Renowned baby expert Dorothy Waide sheds light on the question at the top of many parents’ minds: why won’t my baby sleep?
One thing I’ve noticed in my many years of working with families around the world is that, in today's society, we are too busy being busy and we forget that becoming parents is naturally a time to slow down, to step back, and to get to know our baby and ourselves as parents. Parents tell me that their new baby is not going to change their lives too dramatically. Change, however, is inevitable – although the changes that work for some families won’t work for others.
My first piece of advice to new parents is not to have any expectations. With no expectations, there is no disappointment. Many parents feel they are failures. Well, the good news is that you can’t fail as parents and there is no right or wrong way when it comes to parenting. There are, however, easy and hard ways.
With that encouragement in mind, let’s get to the point of this article and the reason you have poured yourself some coffee and are propping open tired eyes to read these pages: baby sleep!
Sleep, like food, is a nutrient and both these nutrients are essential for a happy baby. When it comes to baby and toddler sleep, there is a range of different theories offering rather contradictory advice on what is right and what is normal. As we find our way though, we ideally get a feel for what is normal for our children and what suits our family, without worrying too much about what works for others. And as your family grows, you’ll probably figure out that what works for one baby will not necessarily work for your next! This is why I refer to parenting as a lifelong journey, and instead of giving advice on ‘sleep training’, I prefer to use the term ‘parenting to sleep’.
Dodging the pitfalls
I am often asked to talk about the pitfalls of baby and toddler sleep – the problems to avoid when it comes to settling little ones into healthy sleep behaviours. Here I list the five main pitfalls I come across most frequently.
Yes, babies cry – this is their form of communication and it is important we take the time to listen and respond accordingly. There are theories offering ‘no cry’ sleep solutions, just as there are ‘cry-it-out’ strategies and it is your choice as to what advice you follow, but I strongly encourage parents to question sustainability – can you sustain a particular style of parenting year after year?
Regardless of your baby’s age, what you are doing and where you are when baby is crying is very important. I believe giving parents a quick fix to silence crying is a pitfall in itself. Babies do not get the tools on board to self-soothe (get themselves to sleep) or resettle until 12 to 16 weeks old, therefore we have to help our babies, gently guiding them towards these skills. There will be some tears, but if we listen and respond accordingly – which may mean letting baby cry for a short time (either in your arms or the cot) so they can find sleep for themselves – we lay a foundation for healthy and sustainable sleep habits.
The marketing world is very clever at selling us gadgets, including sleep props. I always advise parents to take a step back (allowing baby time to self-settle) before bringing in a prop such as small movements, a dummy or white noise (‘shushing’ with your own voice is my recommendation). Keep in mind that what you use to settle/soothe your baby will probably be required again to resettle them. Dummies were designed for newborns and are a great tool for soothing. However, don’t ‘plug’ a baby – instead allow baby to 'talk' (cry or grizzle) before giving them a dummy. This is not rewarding baby for crying; it is helping them on their way to find their sleep.
Large external movements, like rocking, walking, bouncing and swinging, are encouraged worldwide, especially in the first 12 to 16 weeks. We're told that babies like movement, and they do, however the movement is ideally small and calming. Before getting into the habit of settling baby with large movements, look at your cot. Ask the question, "Can it perform these large movements?". The answer is likely no, and my advice is not to do anything in your arms that you can’t replicate in the cot.
We tend to feel that the large movements work better for calming a baby, rather than sitting still and allowing our body to be a mattress for baby. Why? I feel this is due to the fact that when we are doing something natural, like walking or rocking, we inwardly relax with a crying baby. Conversely, it is stressful to hold a crying baby if we don’t feel like we are helping. However, if we can believe in ourselves and know that standing (or sitting) still while holding a baby will make it easier to transfer to the cot, then a lot more parents would do this. Your body is the mattress and your arm engulfing the baby is like an extension of the mattress. The arm holding the lower part of baby’s body is what provides the movement, specifically cupping and patting (which you can read more about in my previous articles). Bear in mind, you need to play the long game. An older baby who has always had large movements to fall asleep will find it very difficult to be put in a still cot and expected to get himself off to sleep. Some theories would suggest just leaving an older baby to cry themselves to sleep at this point. However, if parents were shown how to calm a baby as a newborn, with movements like cupping and patting that can be replicated in the cot, they would be able to make the transfer to independent settling in the cot much easier.
