My baby is three weeks old and still doesn’t seem to have any kind of pattern with her sleep. Is this normal? And should I be doing anything to establish a sleep pattern?
Amy says: Three-week-olds don’t have any sense that there is a difference between day and night, let alone have a predictable schedule! We human mothers deliver our babies quite prematurely compared to many other mammals; our babies really are just fetuses on the outside for three to four months after they are born (we even call this the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy). Some babies start to settle into a pattern on their own quite early, while others will take several months before sleep and wake cycles become at all predictable. And then, once you start to see a routine, it’s very likely to change as they grow and develop.
You can try to nudge baby to more wakefulness during the day (and, hopefully, more sleep at night) by trying to wake and feed her every two to three hours during the daytime, but even if you do nothing she will gradually develop a pattern over time.
Some parents find it too stressful to live without a routine and will start to try to encourage one as soon as possible. Other parents enjoy the free-flow of newborn time and are happy to follow baby’s lead. There is no one right way. Give yourself time and you’ll find what suits you best.
Debbie says: During these amazing first few weeks, your primary concern should be your baby’s feeding. Whether it be breast or formula, it’s important that you feel confident your baby is growing steadily. Once you feel baby is thriving and you have formed a strong bond through lots of touching and skin-to-skin contact, you can then look at sleep patterns and routines.
Between birth and the age of about six weeks babies generally sleep for around 15-18 hours in a 24-hour period, and – although it may not seem like it – your baby may well be slipping into his or her own pattern without any kind of effort from you. Keep a diary of baby’s activities; note down feeding and sleeping times, and you might see a pattern is naturally emerging.
I wouldn’t be too quick about implementing any form of enforced sleeping or feeding pattern or routine at this age, as your baby will be developing and changing rapidly. From the age of about six weeks, babies generally do start sleeping for longer periods of time during the night and are far more wakeful during daylight hours, so at this stage a good sleep pattern should be evolving.
If you feel baby needs some gentle nudging in the right direction, this is the stage you can start looking at implementing routines.
My four-year-old refuses to go to bed at night. We try to start our bedtime routine around 6pm and get her into bed by 7pm, but she finds any and every excuse to stay up: she needs a wee, she wants a drink, she wants another story, she wants one last cuddle, she doesn’t like the dark, she’s cold, she’s hot… We don’t want to put a stair gate up or lock the door. What else can we do?
Debbie says: It’s vital to have a good bedtime routine at this age and timing – not time – is important. There’s no point in going through the whole bedtime process if your child is not remotely tired. The reassurance of a calm, repetitive run-up to bed time will keep her feeling safe and secure and more likely to sleep through the night.
Once you’ve gone through your normal routine, very calmly say, ‘It’s time for sleep now’ and use the gradual withdrawal method. The first couple of nights sit calmly next to the bed until she’s asleep; don’t engage in conversation, just remind her it’s sleep time, you’re there and you love her.
Repeat this the next night, and then night by night gradually move closer to the door until you’re outside the room. Eventually, you’ll be able to leave her to settle happily. The key is to remain firm, calm and consistent, and always respond in a loving manner.
Amy says: Recent research shows that some kids’ natural circadian rhythms point to a later bedtime, so you’ll need to observe her for signs of tiredness. If you think she’s actually ready to sleep at 7pm (or earlier) but is just fighting it, think about what the need is that she’s expressing. Does she need more time with you and is finding this is a good way to get it? Is she afraid of the dark and wants your company to feel safe? Is there a new sibling in the home or another life change she’s finding stressful or unsettling? Does she need more control in other areas of her life so she’s less inclined to try to seize control at bedtime? Or does she just need more help to wind down in the evening?
Using sensory cues such as dim lights, soothing scents, sleepy music and a well-loved cuddly toy every single night as part of the wind-down and bedtime routine can be behavioural conditioning. If it looks like sleep time, smells like sleep time and sounds like sleep time, she’ll start to associate it all with feeling sleepy and ready for bed.
Eventually she’ll be able to use these sleep aids on her own without your help. Remember, you want bed and sleep to have happy associations – not stressful, frightening ones – to encourage healthy sleep habits for life.
My son is nine months old and still wakes two or three times in the night for a feed (he’s breastfed). The sleep deprivation is really affecting my health, both physically and mentally. What can I do?
Debbie says: Many babies of nine months and upwards no longer need a night-time feed and can be encouraged to sleep through. Your baby may have formed a sleep habit, though, and need to fall asleep while feeding, so every time he comes into his light sleep – roughly every 90 minutes – he’s unable to settle without feeding. You’ll need to disassociate sleep from feeding, as they’re two completely different activities.
Start the night how you mean to go on! Implement a good bedtime routine with bath, feed and a cuddle, then place baby in his cot drowsy, but awake. By all means stay with him until he’s asleep, but it’s important that you don’t allow him to feed to sleep.
If he does wake in the night and you’re confident it’s not hunger, then stay with him, reassure him, pat him and so on, until he is back to sleep. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t feel there’s an immediate improvement as it takes the human brain five days to accept a new routine. Stay calm and consistent and it’ll pay off.
Amy says: This is pretty typical sleep and feeding behaviour in a breastfed nine-month-old (one study showed 58 per cent of nine-month-olds waking at night and needing parental help to go back to sleep). While some babies can go for longer stretches in the night quite early, many still need to breastfeed for food, hydration and comfort.
