Understanding And Improving Baby Sleep, Without Tears!

Best-selling author of The Gentle Sleep book and parenting expert, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, shares her tips


Does your baby ‘sleep through the night’? If they don’t, you may feel like you’re in the minority amongst friends who all have babies who sleep for solid twelve hour stretches. Your pediatrician may imply that you are somehow failing to meet your baby’s needs and that you “need to do something about it”. Perhaps your baby sleeps in your bed for all or part of the night? After you found that the only thing that works is to allow your baby to be in physical contact with you when they sleep. Bedsharing parents can often feel an uncomfortable sense of unease and guilt, fearing that they are somehow putting their baby at risk, or stunting their independence. Grandparents often react in shocked tones when they realize “the baby is in your bed?!” and encourage you to get them in their own room as soon as possible. Perhaps you are struggling to get your baby into a routine, especially one that involves putting them in their crib “drowsy but awake”. Instead you secretly hold your baby for all their naps and allow them to fall asleep on the breast or bottle. You know you shouldn’t create sleep props, you know that you should be teaching your baby to ‘self soothe’, but it just doesn’t work. You can’t cope with leaving your baby to cry. Sleep is unrivalled as the biggest bringer of guilt and anxiety for new parents, the reality is however that it doesn’t have to be.


Baby Sleep

Our modern, western, society has totally incorrect expectations of baby sleep. We expect them to sleep for too long and alone. Science tells us that our babies need to sleep in short cycles. The frequent waking is not only normal, it helps to protect them from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The other thing that protects them from SIDS? The presence of their parents, in close physical contact with them. Frequent waking and the need for parental presence during sleep is the norm for our species – just as it is for all other mammals on our planet. Force premature separation of parent and child, before the baby is ready, and you understandably find yourself with an upset baby who won’t sleep because of an evolutionary protective mechanism.


Waking in the night

What about the frequent waking? All babies sleep in cycles of between forty-five and sixty minutes (depending on their age). At the end of this sleep cycle one of two things happens: they either immediately start a new cycle, or they wake if something alerts them (that something could be hunger, thirst, pain, fear, discomfort, a need for human contact, or a wet diaper). If something is wrong, physiologically or psychologically, they need their parent’s help to start a new cycle. This frequent waking, or ‘arousal’ as scientists call it, is important from a safety perspective. If there is something wrong, perhaps the baby cannot breathe properly because a blanket has ended up over their face, the fact they wake so often means they are likely to be alerted to it and in turn alert a parent to preserve their life. The babies who ‘sleep through’ are either naturally calm and connecting sleep cycles because nothing is wrong, or they have been trained to not communicate their problems to their parents through some form of mainstream (cry-based) sleep training. If parents understood how mainstream sleep training ‘works’ I truly don’t believe it would be so popular. What parent really wants to train their child to not call for them if they are in trouble? Or lay there alone, scared and lonely and not let their parents know that they are afraid?

So, what is the alternative? Should parents just have to ‘suck it up’? Accept that they won’t sleep again, or at least for another couple of years (since science tells us it is reasonable for a child to ‘sleep through’ from the age of two years and unlikely before!)? How does this martyrdom work when you have another child, or a job to hold down? The sad reality is that it doesn’t. There is nothing wrong with a baby who doesn’t sleep through the night. There is nothing wrong with a baby who won’t sleep in a routine, fall asleep on their own and stay that way all night, or nap, time. This is normal infant sleep, it just doesn’t look like what most people think it does. The problem is not our babies, the problem is us – or rather our lives. Our lives have evolved into the stress of the modern twenty first century, our babies have remained with their basic and simple needs, the same ones they had a thousand years ago. If we can’t change our lives (which really is the most sensible change) we shouldn’t force our babies to change and carry the brunt of our modern-day stresses and strains. We need to find a happy medium. How do we do that? We go back to that period between sleep cycles, that ‘danger zone’ that happens at least once an hour which may cause our babies to wake and we get clever. We minimize anything that is wrong and may potentially cause the baby to wake and (if you don’t want to sleep with your baby, which I heartily recommend) we add ‘mother substitutes’, items that help the baby to feel mom is still around and with them, even when she’s not.


Here are some ideas that may help:


  • Make sure the room is the right temperature, the best for sleep is between 60 and 65 Fahrenheit, most nurseries are too warm. Cool rooms and appropriate warm bedding is best.
  • Make sure the lighting is sleep-friendly. The only light that doesn’t inhibit sleep is red, make sure you don’t use your main lights for bedtime or overnight but instead have a red nightlight on all night.
  • Make sure the sounds in the room are the same all night. Any music your baby falls asleep to must be present all night. If you sing them to sleep they may have a problem when you’re not singing when they wake at 2am. Baby alpha music is the best choice. Music without human voices, 60 beats per minute, simple and repetitive.
  • Have a consistent bedtime routine, starting at the same sort of time every night and doing the same things in the same order. A good bedtime routine will last for at least half an hour and include a massage, a story, a milk feed and lots of cuddles.
  • Condition a comfort object, or ‘lovey’, every time you snuggle and feed your baby place it between you so in time they may associate it with you and cuddle up to it at night.
  • Use a baby safe aromatherapy oil as perfume for a couple of months and diffuse the scent into your baby’s room in the evening, so the room smells of you.


My #1 Tip


Perhaps the best tip I can give you however is to understand and accept your baby’s sleep. It is normal. ‘Good sleep’ is not the norm, but usually artificially created at a cost. The sleepless nights won’t last forever, they will pass. In the meantime, try to understand how your baby feels, you are their world. You provide everything they need, why not allow them to have you for a little longer? Most importantly though, take care of yourself. Parenting is draining, especially if you’re working or have other children. Try to find time for self-care, get an early night, take a long soak in the tub, buy your favorite chocolate or give mindfulness a try, because ultimately you are the key. You matter, never forget that, especially when your mother-in-law or Pediatrician is trying to tell you that you’ve done something wrong. There is never anything wrong with listening to your own instinct, it is the wisest teacher of all.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother to four children and author of eight parenting books, including the bestselling ‘The Gentle Sleep Book’.


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