Why won’t my baby sleep? How tired can I be before it kills me? A parents guide from birth to one.
Updated: Feb 1
Sleep has to be one of the most controversial parenting topics. It’s one I thought long and hard about whether to write because everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to give you advice. In fact, everyone wants to help, but, short of taking your child for the night, there isn’t really much they can do. Well-meaning friends and family ask you how your baby slept, and in that moment you decide whether, to be honest, and admit what a terrible night you’ve had (and then spend the next twenty minutes discussing what you should have done or what you could try), or, you lie, you say, “It was alright, thanks,” and then silently cry inside as you struggle to understand why everyone else’s baby is genuinely sleeping through the night!
When your baby is waking you up at night, it can feel like actual torture. A fate that everyone told you about, but one that you didn’t think would be this hard. Right? Sure, the first bit is meant to be hard, I realised that, but when your baby is a year old and STILL doesn’t sleep, now that was not what I signed up for! I can remember sitting next to my baby’s cot wondering if it was actually possible to die from exhaustion. I was pretty sure, at that moment, that if it were, I’d be found the next morning, and you know what I thought next? “Well, at least I would be asleep!”. Now, I was never truly suicidal, but I hope you can empathise – when you are sleep deprived, and you have no idea when you will next have an unbroken night’s sleep, life is hard. That’s why sleep deprivation has been used as an interrogation method! Going without sleep is tough, and that is why I’m writing this blog.
I’m not writing to be that annoying person whose child has always slept like an angel. I don’t claim to be a sleep specialist. I’m writing because I’m a mother who has been there. I’ve tried it all, and I’m now (mostly) out the other side. I aim to be a source for sleep-deprived parents. I hope to help the parents who are reading this in the middle of the night with no-one but Google (and their baby) for company. I too spent many-a-night trawling through websites looking for that one elusive sleeping tip that would work for my child, that little glimmer of hope. I too felt as if my child not sleeping was my fault, and that if I only knew what I was doing wrong, if only I could do something differently tomorrow, then he might sleep all night. If you feel like I did, and I can be that useful article, or even if my only use is to let you know that you are not alone and you are not doing anything wrong, it’ll be worth me writing. I’ve been where you are now, and it doesn’t last forever; if my words work to give you a reassuring virtual hug, then I’ll be pleased to have written it.
Now if you are reading this part, I am assuming you are an expectant parent or your baby is under a year old. If your little night raver is older than that, then exit this post and check out the second part of this blog – Why can’t my baby just let me sleep already?
For those of you still with me, let’s start at the beginning. When a baby is born, they have a lot to learn. In the womb, they spent much of their day asleep, and for the first two weeks, it is absolutely normal for your baby to continue this pattern and be sleeping for 16-18 hours of each day. As an expectant parent, you’ve probably read this in books and thought great, that doesn’t sound so hard, but unfortunately, babies of this age wake frequently and have no concept of day and night. Their stomachs, at birth, are the size of a marble and, even after a week, have only grown to the size of a small plum, so they physically cannot consume enough milk to sustain them for long stretches.
It also takes time for their circadian rhythm to develop fully. Circadian rhythm is the proper name for the biological clock, the one that tells your body that nighttime is for sleeping. In the womb, your baby will have taken its cues from your hormones, but now, it is down to them to pick up on the night time cues, so their bodies release the hormones needed for sleep. It is a skill that will take at least three or four months for most babies to get to grips with.
There are, however, ways in which you can help your baby develop this understanding. Biologically, it has to do with how their brain processes light. When we see light, our brain tells our body to produce cortisol, a hormone which makes us feel awake. When light is absent, we release melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. As we get older, our brains become more adept at picking up on the environmental cues around us and, along with the homeostatic process, we find ourselves in a routine of day-waking and night-sleeping.
The homeostatic process is the body’s ability to regulate itself, to maintain ‘an even keel’. If, for example, we sit in a cold environment, our body works to ensure our core body temperature remains constant. Sleep homeostasis is our body’s way of regulating our sleep patterns. If we have too little, our body will make up for it by sleeping longer next time. This same process, along with our circadian rhythm, often stops us from being able to take advantage of the usual advice of ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ but has a lot to do with why we feel so rotten when we have had night after night of broken sleep!
