How Do I Get My Baby To Sleep ?
This is the most frequent question I get asked and the answer is in 3 parts
- You meet baby’s physical and emotional needs
- You manage baby’s routine to keep everything in balance
- You give very clear signals when it’s time for baby to sleep
And it’s this last point that I’m covering in this blog…
…how to create clear Sleep Signals that are easy for your baby to understand.
On paper, getting baby to sleep is simple…you just follow the 3 steps I shared above, but in real life nothing about babies is ever simple because they are complex, unique little people that are affected by different things in different ways, so there is never a ‘one size fits all’ answer.
When I’m helping clients with sleep training we literally spend hours working out what is going on and how to improve things, and I go in to this in much more detail in the ‘Understanding Your Baby’ course in my Parent Academy Membership but it all starts with a conversation about all what sorts of things that can be affecting baby’s sleep.
These include the amount of food they get, how often they feed, how good the parents are at winding/burping baby, how often and how long baby sleeps for, where they sleep, what routines are in place, baby’s own temperament, parents and siblings temperaments, any health issues and so on.
This blog is aimed mostly at babies in the 0 to 3 month age, because it’s better to create great sleep habits early on than try and correct them later on, but Sleep Signals are just as effective with older babies, children, and even adults so keep reading if you are having any sort of sleep problem with any age baby.
What Your Baby Needs In Order To Sleep
From birth, your baby’s needs can be simplified using the Foundation 4, basically babies need to be
- Well fed
- Well rested
And I go in to great detail about feeding and winding in my blog posts ‘How do I know if my Baby is Hungry’, and ‘How to Wind your Baby’ (links at the end of this blog), which will help you take care of the first two.
Now, a baby that is well fed and comfortable is much more likely to be ready for sleep, which is great, but that is only part of the overall picture
How do we encourage babies to go to sleep instead of fighting it ?
How do we help babies that are used to being settled or held by you, accept that they can actually sleep by themselves ?
How do we calm an overtired, overstimulated baby ?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just explain to our babies that the reason they feel grouchy or miserable is because they are tired, and if they would only close their eyes and go to sleep, they would feel so much better ?
Or that they will be fine going to sleep on their own, they just need to practise a bit and get used to it.
I’ve tried it, and it never works !
How many of you have muttered ‘for heavens sake…just go to sleep !’
(or less polite versions !!) ??
How do babies learn ?
Honed by millions of years of evolution as a social species, babies know, on an instinctive level, that in order to survive, they must fit in to the society they are born in to.
If they don’t, they risk being rejected or abandoned, which would be certain death, so from the moment they are born, their brains are searching for patterns in their new world, which will help them adapt, fit in, and make sense of everything they encounter.
What I mean by pattern is something happening the same way time and time again, and these patterns exist in peoples body language, spoken language, and everything else that happens around them.
They learn very quickly that voices mean people, and this could mean something interesting to look at or listen to, it could mean cuddles, or food, or fun.
They learn that the creaky floorboard means someone is trying to sneak past their nursery …How dare they !
The sight of a bottle means food
They also learn that their own crying can mean they get picked up, or that their own smile makes others around them smile.
It’s how they learn language and movement.
(it’s also how they learn what buttons to press to drive you crazy !)
They don’t have to work at this pattern spotting, and you don’t have to do anything to make it happen, in fact you can’t actually stop it from happening, but sometimes you can use it to your advantage when there is something you want to communicate to your baby, such as ‘it’s time to go to sleep’
If you do something once, it is meaningless to your baby, but if you do it frequently or regularly, they will begin to spot the pattern, and anticipate what is coming next.
How does this help us ?
This is why bedtime routines work, because when we do the same things, at the same time, everyday your baby knows what is coming next.
So, bath-time, then quiet time, a story, a feed, the room being darkened, a swaddle or sleeping bag, then being put in the cot and the parents moving away all means it’s time to sleep.
Just like light in the morning, more noise around the house and outside, parent coming in to the room etc all mean it’s time to get up.
The great thing is, these routines don’t have to be just for bed time, and they don’t have to be long and complicated, they can be simple and easy, and can be used for everything we do with them.
How do I help my baby sleep ?
We give them clear sleep signals.
We set up a simple routine that we use every time we put baby down for sleep in their bed/cot/moses basket. (we’ll deal with prams later)
I’m going to talk through the different sorts of Sleep Signals you can use, but with all of them, the most important thing to remember is that they won’t work first time.
Baby has to learn to to associate them with going to sleep and this can take days, or even weeks…
…the more you use them, the stronger and more effective they become !
Things we can use
I know most people automatically think that they should make it dark where baby sleeps, but that isn’t always necessary, and sometimes isn’t even a good idea.
If baby learns to always sleep in the dark, this might create a problem if you ever need them to sleep in the light.
Remember, the aim is always to work towards having a baby that fits in with your life, and can adapt to change (because life is full of changes).
If we forget this, we can easily end up having our whole lives determined by ‘what baby wants’, and this isn’t healthy for anyone.
If baby is in their own room you could close the curtains/blind completely
You could also just make it partially dark by half closing curtains, or half lowering blinds.
If baby sleeps in different places around the house, you can still give a light signal by putting them in the darkest part of the room,
You can even put a moses basket under a table because it’s not the level of light that makes the difference, it’s the fact that you are giving them a definite signal that they will come to associate with sleep if you repeat it enough times.
Line of Sight
By this I mean what is in front of baby’s eyes when you ask them to sleep, and this happens automatically when you physically put them somewhere different to sleep.
So in a moses basket or pram bassinet they just see the sides, which are nice and plain and boring, and this is important because we don’t want to give them any sort of stimulation that could be interesting enough to keep them awake.
