Baby sleep and settling in the early months: what to expect
In the first 6 months of life, babies need to wake at night to feed. They have little tummies, so they need to feed often during the day and night to get enough food for growth and development.
Sometimes babies need you to comfort them so they feel calm, settled and ready for sleep. You can’t spoil your baby by responding to their settling needs – for example, by rocking, patting or speaking gently to them as they settle for sleep.
Later, when babies are developmentally ready, they still wake in the night, but they can sometimes resettle by themselves. This is what’s happening when babies ‘sleep through the night’.
For babies aged 3-6 months, these tips can 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.
These tips can also help your baby learn to settle by themselves when they’re developmentally ready.
Emphasising the difference between night and day
From 3-4 months of age, babies start to have their longest sleep at night. 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 dark or dimly lit and quiet.
- Use a dim light when you attend to your baby during the night.
- At night, respond to your baby’s cries quickly and settle or feed baby as soon as you can.
- Give night-time feeds in the bedroom. This helps to 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. Keep play for daytime.
Putting babies to bed drowsy but awake
Putting babies to bed drowsy but awake can help them settle at the start of the night. It can also make it easier for babies to settle back to sleep when they wake in the night.
When babies fall asleep in their cots instead of being rocked or fed to sleep, they learn to associate falling asleep with being in bed. This can help them learn to settle for sleep in their own beds.
Also, from 3-4 months of age, babies can get upset if they wake somewhere different from where they fell asleep. So if your baby falls asleep in their cot, they’re less likely to be upset when they wake in their cot in the night. This helps them learn to self-soothe. Self-soothing is when your baby can calm down and go to sleep again by themselves. Babies who can self-soothe sleep for longer periods and have longer total sleep times at night.
If you put your baby to bed drowsy but awake, they might take a little while to go to sleep. They might even grizzle. This is OK. Just give your baby 1-2 minutes to settle down.
And as your baby gets older, you can also give them some time to settle when they wake or grizzle during the night. Your baby might re-settle without your help.
But if your baby starts crying at bedtime or when they wake in the night, it’s important to comfort your baby and help them settle.
Babies, children and adults all have sleep associations. Sleep associations help us go to sleep and go back to sleep when we wake in the night. Baby sleep associations might include being in the cot, being rocked, being patted and using a dummy. It’s completely fine to rock or feed your baby to sleep if this sleep association suits your baby and you. But if your baby gets upset when they wake in the night, it could be worth thinking about their sleep associations.
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.
When your baby wakes up during the day, a routine might look something like this:
- Offer your baby a feed.
- Change baby’s nappy.
- Take time for talk, cuddles and play.
- Put baby back down for sleep when baby shows tired signs.
At night, it’s best to focus on settling your baby straight back to sleep rather than playing.
Safe sleeping practices can help you minimise the risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI). These practices include sleeping your baby on their back, making sure your baby’s head is uncovered during sleep, and sharing a room with your baby for the first year of life, or at least for the first 6 months.