Helping baby sleep and settle in the early months

In the first six months of life, babies need to wake at night to get enough food for growth and development. For most babies, sleeping ‘through the night’ and settling by themselves comes later, when they’re developmentally ready.

But there are three things you can do in the early months to help with baby sleep and settling:

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

And if you do these things in the first six months, it can help your baby learn to sleep and settle by herself later on, when she’s ready.

Remember: responding to your baby and being flexible are the most important things in these early months. It’s OK if your baby falls asleep while he’s feeding sometimes. It’s also fine to cuddle or rock your baby to sleep if he’s unsettled.

Safe sleeping practices can help you minimise the risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI). These practices include sleeping your baby on her back, making sure your baby’s head is uncovered during sleep, and sharing a room with your baby for the first 6-12 months.

Emphasising the difference between night and day

Your newborn doesn’t understand the difference between day and night. It’s quite common for newborns to be wide awake during the night and then sleepy during the day.

In these first six months, here are some things you can do to help your baby get used to the idea that night is different from day, and that night is a good time to sleep:

  • During the night, keep the room dimly lit and quiet.
  • 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.
  • Give night feeds in the bedroom. This will help keep these feeds brief and make them different from daytime feeds.
  • At night try to be soothing and quiet when you’re with your baby. Try to keep play for daytime.

From three months on, try to make a quiet, dark place for your baby to nap during the day. Babies become more awake and alert as they get older, so they don’t sleep as well in places that have lots of light and noise, like the family room.

Putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake

Try to put your baby to bed drowsy but awake. This gives her the chance to associate falling asleep with being in bed. If your baby has this sleep association, she might be more likely to self-soothe when she wakes in her bed in the night.

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

If your baby associates falling asleep with rocking or feeding, she might want rocking or feeding if she wakes in the night. Of course, it’s completely fine to rock or feed your baby to sleep in the night if this suits your baby and you.

Tips for settling baby drowsy but awake

  • Give your baby some time to settle. Avoid picking up your baby up as soon as he grizzles. It’s normal for babies to grizzle when you first put them into the cot.
  • As your baby gets older, give her some time to settle if she grizzles when she wakes during the night – she might re-settle without your help. If you hear real crying, you need to help her settle.
  • Try the patting settling technique. With this technique, you pat your baby until he calms down, but you stop patting just before sleep comes. A benefit of patting is that your baby is still going to sleep in the cot.

Babies, children and adults all have sleep associations. These are the routines and habits that we connect with feeling sleepy. Sleep associations help us go to sleep and go back to sleep when we wake in the night. Sleep associations for babies might include being in the cot, being rocked, being patted and using a dummy.

Starting a sleep routine

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

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

  • offer her a feed
  • change her nappy
  • take time for talk and play
  • put her back down for sleep when she shows tired signs.

At night, you might choose not to play and instead focus on settling your baby straight back to sleep.

With a newborn, it’s good to be flexible about feeding and sleep times – but it can still help to start doing things in a similar order.

Towards independent sleep

Independent sleep is when babies can sleep for 6-8 hours during the night. An independent sleeper can also self-soothe in the night – that is, settle back to sleep without crying and needing a parent’s help to resettle.

Most babies need help to settle to sleep until they’re about six months old. The practical strategies suggested in this article can help your baby learn to sleep independently later, when she’s developmentally ready.