Baby sleep explained: What it means to ‘sleep like a baby’
Despite sleeping around 18 hours a day, your newborn’s sleep pattern is likely to leave you exhausted. Find out why, along with practical tips to help you cope.
Every baby's sleeping pattern is different, but whatever schedule your newborn follows, we’ve tips to help them to develop good sleeping habits.
Overtiredness can make it difficult for your baby to fall asleep, so it's important to know when they're ready for a nap. Eventually you'll know instinctively when they're tired, but until then, signs to look for include crying, rubbing their eyes, pulling on their ears, and faint dark circles under their eyes.
Your baby will need night feeds, on demand, for the first three months and will probably continue to need at least one nighttime feed until they are six months old. Some babies require regular night feeds up until their first birthday. Babies love being breastfed to sleep and it can be the perfect opportunity for you to bond in your first few months together.
‘Cluster feeding’ is a term used to describe a particular pattern of feeding in which a baby feeds frequently – almost constantly – for a few hours in the afternoon or evening until bedtime.
Dream feeds may help your baby to sleep longer and can gently introduce a pattern of sleep that is easier for you. Three or four hours after your baby has gone to bed try semi-waking them for a quiet breastfeed. The idea is to fill your baby’s tummy without them being fully alert and awake; they should drift back to sleep easily after the feed.
There is no evidence to suggest that infant formula makes babies sleep longer, and the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any potential advantages. On a practical level, getting up to prepare bottles will wake you up far more than breastfeeding in your bedroom.
For the first few months, you're on your baby's timetable whether you like it or not. But in the first weeks, you can start to gently teach them the difference between day and night. In the daytime keep curtains open and go outside for a walk, encourage them to be alert and active and play with them as much as you can.
When night falls, make your house a calmer, quieter place with low lighting and less activity. ‘Blackout’ blinds can help you to control the light even in the height of summer.
It won’t make a difference straight away, but it will help them to learn that nighttime is the right time for sleep.
Babies should always be placed to sleep on their back with their feet at the bottom of the cot
Swaddling is the term for wrapping your baby securely in a thin blanket, so they feel cocooned and safe. Some babies love the feeling of being swaddled and find it really soothing, while others actively dislike it. If you want to try swaddling, make sure you don’t over-restrict your baby’s hip and leg movements as this can cause hip problems. Also make sure your baby does not get too hot.
A nighttime dummy can help soothe your baby if they enjoy the comfort of sucking without actually being hungry. Be warned though, dummies regularly fall out of babies’ mouths, so you may be woken up just as much as before by playing ‘hunt the dummy’ in the dark.
You may be tempted to take your baby for a drive or a walk around the block to lull them to sleep. It does often work, but be warned, if you do this regularly your baby will come to expect it and it could become a hard habit to break.
At around eight weeks, you may want to start to develop a calm, soothing bedtime routine. A bath, quiet cuddle, story or lullaby at the same time every night can help your baby to understand that it's time to go to bed.
As they get older, you may want to start introducing a daytime routine with a regular pattern of naps to help them – and you – cope with long days. You may think that daytime naps will stop your baby from sleeping at night, but often the reverse is true – it will help them to sleep better. Doing things in the same way every day can help your baby make sense of their world and feel secure.
The ability to self-soothe when falling asleep is an important skill. It means your baby will settle easily at bedtime and go back to sleep by themselves when they wake in the night. Most babies are not able to do this before 4–6 months. If a baby is still not sleeping by then, some parents try ‘sleep training’. This can be helpful, but is not advised in the early months. Talk to your health visitor if you are concerned about your baby’s sleep patterns.
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