Sometimes I put babies in their beds a bit early to start the process of calming down, and I give them something to look at, like a black and white book, or an interesting toy (fastened to the side for safety). Once they become calm, I remove the book/toy and they learn that that means it’s time for sleep.
**This is a great strategy for transitioning an excited or overtired and overstimulated baby in to sleep, and sometimes I give them 5 minutes, and sometimes I give them 30 minutes, it depends on the baby and the situation.
If baby sleeps in different places around the house, in a regular place, so they are looking at a blank wall, or a wall with a certain picture on, they come to associate their visual surroundings and it becomes part of the sleep signal.
I had one baby who calmed down beautifully in front of a window watching the leaves on a tree outside, but we learned that he would get sleepy, but then stay just slightly awake for ages, so after 10 minutes we put a big piece of white cardboard on the window to block his view, and he drifted off to sleep within a minute.
This worked because we had created a pattern for him to learn, we observed his pattern of behaviour, and then we adapted our pattern to get the results we wanted.
It took a bit of trial and error, but that is what parenting is all about.
This is a really powerful sleep signal because baby has spent 9 months being bathed in sound, and as they are mostly sleeping, that sound/sleep association is amazingly strong at birth.
This means that if you start using womblike sounds (rhythmic and whooshing), as soon as baby is born you will find the effect can be amazing because the sound signal has already been created for you.
There are lots of options for sound signals, and the baby ones all give an option for white noise (whooshing) and heartbeat (rhythmic), but I have found that the white noise works just as well on its own.
My own personal preference is using an app on a spare phone because it’s so small and portable. Some of the cuddly toy gadgets are a bit too big, and need to be fixed to the side of the bed in some way to make it properly safe.
I also like the fact that on the phone app I can set a timer, or leave it on all night if necessary…I’ve been caught out too many times by a toy that turns off after 20 minutes, before baby is deeply asleep, waking baby up !
Remember, its less about what noise you choose, and more about how consistently and frequently you use it.
I would say that you should pick something that won’t drive you crazy if you do end up leaving it on all night. I find white noise too irritating after a while, so I use waves going up and down a pebble beach, which I don’t mind.
You can also give a noise signal by removing noise, so taking baby from a noisy place to a quiet place, or moving them from one sort of noise to another e.g from a room with a tv on, to a room with music on.
Singing to your baby just before you put them down also works as a sleep signal, but works even better if you always sing the same 1 or 2 songs, so they get to know that those songs mean sleep time.
This is just as you would expect. It’s about where you put baby to sleep, so it can be a moses basket, a cot or a bassinet, or a particular place in the house such as a bedroom, nursery, or outside.
It can even be a combination of both, so you put them in the pram and put them outside, or in a moses basket in a quiet room.
This can be a very strong signal, and sometimes, if your baby is a sleep fighter, it can be the trigger for protest and crying.
I think most of the time this is because baby realises they are being removed from something fun or interesting but is sometimes because there have been a few battles, and they have now just got in to a habit.
That habit is just another pattern, and can be reinforced if we carry on as we are, or addressed, diverted or diluted but I’ll have to deal with that in another blog (…that’s why my blogs usually end up being long…because I keep thinking of things I want to tell you lol)
Babies are so good at spotting patterns, that you can put them in their cot for one nap, a moses basket for another, and a pram for another, and as long as you do that enough times, baby will spot the pattern and accept it as normal.
This is basically what baby is physically experiencing, and it can mean swaddling, or putting in a sleeping bag, or a particular safe sleep toy, or it can be the cuddling, rocking or patting you do leading up to the sleep, or anything you do physically once they are down, like rocking the bed, or hand holding, head stroking, bottom patting etc.
I know people assume we ‘shouldn’t do any of these things, and baby should be able to go to sleep by themselves, but I don’t buy in to that theory.
As long as the pattern is manageable, its fine.
So 30 minutes cuddling and rocking is not great, but 5 or 10 minutes is fine as long as you are happy with it.
Sitting cuddling for a few minutes and singing your special song is a lovely thing to do….but not if they demand 20 songs !
Pacing up and down is ok for a few minutes, but just bear in mind that you baby will grow and can end up causing back and arm ache, so keep this to a minimum, and if it does get too much, either find a substitute or start gradually reducing the length of time.
Your preferences and tolerances are just as important as baby’s so you need to take that in to account when you are thinking about setting up or adjusting these patterns.
So, if you like to socialise, it makes more sense to use portable sleep signals like swaddle and white noise so they can sleep whilst you are out and about.
If you are ill or tired, you need baby to be able to sleep indoors and in the quiet, so you would pick the sleep signals that encourage that habit, so you can rest at the same time.
That need for flexibility and personalisation is why one-size-fits all sleep routines or methods only work for a few people, and why all the best sleep consultants will spend lots of time with you, finding out about you and your baby…and if they don’t don’t use them.
But understanding sleep signals and why they work can be the final piece in the picture that allows you to figure out and fix your own sleep problems so I hope this has helped.
Basically, using sleep signals, or for that matter any sort of method or strategy with your baby is like pick and mix…you look at what you have available, figure out what might work, try it, assess how well it worked, and if necessary go back to the pick and mix and try something else… that’s what successful, effective parenting is all about.
As I mentioned at the beginning, you need to make sure baby is well fed and comfortable before your baby can sleep, so please read my blogs I’ve linked to below.
If you have questions or need help you can join my free FB group, Lockdown Babies,
If you want more in-depth, personalised help, with access to me and to my courses, take a look at my Baby Detective Parent Academy page to learn more
Useful Blog Posts