Baby sleep

You can lead a horse (or a baby) to water... but you can't MAKE them sleep!

Jan 26, 2022
5 min read

WARNING: there are a lot of horse metaphors in this article... Sorry.

Very loud opinions that float around the internet and tend to comment on some of the things we write, love the somewhat cliche phrase "you can't force a baby to sleep". The thing is, I TOTALLY AGREE! I'd be a billionaire if I had a way to "force" babies to sleep! When we're talking about baby sleep (which we do all day every day) it's more like the "lead a horse to water" analogy; the best we can do is lead our babies to sleep by setting up the perfect conditions/situations for sleep. Nobody is forcing anything on anyone. 

But no baby is going to settle easily or sleep well if they haven't been "lead to the water" first. To further my horse analogy, it'd be like leaving your horse in the middle of the dry desert and expecting them to drink - it's not a realistic expectation!

The only thing you can do is establish the optimum conditions for sleep and give your baby the opportunity. If all that goes to plan and your baby still doesn't sleep, it can often be a sign of a whole raft of other things. I'll come to that later.

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Watch: Why won't my baby nap during the day

This video tackles naps, particularly during the day. But we've also got some tips on sleep that can help with both night and day sleep:  

So, how do you effectively lead your baby to the point of sleep?

First things first, it is really important to respect the sleep situation you and your baby have established and be realistic about it. Realistic expectations are the first piece in the sleep/horse/water puzzle.

For example, if your baby is used to you rocking or feeding them to sleep it's not realistic or respectful of that situation to suddenly expect them to fall asleep unassisted. If the horse is used to you scooping water into its mouth and one day you turn around and say "hey, drink by yourself" - he wouldn't know what to do! 

Likewise, it's important to have realistic sleep expectations for your baby's age and developmental stage. A 6-month-old baby can't realistically be expected to have three 2-hour naps during the day and still sleep well at night. A newborn baby shouldn't be expected to settle on their own from day one and sleep through the night at 5 minutes old.

Realistic expectations, knowing what it is age-appropriate to expect from your baby sleep-wise, is the biggest step in the right direction. There is no point leading your horse to water if he's not thirsty.

If your sleep expectations are spot-on and your baby is still not settling or napping/sleeping well, these are the most common reasons why the "horse won't drink", so to speak:

They're not tired enough: 

An undertired baby or toddler won't be easy to get to sleep and their chances of going to sleep unassisted are very slim. If you have a younger baby, you still might be able to settle them to sleep but they probably won't nap for long.  

They're too tired:

Overtiredness is a curse. It might only be a matter of 15 extra minutes, but devastatingly it can cause a baby to resist settling, cry, fuss, then only nap for one sleep cycle (or less). It's very easy to get stuck in an overtired cycle all day long. When it comes to toddlers... an overtired toddler is NO ONE'S friend.

Hitting nap times bang on for your baby's age is the key to making sure they're perfectly ready for sleep when you offer it.

They're hungry:

Quite a common one - but hungry babies won't settle easily or stay asleep. We've had a lot of experience with babies who are being offered feeds regularly, seem to be taking good feeds, all the other conditions for sleep are lined up right and yet they still won't settle or nap well... In many of these cases we've encouraged the mother to have her baby checked for a tongue or lip tie and, lo and behold, one has been discovered. These mothers have reported an almost instant change to their baby's sleep once they were actually taking in a decent amount of milk. It is important to remember that just because your baby might seem to be feeding well, sometimes there are other factors at play for a very unsettled baby.

They're uncomfortable:

For younger babies, wind plays a big part in their ability to happily drift off to sleep. Wind (blimmin wind) can get trapped really easily and for some babies it can be a mission to get it all up! A baby who has trapped wind will most likely go to sleep then wake 10-15 minutes later. Usually picking them up will release the burp, but then you've got to get them back to sleep again! Feeding your baby when they wake rather than when they're about to go to sleep is a great way to help with wind - it gives them a good chunk of awake time to get all the wind up before their next nap. This is especially important for babies who suffer from lots of wind, an immature digestive system or colic.

Babies can be uncomfortable in other ways too. For a baby younger than 4 or 5 months, we'd recommend swaddling for all sleeps as it helps them feel safe and secure and ensures they can't keep themselves awake with their flailing flapping limbs. For older babies, a baby sleeping bag is a great way to maintain a cosy temperature so they can't get too hot or cold while asleep. 

Their sleeping space needs some tweaking:

We know that dark rooms help babies settle easier and sleep for longer. If your baby is resisting settling, try putting an extra blanket over their curtains to make the room really dark and see if it helps. The dark is quite a primal thing - all animals feel safer in the dark and it also promotes the release of sleep hormones and triggers a sleep response in our body clocks.

Another idea is to introduce some white noise or background noise in your baby's sleep environment to help signal it is sleep time and also to give them something to tune into so they can drift off. Any noise that is continuous will work - waves, radio static, rain. We have an excellent selection of white noise available on our website, Spotify and iTunes. White noise will also cancel out any other household or environmental sounds that might wake a sleeping baby (like older siblings, barking dogs, mum sitting down with a cup of tea).

There is something else more sinister going on:

I don't mean to sound like a scaremonger, but if ALL these other factors are lining up for your wee one and the metaphorical horse is still not drinking, it's often because something else is going on.

In our vast experience, this is usually sickness (temporary sickness like a cold or a tummy bug) or a medical condition like reflux, allergies, intolerances, tongue or lip ties. This is obviously always the last thing you'd expect with your baby, but it's something we would want to rule out if your baby was being given the best chance to sleep and sleep still wasn't happening. Some of these conditions can be very hard to figure out and diagnose - very poor sleep is a big indicator/symptom.

In theory, well actually it's more than theory because we see it happen every single day, you should be able to set up these conditions for sleep, lead your baby to the point of sleep and they'll sleep! Sounds a bit too simple, doesn't it?! It won't happen like that every day; we know that babies are anything but predictable! The thing is, babies don't hate sleep. ALL babies need sleep, so giving your baby the best chance of achieving sleep, at the best times, in the best possible conditions, is the best you can do. 

Our Sleep Programs have all this (and more!) in extensive detail. Through our programs you'll have the best chance of getting a thirsty horse right to the watering hole. 

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