How to establish good sleep patterns early on

Mandy Gurney, founder of Millpond Sleep Clinic, shares some key advice for teaching your baby to sleep.

Over my many years working as a sleep specialist and trainer to newborns, toddlers and children, I have seen first hand the effects that bad sleep habits can have on whole families. Often, parents have had years of broken sleep leading their work and relationships to suffer. Meanwhile bad sleep patterns can have a direct impact on mental and physical development in children.

In short, sleep is a skill that babies must learn. Teach your baby the fundamental skills of good sleep during the first few months and you will give your little one the very best chance of developing good sleep patterns for life.

How much sleep?

The amount of sleep children need to feel well rested and happy in the day will vary from child to child; remember your baby is an individual. Your newborn baby will spend on average 16 hours per day asleep, with some managing as little as ten and a half.

READ MORE: Sleep tips from the experts

As babies are born with a free running body clock this means their sleep is split
fairly evenly between night and day. And for the first few months your baby can’t take on enough milk in one go to see her through the night so she will wake frequently for her tiny tummy to be topped up.

Even though night feeds and nappy changing in the night are the norm, there’s still plenty you can do to encourage good sleep habits. With the production of the sleep hormone melatonin at three months, sleep becomes more structured with a true day and night differentiation appearing. Now your baby is likely to sleep for around four hours in the day and about 10 to 11 at night.

Your baby’s body clock

Babies grow and develop in the darkness of your womb sensing day and night by your movements – or lack of. At first your baby will not connect this with light and dark and awake and sleep; you need to teach him this association. But by the time your baby is 10 weeks he is capable of beginning to understand Depositphotos_28268045_s-2015dark means sleep.

During the day, immerse your baby in the hustle and bustle of normal life. Spend plenty of time interacting with and stimulating your baby. Take him out of the house every day – fresh air and daylight will help to regulate his body clock. At nap times, put your baby in his moses basket but leave the curtains open and don’t try to minimise noise. By contrast at night make the room dark and cosy.

During night feeds, keep your voice low, with minimal eye contact and stimulation. This contrast, combined with the soporific effects of darkness and warmth, will eventually help your baby to learn that night-time is for sleeping.

Routine matters

Establishing a good bedtime routine is a very important part of helping your baby to develop healthy sleep habits. A succession of events which ends every night in your baby drifting off teaches him the simple message that now it is time to go to sleep. A bedtime routine should only take about 30 minutes. Start your routine with a warm bath, which can help stimulate melatonin, the sleep hormone. After his bath, take your baby straight into the room where he will be sleeping, keeping the bedroom lights dim. Dress him for bed with minimal stimulation, then after a cuddle and kiss settle him in the cot.

An overtired baby is very difficult to settle and will need a lot of help from you to get to sleep.

During the early weeks, your baby will most likely need a feed right before bed, but gradually you can bring this feed forward to before bath time; this way he will be less dependent on sucking to sleep. Aim to put him in his cot drowsy rather than asleep so that, when he stirs in the night, he won’t be confused to find himself in his cot.

Happy napping

An overtired baby is very difficult to settle and will need a lot of help from you to get to sleep.

If you want your baby to learn how to settle herself, you must make it easy for her and put her to bed as soon as she appears tired. Be ready to respond to sleep cues such as simply becoming quiet, to rubbing eyes, yawning, crying and becoming fractious. These are all signs sleep is needed. As soon as you see these signs put your baby down to sleep in her moses basket.

By the end of the first month a more consistent napping pattern will start to appear with your baby needing a nap roughly every 90 minutes. Now you can use timing as well as sleep cues to ensure you’re getting it right.

Your baby needs to be drowsy rather than asleep when you place her in her cot.

As your baby grows and is able to stay awake for increasingly longer periods of time in the day, naps will become more evenly spaced, so that by six months she will be having a main nap, of approximately 90 minutes around midday, with shorter 45 minute naps morning and afternoon.

Soothing to sleep

If your baby needs a little help to settle, try humming or singing gently, or making shushing noises. White noise, such as a detuned radio, is thought to be similar to the whooshing noises babies hear in the womb, and can also help a baby to fall asleep.

Many babies find being pushed in a pram or rocked comforting and while this sleeping newbornis a great way to calm crying, try not to make it a habit. In order to help teach your baby how to sleep through the night, you need her to be drowsy rather than asleep when you place her in her cot. If her protests are just grumbles first try soothing her with your voice. If she starts to cry settle her with a stroke between the eyebrows or the forehead, patting on her thigh can also work.

If you need to, rock her in your arms, but place her back in her cot and comfort her there as soon as she begins to calm and becomes sleepy.

Whatever the age your baby is, she is capable of learning good sleep habits. Take it slowly and aim for gradual, steady progress as she gains good sleep habits and makes the journey towards a healthy sleep pattern.


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