Sleeping Problems in Babies

See also: Babies and Sleep

There are many, many books about sleep problems in babies, and how to address and resolve them.

The advice, however, differs widely on both causes and cures.

The only way to go is to find a way that works for you and your family.

This page defines sleep problems and explains some of the causes and ways to address them.

What is a Sleep Problem?

It’s anything about your baby’s sleep that is causing your concern.

Common sleep problems include:

  • Failing to settle down when put down for a sleep, either during the day or at night;
  • Waking frequently in the night at any age;
  • Continuing to wake at night long after the age when most children should be able to sleep through (around three to six months).

What all these have in common is a failure to self-settle. That is, your baby is relying on you to help them settle themselves to sleep, or back to sleep. Waking at night is normal; most of us do it. But we also go back to sleep by ourselves.

Some babies learn to do that by themselves, for example, because they suck their thumb or a corner of a blanket. Others need to be taught how to do it.

Establishing a Sleep Routine

One of the most helpful things that you can do to prevent and address sleep problems is to establish a ‘sleep routine’.

In simple terms, what this means is that you always do the same thing (or more or less the same thing) at bedtime. You can also use a shorter, modified version for daytime naps.

You might, for example, start by saying ‘Right, bed time now’ before you carry the baby upstairs.
A bath is a good signal that bedtime is on its way, and is also usually relaxing and fun.
Looking at a book together is another good habit to get into, as it supports children’s learning over a long period, as does singing a nursery rhyme or lullaby.
Turn down the light a bit and close the curtains.

The idea is to signal that bedtime is on its way, so make sure that you are doing quiet, restful, non-stimulating things.

Once you have tucked your child into bed, then they should stay there, at least until it is time for any night-time feed.

You may need to repeat the last few parts of the routine a few times on some occasions, but you should stick to it as far as possible.

Of course the above is just an example of the sort of routine you might use, you'll need to experient to see what works for you and your baby.

Managing Sleep Problems

If your baby or child has developed a sleep problem, there are a variety of techniques that you can use to address it, including controlled crying, also known as crying it out (CIO) (see box below).

Feeding to sleep is not a long-term solution, although it may seem the easiest option at least once. Try to avoid using it for too long, as it will be very wearing for you after a while.

Babies over the age of about 6 months do not usually need to feed at night.

If you find that you are continuing to feed at night well after this stage, consider whether you are being used as a comforter, consciously or not.

Controlled Crying

Controlled crying is a technique used to help babies to self-settle. Some people view it as cruel, and others as essential.

The idea is that when you hear your baby wake and start to cry, you don’t go to them immediately.

Of course, if you think something is really wrong, you should always go straight away.

But if they are just struggling to go back to sleep, leave it for a few minutes. After a few minutes, go to the baby, and go through your usual ‘settling down to sleep’ routine. Tuck them in, say ‘good night, sleep tight’, or whatever you usually say, and go.

If they continue to cry, leave them for a few minutes more, then go back and repeat the whole exercise.

Next time, leave them for five minutes, then ten. Don’t ever leave them for longer than ten minutes, but go back every ten minutes if they keep crying. Go through the standard sleep routine, and leave. Do this for as long as it takes. Don’t pick them up, don’t cuddle them, and don’t put on the light at any point.

The idea is that they will eventually learn to self-settle. It could take a few days, but most babies get the idea quite quickly.

Sleeping and Warmth

Many parents, particularly of new babies, find that their baby will fall asleep happily when resting against them, but wake instantly on being put back into their own bed, especially at night.

While not exactly a ‘sleep problem’, it is an issue that needs resolving. There are a variety of options you can try:

  • When you wake to feed the baby during the night, lift the mattress out of the crib or Moses basket, and put it behind you as a cushion. Put it back just before you put the baby back. It will be warm, and it will smell of you.
  • Alternatively, pop a hot water bottle into the Moses basket while the baby is feeding. Again, it will keep the mattress warm.
  • You don’t want your baby to overheat. Overheating is one of the major issues linked with sudden death in infancy, or SIDS. But baby sleeping bags are very thin. If you’re under a 13-tog duvet, and your baby is in a 2.5-tog sleeping bag, and it’s a cold night, it’s not surprising that they prefer your bed to theirs. You may need to add a lightweight blanket or two to the crib, making sure that you tuck them well under the mattress at the bottom to prevent them from being pulled over the baby’s head.
  • Fill a glove with beans or pearl barley, and pat the baby’s back gently with it as you settle them back into bed. Leave it lying against their back. The disadvantage of this is that for maximum effect, you need to put it on their back. Advice is to put babies down on their backs to sleep, for safety, which may limit the effectiveness of this technique.

In conclusion…

Sleeping problems can be a real headache for parents, quite literally.

Having a restless child can mean sleepless nights for you too, leading to an inability to think clearly and real tiredness. If you can, catch up during the day, when your child naps, and try to resolve sleep problems before they get too bad.

If necessary, seek specialist help. Remember, too, that everything is a phase and it will pass eventually.

You may also find our pages on adult sleep helpful: What is Sleep? and The Importance of Sleep.