Feeling jaded and sleep deprived? You are in good company. Less than half of all babies sleep through before the toddler years and even if they do, sleep issues can raise their ugly head at any time. Sleep problems need to be addressed because not only do you feel bad, sleep deprivation is not good for your baby either.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is important for your little one because it is healing for his body and mind. During a long period of unbroken sleep, your baby will cycle from light sleep to deep sleep and back many times. When in the light sleep state he will dream and his amazing brain processes and lays down memories of the experiences he had during the day. This sleep state is surmised to be essential for memory and learning.
Deep sleep is just as important for development because during this sleep state, your baby sorts the important information from the day from the irrelevant. The superfluous synapses are literally pruned and connections that are not commonly used are severed, freeing up energy and brain connections for more useful function.
Establishing a good sleep routine
One way to guide your baby into better sleep habits is to establish a sleep routine. The key to routines is that they need to be flexible and age appropriate. There are three steps to setting up a sleep routine effectively:
- Follow age appropriate awake times for your baby
All babies have age related optimal awake times – intervals in which your little one can be happily awake. During this time he will be content and interactive, learning from his environment. If your baby is kept awake for longer than his ideal awake time, he will become needy, easily over stimulated and generally irritable. In addition to this he will not naturally fall into a sleepy state and thus will be more difficult to get to sleep.
The easiest way to get your baby into a routine is to make sure you settle him to sleep as when his age appropriate ‘Awake Time’ is up (See table for age appropriate Awake times). Take note of the time your baby and then make sure to watch that he goes down according to his ‘Awake times’.
- Read your baby’s signals for tiredness
In addition to watching the ‘Awake Time’, you should observe your baby’s individual signals. Signals that your baby is tired may include rubbing eyes, sucking hands, touching ears, looking into space, drowsy eyes or many other self-soothing strategies. When your baby shows the signs of drowsiness, he should be put down to sleep.
- Settle your baby with sleep cues
Use soothing strategies to shift your baby into a drowsy state before putting him in the cot, such as dimming the lights or drawing the blinds; giving a feed, if this is helpful to settle him (such as before bedtime); a soothing massage for older babies and swaddling for little ones works a wonder; rocking your little one until he is drowsy. Once drowsy, put your little one in the cot so that he puts the last piece of the puzzle together for himself – self-soothing to sleep.
Importance of self-soothing
Newborns are unable to self-sooth effectively, which is why you may have found yourself rocking, patting and lulling your newborn to sleep. However, we do know that as your baby gets towards 4 months of age, he has the innate ability to access self-soothing strategies, such as sucking his hand, sucking a dummy, holding a ‘sleep lovey’ such as a bear or Taglet, or to simply hum to sleep. If this natural ability is allowed to develop, without too much interference, you will have a good sleeper.
Where new parents frequently go wrong is by creating dependence and habits around sleep time, such as rocking a six month old to sleep or feeding a toddler at night. Try from around 4 months to give your little one the space and time to self sooth – do not let him cry or become distressed, but if he is moaning to sleep, support him to find his blanky or thumb and to access self soothing strategies independently.
While getting a full night’s sleep may feel like a search for the holy grail, it is achievable, with simple strategies such as watching the awake times, your baby will settle into an age appropriate sleep routine.