Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
This is what we all aspire to isn't it? The golden trophy of parenthood: your baby sleeping through the night. Your neighbour’s baby slept through from 6 weeks old, your sister-in-law's baby has to be woken every morning or she'd keep sleeping! You’re wondering if there is a light at the end of the tunnel for your baby or if you’ve missed the boat entirely…
Let us help you.
But first - a disclaimer: we're NOT telling you your baby must be able to sleep through the night by a certain age, nor that you should expect your newborn to do a full 12 hours straight. Many people like to comment on articles like this saying "babies aren't supposed to sleep all night", and do you know what? NOBODY sleeps all night. All humans big or small rouse between sleep cycles all night long. With babies, it does take a while to learn the skill of sleep but it doesn't mean they are not capable of sleeping longer stretches if all the factors line up right for them (which we'll address in this article). This article is about ticking all the boxes to give your baby the best chance of sleeping better at night, when they're ready to.
Right, now to what the research and evidence tells us...
There are many factors that contribute to your baby sleeping well at night, some are within your control and some are baby-specific, based on their age, size or developmental ability. Let’s examine these factors in the hope it might help you and your baby towards a full night sleep:
MAKE SURE THEY HAVE A FULL TUMMY!
Feeding your baby enough during the day will mean they need to feed less at night. Babies have a specific number of calories they need to consume within a 24-hour period. If you have an overly sleepy baby or let them nap too much in the day they won’t have fed as much as they need to and will have to make up for it during the night. Hungry babies don’t settle or sleep. Making sure your baby has had enough milk/solids in the day really helps their chances of sleeping at night - you can also implement a dream feed for babies under 6 months (waking and feeding them earlier on in the night) to help them get through a longer chunk of sleep.
For babies established on solids, giving them protein at their LUNCH solids will help them stay full through the night due to the way the protein is stored in your baby’s liver.
Remember that some babies will still need to have milk in the night until well established on solids, and this might not happen until around 8 months old - this is completely normal.
HAVE THEY HAD ENOUGH DAY SLEEP?
Believe it or not, an overtired baby who hasn’t had enough sleep during the day will be harder to settle and will sleep worse. This is due to a build up of the hormone cortisol, which works like adrenaline in your baby’s body, inhibiting quality sleep. A baby who has napped poorly will generally have a restless night’s sleep and/or an early morning wake.
HAVE THEY HAD TOO MUCH DAY SLEEP?Contrarily, too much day sleep will also lead to poor nights. Day and night sleep is intrinsically linked, so, quite simply, if your baby has too many of their sleep hours for that 24-hour period during the day, they will naturally sleep less at night. It is a very delicate balance! Our Sleep Programs take the guesswork out of how much sleep is the right amount for your baby at each age.
If your baby is younger than 4 months, swaddling them will ensure they sleep more peacefully and for longer. Swaddling replicates the tight confined feeling of being in the womb that babies are used to. Quite often we hear people say their baby doesn’t like being swaddled because they cry or squirm during the process… This is often due to the fact that their baby is already overtired by this stage and is literally fighting ANYTHING! Swaddling is proven to help your baby sleep for longer and means they can’t wake themselves up with their startle reflex.
THEY ARE TOO HOT OR COLD
Babies are really sensitive to temperature, being unable to effectively regulate their own body temperature until they’re older. The ideal room temperature for a baby to sleep in is between 18-20 degrees Celcius (64-68 degrees Fahrenheit). Making sure your baby is nice and warm but not too hot is a crucial element in them sleeping well. We recommend always dressing and swaddling your baby with natural fibers only – cotton, wool, merino and bamboo. These fabrics will allow your baby’s skin to breathe and reduce the risk of them overheating. Never use polyester, fleece, polar fleece or other synthetic or man-made fabrics in your baby’s bed.
Using a baby or toddler sleeping bag is a great way to ensure your wee one stays cosy all night. These sleeping bags usually dome at the shoulders or zip at the front, meaning your baby wears the sleeping bag sort of like a vest. If you have a wiggly sleeper, a sleeping bag is PERFECT to make sure they can’t kick their blankets off and wake cold.
When checking if your baby is warm enough in the night, always feel their core - their chest or back. It should feel warm to the touch but not hot. A baby’s head and hands are supposed to be cooler than the rest of their body when they’re sleeping, so don’t go by cool hands as an indicator of their core temperature.Using a room thermometer is a great way to make sure your baby is appropriately dressed for the temperature in their sleep environment.
USE WHITE NOISE ALL NIGHT LONGSometimes people forget about using white noise for night-time sleep as well as in the day! As with naps, white noise is a crucial element in your baby sleeping well. For sleep, the white noise should be about as loud as a shower. This will also block out any external sounds that risk waking your baby up such as noisy siblings or the neighbour’s dog and also mean your baby hears the same thing they heard when they went to sleep, helping them transition between sleep cycles as they get older.
DARK ROOMHaving a dark room with no night light will help your baby know it is still sleep time. Babies aren’t afraid of the dark and actually need the dark to kick off the production of melatonin, a hormone which helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. Using a night light in your baby’s room hinders this process and can stimulate your baby, making it hard for them to settle and resettle, just like an annoying bright alarm clock would next to your bed!
SLEEP ASSOCIATIONS / SLEEP REGRESSIONSThis is a biggie. Once your baby is around 4 months old, their sleep cycles change and they can begin to wake fully between each cycle (every 2 hours in the night). This means that if you rocked or fed or patted them to sleep at the start of the night, they’ll begin needing this same help every time they naturally wake during the night. Teaching them to fall asleep on their own (or self-settle) by using positive sleep associations (such as white noise, a swaddle or sleeping bag, a comforter), is your best line of defence. A baby who is relying on a parent-controlled sleep association will not be able to sleep through the night. See THIS article for more information on the 4 month sleep regression.
If you’ve implemented all these things and your baby is still waking, here are some possible reasons:
- Hunger - feed, feed, feed!
- Uncomfortable (they might have wind, need a nappy change, they are uncomfortable in their bed)
- Sickness or other medical condition such as reflux or allergies
- They need a bit more structure to their day and getting age-appropriate awake windows and nap patterns happening will really improve your little one's night-time sleep!
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Our Sleep Programs are the perfect place to start towards a good night's sleep.