Need Sleep?

Lucy Wolfe provides some guidelines for a good night’s sleep

So, it’s been nearly a year since you gave birth to your beautiful baby.  Your lives have changed in ways that you never imagined and you feel a love that you didn’t think existed. There is one slight problem: you are really, really tired… Your baby doesn’t sleep at night…

Despite well-meant and often conflicting advice from your mum, sisters, in-laws and friends, your baby wakes more than he did as a new-born.  You’ve tried everything – feeding him more, fresh air, swimming, early bedtime, late bedtime, naps, no naps… and it’s more than frustrating. Others say, “It’s just a phase”, “He will grow out of it”, “He’s teething” – and yet it seems that other mums you meet have babies the same age as yours and they DO sleep at night.

Lack of sleep makes it hard to function properly during the day, makes us (and our children) irritable, short-tempered and difficult to deal with, makes it hard to perform at work or to be an understanding partner and can sometimes make parenting harder than it should be.

Sleeplessness is probably the greatest challenge faced by parents with an otherwise healthy child.  You can begin to dread bedtime, going to sleep and trying to deal with your baby in the night; you can even begin to have negative feelings for your amazing child.

So how do you really know if you have a sleeping problem? How do you really know that it’s not just that she’s teething, or that she’s hungry, or that she just doesn’t need as much sleep as the average baby?  Here are some guidelines to help you decide whether the nocturnal activities of your child are behavioural in nature and can therefore be corrected:

  1. Your baby is older than 6 months of age and won’t settle unless specific, familiar conditions are met, such as rocking.
  2. It takes more than 10 minutes for your baby to settle at bedtime.
  3. Your baby wakes frequently during the night.
  4. Your baby cries or calls out for you whenever he wakes.
  5. Your baby cannot settle herself when she rouses at night.
  6. Your baby returns to sleep quickly with support, eg, feeding.

Falling asleep is a natural development, but learning to fall asleep unassisted is a learned skill.  Often sleep disorders stem from our doing “too much” for our children. It is better than doing too little for them, but if it affects the architecture of sleep, then it is a real household problem.

The good news is that there is not just one way to correct the problems that you may be having.  You may have been told by friends, family or even healthcare professionals that you have to let your child “cry it out”.  You may even have tried a number of different suggestions, only to make matters worse: you feel just as bad and still no one is getting any sleep.

Although sleep problems themselves can be very complicated, sometimes small changes can make the world of difference.  Parents often tell me that it’s all common sense, but in the middle of a fog of sleep-deprivation it’s hard to be reasonable; and no matter how many baby books you’ve read, how intelligent you are or what your day job is, you’re still up during the night. I have detailed below some changes you could implement that in isolation might make very little difference, but collectively might solve your problem, or at least make it a little bit better – don’t forget that often the devil is in the detail!

  1. Have a structured but flexible feeding and sleeping schedule that is similar on most days.  Our biological clock works better when it is regulated by consistent timings for waking up, eating and going to bed.
  2. Make sure you pay attention to your child’s sleep signals: yawning, eye rubbing, zoning out –  all involuntary actions that suggest that, given the opportunity, he is ready to go to sleep.  Don’t assume that your child will sleep when he is tired; the body is designed to stay awake rather than sleep.  Our task as parents is to create the right conditions so that sleep can happen easily.  Ignoring sleep signals can make your child over-tired, which in turn can make it hard for him to go to sleep and stay asleep.
  3. Create a peaceful sleeping environment.  Not too bright, not too many distractions, and one that you yourself could fall asleep in.
  4. Devise a predictable sequence of events for a bedtime routine.  When possible keep this to your child’s place of sleep.  A dim environment will enhance the sleep hormones, and quiet time will enable the relaxing hormones to come into play.
  5. Try to allow your child to be awake when you put her into the cot or bed.  If you put her down already asleep, she may wake up frightened finding herself no longer in your arms and not be efficient at going back to sleep without your presence. Gradually work at phasing out sleep aids that require intervention on your part.
  6. Try to avoid night-time feedings once they are no longer necessary.  Whether your child still requires a night feed is for you to decide.  However, frequent unnecessary feeds will result in learned hunger, large nappies and persistent night-time waking.  Your child’s digestive system will be waking up when it should be asleep and you may inadvertently be interfering with his daytime appetite and feeding.
  7. It is important that you respond to your child in the same way.  Trying and doing different things will confuse her; changing her sleeping location, sometimes feeding her, sometimes letting her cry/play/read, will give her mixed messages that are not conducive to consolidated sleep.
  8. You need to consider your child’s sleep requirements on a 24-hour basis – if he needs daytime sleep on account of his age, then it is important for him to fulfil his sleep need then too.  Sleep breeds sleep, so the better he is rested during the day, the better your child will sleep at night.
  9. A balanced diet, outside exercise and plenty of one-to-one time during the day will also help your child to sleep better in the night-time hours.

Lucy Wolfe is a Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant and a mum of four young children. She works with families to identify problem areas and together devise a plan of action. You can contact her on +353 (0)872 683 584 or by emailing