Sleep is such a huge topic for parents. How many times have you been at a baby class or spoken to another parent in a coffee shop and they’ve asked ‘how’s the baby sleeping?’ or ‘how can I get my baby to sleep?’? Other parents love to gauge what’s ‘normal’ by comparing their babies’ sleeping habits to others. But the one thing I’ve learnt working as a baby sleep consultant with hundreds of families is that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to babies. What works for one, doesn’t always work for another. Babies develop at different rates and that’s the only thing that’s ‘normal’.
Having said that, there are certain things that come up frequently in lots of little ones’ first years when it comes to their sleep. As a parent, you find yourself worrying about when your newborn needs a routine, what that routine should be, and what happens when that routine is disrupted. It’s a minefield! As a baby and toddler sleep consultant I’m asked so many questions about baby sleep advice, however there are a few really common ones that come up frequently.
Should you wake a sleeping baby?
According to the old wives’ tale, you should never wake a sleeping baby. But this isn’t actually true. There are some circumstances when it is beneficial to wake them:
When they are a newborn and need a feed. It’s recommended that a newborn should feed regularly and if they are asleep longer than 3-4 hours you should wake them for a feed. Newborns are often born with their days and nights reversed. In the womb they often sleep more in the day when mum is moving about rocking them. And they are more awake at night when mum is (trying) to sleep. It’s ok to try and rouse a baby in the day to establish more frequent feeding and awake time in the day.
When sleeping longer will leave a baby too close to bedtime for another nap, but too early to get there comfortably without them becoming overtired. For example, I recommend 5-8 month old babies on a 7pm-7am schedule should be woken around 2.45pm from any afternoon nap. This means that they can have a lovely 2-hour period of awake time and go down for their pre-bed power nap at 4.45pm until 5.30pm. If they slept much later than 2.45pm, it might be that their power nap would start too late and push bedtime back, or you would end up with no power nap and ‘witching hour’ before bed.
Another time it’s ok to wake your baby or toddler is when their naps start to impact bedtime. As your little one gets older they start to need less sleep. You may notice that your toddler is fighting bedtime and not settling well at the start of the night. Before you think about dropping their nap, try reducing the length. If they are doing 2 and a half hours, wake them after 2 hours. It might be a bit of trial and error at first, but even 45 minutes can be enough to not have an overtired baby at bedtime.
If I wean my baby, will it help them sleep?
Before becoming a dad myself, I would have assumed the answer to this question is yes. A full tummy means a sleepy baby right? But the reality is weaning can sometimes disrupt sleep.
Weaning typically starts around 6 months. For some babies this naturally coincides with them starting to sleep all night, or are only down to one or two feeds. They are past the 4 month sleep regression and are able to hold larger amounts of milk in their tummies, which can help them sleep longer stretches.
However, the introduction of solid food can cause a few hiccups. Firstly, your little baby’s tummy is learning to digest something different to milk which can take a bit of time. Also, you need to be mindful that your little one should continue to take the same out of milk when they first start weaning. In the weaning journey, we often start their little ones on single veggies and fruits which is great, but they don’t have a large number of calories, so their primary source or nutrition is still from milk. If your baby was still having a feed in the night, that won’t automatically fall away with the introduction of solid food.
The key message is to start weaning when your little one is ready. Don’t decide to start weaning based on sleep, as there is no evidence that it’ll improve your little one’s nights.
How do I know if my baby is feeding for nutrition or comfort in the night?
Now this is a question I get asked all the time. I am a big believer that if a baby is hungry in the night then they should be fed. There isn’t any benefit from reducing down the amount of milk a baby takes on a night feed, or replacing milk with water. If you cap the amount of milk and they’re still hungry, they’ll either not go back to sleep, or will wake again shortly after looking for more.
However, there is a difference from a baby waking in the night for a feed they need for nutrition vs. parents having to feed every hour or two to help their older baby or toddler get back to sleep.
There are a few things that can help you differentiate between the two:
- Is your little one taking a big feed or are they sucking for a short time and falling asleep very quickly? If it’s the latter then it’s likely your tot is using the sucking motion to settle them back to sleep rather than taking much milk.
- Does your little one feed regularly in the night but then not have a morning feed as soon as they wake?
- Are they consuming more milk in the night than in the day?
If you see some of these signs, it might be worth trying to get them back to sleep on every other wake, or set times of when you will feed if they wake, e.g. every 3 or 4 hours. On non-feeding wakes, try to get them back to sleep with some comfort or soothing techniques. If you can start doing this more regularly, they’re more likely to stop waking unless they actually need something, such as a feed or a nappy change.
I’m a baby and toddler sleep consultant specialising in designing gentle sleep training programmes for babies and toddlers. I work with clients on a one to one basis and I also have a series of age-specific online courses for you to implement at your own pace.
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