Nine months, for example, is a pretty typical age for babies to struggle with separation anxiety, which may lead them to want more reassurance and contact at night. Many breastfeeding mothers find they get more sleep when they share a bed with baby or have a sidecar attached to their bed for their little nursling. You may also find that your baby actually wakes less because he just wants to be with you, and doesn’t necessarily need to feed.
My toddler goes to bed no problem, but during the night he wakes and comes into my bed. I don’t mind at all but my husband hates it. I don’t want to take her back and leave her to cry. Do I have any other options?
Amy says: There are an infinite number of ways to handle night-time parenting and co-sleeping with babies or toddlers, and each family needs to experiment until they find a system that works for them. Some people use a side-car attached to their bed, or a small mattress in their room for a toddler to sleep on and be close to parents.
Others will put a bed or mattress in the child’s room or a guest room so a parent can go and co-sleep with them there after they wake at night (and some parents also take turns doing this so it’s not so wearing on one parent). It can be a regular game of ‘musical beds’ at night in many toddler homes, but remember that although this stage is demanding and exhausting, it is only temporary.
All children grow up and sleep on their own in good time. I can guarantee you that none of your offspring is very likely to be going off to university needing you to come along so they can sleep!
Cecile says: There are a number of ways of fixing this, if it’s causing a problem in your household. Whichever way you choose, consistency is key. Perhaps one of the gentler methods is simply to take her back to her room each time she wakes and comes through, and reassure her until she’s asleep again or happy enough to stay in her bed.
It might be tiring for you, but it should only be short term. It is vital to choose a method and stick to it, to avoid confusing your toddler and prolonging the situation.
How much sleep should my children have at each age? I have a six-year-old, a four-year-old and a one-year-old.
Cecile says: How much sleep a child needs is largely individual, and can also vary depending on their behaviour throughout the day and what activities they’ve been getting up to. As a general rule, I’d say children up to the age of six need 11 to 12 hours of sleep a night to be well-rested and able to function happily at their optimum level during the day.
Your four-year-old is also likely to still need an hour’s nap during the day, while your one-year-old could need to sleep for about two to four hours over the course of the day. Learn to identify each child’s tired signs and monitor their behaviour to see if you need to adjust their sleep schedule according to how they’re doing.
Amy says: Each child, like each adult, is unique. Observe your children to see when they show signs of sleepiness to determine when is a good time to go to bed. Observe them in the morning to see if they are waking spontaneously or if you are having to drag them out of bed to get to school on time. Are they happy and energetic during the day or are they sleepy, lethargic, cranky or just unhappy?
When you look at science, there is a huge range of normal; in general, children need anywhere from nine to 12 hours at night, and the one-year-old will likely need a nap or two during the day. The older children may have given up naps or may still nap on a regular basis or occasionally. The amount of sleep they need will gradually reduce as they grow, so be prepared to shift your routine as their needs change.
My two children – aged four and five – sleep in bed with my husband and me every night and have done so since birth. Is this a problem? And when should we think about moving them to their own beds?
Amy says: If it’s not a problem for you or anyone else in your family, it’s not a problem. Enjoy! If it starts to become a problem for any of you, then adjust it. Many cultures have parents and kids sharing beds and they grow up healthy and happy. Some day, both your kids will grow up and won’t want to sleep anywhere near your bed, so enjoy it while it lasts!
Debbie says: Are you all still happy with the sleeping arrangements? If yes, then there’s absolutely no problem at all; the only concern would be that the bed might soon not fit you all! If, as a family, you feel that you’re not getting enough sleep then you have a few options. You can make up another bed in the room, or quite simply move the children together to their own room. This is a family decision so talk together and ask your husband and children what they would like to do. ‘Normal’ is different for every family.
My story: Catherine Harper
“We went from waking four times a night on a good night – and every half hour on the worst nights – to sleeping through the night in the space of two weeks.”
‘He just isn’t a sleeper. Some babies aren’t’. Or so my mum told me, and I believed her. But my son William was so sleep-deprived he was cranky, unable to focus and totally unsettled during the day.
If he napped during the day, it happened when he was literally so exhausted he passed out.
Our consultation with Cecile at Baby Senses covered our daily routine (or lack of one) and William’s habits. We talked about tired signs, happy awake times, good practices to get into, and Cecile gave us a plan.
Night 1 I’d been dreading starting any kind of sleep training, but I felt confident we were doing the right thing. We followed Cecile’s plan to the letter; solid dinner/bath/bed routine, then off to the cot. We were to stay with him and soothe him, but no picking him up or feeding him to sleep. I was expecting tears and tantrums, but instead we had an hour of grizzling, tossing and turning and general whining before he rolled over and went to sleep. We did a dream feed around 10pm then it was a full six hours before he woke again, and Cecile’s plan was put into action once more.
A small feed later, he was fast asleep and slept till 7am.
Night 3 With the second night having involved only 20 minutes’ grizzling and one wake-up at 4am, we were optimistic; justifiably so. He went into his cot and went straight to sleep. Just like that. We did his dream feed again and headed off to bed. His small night-time feed was closer to 5am, then he slept until gone 7am.
Night 7 We’d been doing a dream feed every night and had planned to shrink the night-time feed by 30ml. but midway through the week William simply stopped waking between the dream-feed and 7am.
Night 10 The end of the dream feed; we tried, but he wasn’t interested. We went to bed convinced he’d be up in the night, but he slept through till 7am.
Day 11 We decided to start working on daytime naps but it turned out we didn’t even need to. Same approach, same result. A happy sleeper!