Babies and sleep: the number one cause of distress for parents
When it comes to babies, sleep is one of the most talked about topics among parents and the biggest cause of distress for many.
If only you could wave a magic wand and make all your sleep problems disappear. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Sleep is a complicated topic and the way forward will differ according to a baby’s age, weight, their unique personality and whether they were premature or full-term. Your approach to routine as a parent will also influence the road ahead.
Having said that, if you are a first-time parent, or an experienced parent who has welcomed their second or third child, the answer to these four questions should set you off along the right path.
Is my baby getting enough sleep?
Does this sound familiar? Your baby isn’t sleeping during the night, so you try to keep them awake for as long as possible during the day to tire them out, or you wake them if they sleep for too long during the day. While completely logical, this is counter-productive.
Contrary to popular belief, sleep breeds sleep. If your baby isn’t sleeping it may be because they’re not getting enough sleep. Sleep-deprived babies will come across more revved up and consequently sleep less; not more. It’s just the same for adults – if we’re too wired up, we can’t fall asleep and will typically not have a restful night, even after we manage to fall asleep
Sleep is so important for your baby’s mental and physical development (as well as your own!). That’s why laying the foundations for good sleep programming is so important from day one.
Is my baby overstimulated?
It’s been proven that too much stimulation can cause sleep problems for babies, especially when it comes to sleeping during the night.
How does your baby know when it’s time to sleep? Have you introduced a consistent routine with positive sleep cues to start preparing them for sleep? And what does a sleep routine look like?
When it comes to routine, one of our maternity nurses and baby sleep therapists, Dawn encourages many of the new parents she works with to start by trying this approach (subject of course to their unique situation):
“When you’re ready to start getting your baby ready for sleep, move them away from the hustle and bustle of the day into a calm and quiet space; cooking smells, deliveries, the TV, the washing machine, other children are all stimulants that will distract your baby and make it hard for them to fall asleep. Give them a bath or a massage, take them into a room with calming music (or white noise), give them a calming feed, swaddle them, lay them down in their cot and let them settle.”
Letting your baby settle themselves is such an important step. But it’s hard to do when our natural instinct as parents is to pick our baby up at the slightest murmur or noise. This isn’t always necessary, or the right thing to do.
Is my baby crying because they are hungry?
It can be so hard to distinguish between a tired cry, a hungry cry, or a cry for some other reason and it takes time to learn and understand your baby’s cues through the different stages of growth.
Counter-intuitively, most crying early on is due to tiredness. Not hunger, which is often our first response as parents.
The problem with feeding a baby every time they cry is that it leads to snack feeding. If you feed your baby every couple of hours, they will quickly become used to taking only enough to sustain them for an hour or two. And that means those long sleep stretches are going to be a distant dream.
What’s more, if you feed your baby to sleep it can lead to cat napping, especially if you transfer them to their cot once they are asleep. They may sense you’re not there, or miss the sound of your heartbeat, and they will wake up shortly after you’ve put them down.
Finally, if you’re feeding an overtired baby, they won’t have enough energy to feed properly which in turn will make them hungry again too soon and shorten their sleep.
Is my baby relying on props to sleep rather than self-settling?
In the same way that positive sleep associations included in our example sleep routine can get babies into good sleep habits that teach them how to self-settle, sleep props can become addictive and have a detrimental effect on sleep patterns.
Sleep props include (and are not limited to) nursing your baby to sleep, walking up and down stairs, driving around, motion such as rocking, sleeping with your baby and dummies. If your baby becomes too reliant on a sleep prop, they will be unable to settle without it. A dummy is a relatively parent-friendly sleep prop until it comes to weaning them off it; but nursing your baby to sleep or driving around in your car until they sleep is exhausting and not sustainable.
So, while props may help your baby sleep in the short-term, they can very quickly become addictive. If your goal is a long-lasting, fulfilling sleep, you may want to reconsider the role they play in your baby’s sleep routine.
When it comes to teaching your baby to self-settle, Dawn recommends the level one-two-three cry parental guide:
- Level one = an intermittent grizzle or moan;
- Level two = a slightly louder and more persistent cry;
- Level three = a full blown distressed yell.
“The first thing to do when your baby wakes is to check the level of cry. If it’s a level 1 cry, try not to intervene and give them a chance to settle first. If it escalates to a level two cry, try a ‘shhh’ settle from the doorway. If the ‘shhh’ isn’t working, go in and place a hand briefly on your baby while keeping out of their line of vision, and then leave the room. Repeat as necessary a few times if the cry continues to reach level two. You should try to avoid the level three cry if possible so if your baby still isn’t settling, pick them up but keep interaction to a minimum (i.e. no eye contact, conversation or rocking). Lay them down gently as soon as they become quiet. Repeat this sequence as often as needed. It may take some days of intensive effort before you see results.”
Contrary to the expression ‘sleep like a baby’ babies are not born knowing how to fall asleep. They need to learn and it’s up to us as parents to teach them this important skill. The key to a successful sleep routine is to start addressing it the minute you get home from hospital. It’s too early for sleep training – that needs to wait until your baby is fully weaned at round six months. But the sooner you start building the foundations the better off you and your baby will be in the future.
At myTamarin we empower parents to fully enjoy their parenthood journey from pregnancy, through the early days and beyond. Here in the UK, both pre- and post-natal support for parents are patchy at best, and now — with the COViD-19 restrictions — practically non-existent. That’s why we’re making 50+ pregnancy and newborn experts available for virtual support via video, email and chat.
Tune in to the Live Q&A with Zarja Cibej and Dina Maktabi on 12th May at 10.30am to find out how to join myTamarin’s early testing community and get free access to the new online service. We will also discuss some of your sleep and other newborn challenges.
Article by By Zarja Cibej, CEO of, myTamarin