A baby’s sleep cycle can naturally establish quickly but it can also be unpredictable. Here are five common baby sleep problems and what you can do to fix them.
Overcoming Common Baby Sleep Challenges
Making sure your little one gets the sleep they need to recover from their new everyday life is vital for their growth and brain development – not to mention keeping you happy and recharged too.
For some, this will be easier than it will for others. A baby’s sleep cycle can naturally establish quickly as their circadian rhythm takes shape, but it can also be unpredictable and inconsistent. Though this can be stressful and tiring for new parents, it doesn’t have to be.
Here are five common baby sleep problems and what you can do to fix them...
1. Over reliance on baby cues
Using baby cues alone to know when it’s time to nap can be misleading and lead to restlessness during the night. Instead, try to use both cues and the clock to decide when sleep should happen. For many babies, especially those who are waking up a lot in the night, tired cues during the day can be hard to read. You may find your six month old is rubbing her eyes after being awake for only 45 minutes. However, trying to put her down for a nap after that short period at this age could lead to a struggle.
The drive to sleep is biological and based on a build-up of a protein that signals our brain that it’s time to sleep. If you put your baby down too early, or too late it can be harder to get them to fall asleep. I like to marry the sleepy cues and general timing to know when it’s time for my baby to nap. This gives parents more confidence to make the decision to make sleep happen.
General awake times by age:
- Under 2 months: 45 minutes to 1 hour
- 3 months: 1.5 hours
- 4 months: 1 hour 45 minutes
- 5 months: 2 hours
- 6 months: 2.5 hours
- 7 months: 2 hrs 45 minutes
- 8 and 9 months: 3 hours
- 10 and 11 months: 3.5 hours
- 12 months: 3.5 - 4 hours
In general, if you surpass this awake time between naps, it can be harder to get your baby to fall asleep and you risk short naps.
2. Forcing a late bedtime
Many families dream of a 7pm to 7am schedule or don’t want to put their baby to bed too early for fear of waking too early in the morning. This often results in bedtimes that are too late. Your bedtime should be guided by the above mentioned awake times. If your five month old woke up at 5pm, 7pm bedtime is appropriate. But if she woke up at 4pm from last nap, a 6pm bedtime is appropriate. Parents worry that a 6pm bedtime results in a 5 or 6am wake up. That is a risk, but your baby would have less chance of night waking and wake up happy rather than tired.
The other risk is if you keep your baby up too long at bedtime it also results in increased chance of early 5am wake ups and more night waking. The most common cause of 5am wake ups are bedtimes that are too late.
3. Lack of consistent sleep habits
Baby sleep is so adorable. All those photos of newborns sleeping in flowerpots and in slings. It seems they will sleep anywhere and that it will just come naturally. While the drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is a learned habit and that learning is happening in the one to two month old stage.
Think about yourself, you have a bedtime routine, you find your favourite position and then relax yourself into sleep. If I told you tonight that you couldn’t sleep in your favourite position and I was taking away your pillow, you would have a hard time falling asleep. You would be uncomfortable, but you would learn a new way. You do have to work at sleep. Everyone has a different journey and different timing, but everyone has put some effort into having a great sleeper.
4. Putting your newborn down drowsy
Now that you know that sleep is a learned habit, you can establish the habit of your little one falling asleep where they will be spending the night (rather than on you) and get used to making the transfer. But as your baby grows older, the transfer often starts being less effective. You’re responsible to “make your baby sleep” and when they get older and more interested in the world, that strategy doesn’t always work. They wake up on transfer to the crib or will only sleep on you or wake up every couple of hours to be rocked or nursed back to sleep.
You can start establishing healthy sleep habits in the newborn stage without tears by helping your baby fall asleep from awake in the crib. Drowsy is a fine line and most people often end up putting them down, they fuss and then you rock them more to deep sleep and put them down. Thus teaching that falling asleep happens in arms.
5. Preventing independent night sleep
Yes, all humans wake up in the night. But after six months of age baby sleep patterns in the brain are evolved and they can sleep for long stretches. In my practice we aim for 11 hours of night sleep with zero to one feed depending on food source by five months.
Some kids do this sooner, but I like that to happen naturally. When you have a baby waking up more than that, they are likely using you to help them relax back down into sleep. They have yet to become “independent” sleepers. Babies that can be put down awake and then use a repetitive action or sound to relax themselves into sleep.
Parents often think that these wake ups are “biologically” normal and continue to respond with nursing or rocking. But really your child is cycling through sleep cycles, surfaces between the cycles, like all humans do, and then asks for help falling back asleep. If you rock or nurse your baby to sleep at bedtime, expect to do that a few times in the night as that is your baby’s learned way of falling asleep.
Dr. Sarah Mitchell is a thought leader and baby sleep consultant in Silicon Valley. She works with busy parents with private sleep coaching and runs group classes in her online Helping Babies Sleep School. She’s a proud member of the Behavioural Society of Sleep Medicine and contributes to research on maternal anxiety and sleep teaching. Since 2013, she’s helped thousands of parents be loving, attached and well-rested using her “Helping Babies Sleep Method”.