Dossier: Our baby

Problems sleeping: 5 tips for a better night’s sleep

From crying it out to sharing a bed – everyone seems to be an expert when it comes to putting baby to bed. But which methods help and what can we really expect from a baby?

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Sanitas

It’s easy to underestimate the toll that sleepless nights can take when you’re swaying around the room with your baby in your arms trying to ease his sore stomach. Or the short nights that are interrupted every half hour by the baby’s cries – until the alarm clock finally goes off signalling the start to another busy working day. Blessed with two bad sleepers, I know what I’m writing about.

Of course, I know that I should have “stocked up on” sleep before baby arrived to really recharge my batteries. However, I really wasn’t prepared for the exhaustion of being a new mum – when one bad sleep phase (pregnancy) slips into another (reflux), and another (problems with breastfeeding), and another (teething) and so on as the growth spurts start. I could never have imagined what it would be like.  

How are things today? Our son (3) still comes into our bed with alarming regularity at four o’clock in the morning. Our daughter (2) has never really made it into her own bed. So, I’m writing this text exhausted after a night with feet in my face, looking for lost dummies down the side of the bed and with cries of “I’m hungry!” echoing around me.

And things look set to stay this way for a while. A long-term study commissioned by the German Institute for Economic Research shows that it takes up to six years for parents’ sleep to return to normal after the birth of their first child. But there is hope! Thankfully, it is possible to improve sleep gradually over this period, as I learned from Rabia Liamlahi, senior consultant in developmental paediatrics at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich.  

5 tips for quieter nights with a baby and toddler

1. Try not to worry

As a new parent, you’re sure to hear lots of well-meant advice about baby’s sleep or tales of babies who’ve slept through the night since they were three months’ old. It’s easy to think that you’re to blame for the bad nights. Senior consultant Rabia Liamlahi advises new parents to keep calm. Parents shouldn’t worry about what other people say. They need to be aware that: “Baby’s sleep is a big issue. Every family has to find out for themselves what works for them and their child. It’s not only every child that is unique, but also every mum and every dad, every family.”

In fact, you can only expect a healthy and well-fed baby to go without food for six hours at a stretch at night from around the age of six months. So, if you put baby to bed at around 7 pm, then even a baby who is “sleeping through” the night – will probably wake up again by 1 am at the latest.– However, statistics should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Liamlahi says: “Like all other areas of development, sleep patterns are very individual and vary from child to child. Many babies still don’t manage to sleep non-stop for six hours even at the age of six months or older.” So if it takes longer, this is completely normal.

When I was struggling, my paediatrician said something that helped me a lot: Initially it’s about the parents just getting through it. You can’t have any other expectations at this time. As you can’t control the sleep pattern of your baby, you have to develop strategies to help you cope. For example, sleep in separate beds for a time, hire external help when you know you have a busy day ahead at work or share night duties.

2. Encourage a day/night rhythm

However, there are ways to help babies develop the day/night rhythm and help them master the transitions between waking and sleeping. Liamlahi’s advice: “A regular daily rhythm and time keepers such as daylight and everyday sounds help bring the baby’s developing inner clock into harmony with the day/night rhythm.” So, the first step advised by the doctor is for parents to introduce fixed and regular meal and nap times, play times and walks.

3. Establish an evening routine

A regular evening routine, such as reading a bedtime story, cuddling on the sofa or a lullaby help prepare baby for the night ahead. “A sleeping aid such as a dummy, cuddly toy or blankie can make it easier when parents leave the room. However, cloths and cuddly toys should only be given to older children to take to bed, as there is a risk of suffocation for babies”, warns Liamlahi.  

4. Help baby feel safe and loved, encourage independence

“I’m not in favour of leaving babies to cry in the first few months,” says Liamlahi in relation to the much-discussed cry-it-out method. Closeness and security are much more important for the child in the first months of life. A routine and cuddling in the evening help babies feel safe, secure and loved. Sleeping in the family bed, so-called co-sleeping, is also a way to meet the baby’s (and the parents’) need for closeness. “However, special precautions should be taken when sharing the family bed in the first few months to reduce the risk of cot death,” advises Liamlahi. A bedside cot which attaches to the parent’s bed is ideal for the beginning. The child should lie on its back in its own sleeping bag and not sink into a mattress that is too soft. The room should be smoke-free. It’s best to sleep at a cool ambient temperature of 18 degrees. Don’t place pillows or allow pets in the cot. And, if baby will be sleeping there alone for the first part of the evening, make sure there’s no way he can fall out.

“However, from around the age of six to eight months, it’s a good idea to consider what your child might already be able to do on his own and how you can help him achieve this”, says Liamlahi. For example, it may be helpful to see if your baby can fall asleep alone in their own bed – or perhaps just stroking their head may help. If a child needs less help getting to sleep in the evening, he will also need less assistance during the night, because if he wakes up he will be able to calm himself and fall asleep again.  

5. Get help

But maybe nothing helps and you find yourself struggling to cope. When does sleep become an issue? “The point at which a baby’s sleeping behaviour is perceived as a problem is very individual. If parents are worried or very exhausted themselves, they should definitely discuss this with the paediatrician”, advises Liamlahi.