Sleep-tight: secrets of a baby whisperer

Crazy as it sounds, babies don't always naturally fall asleep when they're tired – they may need you to teach them how. 

It’s one definition of excruciating: pacing with your exhausted, screaming baby at 4am, when the only thing you want to do is sleep.

You know that quality shut-eye is as important for your wellbeing as it is for your baby's development. And there's well-tested advice on instilling good sleeping habits in tots.

Trouble is, when you're beyond tired it can be hard to muster the necessary calm, nerve and focus. 

This is where baby whisperers like Elizabeth Sloane can help. The Sydney-based mother of three is a Mothercraft nurse with 20-plus years of experience helping thousands of families get their babies to sleep. 

Here are some common sleep problems and ideas to help. 

Clearly exhausted but can't fall asleep 

It's easy to misinterpret your newborn's signs of tiredness. You try feeding them, playing with them, they get frustrated and over-tired, which can make settling them more challenging. 

Try and put your baby in their cot as soon as you notice any signs they are tired. These signs change with age but here are some signs to look out for.

In young babies:
  • Jerking movements.
  • Eye rubbing.
  • Glazed eyes.
  • Sucking on fingers.
  • Clenched fists. 
In babies around nine months, tired bubs may:
  • Blow raspberries.
  • Clap.
  • Ignore your efforts at play.

Catnapping

Newborn sleep cycles generally last about 45 minutes. Often they'll stir between cycles or as they shift from light to deep sleep. If your baby grizzles, try leaving them for five minutes or so to see if they drop off (use a timer if it helps). 
Baby sleeping in cot

Night-waking 

Start teaching newborns to differentiate between night and day by keeping night feeds short and low-key. The environment you do this in can help – try  dim light, minimal talking, and put them straight back to bed. Establish a simple bedtime routine early on – for example nappy change, massage, story, swaddle and bed. 

Needs a sleep prop (baby relies on something external, usually provided by you, to fall asleep) 

It could be breastfeeding, a bottle, a dummy, being rocked, carried or driven. The trick is to gently break the dependency. 

Between four and six months, Sloane suggests putting your baby to bed without the sleep prop. Brace yourself: they'll probably cry in protest, but wait five to 10 minutes before going in. Now, do something to gently divert them – shushing, patting, scratching the sheet, playing white-noise. Try not to pick your bub up. Once they’re asleep, exit and repeat as necessary. 

Not ‘sleeping through’ after six months

By six months, most babies are able to sleep 10 to 12 hours through the night. Time to wean them off all props, including your diversions. Gradually increase the wait before you go in. The crying may escalate just before they drop off. Generally, within three or so nights babies learn how to self-settle.

Remaining calm, consistent and emotionally reassuring are key. Sloane doesn't advocate leaving babies crying for extended periods. And if you get upset, calm your baby and yourself enough to continue … but don't revert to those props! 

Not every strategy works for every family, says Sloane. The main thing is to choose one that feels right for you, then stick to it. 

You don’t have to do it alone

If you’re worried that your baby is crying because they are sick or in pain, speak to your GP or paediatrician. And if you really struggle emotionally when your baby cries, turn to your GP, maternal and child health nurse, or other healthcare professional for support.

Bupa Health Insurance

Need some extra support? PIRI's Parent and Baby Wellbeing program could help. Bupa health insurance members with hospital cover are fully covered for the program.

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