Nurture Article | The Portland Hospital Parenting Magazine
Spring Issue 2012 | Lucy Elkins
There are few subjects that interest parents of a young child more than sleep. “Is he/she sleeping through the night yet?” is often one of the first questions friends and fellow parents will ask about your baby.
Yet while some babies seem to nod off without any effort, getting others to sleep is far more difficult.
“Some babies are born with the ability to self-soothe and go to sleep easily while others are what I call fragile sleepers,” says Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic in London, and a leading authority on children’s sleep problems. “We don’t know why this is – but that’s why parents can follow the same routines with all their children, yet some sleep easier than others.”
First few weeks
In the early weeks, sleep is very closely involved with feeding. “Your new baby will tend to live life in a milky, dozy state, and believe it or not, few babies really settle and sleep well,” says Andrea Grace, a child sleep specialist and former health visitor. Babies are born with a free running body clock that, over the first few weeks of life, slowly starts to fit into a day and night schedule. In these early stages, it can be very difficult to pick up your baby’s sleep cues. Often by the time a baby is crying they are over tired.
“This is why timing is initially more important than technique as an overtired baby is hard to settle,” says Mandy. “Some young babies cannot go longer than one and half hours without a sleep so watch out for signs that they are tired. They may yawn, rub their eyes or just gaze into space.”
At around three months, they start to produce enough melatonin (the sleep hormone we all produce in the evening to trigger drowsiness) to help regulate their sleep more. Most experts agree that it is best to wait until this age before you try to introduce a routine to your baby’s sleep patterns.
“The key is to teach a baby how to fall asleep independently of you or any props,” says Mandy. “If a baby or child has learnt to fall asleep independently at bedtime they will have a much better chance of returning to sleep independently when they stir in the night.” However, teething, a period of illness or moving from a cot to a bed can disrupt good sleeping habits.
“Another tricky stage is often at eight months when babies can start to develop separation anxiety as they start to recognise that they are a separate entity from their mother,” says Mandy.
If a child’s sleep is disrupted, they aren’t the only ones feeling tired. According to a recent study, the average parent will have lost six-month’s worth of sleep by the time their child is two!
“Don’t feel guilty, rest whenever your baby does,” says Mandy.
“If you feel really shattered, ask a friend or relative to help out for an afternoon while you get a sleep – you will be a better parent if you feel well rested.”
How much sleep do children need?
The Millpond Clinic chart of average sleep needs:
- Birth to three months - Seven hours in the day and eight and a half hours at night.
- Three to six months - Three and a half hours in the day, eleven hours at night.
- Six to nine months - Three hours in the day, eleven hours at night.
- Nine to twelve months - Two and a half hours in the day, eleven hours at night.
- Twelve months to two years - One and a half hours in the day, eleven and a half hours at night.
- Two to three years - As above but daytime nap will reduce and maybe dropped.
- Three to four years - Twelve hours at night.
- Four to five years - Eleven and a half hours at night.
Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, www.mill-pond.co.uk
Tips on how to get your child to sleep
- Keep things quiet at night. When your baby wakes for a feed, keep the lights low and only change their nappy if it is very wet or soiled.
- Feed a young baby regularly through the day (waking them every three hours if necessary) so they wake less at night for feeds.
- Take young babies outside for a walk especially in the late afternoon to get them used to the difference between night and day.
- Establish a bedtime ritual. Give them a feed, a bath and then bed and do it in that order so they don’t use the feed as a prop to get to sleep.
- Make sure you are not putting your baby to bed hungry. Sometimes babies aren’t sleeping because they haven’t been given enough food, especially when they are weaning.
- Don’t just leave your baby to cry it out. Studies show attending to your young baby’s needs when they cry helps the brain develop the necessary neural pathways to feel safe and secure.
- Once a child is over three months, try the gradual retreat technique. When they cry work down from rocking them and putting them to bed, to having a brief cuddle, to going to the cot and stroking their head, to going up to their cot and finally just entering their room.
- From six months, establish night-time cues early in the evening. So tidy up their toys and turn off the TV or radio so they know play time is over and it is time to wind down.
- If older children become early risers then clocks such as Gro clocks which have a moon sign when it is sleeping time and a sunshine that pops up when it is time to get up can help or Bunny clocks where then bunny closes his eyes to sleep and pops eyes open in the morning.
- Make sure their bedroom is neither too hot nor too cold. The ideal temperature is 18 degrees Centigrade.