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Encouraging Healthy Sleep Habits in Young Babies and Infants

by Tina Goldsmith 10/03/2020
baby not asleep on sofa at bedtime

We all know parents experiencing agonising levels of sleep deprivation for which there can be no realistic preparation. Every child is unique and will take their own path from the chaos of those early weeks to a solid night’s sleep in their own bed. Here are some tips for new parents looking to make that path as smooth as possible:

1. Distinguish Night and Day

The incredible neonate brain is learning right from day one. And babies are pre-programmed by evolution to respond to a day/night cycle. Their in-built biological clock – the circadian rhythm that naturally makes humans more active in daylight and less active at night – needs setting. Light plays an enormous part in this. Experts in Infant Circadian Entrainment recommend plenty of exposure to “fresh air and sunshine” during the day and keeping artificial lighting and stimulation to a bare minimum during night feeds and changes. Lightbulbs or filters that eliminate the blue end of the light spectrum may also help.

2. The Last Hour Before Bed

Adults know that stress can disrupt their own sleep. It’s the same for babies. One of the biggest stressors in a baby’s life if the emotional availability of the parent. A fascinating study published in 2016 showed a significant positive relationship between parental emotional availability at bedtime and the duration of infant sleep. Make the last hour before bedtime about emotional reassurance through cuddles and contact and stories and songs.   

mother and baby encouraging healthy sleep habits

3. Don’t Rush to the Cot

It can be tempting to run straight to your baby’s bedside at the first hint of a murmur. Totally understandable behaviour from the new (and sleep-deprived and sometimes slightly terrified) parent, but young infants need to learn to self-settle. This means giving them a chance to fall back asleep on their own – which they won’t do if they here mummy or daddy coming. Check out this evidence-based guide to baby sleep patterns.

4. The Sleep Environment

The NHS recommends that: “The safest place for your baby to sleep is on their back in a cot in the same room as you for the first six months.” A familiar and comforting sleep environment will help keep your baby at ease through the night. Pillows and duvets are not safe for babies. Likewise, anything with ties (such as a bib or cot bumpers) should not be left in the cot with your baby. Sheets and blankets and baby sleeping bags will keep your baby warm and safe.

crochet blanket on cot

5. You Are Not Alone

Scientists conducting a study of sleep patterns interviewed nearly 40,000 participants every year for seven years. The participants were asked to record their sleep duration and satisfaction during this time. One analysis of the data looked at the responses from the 4659 participants who became parents during the course of the study. This analysis was published in the journal Sleep in April last year. The scientists concluded:

“The costs of having children include drastic short-term consequences for maternal sleep, with a nadir in sleep satisfaction and duration during the first three postpartum months. After the first child, neither mothers’ nor fathers’ sleep satisfaction or duration fully recovers, even when their children reach preschool age (4–6 years postpartum).”

6. Work It Out Together

Remember to look after yourself. If your baby isn’t sleeping in the same way as his contemporaries, that doesn’t mean necessarily that you are doing anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with your baby. There is a huge amount of variance in baby sleeping habits! We hope it will help you to bear some of these principles in mind, but every baby is different and you can enjoy figuring out together what works best for your family.

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