Baby sleep advice

baby sleeping

Parent plus new baby equals serious loss of sleep. It's a simple enough equation but a darn difficult one to live through

Sleep and your newborn
Safe sleep
Settling your newborn
What to expect at 3-6 months
What to expect at 6-12 months
Daytime naps
Sleep training and controlled crying

It doesn't matter how ready (or not) you think you are for motherhood, nothing can prepare you for the brain-numbing, bone-aching reality of new-parent sleep deprivation.

Or for your sudden, all-consuming need to find answers to a million and one baby sleep-related questions. What's the best way to settle a newborn baby to sleep? How long should she sleep for? Should you let her cry or not? Is it OK for your baby to sleep in your bed? How on earth do you get her to take a nap? How do I cope when I'm this sleep deprived? And when, oh when, will she sleep through?

Swaddling my baby saved my sanity.

Now you could turn to the dozens of baby 'sleep experts' out there, each with their own (hugely different) theories and complicated schedules for getting a baby to snooze from dusk to dawn – and, yes, they do work for some parents.

But, if you're desperate for some tried-and-tested tricks that'll persuade your baby to give you a few more hours – hell, a few more minutes – in the land of Nod, we reckon the best plan is to listen to the truly weary wise: Mumsnetters who have been (or still are) in the same bleary-eyed boat as you. What they don't know really ain't worth losing sleep over…

Sleep and your newborn baby

The average newborn sleeps for 16 to 20 hours a day. But not all at once. And not all at night. It's pretty shattering for those of us who are meant to be in charge.

The early weeks are worst. Your baby's doing a random, round-the-clock waking and dozing thing, and often has a distinct aversion to sleeping anywhere other than your arms.

“My newborn wouldn't go to sleep on his own – only in my arms or in our bed. If we put him down in the Moses basket, he would wake after 20 minutes at the most. I was worried this might be the start of major bad habits but now he's seven weeks and is settling much better.”

“My first child got her days and nights mixed up: she would sleep nearly all day and then be awake almost all night!”

If you're not having any luck with the lay-down-and-leg-it approach, try our tips for settling your newborn baby below.

As the weeks pass, it does, ever so slowly, get better (honest). Your baby will gradually cotton on to the difference between night and day and, by six to eight weeks, will probably be putting in more time at the cot-face during the wee, small hours.

Even the most diehard of night-time wakers are usually sleeping less in the day and more at night by 10 to 12 weeks.

“My daughter was either sleeping, feeding or screaming – none of the peaceful 'surveying the world' the baby books tell you about. I found it very depressing and worried that things would never change and that I must be doing it all wrong. But she changed and at 10 weeks slept through the night.”

Safe sleep

Although the causes of cot death (SIDS) are still not completely clear, health experts are agreed that there are steps you can take to reduce the risk for your baby:

  • Put your baby on her back to sleep
  • Do not let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby
  • Do not let your baby get too hot or too cold
  • Do not cover your baby's head while she's sleeping
  • Place your baby down to sleep, so that her feet are at the foot end of the cot
  • Consider using a dummy to settle your baby to sleep
  • Do not share a bed with your baby if you smoke
  • Do not share a bed with your baby if you have been drinking or taking drugs
  • Understand that the safest place for your baby to sleep in her first six months is in a cot in your room

Settling your newborn baby

baby swaddle

Frustratingly, newborns don't come equipped with a 'now go to sleep' button. While some nod off angelically at the drop of a hat, there are many who, no matter how tired they are, often need some serious parental persuasion on the closing-eyes front. Mumsnetters' top 10 sleep-persuasion tactics include:

1. Swaddling. “My daughter was far more settled when we wrapped her in a swaddle – you just have to be careful to make sure that they don't overheat. We used a cotton cellular blanket but, when it was really hot, we used a sheet.”

2. “Gently stroke your baby's nose in little downwards movements. This encourages them to close their eyes and fall asleep.”

3. “My son wouldn't settle if he was lying flat. We found putting him in a baby bouncer and rocking it gently worked.”

