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The first 3-4 months of life is a good time to help your baby develop a healthy sleep pattern. If your baby learns to settle back to sleep without your help – called independent sleep – you can avoid problems with settling and waking later on.

Baby wrapped ready for sleep

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Most parents look forward to nights of relatively uninterrupted sleep. But settling and waking are still problems for up to a third of all parents with children under three years.

 

Independent sleep

A baby achieves independent sleep when he:

  • sleeps for 6-8 hours during the night
  • can settle back to sleep without calling out to a parent after waking in the night.

Around 60% of babies can do this by six months of age.

Although there are no guarantees, research suggests that parents can do some simple things to assist even very young babies to become independent sleepers – when the babies are developmentally mature enough.

Making decisions about independent sleep

Your newborn will need you during the night. But you might like the idea of your older baby (from 6-12 months) settling quickly and sleeping during the night without calling on you unnecessarily. If so, the suggestions in this article can help you achieve this.

When children receive plenty of affection and attention from their parents during the day, there’s no evidence that independent sleep disadvantages children in any way.

On the other hand, you might prefer to be on call for your child during the night and day. If so, these suggestions might not be relevant – instead, you might want to work at fitting around your child’s sleep habits.

There’s no right and wrong thing when it comes to independent sleep – it’s a question of what you think is best for your child and family. This is a decision only you can make, and you don’t have to conform to one view or the other.

The key strategies

Recent research shows there are three things you can start doing in the first 3-4 months of your baby’s life to set the scene for independent sleep habits:

  • Emphasise the difference between night and day.
  • Put your baby to bed drowsy but awake.
  • Start a feed, play, sleep routine.

When to start
Your newborn’s biological sleep clock is programmed so your baby wakes at night. This ensures she gets enough food in this time of incredible growth and development. So your newborn will need your attention during the night for feeding and settling for at least the first 3-4 months.

During this time, though, your baby’s sleep patterns and rhythms mature rapidly. You can take advantage of this period of rapid change by gradually introducing the approaches suggested here. Flexibility, rather than total consistency, is the key at this stage. Slow and gradual is best.

The evidence for these strategies comes from two different types of research – studies that have looked at factors associated with sleep disturbance in older babies, and controlled trials that have evaluated the effect of giving this advice to parents of younger babies before sleep problems occur.

Emphasising the difference between night and day

Your baby doesn’t understand the difference between day and night. It’s quite common for babies to be wide awake during the night – when you’re desperate for sleep – and then sleepy during the day.

A newborn will sleep and wake around the clock. But you can help your child make the eventual adjustment to more sleep at night-time with the following strategies:

  • During the night, keep your baby’s room as dark and quiet as possible (babies don’t need total dark or quiet to sleep).
  • Use a dim light when you need to attend to your baby during the night – try not to turn on a bright overhead light.
  • At night, respond to your baby’s cries quickly, and settle or feed him as soon as you can. You might also want to give night feeds in his room – this will help keep these feeds brief, and make them different from daytime feeds.
  • Playing and talking after a feed is good during the day, but at night it’s better to adopt a soothing, quiet approach to interacting with your baby. Try to keep play for daytime.

Putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake

Get into the habit of putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake in the first 3-4 months. This will help your baby develop sleep associations that don’t rely on you for comfort and settling in the middle of the night.

‘Sleep associations’ are the routines, habits and patterns that we connect with feeling sleepy. Sleep associations help us drift off to sleep. They also help us go back to sleep when we wake during the night.

Your baby will learn to associate the cot (rather than you) with going to sleep. This means that when she no longer needs feeding during the night, she won’t need your help in getting back to sleep after waking. So everyone gets to have uninterrupted night-time sleep!

There’s nothing wrong with rocking or feeding your baby to sleep. Many parents find it rewarding and relaxing, and many newborn babies will go to sleep on the breast or in dad’s arms. It’s only a problem for parents who don’t want to be doing it again in the middle of the night.

If your baby is routinely put to sleep by being rocked in your arms or fed to sleep, he’ll expect to be fed and rocked back to sleep after waking in the night. Or if your baby often falls asleep in the family room and wakes up in his cot, he’ll wonder how that happened – and such a surprise might make him upset and cry out for you.