So how can you help your baby to learn to sleep at night and be awake in the day? These aren’t guaranteed to work, and they won’t make an immediate difference, but scientists have shown they will help to promote healthy sleep practices. If you keep these tips in your mind and try to adhere to them as much as possible, you are giving your baby (and you) the best chances of a good night’s sleep.
1) Use blackout blinds in the room where your baby sleeps.
This will make sure light is absent, helping their melatonin production. This is especially vital in the summer months when it may well be light outside when you are putting your baby down for the night.
2) When attending to your child in the night, use a low watt amber light.
Babies are especially sensitive to blue light waves. Without getting too technical, the light we see coming from a lightbulb appears white to us, but in fact, it is made up of every colour in the rainbow – when we shine a light through a prism we can see the colours as a rainbow on the wall. The blue part of that rainbow has been found to stimulate the production of cortisol, the wake-up hormone. Fluorescent and incandescent bulbs emit the highest levels of this light so are great if you want to feel awake, but not so ideal if you want to fall asleep! Amber lights with low wattage bulbs are the best lights to use in bedrooms. Think carefully too about where you position the light. If you can have it in a position out of your baby’s eye line, then this will also be helpful.
3) Instil a routine and stick to it as much as possible.
Create a bedtime schedule so that you try to place your baby down to bed at the same time each evening. Try to reduce the light levels towards the end of the day by drawing curtains and turning down the lights. Repeat the same activities, be it bathing, baby massage or sharing of bedtime stories each night. Trying to do things similarly each night may seem like an unnecessary step when your baby is so young, but it will help your baby to understand that bedtime is approaching and eventually will prompt your baby’s brain to trigger the release of melatonin, helping them to fall asleep at the right time.
4) Keep your voice calm and quiet throughout the bedtime routine.
Research has shown that the emotional state of both the mother and child can have a significant effect on the quantity and quality of their sleep. In other words, the more you stress about their bedtime, the more likely it is that they will struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. If you are breastfeeding, the dimmed lights and calm atmosphere will also help your body to start producing melatonin, some of which will be passed to your baby in your milk.
5) Don’t intervene too early.
Babies sleep cycles are much shorter than ours. They have two types of sleep, ‘active sleep’ is similar to an adult's REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) and ‘quiet sleep’ akin to NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement). Whereas adults bodies are programmed to ‘switch off’ large muscle movements (to avoid us acting out our dreams) during REM sleep, newborn babies’ brains have not yet learnt this skill so they may be quite active in their cots even though they are asleep. This might mean that you think they are awake but intervening at this point is actually an unnecessary disturbance and could cause them to wake. My general rule of thumb was to wait five minutes before going in, in my experience, this was enough time for me to see if they were genuinely awake or if they were just dreaming. Some people do say that they rush straight into their child when they hear a noise ‘otherwise they’ll wake up fully and it’ll be worse’. This is a possibility, but as already stated, it could be that, on occasions, their baby would go back to sleep had they been given a chance. I think, as a mum, you will soon get to know your baby’s different noises and sense when your assistance is needed earlier than the ‘magic five minutes’. I could always tell when my children were genuinely upset, and when they were simply practising their repertoire of sounds!
6) Put your baby down when they are sleepy but not asleep.
As a new mum, I struggled with this one the most. By the evening, I was tired, and I looked forward to having a few minutes of child-free time before I went to bed myself. I knew the advice is to put your baby down when they are sleepy but not asleep, and often, I knew my baby was tired, but when I went to put him down, he would cry and wake himself up, and my chance of a rest was over! I soon realised that often, in the same situation, if I just held him in my arms for a couple of minutes longer, he’d fall asleep! Of course, then I had the dilemma of whether I allowed him to sleep in my arms, giving myself an excuse to sit still and rest or risk transferring him to his cot, so I could get on with the hundreds of other jobs that were piling up. There is no right answer here, only by referring back to the science can we understand the principle behind the advice to put the baby down when they are sleepy, not asleep. In theory, if we put our children to bed at the same time each night (sticking to a routine, see tip 3) their bodies circadian rhythm and homeostasis processes (see above) will eventually help them to realise that they are tired and therefore not complain about being put to bed. In reality, we know that it takes a while for some of our babies to get there! I remember counting to sixty, five times in my head before I leant over and tried to transfer my little boy into the cot. He seemed to need the five minutes to drift off into a deep enough sleep to not be disturbed by the transfer.
