Top tips for understanding your baby’s sleep

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Paediatric sleep consultant, author and mum of four Lucy Wolfe has these tips to share

Understanding that new born sleep is tricky is possibly one of the best things a new parent can do. The more we normalise the fact that young children are not designed to sleep without a parent very close by and then wake quite frequently, the less it will be perceived as a problem leaving parents feeling like they are doing something wrong. 

There are huge variations’ in infant sleep, but one of the over-riding tendencies is that many young children benefit from being held a lot and they also are designed to sleep in bursts rather that long stretches.  “I always encourage families to think of their children’s sleep in two parts; before six months and then six months and beyond,” says Lucy. “Within the first six months, I encourage families to “work behind the scenes” in an effort to lay a positive foundation for sleep, but within that effort there are no great expectations-as a new family unit we can expect to feel exhausted and at times overwhelmed, frustrated and vulnerable.”

Here are some suggestions that may help relieve those emotions

1. Find support and friendship to help share the load. 

New mothers, in this modern world, are more disadvantaged that any parenting generation before them. Many of us are living far away from a family support network, leaving the new mum alone, with her new job, in charge of a new baby. Although I appreciate it is easier said than done to build up support; please don’t be afraid of asking for help from your network. It is a show of strength to share the load.  The first few months with a new baby, is what I describe as being an intensive care period and we need to keep everyone alive.  If you are feeling low and unsupported please discus with your GP or health nurse and take further moments of self-care whenever possible.  Make the effort to get out of the house.  Reach out to others for a coffee, ask the other parent to share the night time duties. Be kind to yourself and to each other. 

2. There are no such things as bad habits

Many parents report that the only place their child will sleep is in their arms.  That is entirely normal.  Your baby has been held in-utero for nine months and when they emerge into the world they can typically crave to continue to be held and that becomes one of your tasks. Try not to resist this dynamic, it really is just a season and it will pass. Lean into their need to be close to you. Teach your baby to feel loved, safe and secure. If they are open to being put down once asleep then perfect, but if they are inclined to immediately startle when you attempt to lie them down-just commit to holding so that the trust is built between you in such a way that in time, being put down is not a big deal for them.

Initially babies crave motion, rocking, swinging, rolling, and similar to activities in the womb.  Ideally foster a number of ways to support your baby so that you are not just doing one approach to help them. Use a sling, a swing, a stroller for example and also, attempt to allow the other parents and any other willing adult to participate in this required activity so that Mum can extract herself to also have moments baby free. 

3. Being attuned to your baby’s needs helps to build the bond between you

Meeting their requests for food, sleep, comfort and play without delay is key-no need to try to “stretch” their feeds or have them on a rigid time table; just being responsive and able to service their needs, further strengthens the early relationship and lays that path to better sleep.  

Within this, if you can learn to read their early signals for sleep then you can also avoid an overtired cycle. When babies become overtired, they tend to resist sleep and sleep fitfully.  If you can identify their “sweet spot” for sleep then they may be more inclined to receive sleep with ease and stay asleep for a longer duration. If you notice intense eye rubbing, yawning or agitation, then that is too late and potentially overtired. 

4. Develop a rhythm to your day that is balanced between feeding, leisure and sleep time

Use light and dark to further initiate night time sleep. Starting the day at a regular time, with a feed, and then have a sense of synchronicity between feeds and sleeps as your day unfolds can be helpful. Your young baby for the first eight weeks or so will desire a late-adult orientated bedtime and then the next two months see an earlier sleep tendency emerging so that bedtime by four months of age, is between 6pm and 8pm. Responding to this timing can also help encourage a sleeping pattern, especially if you overlap this with reading their language for sleep too. Sleep that occurs before your baby becomes overtired will nearly always be more restful.

5. Establish a pre-sleep ritual when you anticipate your baby will sleep

At bedtime, do this in the bedroom that you all sleep in and have dim lamp light environment. This does not need to be a long drawn out process, just a sequence of events; your actions, songs, phrases that can help baby to understand that it is time to sleep.

6. Allow your baby to be slightly aware that they have been put down into their sleep space

Bedtime is the best time of the day to practise what I describe as My Percentage of Wakefulness approach. If you can allow baby to be even five per cent wakeful on bedtime put down, then when mature sleep cycles emerge around 16 weeks, they will have more ability to cycle through the phases and not wake each time they transition.  Some babies are not open to this approach and if your baby is one of those, don’t worry, work on the other aspects as my Stay-and-Support method replaces this approach after 6 months of age.

7. Don’t compare your baby’s sleep, feeding or behaviour with another.

Every baby is so different and comparisons rarely help our mood and feelings and serve only to undermine our individual relationship with our infants. Plough your own furrow. Learn more about expectations - have low expectations - for sleep ability and work on the elements that can be worked on. Leave behind any interventions that are not suitable until your baby is older and maybe then when your baby is older, it won’t be necessary any way. Their sleep matures, not always at the rate we would like, and sometimes we need to make adjustments to keep encouraging more sleep growth to emerge, and this is all much easier if you have consciously enabled an attuned, loving, responsive relationship with baby from early on. 

Lucy will be speaking at the Pregnancy and Baby Fair with Boots, April 6 and 7 in RDS Simmoncourt, Dublin. For more information see




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