4. “The spin cycle on the washing machine is very effective! Sometimes, I'd put several consecutive spins on just to lull her to drowsiness.”

5. “Try a lambskin. My two slept on them for years and they're so easy to take everywhere. I just put it on the floor and they'd settle straightaway.”

6. “Keep things quiet and boring in the lead-up to bedtime and limit the number of people holding him. I underestimated how unsettling and over-stimulating being held by visitors can be.”

7. Watch the clock. “A good rule of thumb is that a newborn can't stay awake more than two hours at a time. So, if yours has been wide awake for two hours, retreat to a quiet room with little stimulation.”

8. “If all else fails, put your baby in a sling. She'll almost certainly fall asleep in a sling, close to your body, and at least you've got your hands free to make yourself a cup of tea.”

And for the baby who falls asleep beautifully in your arms but snaps awake again as soon as her head hits the sheets…

9. “Put a muslin or a blanket under him during the feed and transfer this with him, then he'll still have some of Mummy's warmth and smell with him when you put him down.”

10. “Babies don't seem to like cold sheets. Use a hot water bottle to gently warm the bottom sheet of your Moses basket for a minute or two before putting your newborn down to sleep.”

Oh and one extra (noisy) word to the wise…

“Don't be quiet when your baby sleeps. When my kids were tiny, I always saw sleep time as the perfect opportunity to get some vacuuming done. Now they sleep through almost anything. My sister, by contrast, turned down the TV and spoke in whispers and her daughter now wakes up if a floorboard squeaks.”

If you're having real trouble settling your baby or have times when you just can't seem to stop your baby crying, read our tips on crying, comforting and colic.

Dummies: yeah or nay?

baby sleeping dummy

It's amazing, really, how much emotion a small piece of plastic can stir up. But it can – and does. Ranged in the 'against dummies, no matter what' corner are, generally speaking, the older generation, mutteringly darkly about bad habits and wonky teeth. Facing them from the 'for dummies, actually' corner are, equally generally speaking, an evangelical crowd of new parents who've finally found the way to get a moment's peace.

To save you time sifting through the (occasionally dodgy) claims of either side, here's a quick dummy-debate lowdown…

The 'pros' of dummies

  • 'They soothe your baby’s cries when nothing else can.' This is certainly true for some 'sucky' babies who just don't seem to be able to settle any other way. Not for nothing are dummies called pacifiers in the US.
  • 'They can reduce your baby's risk of cot death.' There are indeed studies that have shown an association between giving your baby a dummy while she sleeps and a lower risk of cot death. But it's not yet clear whether it's actually the dummy itself that's providing this protective effect or simply the action of sucking (which a baby could do just as well on her fingers or at the breast).
  • 'They're (eventually) simple to get rid of.' Because you can chuck 'em out when the time comes. Which you can't really do with your child's thumb.

The 'cons' of dummies

  • 'They're ugly.' Granted, they’re no thing of beauty but maybe, just maybe, you can live with that.
  • 'They make breastfeeding harder.' Breastfeeding experts say that giving a very small baby a dummy can cause 'nipple confusion' – because sucking on a dummy is quite different to sucking on a human nipple. And that can make it harder for you to establish breastfeeding. For this reason, breastfeeding mums are generally advised not to introduce a dummy until their baby is one month old and feeding is going well.
  • 'They can give your child wonky teeth.' True, but only if your child still has a dummy at age five or six when her permanent teeth are coming through. And sucking a thumb can cause tooth-wonkiness, too, of course.
  • 'They can delay language development.' Possibly, but only if your child’s plugged into it morning, noon, and night.
  • 'They become such a source of comfort, you’ll have a battle getting your baby to give it up when she’s older.' Maybe; maybe not. But if you're desperate to settle your screaming baby, that probably sounds like a good trade.
  • 'They can cause night-time waking when they fall out of your baby’s mouth.' Often true but at least the back-to-sleep solution is close at (your) hand.
  • 'They are used by lazy mums who can’t be bothered to find out what their baby’s really upset about.' A sentiment, it has to be said, that is generally only expressed by people who have yet to attempt to calm their squalling progeny for three ear-splitting hours on the trot.