7) Help your baby to settle by empathising with them and supporting the transition – smell, heartbeat, touch and swaddling.
Babies of this age are very wise to the fact that you are their source of food and protection, so it is not uncommon; indeed it is very typical, for your baby to prefer to be held than to be put down. I would never suggest you ignore your baby’s communication attempts – however, for your own mental health, you do need to find ways to support them and be there for them, without feeling as if you can never put them down.
Babies have a strong sense of smell; research has shown that even newborn babies can identify their mother’s scent over strangers. This can result in your baby being very dependent on the mother, leaving the father feeling somewhat helpless and the mother exhausted. You can overcome this by allowing the baby to familiarise themselves with Dad’s smell through skin-to-skin contact early on. Likewise, as your baby grows, having an item of mum’s clothing draped over Dad’s shoulder can help to settle and calm your baby. Be aware also that your baby will be able to smell your breastmilk which is often a reason why they don’t relax for mummy. If they have been fed and you are satisfied that they do not want more, then this may be an opportunity to pass your baby to a partner or loved one so that you can rest and baby can settle using one of the methods described here.
When your baby was in the womb, your heartbeat would have been a constant soothing noise. With my children, I found that gently tapping the mattress next to them in a heartbeat rhythm soothed them and allowed them to fall asleep within a few minutes. I would avoid eye contact when I did this, so they realised it wasn’t playtime. This is the same concept as white noise machines. They aim to mimic the sounds heard in the womb. If you are using these, make sure you check the volume, a report has shown that many commercially available machines are too loud and some are so loud that they can potentially damage your baby’s hearing. 50-dB is considered optimum; anything above 85-dB can cause damage. It is also recommended to keep white noise machines outside of the cot or crib.
For some babies, scent and sound aren’t enough; instead, they crave the physical sensation of your touch. On occasions, my daughter would need me to place my hand on top of hers, stroke her hair or gently run a finger down her nose from her eyebrow to the tip. We called this her ‘sleep button’ it helped to calm and, in an almost hypnotic way, would send her into a sleepy trance.
Some babies enjoy the comfort of being swaddled. Swaddling is the practice of wrapping a baby in a blanket so that their arms and legs are closely tucked to their body. It is thought that this mimics the amniotic sac in the womb and stops them from waking themselves up when they move during their active sleep cycle. If you intend to swaddle, please ensure you use a breathable fabric, never wrap the head or neck and that you are aware that babies are less able to regulate their body temperatures, and swaddling can cause overheating. My children never liked to be swaddled but, I know plenty of other mothers who swear by it. Please ensure you check these safe sleeping guidelines before you swaddle your baby, https://www.nct.org.uk/baby-toddler/slings-and-swaddling/swaddling-baby-benefits-risks-and-seven-safety-tips
8) Dream feed
The theory behind it is that if you can feed a baby just before you go to bed, you are more likely to get a good few hours of unbroken sleep yourself because they won’t be hungry. Unfortunately, there have been very few studies that have looked at whether this works, but my personal experience is that it does. One small scale research project worth mentioning involved 26 parents. Thirteen were placed into the ‘treatment group’, and 13 were in the ‘control group’. The parents in the treatment group were told to give their baby a dream feed between 10 pm and midnight each night. They were also asked to gradually lengthen the intervals between night feedings by first seeing if their baby needed to have their nappy changed, their blankets adjusted or could be comforted by being walked around before offering them a nighttime feed. Lastly, these parents maximised the differences between day and night – they ensured their babies were exposed to plenty of natural light during the day and, in the evening and during the night their environment was dark. In addition, social interactions were prevalent during the day but minimal at night, they were advised, if possible, not to talk or make eye contact with their baby at night. The results showed that after eight weeks, 100% of the babies in the treatment group were routinely sleeping through the night (between 12-5 am) without waking. In contrast, only 23% of the babies in the control group were.
