If you’re struggling with sleep – what parent isn’t! – then here’s some tips for you straight from this week’s guest blogger, Boogie, the founder of Sleep Dreams Baby Sleep Consulting.
My name is Boogie, and I’m the founder of Sleep Dreams Baby. Today I am going to give you some tips on how to encourage sleep in babies and children. The tips that I’m going to give you today are quick fixes that do not involve any kind of sleep training; it’ll just be a few tips on troubleshooting and ideas that you can try to improve things.
Watch for Sleepy Cues
Your first tip is to watch for sleepy cues in your children. Sleepy cues are the little behaviours that your babies and toddlers will perform when they are trying to show you that they’re ready for bed. Examples of sleepy cues are:
- Yawning (Obviously!)
- Scratching their nose or behind the ear
- Staring in one direction or fixated on an object around them
- Playing happily with a toy then not interested in playing anymore
- Later, crying and starting to fuss
After around two years old, these more ‘obvious’ behaviours may stop, but you should still be able to notice a different behaviour. A lot of parents struggle with daytime sleep, knowing when to put their child down for a nap, or aren’t sure how long they should be napping for. Sleepy cues allow you to identify when a child is getting tired so that you can act on it and prepare them for sleep.
The problem is that there is only a short ‘perfect’ window for getting a child down to sleep and if you don’t act on their sleepy cues quickly, getting them to nap suddenly becomes that bit more difficult. This is because their hormones get out of sync. When we are getting sleepy, melatonin, the sleep hormone, starts to rise and we get tired, whereas cortisol, a stress hormone, does the exact opposite and wakes us up. When children are awake for too long during the day, their cortisol level starts to rise, which stops the production of melatonin and puts your child into a state of overdrive. Ever been confused at the term ‘overtired’? That’s cortisol at work.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Daytime Sleep
Do not underestimate the importance of naps. It might seem odd, but the better children sleep in the day, the better they will sleep at night. If they are not getting enough sleep during the day, their night time sleep will suffer. If you can get naps right, night time sleep should come together.
When it comes to naps, here’s a rough guide of what to expect:
- At around four months old, babies will start to develop a circadian rhythm (a pattern of being awake and asleep).
- Between months four and five, babies will nap around three to four times a day.
- Between six and eight months, they will be down to three naps a day.
- Nine months to around 16 months they’ll have two naps.
- Then after that they’ll be down to one nap. You want to keep that nap as long as possible – ideally until school age. Some children are ready to drop that nap a little earlier. The main consideration in dropping naps is to make sure that daytime sleep does not begin to replace night time sleep.
Pay Attention to the Sleep Environment
Pay attention to the area that your baby is sleeping in terms of the levels of darkness and the noise.
Babies should sleep in an empty cot with nothing in it other than a mattress and a fitted sheet. I do not recommend any objects such as stuffed animals, pillows or blankets. for children younger than 12 months. Sleeping bags can be used. This should be one of the very few places that your child will sleep in, ideally avoiding sleep in buggies, prams or car seats, because they are not designed for sleep. I understand that it can be difficult to break from the habit your baby sleeping during a walk or in a carrier – I’ve been there – but allowing your child to sleep in their own cot in the darkness of their bedroom will allow for a much more restorative sleep.
For all sleep, including daytime sleep, aim to make the room as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains or blinds and make sure that there is no leakage of of light. This will make it much easier for them to fall asleep. We are very much connected with the sun and the sunlight, so once the brain registers any kind of light coming into the room, even very early in the morning, the baby will wake.
You might have heard that white noise is a useful sleep aids for babies and children to mask the sounds coming from their surroundings. This is only recommended for babies over four months because very young babies are designed to wake up regularly throughout the night, so by encouraging them to sleep longer than they’re supposed to, they could fall into a very deep sleep which heightens the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) .
The latest research shows that it’s better to use pink or brown noise for sleep, once your baby is old enough, as the frequency of those sounds are very similar to the frequency of our brain. There are lots of different apps available; I use Noise Genie. You can download it to a phone or tablet and just play it through the night; it doesn’t need to be loud. Place it near to the source of the outside noise, for example on the window or by the door. This will also hopefully help mask the sound of birds in the early hours of the morning and allow your baby to sleep through it.
Use a Bedtime Routine
A bedtime routine is a list of steps that you follow night after night, just before putting your child to sleep – and this can be introduced from day one. An example could be to have a bath, putting pyjamas on, having a feed, reading a story and then putting them to bed. This acts as a cueing system, to tell your baby’s brain that it’s time to get ready for sleep, therefore increasing the production of melatonin.
Bedtime routines shouldn’t last longer than around half an hour and can be a bit shorter if needs be, particularly if the child is very young and they can’t cope with staying awake for too long. I’m not going to go into detail here about how to put the baby to sleep, however what I will say is to try and put the baby down awake so that they can figure out how to fall asleep for themselves.
When it comes to naps, I recommend a mini bedtime routine, no longer than five or ten minutes, which is a mini version of their bedtime routine at night. It could be something like going upstairs to their bedroom, a nappy change, reading them a story and then putting them into bed. You could also introduce a specific song or lullaby, so that the baby associates that with with going to sleep.
For older children, it can help to make a poster about bedtime routine where you write down or draw the steps that the child will follow together and before going to bed they can talk through what they’ve done and what’s coming up next. This will help to structure bedtime a little better.
Prioritise Your Sleep
And finally, onto my favourite tip. As a parent, try to prioritise your sleep.
Try and take some time to get to bed earlier and catch up on some sleep. The same tips that I’ve suggested for your children can apply to you too: make sure your sleep environment is dark, without light leaks that will wake you up prematurely. Try pink or brown noise to see if that helps give you more restorative sleep. Make sure your bed is comfortable and a nice, cosy and uncluttered place to be.
Try and avoid using any screens for the last couple of hours before bed as they emit blue light, which will interfere with your melatonin production and make it harder to fall asleep. If you’re feeding your baby in the night, again, try and avoid using screens so that you can fall back to sleep faster.
Try implementing your own bedtime routine, maybe half an hour before you go to bed. You can try changing the colour of your light bulb to a yellow, orange or red and read a book, for example.
I would also consider turning off the baby monitor, unless there is a medical problem with your baby that means it will give you peace of mind. If your baby is in the room next to you, then there’s really no need to have a monitor that will probably just wake you unnecessarily. If you do use one, try to put it down next to your bed rather than in front of you. Adjust the light to its lower level and turn down the sound as well.
I hope you have found this useful. If you have any questions or need help with your specific sleep problems, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Boogie has helped me no end with Oliver’s sleep. I’ve gone to her so many times when he’s regressed or we’ve come across yet another hiccup in his sleep and each time he’s improved dramatically. I would definitely recommend getting in touch with her if you’re struggling; head on over to her website at Sleep Dreams Baby – Child Sleep Consulting.