So your child won’t sleep? There’s a nap for that

Sleepless nights could be just a bad dream, according to the author of a new book on sleeping babies

‘A haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady and he has one sole desire: to sleep . . . Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.” So wrote the one-time Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin recalling his torturous days of sleep deprivation at the hands of the Soviet Commission for Internal Affairs.

While the circumstances of their sleep deprivation are, of course, incomparable with what Begin endured at the hands of the Soviets, parents of infants and toddlers will have at least some idea of what he was talking about and have certainly experienced that desperate longing for the leaba.

“Are they sleeping yet? Have they slept through? Are you getting much sleep yourself?”

All these and more are among the questions parents of newborn and not so newly born children are most frequently asked, while online parenting forums are awash with cries for help from haggard mothers, and sometimes fathers, who can barely remember how to tie their own shoelaces, never mind when they had eight solid hours of uninterrupted sleep.

This is where sleep coach Niamh O'Reilly comes in and says she can change a baby's bad sleeping habits in just three days. She had a degree in business studies and worked in banking for nine years before going back to study childcare. She worked in creches for 14 years before opening her own and then going on to specialise in sleep. And her new book, No Fuss Baby & Toddler Sleep, promises to help parents send their little darlings to the land of nod without any bother.

When can you start training your baby to sleep?

Some kids have a natural ability to sleep, but it is a skill and some babies will need to be taught it. I would say that from about four months, you can see patterns emerging, and that is when you can start putting good techniques in place. Mum and Dad have to be on the same page and it is all about consistency and about feeling supported by your partner.

At what age has the sleep ship sailed?

I worked with one four-year-old child

who had never been in his own bed. And after the consultation he was sleeping in his own room within two days. It takes only about five or six days for a habit to be adjusted. Sometimes certain sleeping habits can be more of an expectation than a habit.

Are good sleepers born or made?

It can be an innate thing, for sure. A child can be born with the skill but they might lose it as a result of an environmental thing, particularly if the family dynamic changes. It could be a first-born, second-born thing. Parents can lose their confidence. If bad habits set in, parents can get frazzled and they can lose confidence in themselves.

How much sleep does a baby need?

Well “sleeping through the night” actually means sleeping for six hours at a stretch, so that needs to be borne in mind. A six-month-old should be sleeping for between 11 and 12 hours a night and for four hours during the day broken into three naps. The child will start to transition after that and they should start to drop their naps, starting with the afternoon one. A three-year-old might or might not have a nap: that can be hit and miss. They might need it, but they might not want to take it. As children get older they need at least 10 hours’ sleep.

Is co-sleeping a good idea?

Co-sleeping is not a problem if it works for you and your family and if it is done safely. After all, the child is not going to be there until they are 18. But if no one is getting any sleep, then it quickly becomes a problem and something has to change.

Should I stay with my child until they fall asleep?

Well, staying with a child is what we call a sleep aid. I am not going to say it should not be done but if you are always going back in or if you are staying with them until they drop off, then you are building up patterns. It is not that it is bad, it just might lead to further problems.

How they fall asleep is so important. If a little one goes to sleep with a parent in the room and then wakes up in the middle of the night on their own, it can be difficult for them.

What about buggies, soothers, driving in the car or a tumbledryer?

If you start using lots of sleep aids,

you fall into the trap of leading them to expect it. Sleep aids are crutches and kids can become dependent on them to fall asleep very quickly. Sleep messages are much more subtle. The sound of zipping up the grow bag can tell a baby it is time to go to sleep, as can soothing words such as “I love you”, or saying goodnight to the moon. The earlier these messages start to be transmitted, the better.

Should I give my child a bottle to help them settle?

Not if they are not hungry. If they are fussing, you go to comfort them and calm them down. Then they might kick off again and you might have to repeat the process. It can be a repetitive and mind-numbing process for parents but it teaches the baby the bottle is not coming.

How long should I let my child cry?

I don’t talk about it in terms of time, I talk about it in terms of listening. Parents know their child better than anyone else, and they will know if a cry is because their child is a bit cross or sad or really upset.

If the child is crying because they are cross, that is one thing; but if they are crying because they are upset, it is a different story. You don’t want to let the child get to a point where they are very upset. So you could be leaving a child cry for seconds rather than minutes.

When it comes to sleeping through the night, what do you consider a success?

5am or earlier is yesterday. I kind of think that any time after 6am is acceptable. I don’t think you can fight with them at that point. Keeping them up later in the hope that they will sleep later doesn’t pay off, and it might backfire. You’ll have a cranky child who still gets up early.

No Fuss Baby & Toddler Sleep by Niamh O’Reilly is published by Mercier Press