Teaching your baby to self-soothe
Self-soothing is when your baby can calm down, relax and go to sleep again in her bed. Babies who can self-soothe have longer uninterrupted periods of sleep and longer total sleep times at night.

The best thing you can do to teach your baby to self-soothe is to put him into bed drowsy but awake. This gives him the chance to associate bed with sleep, and to learn how to self-soothe.

If you routinely feed, cuddle, walk or rock your baby to sleep, you’re effectively doing the soothing for your baby. While you’re still in the habit of doing that, there’s no need for her to develop the ability to self-soothe. Again, this is a problem only if you’re not happy to get up and settle your baby during the night.

Several other factors influence the development of the ability to self-soothe:

  • your baby’s growth and maturity
  • your baby’s temperament – some babies take longer to fall into regular patterns, and some are more sensitive and more easily upset than others
  • aspects of family life – poor parent-baby relationships, and depression or other mental health problems in mothers, have been found to be associated with disruptions in babies’ sleep.

Looking after yourself as a parent, and making sure you get enough support, is very important to your baby’s wellbeing.

Settling baby in the cot
A few ideas might help you settle your baby in the cot:

  • Be aware that it’s natural for babies to grizzle when you put them to bed. Grizzling can be a sign of tiredness. He might just need a little time to get to sleep. If you pick your child up straightaway, it can interfere with him getting to sleep and learning to self-soothe. If the grizzle becomes a real cry, your child does need help to settle.
  • As your child gets older, you might take a wait-and-see approach to grizzling when he wakes during the night – he might re-settle without your help. Again, if you hear real crying, you might need to offer some help with re-settling.
  • Try the patting settling technique. The advantage of patting over cuddling is that your baby is still going to sleep in the cot. Ideally, you stop patting when your baby has calmed down, but just before sleep comes. If the patting doesn’t work, by all means pick him up and give him a cuddle or feed. You can always try again next time. 

Of course, the first three months of life isn’t the time to be strict or inflexible with your baby. If, from time to time, your baby happens to fall asleep at the breast or before bedtime, don’t feel that you need to wake her just to put her to bed. Likewise, don’t feel you have to stick to this if she’s really unsettled.

If you need help settling your baby, you can watch our crying baby checklist video. It includes a list of common things that can upset young babies, and gives tips on how to soothe your child.

Starting a feed, play, sleep routine

When it feels right for you, it can help to start doing things in a similar order each day – feed, play, sleep. A consistent routine like this will help your baby settle into a regular sleep pattern.

So when your baby wakes up, a routine might be to:

  • offer him a feed
  • change his nappy
  • take time for talk and play
  • put him back down for sleep.

Again, with a newborn, it pays to be flexible about feeding and sleep times – but it can still help to start to do things in a similar order.

View our film clip on a typical feed/sleep schedule.

The importance of daytime sleep

It can be tempting to try to limit a baby’s sleep during the day to try to improve his sleep habits at night. This isn’t helpful if it just means you have a tired baby – in fact, a tired baby often finds it harder to get to sleep.

Little babies get tired after around 10-20 minutes of play or interaction. Let your baby’s body language tell you when it’s time for a rest. You can read more in our article about tired signs.

Many infant health professionals suggest not letting a baby sleep over four hours at one time during the day. Limiting very long sleeps during the day will help establish a pattern of solid sleep at night.

Feeding and sleep

Generally, newborns need to be fed every 2-4 hours. Your baby will sleep better after a good feed, as milk has a sleep-inducing effect.

If your baby has been fed in the last two hours and still can’t sleep, give her a little bit of time to settle to sleep. If sleep doesn’t come, an extra cuddle before putting her back in the cot might do the trick. You could also try topping your baby up with another feed.

Some parents find that a rollover feed – a late feed somewhere between 10 pm and midnight – helps babies sleep for longer towards morning.

Night-time feeds
At around six months of age, most babies no longer need night-time feeds for nutrition. But many will keep asking for them!

For many parents, continuing to feed at night after six months is no trouble. Breastfeeding mothers might continue to feed at night to help maintain milk supply.

Even if you decide to continue night-time feeds, you can still practise putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake, and keeping your night-time interaction warm but low-key. This will make it easier to wean your baby from night feeds when the time is right for you both.

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  • Last Updated 31-08-2011
  • Last Reviewed 26-08-2011
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