Around one third of babies experience excessive disrupted sleep.
One common problem is trying to put the baby to bed, but they cry and refuse to settle — sometimes for hours. Another common problem is night-time waking. Young babies have tiny stomachs and need to feed frequently, even during the night.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem for exhausted parents if the baby drifted back to sleep straight after a feed, but this isn’t always the case. Some babies remain distressed and crying for hours. There are various strategies parents can use to help their baby to sleep better. Persistent problems may need professional advice.
Your baby may be tired, but distracted by physical discomfort. Always check for the following:
• Wet or dirty diaper.
• Thirst, particularly in warm weather.
• Overheating, particularly in winter when parents are more likely to add extra blankets to the cot.
• Being too cold.
• Wind or stomach-ache.
• Pain, such as an earache or teething.
• Environmental distractions such as noises or bright lights.
Relax your baby
It might help to soothe and relax your baby in the last hour or so before you plan to put them to bed for the night. Some tips include:
Warm bath – Hold the baby tummydown in the water with one hand, and keep their head up with the other hand.
Baby massage – Use warmed olive, apricot or almond oil.
Soft music – Perhaps classical, played with the lights dimmed or the regular use of something like a music box. Repetitive soft songs can also be very reassuring for the baby.
Rocking – Cradle your baby in your arms and talk softly to them.
Wrapping – Some babies under the age of four months feel more secure and cozy if they are wrapped in a light blanket. They are also less likely to jerk themselves awake. Make sure their arms are free and they can still put their hands up to their mouth.
Patting – Gently patting your baby on the back or bottom while they are in their cot might help to soothe them. Pat them long enough to soothe them, but not till they go to sleep.
Motion – Some babies are relaxed by a ride in the carriage.
As far as night feedings, the aim is to feed your baby and get them back to sleep as quickly as possible, so that you can go back to bed. Set up everything you will need before you go to bed (such as a fresh diapers and wipes). Don’t leave your baby crying for long, or else they will be too distressed to feed properly. Keep the lights low and your voice to a whisper. Don’t play with your baby and keep activity to a minimum.
Night-time sleeping habits can be learned. In your attempts to get your baby to sleep, you may have established habits such as always rocking or feeding your baby to sleep. You may find your baby now relies on the ritual to fall asleep and will resist any change to their routine. Decide on a new and manageable pre-bed routine for your baby and stick to it. Your baby will adapt in time.
If your baby still has sleeping problems, you might need to look at their overall patterns of behavior. It may be that their daytime routine of sleeping, feeding and playing may be contributing to their disrupted night-time behavior. For example, feed them and play with them when they wake up. Then, when they are showing signs of being tired, start settling them for a nap.
Without any other means of communication, crying is your baby’s main way to express unhappiness. Change to their familiar routine may prompt resistance. Be patient. If your new routine doesn’t seem to be working, don’t lose hope and revert back to your old and impractical methods.
Check that you are sure about what you are doing, persist and keep in mind that your baby should soon become familiar and comfortable with their new routine. Seek professional advice and reassurance if necessary.
Handling your own stress
When you are exhausted, a persistently crying baby can move you to frustration and anger. If you ever feel overwhelmed with strong emotion, put the baby in a safe place (such as their bed) and leave the room immediately. You need to give yourself a chance to calm down.
Take a shower, play music loud enough to drown out the sounds of crying, make yourself a warm drink or call a friend. If someone else can stay in the house, go for a walk. Practice deep breathing and make a conscious effort to calm down.
Remind yourself that your baby isn’t deliberately crying to annoy you — crying is their only means of communication. Seek professional advice on how to solve your baby’s sleeping problems.