Back when I did my training, no one talked about the importance of melatonin for sleep, or that in a baby it is only produced in small amounts. Melatonin is a hormone associated with the onset of sleep and is made by the body’s pineal gland. It sustains our circadian rhythm and basically makes the body feel drowsy and ready for sleep. The pineal gland is only activated to produce melatonin in darkness, with light being shown to directly inhibit its release.
With this in mind, it makes sense that a lot of babies sleep well at night when it is dark, but have trouble sleeping in the day when it’s lighter.
If you have a baby who sleeps well at night and doesn’t during the day, take a look at their room. My recommendation to parents is to invest in quality blackout curtains or do whatever you can to make the room completely dark for all sleeps. Many people, and in particular my generation, suggest that a baby needs to learn the difference between day and night. I find that a baby can still sense the difference between day and night in a dark room by the busyness of the house during the day and the peacefulness of a home during the night.
A dark room is especially important for our babies and toddlers as they grow because they learn to accept that, when it is dark in their room, it is time to be asleep – even on a summer evening with the sun still out or at the crack of dawn!
Routines for babies cause a lot of concern. The fact is every baby is automatically in a routine from the time they are born. They wake; they cry; and you respond with touch, feeding, changing, and then swaddling for sleep again.
In my experience, tired signs are hard to pick up. Parents can spend a lot of time watching for tired signs, only to feel like a failure when they miss them all. I tend to watch the clock instead. A newborn baby (up to six weeks old) has wake cycles of around 45 minutes to an hour. A 6-to-12-week-old will be awake for one to one-and-a-half hours. A six-month-old will be awake for around three hours, and have two one-and-a-half hour (minimum) naps a day.
Newborn babies all differ with how often they need to feed, and in my books, there is no three-or-four-hourly feeding rule, instead you feed when it is right for your baby. If you have a newborn baby up for 45 minutes and you can’t get them to nap longer than 45 minutes, then they are feeding every 90 minutes. If you have one of those magical babies who is up for 45 minutes and then naps for three hours, their feeding rhythm is three-and-three-quarter-hourly. It is a baby’s sleeping rhythm that dictates how often they are fed.
As a baby grows and wake-times increase, their stomachs empty surprisingly quickly and they may be hungry at nap time. Food and sleep go hand in hand – one begets the other.
With older babies, you can often sort out problems at night by looking at the daytime routine. Consistency is very important with the daytime nap routine if you expect your child to follow through with what you say around their nighttime routine. I think diet also plays an important role and that removing excess sugars and cheese after lunch can help a child have a full night's sleep.
I also find that parents put a lot of focus on the evening routine, resulting in baby being up for a long time for the last wake cycle of the day. A successful daily routine does not hinge on the evening, rather the time baby wakes in the morning establishes the day's flow.
I’ve seen many parents run into problems when they lose confidence in themselves. Feeling like a failure makes us anxious and creates a vicious cycle. On the contrary, believing in yourself as a parent is hugely empowering. Babies can sense how we feel and our confidence is calming for them.
Remember, sleep is only a problem if it is affecting your ability to parent both physically and emotionally. Believe in yourself, your baby, and your partner. You are your baby’s expert and baby whisperer, not someone else (nope, not even me!). I am a support person and someone who holds your hand while you walk your parenting journey – I am not someone who is going to make you do something you don’t want to do. Acceptance is key. Life does change when babies arrive and parenting is a lifelong journey. I always seek to encourage parents with the fact that you know what is best for your baby – sometimes you just need some reassurance.
Dorothy Waide is a baby consultant and member of the OHbaby! panel of experts. Her book, You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn, is available where good books are sold. Visit her at babyhelp.co.nz or ask her a question at on our Experts page.