnight, when feeding, keep it dark and quiet as this will help them understand that it is night.
Making sure your baby is wrapped snugly in a soft and stretchy swaddle will help to settle and calm them before bed and ensure their arms are secure so that their startle reflex doesn't wake them.
Baby sleep cycles are quite different from adults. In a nutshell, baby needs much more sleep than you do!
Here’s a simple guide for how much sleep a baby needs in a 24-hour period, depending on age:
- Newborns need around 16 hours
- 3 month olds need around 15 hours
- 12 month olds + need around 12 hours
All babies are different, so not every baby will need the same amount of sleep, but this is generally what you should work towards. Of course, your baby will not take all this sleep in one long stretch, but in 'sleep-wake' cycles throughout the day, as they need to wake often to fill their stomachs.
If your baby falls asleep after breastfeeding, having a bib that is quick and easy to remove will help them stay settled while you move them into bed.
Newborn Sleep Cycle
A newborn’s sleep cycle has only two stages — active and non-active sleep. Each sleep cycle is also much shorter than an adult’s, with an average of 45-60 minutes for the first nine months, often even shorter.
It looks a bit like this:
- When a baby first falls asleep they go into active sleep, which is very similar to REM sleep for adults. During this stage, babies are also more likely to wake up. A newborn will spend about 50% of his or her sleeping cycles in this stage, as opposed to an adult, with only 20%.
- About halfway through a sleep cycle, the baby falls into non-active sleep, which is characterised by slower, rhythmic breathing, less movement and no eyelid fluttering. Non-active sleep is the end of the sleep cycle, which means that the baby will either wake up or return to active sleep.
6 Month Old + Sleep Cycle
From 6 months onwards, babies develop more stages that resemble adults and gradually replace non-active sleep. The duration of their sleep cycles also lengthen and the time spent in active sleep shortens.
So, babies are not born with the sleep-wake cycles your body works with. They are much lighter sleepers than adults, because they spend so much time in active sleep. This is why it can take anywhere from six months to one year of age for a baby to sleep through the night like you do.
From about 6 months, they can sleep for longer stretches, but it can take a while for them to build to a solid, uninterrupted 8 to 12 hours sleep with no wakes whatsoever. Despite all these challenges about the way babies are wired for sleep, sleep remains crucial in the early months and years for brain development, especially forming the vital connections between the brain hemispheres which are important to language, relationships and reasoning.
What is a 'sleep regression'?
When babies are about 8 to 10 weeks, you may also find that they will naturally start to wake around the same time in the morning, and be ready for bed around the same time in the evening. Some babies will want to start the day early, around 6am, and others will be able to sleep in till around 7.30 or 8am. Each baby is different, and you are the best person to figure out the right rhythm for your baby.
When a baby goes through a developmental leap — and that can mean changes in physical, emotional or social development — their sleep can often be disrupted. These leaps generally happen around the same ages, give or take a few weeks. Babies go through an amazing period of development in the first 12 months. They are learning new skills all the time, so you can understand why things like sleep can go haywire every now and then.
8 to 10 week development leap
The first big leap seems to happen around the 8 to 10 week mark when babies who have usually been sleeping quite well during the day, start to shorten their day sleeps and start to sleep for just one sleep cycle — anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes.
This leap is the first one that can really affect their sleep. At this age, babies are generally noticing things around them more. They also start to sleep a bit differently during the day to night, so their sleep is not as deep and they have definite cycles of lighter sleep and deeper sleep.
4 month sleep regression
This is the next big sleep regression, which can cause issues with night time sleep. Babies who were sleeping well overnight can often start to wake more often than they had. At this stage, babies really want to engage with their environment and those around them, leading them to be more distracted when feeding during the day.
This distraction means they can tend to snack when feeding. Snacking then leads to waking more at night to make up for the milk they didn’t have during the day. This regression can also be influenced by catnapping. Babies will get more overtired if they are catnapping during the day and eventually their night sleep will be affected.
6 month sleep regression
Babies’ sleep cycles at night now become cemented and they have the same sleep-cycle pattern as they will for most of their lives. This big change, plus a lot of development around mobility — rolling and trying to move more — can cause more disturbances to their sleep. If they have a sleep association, like a dummy or they are being rocked to sleep in your arms, etc., these also become cemented and babies will really become reliant upon them. This means they can wake more at night, expecting that association to help them back to sleep.
After this, a lot of the regressions will be about physical development. So, when a baby starts to crawl, or just before they have mastered this skill, the sleep can go off. This also happens around the time they are learning to walk.
Once your little one is on the move, an Accessory Tether that can't be pulled off will help to keep their dummies and teethers close by and save you from having to constantly bend down, pick them up off the floor and wash them!
