Last night, our 8 month old slept though from 8pm until 7:30am, for the first time EVER! He’s never been a great sleeper and just the night before was up from 1am-5am, with two shorter wake ups prior to that. We have nights where we get a good chunk of sleep and others where he’s up every hour. It’s exhausting! I don’t know why he slept though last night, or even if he will do it again tonight, but for now it feels like a massive parenting win and I feel a bit more functional today. Everything seems so much better when you’ve slept, doesn’t it?
He’s our third baby, and whilst the other two now are now great sleepers, I feel I have walked this path before and so should know what I’m doing. Except, all babies are different. Some sleep well from very early on (our eldest did from about 3 months), others take a little longer. I get asked all the time if he’s a ‘good baby’ and if he sleeps. And although I’m sure it’s not intended to, it can kind of make you feel like abilities as a parent are being judged on whether you get 8 hours or not. What even is a ‘good baby’ anyway?
So, after many a sleepless hour trawling the internet to find out why my baby won’t sleep and what I can do to help, here are my favourite bits of info, what I’ve learned, and the tips, tricks and techniques that might help, even ones that haven’t necessarily worked for us.
All Babies Are Different
All babies differ in how much sleep they need and your baby’s pattern of sleep may be completely different to someone else’s. Some sleep though from as early as 3 months, others not until over a year. As solid nap time might be essential to one baby, where another is happy to cat nap on the go. Try not to compare, easier said than done, especially if you’re up all night whilst your NCT buddies all seem to be getting a solid nights sleep. Sleeping deeper and for longer will come – eventually. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. There are not many teenagers who need to be fed or rocked to sleep after all!
Waking through the night is completely normal
We all wake during the night – the difference is, as adults, we have learned to be able to get back to sleep and often don’t even remember waking. For a baby, their sleep cycles are shorter and they sleep less deeply than adults. They often wake as they near the end of a sleep cycle, and while some can happily drop off again, others need a bit of support to get back to sleep. Babies were never designed to sleep soundly for 12 hours. Waking to feed and be comforted is a survival instinct. It’s often our busy lives, society in general and the opinions of others that have us worrying that something is wrong when a baby wakes frequently.
There are loads of other possible reasons a baby might be waking
Hunger/Thirst – Obvious I know, but sometimes even babies that have been sleeping relatively well start waking again because they might be hungry or thirsty, or maybe they’re going through a growth spurt.
Teething – look for the signs that this might be the cause. There are loads of teething gels, toys, powders and of course infant paracetamol that might be able to help.
Being unwell – this could actually make them sleep better or worse!
Separation Anxiety -really common between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old. Your baby has realised you can walk out of the room and leave them – and they don’t like it! Reassurance is key. They need to know that you will come back.
The sleep environment – is it too warm? Too cold? Too light? Too noisy? The optimum temperature for a baby’s room is between 16-20 degrees.
Being Overtired – it is a real thing! Being overtired can actually really hinder getting to sleep in the first place. The irony!
Significant periods of Brain Development – If you’ve not heard of the The Wonder Weeks, definitely check it out. The website has loads of information about brain development in babies and you can also download an App where you enter baby’s due date (there’s science behind why it’s the due date and not the birth date) and it lets you know when you’re likely to experience a fussy period. Knowledge is power as they say, and sometimes, just knowing what’s going on is all you need to feel a little more at ease.
Tips and Tricks we’ve tried (with varying success!)
Routine – We try as much as possible to have a good bedtime routine with bath, lights dimmed, PJ’s, story/song and feed. We also try to stick to the same time for bedtime, but sometimes that’s just not possible because of other kids and general life. We always try to get naps in during the day but I usually try to look for clues that he’s tired rather than sticking to set time. We definitely have more success and longer naps this way.
A comforter – Babies have a strong instinct to suck as it’s comforting. We have tried a dummy and he’s not too keen, but I know lots of babies and parents where a dummy has really helped. A word of caution though, you might have to get up in the night to retrieve and replace it! We have introduced a little soft toy comforter, which I’ve slept with a few times, so it smells like me and we place it in the cot with him.
Learning to self-settle Some babies are more than happy to be put down drowsy but awake and drift off to sleep themselves. Others play merry hell if they are not fed, rocked, sssh’d or placed down completely asleep. Ours is the latter and loves to be fed to sleep. It’s hard, because I want him to be able to settle himself because it might help him get back off in the night, but I don’t want him to get distressed and upset. I’m hopeful that with time, and some of the other methods, it’s a skill that he’ll develop in his own time. There’s plenty of debate online about self settling and sleep training methods so I won’t go into that here, just make sure to do your research before you embark on any kind of ‘plan’.
White Noise – this works well if you want to block out other household noise too. There are various apps for your phone or tablet, CD’s /Downlaods or comforter type toys which play all manner of sounds from hoovers and hairdryers to womb sounds. We have made a desperation purchase of a well known sheep recently – I’ll let you know how we get on with that!
Safe Co-Sleeping -For some, this is an absolute no, and it’s not something Health Professionals would routinely recommend. However, they also know, that when you’re that exhausted, it’s something many consider. In some cultures, it’s the norm, and the thought of putting ababy down to sleep without you by there side seems absurd. It’s really important to do it safely however. The Lullaby Trust have developed some clear guidance which you can read here https://www.lullabytrust.org.uk/safer-sleep-advice/co-sleeping/
I did it with my daughter when she was little as she outgrew the moses basket so quickly but was too little to go into her own room. It worked well for us at the time. It’s not really an option this time though, as our little sleep thief is far too wriggly and I’d be too worried that he would fall out. He literally 360’s in the cot (which is also maybe a reason he wakes so much!)
Do what works for you
For me, this is the single most important piece of advice. There will be plenty of people more than happy to offer their advice and explanations as to why your baby might not be sleeping and what you should do about it. Over the years we’ve heard them all; ‘maybe try switching to formula’, ‘try starting him on solids’, ‘he needs to be in his own room’, ‘he should still be in your room’, ‘he needs a routine’, ‘he needs to learn to settle himself’…. and the list goes on. But, essentially, it’s your baby, you know them best and you know your own limits. So, if you’re managing perfectly well with the once a night wake up and see it as extra cuddle time, don’t feel pressured by anyone else to change things. If you’re happy breastfeeding – carry on! And if co-sleeping works for you and you’re doing it safely, then so what if you Great Aunty Margaret tells you you’re making a rod for your own back.
Look after yourself
I speak from experience when I say sleep deprivation is like torture. The nights can be lonely and the days can be long. It can also bring on feeling of hopelessness and depression, wondering if it will ever end and you’ll get more than a couple of hours sleep. Lot’s of people will say sleep when baby sleeps, which is great in theory but often easier said than done. For me, no matter how tired I am, I find sleeping during the day really hard. But if you can, then definitely do it. It can make all the difference. Ask for and accept help from your partner, family and friends. It does not make you a failure or weak, it means that you are putting the needs of your baby first by looking after your own needs. As they tell you when in the safety talk on when taking a flight – ‘put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others.’ Very wise.
Can someone take baby for a couple of hours while you rest? Can your partner let you get an early night? Can you share the night wakings? Maybe treat yourself to something to reward yourself for the graft you are putting into raising this small person – coffee and cake with a friend, getting your nails done, a long soak in the bath. Anything to make you feel a bit more human.
So, as I wait to see what tonight brings, I feel reassured that if all else fails, there is always coffee and cake to see me through tomorrow. And this too shall pass.