Ask the Expert: Our baby can’t settle and we are exhausted
To improve your son’s night-time sleeping, you can try to improve the quality and length of your son’s naps. Generally, these naps should occur early in the day and ideally in his own cot (so he associates his cot as a place of rest and sleep).
To help him learn to self-soothe, the key is to bring him to his cot when he is sleepy but not fully asleep so he takes the final step of getting to sleep by himself.
Establishing a good routine
Parents often assume that a child who is unsettled at night is not tired and thus needs to go to bed later, when in fact the reverse is true.
Children who are unsettled at night tend to be overtired and need to get into the habit of going to bed earlier rather than later.
For this reason, starting a relaxing bedtime routine much earlier than usual can make a big difference to a good night’s sleep.
This should involve the same steps each night such as quiet playtime, washing/bath time, putting on pyjamas, reading a story/listening to music, and so on, and finish once again with your son making the final step of going to sleep by himself.
If this is a new habit for your son, you may have to be present initially to support him going to sleep but then over the course of a few nights you can gradually withdraw.
Dealing with night waking
When dealing with your son’s night-time waking, the key is to help him get back to sleep with as little support from you as possible and in a manner that is least disruptive to you as the parents.
This might mean first waiting to see if he settles himself after the first few cries, or then going in and simply patting him quietly without picking him up, rocking him for a few minutes before putting him down again or taking him into the bed with you, as you do now.
If taking him into the bed is not working for you, some couples try lying beside their baby in his room for a few minutes (which has the advantage of him learning to go back to sleep in his own cot).
Once you have a pattern of settling him at night, then you can choose to reduce your support gradually over the course of subsequent nights (for example, just pat him rather than pick him up, or try to support him falling asleep in his cot rather than taking him into your bed) as he learns to sleep himself.
Finally, dealing with sleepless nights is stressful and it is really important that you look after yourselves as parents. Many couples I have worked with take turns for the “night duty” so they at least get an alternate decent night’s sleep.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and director of the Parents Plus Charity. His new book, Parenting Teenagers, is out now. See solutiontalk.ie