Helping your baby to sleep – gently, with love


There is enormous pressure around baby sleep. So many rules and expectations: of how  babies ‘should’ sleep; of how parents ‘should’ respond and what is the  ‘right’ way to help a baby sleep.

Parents who don’t have a ‘text book’ baby worry, am I doing something (or everything) wrong? Will I create bad habits if I help my baby to sleep? Do I have to ‘train’ my baby to sleep?

Here is an email from a mum worried about her baby’s sleep – or lack there-of. While many parents would be ecstatic to have a 4 month old baby who sleeps  six to eight hours in a stretch at night time like this little one, you can still ‘hear’ this mum’s concerns and anxiety around her baby’s sleep. The stress of having a baby cry at every sleep time can set up a cycle of anxiety that affects the mother’s energy and her baby’s  association with sleep.

To illustrate how a mum can gently support her baby to sleep easily without such stress, I’ll answer her  ‘email’ in this blog post (please note I receive over 200 emails and face-book questions daily, so receiving a response is like a lotto draw. However I do offer consultations and do  Q and A sessions in my Mummy Mentor program).

Mum question

I need some help with my 4mo son’s sleep. He’s a “duracell bunny baby”, has food intolerances and does not like to go to sleep. He goes from wide awake, happy baby to over tired screaming baby in a matter of minutes.

You sound as though you know your baby really well, even at such a young age. It’s great that you are aware of food intolerances as these can impact significantly on infant sleep.

At 4 months your baby’s nervous system is still very immature. Babies this age and younger can move quite quickly from state to state  eg calm alert to active alert, then into ‘over it’ and crying. By doing some baby watching, and noticing your baby’s tired signs and also how long it takes for him to manage being awake, you could try a wind down a little before the signs you usually notice ( watch – what signs do you see now and what does he seem to do just before these?). Although it is better to watch your baby, not the clock, you will probably find a baby of this age can generally only manage to be awake around an hour and a half before he is ready for a nap.

Every time I try to put him down he screams and gets very upset. I wrap him tightly, play music and rock him to sleep with a dummy, he fights anywhere from 10mins to an hour. I sometimes offer the breast to put him to sleep, but sometimes he won’t even take that. I’m worried about offering the breast all the time because I have to return to work in 2 months

Up until around 4 months, babies enter sleep through an active (REM) sleep phase. This means that they usually still need some help to switch off and fall asleep – falling asleep is quite a complex brain process. However, this is also a good time to give opportunities for your baby to try and see if he can fall asleep himself. Sometimes the stress around going to sleep is because babies are trying to communicate that they either don’t want to be wrapped any more (the startle reflex will be going by now) or they would like to lie and have a wee chat and may fall asleep without help. They are also little barometers of our own stress around sleep (or anything else).  Or, this ‘resistance’ can be because they are simply having difficulty switching out stimulation.

In any case, it is not worth getting into a battle around sleep.  Re Breastfeeding your baby to sleep – please don’t worry about this yet – just as your baby has developed an enormous amount since being a helpless little newborn, he will develop  a whole lot more over the next couple of months before you return to work.  Breastfeeding  is mother nature’s best soother – with hormones and proteins that help your baby relax and fall asleep easily. You don’t always have to breastfeed to sleep  – you can use other cues such as going for a walk, pushing your baby in a pram or carrying him in a sling for some sleeps. This way he will gradually start to develop the ability to fall asleep without much help and breastfeeding won’t be his only sleep cue.

Also, please don’t worry about other people helping him to sleep – discuss with his carers how he likes to go to sleep, what they can do /what they are prepared to do to help him settle and  if you need to make changes, do this over the  few weeks before you start work, gradually with love. You say you have my book Sleeping Like a Baby – there is a gentle ‘baby steps’ plan in there to help make changes, gently with love.  Firstly though, it’s best to relax, create a secure association with sleep – perhaps playing music on a low volume as you breastfeed to sleep. Then after a  week or two,  breastfeed your baby until he is almost asleep – taking it back a baby step at a time as your baby can manage.

You say getting your baby to sleep can take up to an hour. Instead of persevering for this long and becoming anxious or upset, give yourself a time limit  – say, 10 to 15 minutes. If your baby isn’t relaxing by then, simply stop and go out and play or put him in a sling or pram and go for a walk. You can spend so much time trying to make your baby sleep that you will miss out having fun with him.

When I do get him to sleep during the day he’ll sleep for up to 2hrs but often wakes after half an hour and is hard to resettle. He’ll settle for six to eight hours after midnight every night.

Sometimes babies don’t need to resettle.  Simple as that. If your baby is happy and bright eyed after a half hour sleep, get him up and play. If you feel he needs resettling, again , set a time limit so you aren’t constantly standing in a dark room trying for longer to resettle than he will go back to sleep for anyway.  If he is sleeping 6 to 8 hours in a stretch, you can tell nosy people, “My baby sleeps all night.” Because, in fact, five hours is considered ‘all night’ in infant sleep studies – you and your baby are doing great!

He sleeps in a bassinet in our bedroom and I often bring him into our bed when he wakes in the morning and we co-sleep for a couple of hours. But co-sleeping at night won’t even settle him. I’m trying really hard to parent him gently and have tried to “go with the flow” but if I don’t try to put him to sleep he’ll just buzz all day and night and end up being hysterical. I believe in positive, gentle parenting and would never consider CIO.

With a “Duracell bunny” kind of baby, you are right, you do need to put him to sleep. If he doesn’t have sleeps he will become progressively more ‘wired’ as the day goes on and his little nervous system becomes more over stimulated.  So yes, do help him sleep –either cuddle and rock, breastfeed when he looks tired (in a quiet room as babies this age are easily distracted) or push him in a pram ( check out the Sleep Rumbler if weather means you have to be inside ).  By helping your baby go to sleep at least for the first sleep of the day, after one good sleep, he is likely to fall asleep more easily, the next sleep.

Sleep time has become such a negative experience for both of us and I’m at the point now where I dread sleep time and am considering “sleep school”.

It’s time to break the cycle – try the tips above and, if you do feel you need to go to ‘sleep school’ remember, this is YOUR baby, you don’t have to do ANTHING that you are uncomfortable with. Remember to filter all advice by asking  “is it safe? Is it Respectful? Does  it feel right?”

For more support for your babys sleep , check out Pinky’s book Sleeping Like a Baby, and her baby sleep seminars