Are you struggling with your baby’s sleep? You are not alone, many new parents find baby sleep habits baffling and struggle to get enough sleep themselves. Whether you have a newborn or an older baby that struggles to settle, the result is the same – sleep deprived parents! Our evidence based sleep tips can help.
Learning about the science of baby sleep can help. Once you understand the how, why and when of baby sleep, it will be easier to decide on the best strategy for your family.
Consider these evidence based baby sleep tips
Help program your newborn’s “internal clock” by exposing your baby to cues about the 24 hour day.
Everyone, including babies, have circadian rhythms, or biological processes that cycle about once every 24 hours.
While these rhythms are like an internal clock, they don’t arrive pre-programmed. When they are born, babies internal clocks are not synchronised with the external, 24 hour cycle of daylight and darkness. Their world has been the same day and night while in utero and it takes some time for babies to sync with the outside world.
Luckily we don’t have to wait passively for that to happen. Babies depend on us for help with this just like everything else.
Studies show that babies adapt quicker when parents provide them with the right environmental cues about the time of day. (Custodio et al 2007; Lohr et al 1999; Tsai et al 2012)
Expose your baby to natural light during the day and involve your baby in the stimulating hustle and bustle of your daytime activities. New babies don’t necessarily need to sleep in a dark room to begin with. When evening falls, limit your babies exposure to artificial lighting as light is a signal that tells the brain to delay the onset of sleepiness at night.
2. When you need artificial light at night, use bulbs that block blue wavelengths.
Eliminating all sources of electric and electronic light at night probably makes it easier to sleep but this is not always an option. Sometimes you will need light during the night for example to change a diaper or check on an unsettled baby.
Luckily all wavelengths don’t have the same effect on the inner clock. White light has a disruptive effect on sleep patterns and young children are particularly sensitive to this.
The blue part of the spectrum in white light is responsible for much of the problem so if we can block this part we should minimise the negative effects of light exposure at night.
A low watt amber bulb or a red night light can protect your baby from blue wavelengths but still provide enough light to carry out night time care.
3. Help your baby get settled: Make the hour before bedtime a time of security, happiness and emotional reassurance.
Nobody sleeps well when they are anxious or irritated and babies are no different. Ensure that your baby feels safe, secure, happy and loved in the lead up to bedtime. Consider a bedtime routine that may involve such things as a bath, massage, milk, story. Whatever you choose, consistency is the key.
If you detect negative emotions in your baby, counter them with soothing and reassurance. Observational studies suggest this makes a difference. Parents who respond soothingly to their children’s emotions report fewer infant sleep problems, regardless of a family’s sleep arrangements. Whether children share a bedroom with their parents or not, they sleep better when their parents are sensitive and responsive (Teti et al 2010; Jian and Teti 2016).
4. Learn the art of stress-busting – for you and your baby.
Soothing an irritable or distressed baby can be difficult. If you feel this is an issue for you, this Parenting Science article provides more information on what stresses out babies and tips for keeping babies clam and emotionally healthy.
Caring for a baby can be stressful and exhausting, particularly when you are sleep-deprived, had childbirth trauma or struggling with a baby that cries excessively.
If you are struggling with your emotional state get yourself checked for postpartum depression and make your psychological health a priority. Postpartum depression and stress are very common so there is need to suffer privately. Your health is a priority in order to be able to look after your baby.
5. If your baby doesn’t seem sleepy at bedtime, don’t try to force it.
Trying to get a baby who isn’t tired to sleep can be stressful and make you irritated which will then upset your baby and you will end up with a viscous cycle. You don’t want your baby to associate bedtime with conflict as this can be a difficult lesson to unlearn.
Instead you could try the technique known as “positive routines and faded bedtime” as described here.
6. Watch out for long, late afternoon naps, and try to lengthen the awake time before bed.
If your baby doesn’t feel sleepy until late at night, the first thing to check is that your baby isn’t being exposed to artificial lighting before bedtime.
The next step is to analyse the timings of your baby’s naps. Naps are great for babies, but like us, late naps can postpone the drowsiness they would feel at bedtime.
Then see if you can stretch out the awake period at the end of the day.
7. Be mindful of television and other electronic media.
Night time use of electronic screens can cause issues as they emit sleep busting artificial light. However, daytime electronic media use may be problematic as well.
One study showed that for every additional 2.5 minutes that babies watched, it took them an extra 5 minutes to fall asleep at night. (Chonchaiya et al 2017)
8. Not getting enough sleep yourself?
You could try a tactic called “dream feeding” which may give you the opportunity to sleep for longer intervals at night. For mere information, including baby sleep tips on implementing dream feeds, see this evidence based article.
9. Don’t intervene too soon!
It is normal for people of all ages to experience many partial awakenings at night. Sleeping through the night doesn’t mean your baby doesn’t wake up, rather they are falling back to sleep quietly without waking their parents.
Young infants sleep very restlessly and often vocalise or open their eyes. It is easy as a new parent to make the mistake of waking a sleeping infant or intervene too fast when a baby experiences momentary wakefulness. This can then interfere with the development of mature sleep patterns which stops babies from learning to self settle.
10. During the night, be calm and gentle but avoid conversation and eye contact.
Night time feedings are unavoidable for small babies but there are things you can do to make them less disruptive. Be gentle, reassuring and very very boring.
As you are the most fascinating thing in your baby’s life, this can be difficult. Even quiet talk and eye contact can be exciting for your baby.
Brain imaging research confirms that eye contact triggers busy activity in a baby’s brain, especially the part of the brain that processes social interactions. (Urakawa et al 2015)
So in addition to keeping things as dark as possible, try to avoid conversation and eye contact during the night.
If you are still having major issues with your baby’s sleep you can consult a doctor or paediatrician for help to rule out any medical issues.