For most new parents, a good night’s sleep is no more than a distant memory. In fact, sleep deprivation is one of the greatest challenges new parents face, according to a recent study commissioned by Rescue Remedy. It ranks right up there with financial stress and dealing with sick children. “The good news is, you can solve those bedtime battles by setting the stage and being consistant,” says sleep therapist Carla Haarburger, owner of Sleep Tight in Johannesburg.
Here are a few tried-and-tested strategies:
1. Have realistic expectations
Do you expect your five-month-old to nap for three hours every afternoon? This may not be realistic, says senior sleep consultant Nicole Johnson of The Baby Sleep Site. The truth is, “A nap any longer than one hour is considered to be a good one and naps before six months are typically short and inconsistent.” Become familiar with the number of naps appropriate at each age, the length each nap should be, and the total number of sleeps your little one should have in a 24-hour period.
When a baby is on three naps a day, for example, the third nap is often just a 30-minute catnap. Nicole points out that a baby who is six months or younger should be sleeping 11 to 12 hours at night in three to four stints, whereas babies who are nine to 18 months should get 11 to 12 hours at night, and two to three hours during the day in one or two naps.
2. Be aware of sleep cycles
“Some babies don’t establish regular sleep cycles.They catnap and never sleep for longer than 60 minutes without waking,” say Meg Faure and Ann Richardson, authors of Baby Sense. These little ones are often unable to move into a deep sleep, resulting in poor sleep habits and a baby who is irritable when awake.
If your baby wakes up from a nap after 30 to 35 minutes and you can see she’s still tired, it’s important to help your baby join her sleep cycles and learn to self-soothe. Those who go back to sleep after 30 minutes will nap for another hour or two.
3. Teach your baby to self-soothe
“If your baby is younger than six months, introduce a dummy as a security object. As soon as you see your little one stirring during naptime, pop the dummy into her mouth and pat her back gently, or place your hand on her chest, without picking her up, until she falls back to sleep,” says Carla. If your baby wakes up every time her dummy falls out, hang in there. At around eight months of age, babies have normally developed the fine-motor skills needed to put the dummy back in their mouths. Make sure you put a few in the cot at night so she can find it in the dark.
You can also use a taglet (a soft blanket with different textures) as a sleep prop from a young age, providing you take safety precautions and place it next to her or in her hands and not over her face. These sleep props, or security objects, will offer comfort during the day or night and help your little one develop good sleep habits without you having to rock or nurse her to sleep. “Remember, it takes around 27 sleeps for your baby to get used to falling asleep on her own,” says Carla, adding that this is why it’s important to be consistent.
4. Establish a regular routine
Newborns under three months can sleep pretty much anywhere. As long as they’re comfortable and have been fed, they’ll more than likely be able to nap in the pram or cot. If they’re older than three months, they begin to form habits and associate things and places with sleep. “If you want your baby to develop good sleep habits, a little hard work in the beginning can bring big rewards later,” says Carla. “During the day, make sure your baby sleeps in the same place as she sleeps at night, preferably in her cot,” she advises.
For the first few months of your baby’s life, plan your social events or trips to the shops in her awake time. Once she’s learned to self-soothe and has a good sleeping base, you can be a little more flexible with your routine. If you’re a mom on the go, try to ensure that your baby has at least one long, restorative nap a day. The morning nap is usually the most important of the day.
Have a calming bedtime routine that your baby will associate with sleep, and follow it during the day and at night. For example, if you’re going to close the curtains at night, close them during the day, too.
5. Be consistent
If a nanny, friend or family member looks after your baby during the day, or you send her to crèche or daycare, ensure her routine is consistent with the one you’ve established at home. “Keep communication open and make sure you share your desires with all caretakers involved. Many daycare centres tend to transition to one nap a day earlier than babies naturally would. If your baby is struggling with this, you might want to talk to the director to see if there’s anything they can do,” says Nicole.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.