March 19, 2021

Building Good Sleep Habits for Your Little One

Julia Youll, Public Health Practitioner at Nightingale

As new parents, sleep is a rare and cherished commodity. It may seem like an uphill battle now, but it’s important to know there are things you can do to get more rest. And, what better time to try than World Sleep Day (Friday 19th March)?

Sleep is essential for improving health and well-being, and the theme of this year’s event – “regular sleep, healthy future”– will resonate with families, in particular.

Sleep is essential for improving health and wellbeing, and the theme of this year’s event – “regular sleep, healthy future”– will resonate with families, in particular.

The science of newborn sleep

Babies sleep in utero, but they’re not born with sleep association or any concept of day and night. They only start to produce the sleep hormone melatonin around 12 weeks of age, which explains why they wake up frequently for feeds before then. The circadian rhythm (the body’s natural internal sleep regulation) also takes a while to develop but once it does, infants sleep longer at night, meaning you can squeeze in a few more precious hours of rest.

Sleep disruption

Various stages in a baby’s development impact their sleep performance, so it’s important to remain flexible with a newly established routine. Common ages where we see sleep regression are 4 months and 8/9 months, when separation anxiety kicks in. Teething can also disrupt sleep because of the discomfort and distress it causes, making your little one more restless than normal. Toddlers, meanwhile, are learning lots of new things, which is exciting as well as overwhelming, so they may start to devise strategies to keep you in the room longer for comfort before they nod off.

Creating healthy sleep habits

Regardless of age, one of the most useful things we can do with a small child is to build healthy sleep patterns. There are many different approaches that depend on the baby, and your family’s circumstances. Some general recommendations include:

  • Be consistent – set a regular bedtime and wind-down routine, which is the same every night
  • Exposing your child to natural sunlight early in the day will help to set he circadian rhythm and regulate sleep patterns
  • Keep the bedroom dark and quiet at night with no blue light
  • Before settling them, check that baby isn’t too hot or too cold by feeling the nape of their neck or chest (rather than forehead)
  • Establish if they are thirsty, frightened, in pain, or if the nappy is wet
  • In the early days, many babies like the security of being swaddled but only use a light covering to avoid overheating
  • If possible, practice placing the baby in the cot drowsy but not fully asleep on occasion, so they can learn to settle themselves
  • Try soothing them by staying close and saying the same words, like a little mantra, on a nightly basis, lulling them into relaxed mode
  • Baby massage techniques are a great tool to learn and use at home before bedtime
  • If baby nods off in response to the breast or bottle, encouraging them to do it independently can be tricky. Ultimately, it is achievable if you use consistent methods that trigger the right brain chemistry and set their internal clock

Top tip: don’t overload yourself with guilt! When we’re tired and juggling many things, it’s easy to rely on short-term solutions to get you through. Establishing a long-term solution requires commitment, consistency and time, but it will pay off in the end.

Building Good Sleep Habits for Your Little One

When to get help

It’s difficult to define what’s normal or not and how long it will be before sleep issues constitute a problem. Generally speaking, if your baby is more than 6 months of age and you’re still chronically exhausted and experiencing poor sleep quality, it may be a good time to make arrangements with a professional sleep trainer.


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