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It can be hard to tell if you're doing the right thing during your child's all-important sleeping hours. Vhi Consultant Paediatrician Dr. Caroline Lhopital sets the record straight on the most popular questions - and misconceptions - around baby sleep.
Question: Should I really "sleep when my baby sleeps"?
Answer: You can try, but as an adult, you will find it very difficult! Our internal biological clock is synced to the day-night cycle so, even though we are tired, we usually only get sleepy at night. Babies up to 100 days (roughly 3 months) don’t have that same cycle yet and will fall asleep at any time. So that old adage shouldn’t be taken too literally. What it is really saying is: all new parents suffer with some level of sleep deprivation. Try and use what little quiet time you get to have some rest or space for relaxation. For the benefit of your little one, it’s important to mind your own health.
Question: Does my baby need to be on a strict sleep schedule?
Answer: Before that 3-month mark, a baby’s sleep cycle is only 30-45 minutes long, and sleep is spread throughout the day’s entire 24 hours. So, they’ll have little interest in, or tolerance for, a sleep schedule at that stage!
However, you can help put some structure on their sleep by making the day and night as different as possible. This means soft lighting and low stimulation at night and allowing more noise and brightness flood the room during the day. As their brain matures, they will begin to differentiate between day and night and, in doing so, their sleep cycle will grow longer. When you get to this point, a regular evening routine with rituals before bed, along with set bedtimes and waking times, can help build good sleep habits. It doesn’t have to be strict – you can’t force sleep after all – but it needs to be consistent.
Question: Should I really let my baby ‘cry it out’ to help them fall asleep?
Answer: Once again, it depends on your baby’s age. Young infants in their first 3 months cry to ask for help, so you should provide these crying babies with whatever comfort they need. Babies that are 6 months or older are usually mature enough to “problem solve” their difficulty in falling back to sleep, and sometimes that involves the child crying until they figure out how to self-soothe. Your role as a parent is to ensure they can do so in a safe, reassuring environment. Your own family culture and sensibility is at play here too, and it’s important to be aware of that.
Question: Will letting my baby use a pacifier mean they will become dependent on them to get to sleep?
Answer: All babies wake up at least 2-4 times a night and need to get back to sleep on their own. For some, it involves rubbing a beloved teddy, for others rocking or grunting themselves to sleep, or sucking on a thumb or pacifier. So yes, if that’s what your baby uses to self-soothe, they will likely be dependent on it to fall back to sleep, at least for a time. As we know, very few teenagers still use a pacifier – though some might still suck their thumbs! So, in time, you will be able to help your toddler find other ways of self-soothing and take the pacifier away. Right now? It’s not something to worry about.
Question: Will staying with my child until they sleep, or feeding to sleep, form bad habits?
Answer: Those techniques will help your child fall back to sleep, but they won’t build their own “problem-solving” skills, as they will rely on something exterior to them to have a good night’s sleep. Each family and culture have their own beliefs about when it is best to teach those skills to a child. In Western countries, we expect children to have an independent sleep very early in life, while in many other countries, it is normal and accepted to share a bed as a family. Here, you must define your expectations and what you are willing to do to meet them.
Question: Will my baby sleep better at night if they get less sleep during the day?
Answer: No, The recipe for a good night’s sleep is:
Trouble with this final ingredient causes most adult insomnia, and it can also cause trouble in babies. If your child is too cranky from sleep deprivation or overstimulated from a long day of running around and learning new exciting things, paradoxically, sleep might be longer in coming. Who, as a parent, ever thought to themselves, ‘with all we’ve done today, they will fall asleep at 7 pm tonight’ only to find a cranky baby still wailing at 9 pm?
Your wind-down routine is really important in getting to that relaxed place so the sleep clock can start. Be mindful of the second point, though: if your baby has a late nap and wakes up all refreshed at 6 pm, there is little chance they’ll be tired enough to fall asleep at 8 pm. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing between two bad options!
Question: Should my child be sleeping through the night by 6 months?
Answer: By 6 months, most healthy babies have the physical capacity to sustain an 8-hour fast at night. That isn’t to say they won’t still wake up during the night, but it should start to become less frequent. If you notice that your baby’s sleep is not improving over time, reach out to a professional. It could be related to teething, developmental milestones, changes in routine, or other causes which they can advise you on.
This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.
Dr Caroline Lhopital
Consultant Paediatrician at Vhi Paediatric Clinic