Sleep deprived? Here are five ways to help little ones get a good night’s sleep

From reading the signs to waking babies up from naps, a mother of three shares her tips

Wake babies up from all sleeps or they may not sleep at night. Photograph: iStock

Wake babies up from all sleeps or they may not sleep at night. Photograph: iStock

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“So, how is she sleeping?” It’s the question every parent dreads. I was asked it by another parent as I dropped my three-year-old to playschool. Her question referred to my three-month-old baby, whom I had left at home with her grandmother and two-year-old brother.

I hesitated. I blushed. I hung my head in shame as I replied, meekly, “Em, she’s sleeping great, actually.”

This was met with the usual incredulity. “Seriously? Like, right through the night?”

Seriously. Like, right through the night. Like my two other children did, and still do.

No other topic of parenting makes me as uncomfortable as the topic of sleep. Because every time I reveal that my children go to bed happily around 7pm, and sleep all night until around 7am in the morning, I am met with disbelief, shock, resentment, and often the inference that I am lying, and must be engaging in some kind of bizarre psychological game intended to make my fellow parent feel inadequate.

Indeed, this is not the case – quite the opposite. It is I who feel abashed, embarrassed and outside the norm. Because my children do sleep. And sleep well.

This was not always so. When my first child was born, I was plunged head first into the all-consuming, mind-and-heart-blowing role of new motherhood. Recovering from a traumatic birth, the first two months passed by in what I can only describe as a euphoric blur. During this time, my newborn behaved like every newborn – she slept anytime, and anywhere, sleep overtook her. Thus I shunted her about happily in car seat, pram and sling, marvelling at how easily she nodded off.

By the two-month mark, this had changed. My misty-eyed newborn was now a bright-eyed, curious baby. She no longer nodded off happily and effortlessly. “Putting the baby down” became a daily and nightly chore, accompanied by surprisingly lusty wailing (and that was just me!) During these periods of trying to settle her, we tried everything: all the old tricks, like shushing, swaying, rocking, singing, patting, holding; noise to distract her, quiet to soothe her. We fed and burped and changed until, literally, we didn’t know which end of us – or her – was up.

It never occurred to us that she might be overtired. We thought, “She’s a baby! She’ll fall asleep when she needs to! Isn’t that what babies do?” Well-meaning family and friends assured us that we wouldn’t get a decent night’s sleep for the next 10 years. The crunch came when, at four months old, she began waking four, then five, then six times a night each time the soother, which we had given her in the hope of helping her fall asleep, dropped out of her mouth.

That was it. Hours of trying to pacify a wailing baby, along with the dreaded sleep deprivation, were taking its toll. Trawling through all the books, articles, and web material I could find led me a merry journey through sleep cycles, sleep props, schedules, routines, attachment parenting and even an enthusiastic blog detailing step-by-step instructions on how to effectively slide your hands out from under a sleeping baby and place them in the crib without them waking up (it’s well-nigh impossible!).

There was – and is – no magic solution. And yet I’ve felt (or fumbled) my way through the daily rhythms of having three children under 3½ to establishing sleep habits which enable our household to enjoy a good night’s sleep:

1) Reading the signs

Apart from the obvious glazing-over and yawning, I found that each of my children had their own quirky ways of saying: “It’s all starting to get a bit much! Please take me away to my lovely crib!” My eldest developed a strange red unibrow-type line across her eyebrows when she got tired. My second would bat at his ears with his hands and suck on his shoulder (or anything to his left). My youngest, who at four months old, got red-rimmed on her lower lids, emitting a distinctive (and positively cat-like) series of whimpers. Now, they tend to run in circles, getting increasingly frenetic once the tiredness begins.

2) Putting baby down awake for all sleeps

One of the truest things I found is that newborns generally can’t stay awake for more than two hours at a time: this lengthens from around three months onwards. I discovered that missing this “window”, where they were just ready to be put down, led to overtiredness, and the attendant screaming and fussiness that comes with it. So I made sure to whisk them off when they were showing signs of tiredness, putting them into the crib drowsy and ready for sleep, but not actually asleep.

3) Waking baby up from all sleeps

I know: this is the really hard one. It’s so tempting to leave the baby down and have a chance to breathe. It’s also scary waking a baby you’ve spent a long time coaxing to sleep. But it’s necessary. I found my babies wouldn’t sleep at night if they’d had the bulk of their sleep during the day.

4) Establishing a daily pattern

By using the word “pattern” I’m carefully avoiding the words “routine” or “schedule”. Without taking a stance in either the parent-led or baby-led camp, I do believe that babies have their own daily rhythms and patterns to their days, and it is up to us to honour and facilitate their sleeping and feeding according to their own patterns.

Are there times when my baby’s hungrier earlier or later than I expect? Of course – and that’s fine. Are there days when she won’t nod off to sleep easily because we’re doing the playschool run and she’s too interested in what’s going on? Of course – and we adapt accordingly.

5) Make bed and bedtime an oasis

This sounds like weird baby feng-shui, but there are certain simple things I’ve done which work for us. I don’t have toys or games in the children’s bedrooms: they each have just a selection of books, and some of their cuddly soft toys on top of a cabinet or dresser. I follow a degree of bedtime routine with each child, right from the start. We always have one person put the child to bed, and speak softly and calmly to them from then on. I keep the lights dim, and when it’s time to go down, I use a phrase or mantra like, “It’s time for lovely sleep”, and say it a few times as I’m putting them down. Our older children still follow this bedtime routine, with a story and song and a bit of chat thrown in, but with the same key ingredients.

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