Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a magic sleep-fairy wand to wave over your bawling/sobbing/fractious/generally unsleepy baby? But until someone invents one (note to scientists: please make it a priority), we’ve got some tried and tested ways to settle your baby to sleep so everyone in the house can get the rest they need.
How you do it depends on your baby’s age, so here are 10 tips for each age group:
Their sleep needs: A newborn baby sleeps around 16-17 hours day (not necessarily at night, sadly), falling a bit to around 15 hours at three months.
You’ll still be feeding at night until at least 3-6 months old, so try to stay calm, accept the night wakings and respond to your baby’s demands for food quickly and quietly: that way she’ll hopefully drop off back to sleep quickly afterwards and so will you. A baby who knows he’ll be fed when he asks for it will feel secure and will be more likely to be able to soothe himself to sleep later on. This bit’s tough on parents, but it won’t last forever.
So you’ve fed them and they still won’t settle? Run through a mental checklist of what else might be wrong: wind/colic? (you can often tell by the high-pitched scream, their red face and drawn-up legs) Are they cold or hot? Do they need a nappy change?
Of course you’ll want to cuddle and comfort your crying baby. Some nights you won’t know why they can’t sleep despite your best efforts. But always try to put your baby back down in their Moses basket/cot when they’re drowsy but still awake so they learn to settle themselves. Keep stroking their cheek if you need to.
Newborns can feel more secure when swaddled – either with a sheet or light blanket or using a shop-bought product. It works wonders for some babies, so it’s worth a go.
Stroke their nose
It sounds a bit mad, but a gentle stroking motion – downwards from between the eyes – can relax them and encourage them to close their eyes.
Watch for the yawns
Young babies can’t really stay awake for more than two hours: if you watch closely you’ll see them yawn and their eyes may glaze over. This is the time to take them out of a stimulating environment to a calmer one and let them sleep. If you miss the cues, they can get over-tired and seem hyper-alert when in fact they’re craving sleep.
Lay your baby on a muslin/blanket
Some babies hate transferring from your warm arms when feeding/cuddling to a cold moses basket or cot. To avoid this, put a muslin or blanket under them when feeding/cuddling and put it under them when you place them back in the cot: that way you’ve transferred some warmth and some of your reassuring smell.
Sort out blocked noses
A baby with a cold or who’s congested will have huge trouble sleeping (don’t we all?) You could ask your pharmacist about saline nasal drops, but in the meantime try slightly raising the head end of their cot either by putting a couple of books under the legs or with a small rolled up towel under the mattress. Don’t raise it too high, though, or your baby could slip down.
Some parents swear that putting on the washing machine, tumbler drier or vacuum cleaner near where their baby’s sleeping will send them into the land of nod – probably because it mimics the constant swooshy sound of life in the womb. If it seems rather impractical to move the tumble drier outside their bedroom you can also buy CDs/apps of white noise.
This certainly works – either in your arms or in a rocking/bouncy chair – but beware! It might be useful for those nightmare nights where nothing seems to work, but it’s easy for a baby to get hooked on being rocked to sleep. Then they come to need it every night and suddenly you’ve created what health visitors call a ‘sleep association’. Ditto driving them round and round the supermarket car park at 2am…
Their sleep needs: Your baby will be getting more of their 14-16 hour daily sleep needs at night now (fingers crossed). They’ll likely be having three daytime naps totalling three hours or so.
You’ll probably still be doing at least one night feed until 6 months or older, but keep it quiet: no excitement, no lights on, no playing. Make as little eye contact as possible so they settle back to sleep quickly.
Put them down awake
If they’ve fallen asleep during their feed, it’s so tempting to lay them straight down and sprint out. But health visitors do advise rousing them slightly so they’re awake when you lay them to sleep. That way they know you’ve gone and won’t wake in a panic. It also means they are learning to go to sleep without you there.
Hand them a favourite toy/comforter
When they get to 6 months, as you lay them down in their cot, put down a soft toy they like next to them, or a blanket or muslin that smells of you (and them). This really helps some babies to settle.
Wait before going to them
If you know they’re not hungry or hot/cold but they’re not settling, wait a few minutes before going into the room. Not ages – you don’t want to leave a baby in distress, but try waiting five or 10 minutes: It’s amazing how often they settle by themselves, and that’s a really important skill to learn.