“This is outrageous, arrogant and downright rude. It is pure snobbery. Dummies are totally harmless and, if anything, they are good for babies, yet they attract such hostility. I am really glad I followed my son's needs and not other people's snobbery when I made choices about his wellbeing.”

Dummies are neither good nor evil. They are just a choice – and, generally, it's the baby who makes it.

And, as for the whether you should join the dummy-doomsayers corner or the dummy-devotees, we really wouldn't bother fretting because, odds are, the choice isn't going to be yours to make.

“It can go both ways. My daughter used one up until she was about two. I'd actually rather she hadn't but, on many occasions, I was glad that she did. My son has never liked them, which is great for many reasons but there have been lots of occasions when I have wished he would take one. Dummies are neither good nor evil. They are just a choice. And, generally it's the baby who makes the choice.”

What to expect at three to six months

three months sleep

By three months, many babies are managing a good old stretch of night-time sleep (maybe even up to six hours between feeds). Whether you call this 'sleeping through' or not largely depends on your abilities to spin the situation: for every parent who thinks 11pm to 5am is living torture, there's another thinking, 'Result!' (And, very probably, a third who'd give her eye teeth for even half a night like that.)

Over the next few months, your baby's sleep habits should start to bed down (as it were) into a more predictable (OK, slightly less chaotic) pattern. She'll gradually start to sleep less in the day (as she becomes more alert and engaged with the world around her) and more at night (as she becomes able to go longer without a feed).

At this point, some parents like to get cracking with 'proper' daytime naps and strictly scheduled bedtimes; others prefer to go with the flow for a while longer yet.

Whatever your inclinations, it's definitely worth trying to establish some kind of bedtime ritual to wind your baby down nice and calmly to a good night's sleep.

“I think a bedtime routine can really help at this age – and it allows you some free time in the evening, too. By routine, I mean a feed, a bath, a quiet time and a feed, in that order, and at about the same time every night. If your baby wakes or doesn't settle, then you don't take her downstairs again but settle her in or near the cot. This is not controlled crying, which I feel is too much for a baby of this age. It's just establishing a quiet end to the day.”

Of course, getting to sleep calmly doesn't guarantee staying asleep calmly. The average three- to six-month-old may be capable of clocking up six to 10 hours a night but all sorts of things can come along to interrupt their slumber. In which case…

“If your baby suddenly starts waking again, after having been a good sleeper, don't despair. It could be teething or hunger triggered by a growth spurt. As long as you're not doing anything to reinforce the waking, like turning on the light or talking to your baby, it'll pass.”

“A baby sleeping bag was the answer for us. My baby used to wake himself up moving around and banging his head against the cot but that's stopped now.”

What to expect at six to 12 months

six months sleep

By six months, most babies are sleeping 11 to 15 hours a day. Of that, about three or four hours is daytime sleep, which they'll usually pool (or can be persuaded to pool) into two decent-length naps – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

This leaves a nice, healthy eight to 10 hours for gloriously uninterrupted night-time sleep, slowly increasing to around 11 hours by the age of one (when the two daytime naps will have shortened or gone down to one).

So much for the theory.

Back in the real world, where theories are just theories and babies are a lovely but unpredictable reality, you may still be struggling to string together even a couple of nights of unbroken sleep.

If your baby's still regularly waking in the night, you may want to:

  • Move her to her own room. “We seemed to be waking our daughter every time we moved or turned over in bed, so we whipped her into her own room. She immediately started sleeping right through.”
  • Cut down/out the milk. “If feeding at night really bugs you and you're really knackered, then don't do it. I always go cold turkey with mine. It takes a couple of nights and then they sleep through. By six or seven months, there really is no need to feed in the night.”
  • Get tough. If you're up all night, every night and you're beside yourself with exhaustion, you could try controlled crying or one of the other methods of sleep training. “It's not for everyone – and I wouldn't ever use it on a baby under six months – but it worked brilliantly for us.”