Dream feeding, whether breast or bottle-fed, is when you try to encourage your baby to drink their milk without waking up fully. This can usually be achieved by ensuring you sit in the dark and do not talk or make eye contact if they wake. Notice also that dream feeding isn’t supposed to replace all night feedings – remember babies stomachs are tiny so they physically can’t go too long without a feed. Its purpose is to provide you with a good few hours of unbroken sleep so you can replenish. Did you see the experimenters definition of ‘sleeping the night’? 12 pm until 5 pm, a five-hour stretch. When some parents claim their baby has ‘slept through’, their definition might be different to yours.
9) Create a consistent nap schedule
Just as a solid bedtime routine is beneficial, so too is a nap schedule. This can often be harder, especially if you have an older child too – second babies tend to have to adapt to whatever the routine of the older one is. I know from experience that this can make a huge difference. My daughter, firstborn, has always been a reasonable sleeper and a brilliant napper. My son, on the other hand, was really tricky, with erratic naps, late naps even total refusal of naps! All of which had a definite knock-on effect at night-time. Children’s bodies don’t work the same as ours and being overtired can actually make falling asleep, and staying asleep, harder for them. The saying ‘sleep promotes sleep’ for little ones is right.
I remember my son being about eight months old. He was overtired and grumpy, not feeding well because he was tired and everything felt like a battle. I knew the lack of consistent naps were to blame so I cleared everything in my diary and organised lots of fun things to do at home with my daughter. I created a nap schedule that worked for my son and for me. It took a week, maybe even two to be consolidated. I’d stand in the dark of his room at the right times and encourage him to sleep. I’m not going to lie; it was a tricky week! He needed a fair bit of persuading that he needed to go to sleep but we all persevered and it made a huge difference. From then on, it was a lot better. I would try to be home for his nap times so that he could be in his cot, in his dark environment and he would nap, eventually very consistently. I’ll go into more detail about precisely what I did in the next part of this blog.
10) Do what you need to do!
Finally, my last tip is one you probably won’t find in any parenting handbook or sleep consultant’s website. It might be that this point is controversial, but this one comes from me and my experiences as a mum. I had read about how important it is not to allow your child to form sleep associations or bad sleep habits. I knew that people said you shouldn’t rock them to sleep or ‘you’ll be doing it forever’. I’d heard people warn about the dangers of feeding them to sleep because ‘they’ll never be able to fall asleep themselves’. I even worried about sitting with my baby while he fell asleep because ‘I would be teaching him that he always needs me to be there’. While I’m sure there are some truths to all of those things and I tried to avoid them if I could, I have learned along this motherhood journey that the baby in your arms doesn’t always react in the way the parenting books describe. I could try to put him down, kiss him goodnight and close the door, but he sometimes wasn’t happy about it! He is a person with real thoughts and feelings, and my idea of bedtime isn’t necessarily his.
What I have also learnt is that teaching babies to fall asleep on their own or go back to sleep when they wake is really tiring. It’s so tiring that if the only way my baby was going to fall asleep that night was for me to sit next to his bed tapping his mattress, then that is what I’d do, it solved the problem with relatively little drama, and we were all happy. Remember that babies learn while they are sleeping. Their ‘active sleep’ cycles are the time when they are making sense of everything that has happened that day. Without sleep, their brains and bodies are not being given the opportunity to recharge. The same is true for mummies of course; you need rest in order to function and provide care for your baby the next day.
So, even though I knew all the advice, sometimes, when I’d tried them all, and they hadn’t worked, I ignored it, and I did what I had to do to help my baby fall asleep. I can remember being so worried that I was forming a bad habit that I would never be able to break out of but, the biggest lesson I’ve learned on this parenthood journey is you should do the best you can at the time and worry about the rest later. When whatever I was doing to help them fall asleep became a problem, for example, rocking my son to sleep was hurting my back because he was heavy, then I stopped doing it and tried something else.
So, my final piece of advice doesn’t come from a textbook or a research study, it comes from me, and I know you haven’t asked for it, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. Do what you need to do to survive the moment. Your baby needs sleep to learn and you need rest to function tomorrow, so don’t worry about what might happen in the future, just do what you need to do to survive right now.
I hope this has been helpful to you – even if it has just allowed you to understand that you are not alone. Please remember that I am not a sleep specialist or claim to give any professional advice. The view, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are my own and have been written based on my experiences as a mum. Should you have any concerns about your baby or their sleeping habits, it is always best to seek a professional opinion via your Doctor or Health Visitor.