Cuddling and rocking
There are going to be those nights where nothing seems to work apart from cuddling and/or rocking them to sleep. That’s life; everyone has those nights. But try not to make it a nightly habit to rock or cuddle them to sleep – that way they will expect it and don’t learn to settle by themselves.
Patting and shushing
Instead, if you’ve checked the obvious (hunger, nappy, temperature of baby/room) and they’re still not settling, try bending over the cot, patting them gently and shushing them quietly. Then retreat, and do it again if necessary. Leave longer gaps between each session until they (hopefully) settle.
Are they teething?
Some babies get their first teeth and four or five months, and they can cause real irritation and discomfort. Try massaging their face around the jawline and under the chin to soothe it, or try a teething gel. Some babies will only settle for a feed, though.
Try a baby sleeping bag
If your baby can’t seem to settle and they’re wriggling out of their covers, a baby sleeping bag can be a godsend. Watch out for the tog rating.
Try an earlier bedtime
You’d think a baby who’d had a busy day and not much sleep would sleep like the proverbial baby at night. But that’s so often not the case: just like us when we stay up too late, a baby can get a ‘second wind’. They get hyper and can’t settle.
Keep things the same
This is a great time to create a few bedtime habits. It signals to your baby that bedtime is coming, and it’s nearly sleep time. Sleep experts say it should last about half an hour – no more than 45 minutes – and take place calmly in the bedroom and bathroom. Don’t go into the playroom or living areas in case your baby thinks it’s time to play. What you do is up to you but it could include: warm bath, nappy change and pjs on, milk and story.
Their sleep needs: Your baby needs around 13-15 hours of sleep a day now, with around three naps totalling three hours at six months old, probably falling to two naps totalling 2-2 and a half hours at a year old.
Every baby is different, but generally babies over about six months can sleep through the night without a feed – but of course that doesn’t mean they do! If you’re down to one night feed and think your baby could do without it, you could try gradually bringing it forward to before midnight to lengthen the number of hours he’s sleeping without food.
Put your baby down awake
Hopefully they'll be drowsy and relaxed but awake when you put them down to sleep. Trouble is, babies of this age are usually shattered by bedtime and often fall asleep feeding. To avoid this, try feeding slightly earlier and have a story last thing before putting your baby down.
Try not get into the habit of rocking your baby to sleep every night if you can help it: it’s a great time for her to learn to settle herself to sleep without needing you right next to them.
Once you’ve got your 30-45-minute getting ready for bedtime sorted, keep it the same every night, at a similar time too, so you’re giving your baby plenty of cues that it’s time for sleep.
From about 8 months, babies often go through a phase of separation anxiety as they grapple with the concept that if you’re not there, it means you’ve gone! Try to stick to what you normally do. If they have trouble settling, always go back in because it will reassure them, but try not to pick them up. Instead gently stroke their face/pat her and say, ‘shhh, time for sleep. Night night’. Keep it quiet, calm and reassuring, gradually increasing the time between visits.
Sometimes a baby who’s given up night feeds will suddenly start waking up in the night because they’re having a growth spurt. Obviously you are always going to feed a hungry baby! It’s a good time to think about giving more solid food during the day.
Babies of this age are in a major teething zone: often you’ll hear experts say it shouldn’t wake them up but mums will know the truth! Try massaging red gums with the end of a plastic spoon that’s been in the fridge, or use your (clean) finger.
Standing up in the cot
Your baby is probably learning the exciting new skills of sitting and standing up – but hasn’t quite mastered how to lie down again afterwards. So their standing up, holding on to the bars of the cot for dear life and crying. Go in, settle the, back down quickly, kiss them good night and retreat fast. Keep doing it every time, while trying to stay calm. Remind yourself this is a short phase that will pass. During the day try playing games to teach them to get down from standing.
Time to move rooms?
If your baby has been in your bedroom until six months old, it might be a good moment to move her into his own room; it’s amazing how often adults can wake older babies up even just by turning over in bed.
Taking them into your bed
If you don’t normally co-sleep this is often the parental equivalent of pressing the nuclear button! Sleep experts will never advise it as your baby may come to expect to get into your bed every time they wake up – but don’t beat yourself up if you do it occasionally. Sometimes it’s a case of needs must if everyone in the house is going to get some rest on a really bad night.