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Baby sleep: tips, tricks and what’s normal

New parents have a lot of questions about their baby’s sleep patterns. How much should they be sleeping? When? What are the signs it’s time to put them down to sleep? Dr. Chris Toumpas, paediatrician, and director of Paediatrics at Greenslopes Private Hospital and Paeds in a Pod, offers his advice.

Eat, sleep… repeat

When babies are first born, their main activities will be eating and sleeping. In general, babies should sleep for about 12-16 hours per day in total, but this can vary from eight hours up to 18 hours.

Babies also need to feed regularly, usually seven to eight times per day, as they have a small stomach. As such, there is a lot of time spent on waking up, feeding, feeling tired, sleeping and then repeating.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Preterm babies require very frequent feeds and unwell babies may need shorter feeds more frequently.

‘My baby sleeps through the night’ – yeah right!

Less than half of parents to a three month old would be able to say their baby sleeps through the night. And that would only be if they thought six hours in a row meant ‘sleeping through’!

When babies are young, their sleep patterns are different to those of toddlers and older children. They need to sleep much more often, both day and night, so keeping them awake during the day will not help them to sleep at night, and can be detrimental to their development.

Helping baby get to sleep in the first six months

The key here is to learn the cues, but this is easier said than done! It is all about watching your baby and learning their specific signs of sleep readiness.

Signs of sleep readiness in babies can include:

  • sucking
  • eye rubbing
  • yawning
  • looking away
  • fussing

Looking out for these signs early helps your baby settle more easily. It can also help to have a bedtime routine and a relaxing environment. A warm bath, a fresh nappy, dim lights and soft music can all help, too.

Responsive settling

Babies need to learn how to fall asleep just as they need to learn in other areas of development. In the first 12 months, holding your baby or ‘hands-on’ settling can help. For babies and children over 12 months, sticking to a routine, removing screen time and not overstimulating in the two hours before bedtime are also very important.

If your baby becomes unsettled, pick them up to help them settle and stay with them until they are asleep.

These responsive settling videos from the Ellen Barron Family Centre are a great resource, providing step by step methods for responsive settling.

Everyone is different – including babies

Babies are just as individual as children and adults. It’s important not to try to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as what may work for a friend or family member, or even on a previous child of your own, may not work on another child.

The noises a baby makes are as individual as they are, too. Babies can be very loud or very quiet during sleep, and this can vary during their sleep phase, or if they are unwell, with a blocked nose for example.

Finally, babies can be quiet or alert after a sleep. They are generally more attentive to their environment in this stage. If a baby is overstimulated on waking, they may have a crying phase. If this happens, try swaddling or holding your baby to soothe them.

There is a lot of information about sleep in the media – what it should be and what to do about it. The best advice for new parents would be to use what works for you and your family to help your baby develop a healthy sleep pattern and, if you are worried about your baby’s sleep, please make sure you seek medical advice.

HELPFUL LINKS

Learn about newborn sleep routines and how to look for tired signs at the Raising Children Network.

Find out about getting your baby to sleep, as well as normal sleep patterns and variations, at Pregnancy Birth Baby.

Read the current research on sleep training at NPR.

Baby sleep: tips, tricks and what’s normal