Baby sleep

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

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

There are some very loud opinions that float around the internet and a lot of them like to comment on the things we write, with 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 actually 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 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!

As a parent, 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, then it can be a sign that something more is going on. But we'll come to that later...

In this article:

  • How to lead your baby to sleep
  • Why your baby is not sleeping

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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 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. Similarly, a newborn baby shouldn't be expected to settle on their own from day one and sleep through the night at 5 minutes old.

Having realistic and age-appropriate expectations for your baby sleep-wise, is the biggest step in the right direction. After all, there is no point leading your horse to water if he's not thirsty.

If you're feeling confused about your baby's sleep needs, our Little Ones App can help. Our evolving, age-appropriate sleep schedules will let you know the exact amount of sleep your little one needs. You can also reach out to our certified sleep consultants for more personalised guidance and support.

Okay, but my baby is still not sleeping...

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 might be able to settle them to sleep but they probably won't nap for long. Older babies and toddlers who are undertired are more likely to fight sleep and can even refuse to nap altogether.

They're too tired

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

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Hitting nap times bang on for your baby's age is the key to making sure your baby is perfectly ready for sleep when you offer it. The schedules in our Little Ones App can help you to make sure your baby or toddler settles easily and sleeps well, day and night.

They're hungry

This is 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 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 appear to be feeding well, sometimes there are other factors at play when you have 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 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 uncomfortable 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, can really 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 naps and overnight sleep. This helps them feel safe and secure and ensures they can't startle 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 don'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 making 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 the sleep hormone melatonin.

Another idea is to introduce some white noise or background noise in your baby's sleep environment to help signal that it is sleep time. It also gives them something to tune into so they can drift off to sleep easily. Any noise that is continuous will work - waves, radio static, rain. We have an excellent selection of white noise tracks available HERE.

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White noise will also cancel out any other household or environmental sounds that might wake a sleeping baby like older siblings, barking dogs, or 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 tongue tie, reflux or food allergies or intolerances. This is the last thing you might expect, but it's something we would want to rule out if your baby was being given the best chance to sleep and it still wasn't happening. Some of these conditions can be very hard to figure out and diagnose but very poor sleep is often 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 though, doesn't it?!

It definitely won't happen like that every day; we know that babies are anything but predictable! But the thing to remember 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 really the best you can do.

Our Little Ones App has all the information and tools you need to lead your baby to sleep. Our trusted sleep solutions, along with support available from our certified sleep consultants, gives you the best chance of getting that thirsty horse right to the watering hole!


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