12 month sleep regression
The biggest regression in the first 12 months usually starts around 10 to 12 months.
This is the age when separation anxiety starts in some babies. Separation anxiety is a very normal stage of a child’s emotional development and starts when babies begin to understand that things and people exist even when they're not present — a concept called object permanence. Separation anxiety can cause some babies to start to want a parent with them when they fall asleep at night.
If this happens then they expect them to be there when they wake overnight, and if they aren’t they will call out or cry until that parent appears.
How to manage sleep regressions
The best way to deal with regressions is to not go too far backwards in terms of where you are. That means that if your baby is only having one feed a night, and they start to wake more often, rather than introduce more night feeding, just try to resettle them. If you do this your baby won’t get reliant on the extra feed and once the regression/leap has passed they should go back to sleeping the way they were prior to the leap.
If your child has been going to sleep by themselves, then continue this. You can certainly go in and out reassuring them, but try to continue to be out of the room when they fall asleep.
However, if you have had to introduce new things to deal with the regression, as soon as you feel you child has passed it, then try to drop those new associations as quickly as you can. And remember, they always pass!
How to manage sleep when baby is sick
When baby is sick it can upset their sleep, both day and night. Once they have recovered, sometimes sleep issues can often continue.
Fevers, colds, and tummy upsets like gastro can cause a baby to wake regularly and be unsettled overnight. Babies are generally nose breathers so if they can’t breathe normally through their nose because it is blocked or just stuffy, they will wake frequently, sometimes as often as every hour. Other illnesses that make them feel awful will also cause them to wake, and when a baby is sick, you do whatever you can to soothe and comfort them.
Babies over six months old are more likely to get attached to a new sleep association very quickly. For example, if your baby is sick and you introduce something new to the settling, like picking up and rocking to sleep in your arms or if you start to feed again overnight, then the baby can get really used to that and continue to expect a feed overnight, even after they are well again. Of course you need to do whatever you can when they are sick, but it is a good idea to be aware of what can happen.
They key to not causing too many disturbances to their sleep routine is to get back to where things were as quickly as you can. Once your baby is feeling better, gently get back to having them fall asleep in their cot, and if they wake overnight then resettle without feeding (if they weren’t having overnight feeds previously). You can do this by patting and soothing your baby back to sleep. It might take a while the first few nights you do this, but I find if you do this for a few nights then those wakes should pass quickly and you should be back to where you were.
What is self-settling?
Self settling is when a baby can put themselves to sleep without any intervention or help. So, you put your baby into bed awake and they go off to sleep without too much fuss. For some parents, the idea of their baby being able to do that might seem a long way off, but most babies can learn to put themselves to sleep at some point.
It is important to understand that babies don’t have the brain development to self settle until they are around 12 weeks. That said, there are some babies who will just do it, regardless, even when they are quite young. This might just be random occurrence, so they do it occasionally, or something they can do at most sleeps. But generally, babies need to be a bit older before this becomes the norm where they will regularly go off to sleep without any help.
If they fall asleep in your arms while they're feeding, that's ok. An easy-to-open bib can reduce the chance of waking them, so you can pop them into their bassinet or cot for a sleep.
How you can help your baby learn to self-settle
When a baby is born, they need to be very close to their mothers. And because young babies can’t put themselves to sleep, they need to be held, fed, rocked and soothed off to sleep. This is totally okay.
Some parents worry about creating bad habits with young babies, but young babies need to attach and bond with their caregivers so feeding off to sleep, or rocking them in your arms and holding them is a really lovely way to do this. It is also totally okay to put your baby down to sleep when they are still awake.
If your baby is fed, burped, wrapped, tired but not overtired and calm, then it is totally fine to put your baby into their cot awake and see if they can go off to sleep. However, more often than not, when they are very young, you will need to go back and help them by patting or rocking in your arms, but occasionally your baby might just go off to sleep on their own!
As your baby gets older, you may find that, if you have been putting them down awake, you are not needing to help them so much anymore, and they are putting themselves to sleep most of the time.
There are some other things you can do that can help your baby learn to go off to sleep on their own:
- Wrap or swaddle nice and firmly, with their arms in. This can help them relax.
- Use some white noise or music in their room to help them settle.
- Making sure they are not overtired when putting to sleep. Overtired babies find it much harder to drop off to sleep.
By the time a baby is six months old, it is ideal if they can put themselves to sleep for most of their sleeps. And if not, then it is a good idea to have them at least falling to sleep in their cots rather than in your arms, on the breast, or in the pram etc. However, if you are feeding your older baby to sleep and they are sleeping well, then you don’t have to change a thing!
Thanks for your all your expert advice, Jo!
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