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A Gentle and Natural way to Help Your New Baby to Sleep Well

New baby sleep problems

A gentle and natural way to help your new baby to sleep well – without sleep training.

0-6 Weeks

In the past, there has been far too much emphasis placed on getting very young babies established onto strict feeding and sleeping regimes. Whilst this advice is well meant and for some babies can be successful, it’s not the right approach for most families, and there are many new parents who feel a sense of failure if their baby doesn’t feed and sleep “by the clock” even in the early weeks. The fact is, that no outside advice could ever be better than a mother’s [or father’s] natural instinct to love and nurture their newborn baby. 

The four most important ways to help your new baby to learn how to sleep well and feel contented and settled:

  • To feed on demand.
  • To allow their sleep patterns to develop naturally – no waking them up during a nap or in the night – unless they are tiny and haven’t fed for a long time.
  • To set their internal body clock by allowing them to experience daylight and darkness.
  • Through holding, handling and gazing at your baby, allow the lovely process of bonding to take place. 

In these early, precious but exhausting weeks, sleep is very closely involved with feeding. Your new baby will tend to live life in a milky, dozy state. 

At this age babies’ sleep is quite light and fidgety, mainly because they have nearly double the amount of rapid eye movement [REM] sleep than adults do. This kind of sleep is often called “active sleep” and is very important for their neurological development. Both babies and adults need REM sleep for memory consolidation and learning.

If you are breastfeeding, it is quite usual to feed every 2-3 hours…….and sometimes even more, especially in the evening. During the latter part of the day and during the night, breast milk contains high levels of the natural sleep chemical, tryptophan. So “cluster feeding” at this time, not only allows your baby to stock up on food for the night, it also helps to improve the quality of their sleep.

It might not seem like it, but babies of this age sleep for an average of 14.5 hours in a 24-hour period. [The range however is 9-20 hours.] If you think that your baby isn’t getting this much sleep why not keep a simple sleep diary? This will give you a clearer picture of their sleep tendencies and will enable you to see if any pattern is beginning to emerge..”

To encourage your baby to settle into a good sleep pattern they need:

  1. Enough milk. If you are breastfeeding this means feeding on demand. For formula-fed babies, follow the guidelines on the tin or allow 2 ½ oz [75 ml] in a 24-hour period per pound  [0.45 kg] of their body weight. 
  2. A cosy and safe place to sleep. The ideal room temperature should be around 18 degrees centigrade. Clothing and cot covers should be made of natural fibres such as cotton or fine wool. For important safety advice about babies’ sleep environment, visit The Lullaby Trust.
  3. During the night, when they wake for a feed, keep the lights down low and speak softly. Settle them back into the cot after feeding and winding.
  4. Do not change your baby’s nappy during the night unless it is very wet or soiled. A Thermos with warm water for cleaning them will save you from crashing around in the bathroom in the middle of the night. 
  5. Introduce a familiar gentle song or spoken ritual that your baby will come to associate with bedtime.
  6. Allow them to experience fresh air and light during the daytime, and darkness at night. This will encourage the development and production of Melatonin – one of the most important sleep hormones.

6-12 Weeks

By this stage, many babies are beginning to sleep for longer periods and to feed less often. It is usual for a baby of about 8 weeks old to sleep for 6 hours at night without waking for a feed, although many babies have managed to do this earlier and some will be a little later.

Your baby is now bigger and stronger, even though they are not yet taking solid food.

Their total sleep requirement may have dropped slightly, to between 14 and 15 hours in 24 but night sleep will be becoming deeper and lasting for longer periods. They may not yet have an early, set bedtime and it is not unusual for babies of this age to settle for the night at the same time as you do.

To encourage good sleeping habits at this age, keep up with the first 6 steps and in addition try to encourage your baby to sleep without falling asleep on the bedtime feed. 

Do this by giving the final feed with the bedroom light kept on and preventing them from dozing. 

A “split feed” where you give one-half of the feed before bath time and the other half after it, can often help to prevent a baby from falling asleep on the last feed of the day.

Once they start to get sleepy and/or you think they have had enough; take them off the breast or bottle and hold them upright against your shoulder. Move gently from side to side whilst humming, shushing or singing. Stroke the base of their back to bring up any wind and then when they are relaxed [not drowsy] and awake, try placing them in the cot and if you need to, continue to soothe them by stroking, singing etc. 

There is no need to prevent your baby from falling asleep over every single feed. Try at first, just for the one closest to your baby’s bedtime.

12 – 16 Weeks

At this lovely age, your baby is becoming much more active in the daytime and may even begin to sleep through the night for between 6 – 12 hours at night, with 3-4 daytime naps. This should total about 13-14 hours. Rather than going to bed at the same time as you do, they will now be producing their own sleep hormones and will start to need an earlier bedtime. This is usually sometime between 6 pm & 8 pm.

To encourage positive sleep associations at this age you need to establish a bedtime routine.

A good bedtime routine is a repeated series of steps leading up to bedtime, each of which provides a ‘sleep clue’ which tells your baby that sleep time is coming. If repeated consistently, it will help them to feel safe, comfortable and sleepy.

As a guide, try the following steps: 

  • A final [short] daytime nap at around 5 PM. This will help to prevent them from becoming over-tired.
  • Tidy up the daytime things and prepare all that you need for the night.
  • Turn off the TV, radio etc. and take everything that they need for the night to the bedroom.
  • They will need an awake window of 1.5 -3 hours, depending on their age and/or their natural pattern, before settling down for the night. 
  • Bath them every night if you can. Even if your baby is clean, it is good to bathe them as the experience serves as a very powerful sleep clue. It also allows them to expend reserves of energy. Introduce an ‘action’ song in the bath, you will both enjoy it and it will serve as another [highly portable] sleep clue.
  • If you can’t or don’t want to bathe them, still have some kind of washing ritual.
  • After this, go directly to the bedroom. Don’t be tempted to take them back into the main living area, or you’ll find that rather than making them sleepy, the bath has left them ready to play!
  • When you’re in the bedroom, keep the atmosphere calm, with soft lighting etc. If you normally give a massage, now is a good time to do it.
  • Give your baby a bottle or breastfeed [still with the light kept on] and then afterwards, look at a little baby book together, sing a familiar lullaby or repeat a consistent goodnight phrase. 
  • Then place them in the cot – whilst they are still awake and relaxed is best. 
  • If they are in the cot awake but not crying, just watch and wait. Babies have an inbuilt natural ability to sleep if we let them. It may take several minutes of fussing, arms flying and legs kicking before they eventually get themselves off to sleep. It’s really good to give them as long as they need and try not to intervene.
  • If your baby struggles to settle, however,  you may have to stay with them, patting and stroking, singing and rocking until they are calm enough to sleep. It is better to gently ease them into falling asleep independently rather than letting them cry intensely.
  • The sequence of your routine is more important than the time at which it is done. If 6-8 pm is too early for your baby, just follow the routine a little later.
  • Most babies, as they get bigger and older start to feed less during the night, and some, by the time that they get to this age, will have dropped them completely.
  • If your baby starts to feed in the night more rather than less as they get older, they may be developing a feed/sleep dependence, and unless you’re both happy with the way the nights are, you might need to look at one of my other posts either about the 4-month sleep regression or helping them to safely drop their night feeds.

At the end of the day, you are the best person in the world to decide what is right for your baby. Better than any sleep consultant! Use this as a guide only to support your own instinct. Be loving, consistent, resolute and above all, confident!