As unpredictable as becoming a parent can be, if there is one thing that you can pretty much guarantee when you have your first child, it’s that your sleeping habits are going to change fairly significantly. From the moment you announce your pregnancy, your friends and family feel the need to remind you just how sleep deprived you are likely to be in those first few weeks, months (or in my case years!) and therefore how you should make the most of those lie-ins whilst you can.
It certainly isn’t a myth that having a baby can hurl you into a world of sleepless nights and regular wake ups, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Whilst those first few hours, weeks and months with a newborn will always be challenging whilst you adjust, you can relatively quickly get your baby into a good bedtime routine, and doing so will give you a far better chance of reacquainting with your bed and getting that illusive good nights’ sleep!
Here are some of my tips for how to establish a positive bedtime routine with your baby. It’s important to remember here that before around the 8 week mark, babies have very little sense of time, day, night or pattern, and therefore don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your baby by attempting to create a routine too soon. Between 8-12 weeks your baby will start developing more of a natural pattern in terms of their waking and sleep times, and this tends to be the best time to start reinforcing those sleep messages.
Predictable and Familiar – Babies tend to be calmer if they know what is coming, and therefore creating a bedtime routine that is consistent each night can help create a predictable and familiar routine for them to follow. Babies also learn through their actions, so a consistent routine with the same steps, (ideally in the same order) can send mental triggers to your baby that its almost time to go to sleep.
Repeated Pattern – A good bedtime routine provides a sequence of repeated steps that are done at a similar time every single night, allowing your baby to learn what comes next, including the part where they snuggle down and go to sleep. What steps this bedtime routine takes are completely up to you and your family. If you don’t get home from work till 6pm each night, there is no point trying to plan in a 2 hour winding down schedule as it simply won’t happen. Keep it simple, and accept that there may be occasions where it has to flex a little.
A warm bath before bed can be a great way to help your child relax and calm down before bed, however depending on your child’s skin you may not want to have a bath every single night – our daughter’s both had eczema, so for us this wasn’t possible. If you do opt for a bath every night, limit the amount of toys and play – as this can have the opposite effect of stimulating your baby more before bed!
Baby massage is another great option to build into your bedtime routine. We used to apply a skin cream and massage gently into our girl’s arms, legs and tummy before popping them into their sleep suit and sleeping bag. They both responded well to that gentle touch and calm few moments before bed. Other steps for your bedtime routine may include a bedtime story, song or lullaby, and cuddle.
Reduce Engagement – When it’s almost time to go to bed, start off a winding down process. Turning down the lights and drawing the curtains can help encourage the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which tells your baby its almost time to sleep. This is particularly important in the Summer months when it may still be light outside. Keep your voices quiet, don’t engage or play, and if they do need their nappy changed during the night, be careful to put them back down promptly without fully attracting their interest – no matter how tempting it may be if they start smiling at you!
Learn your baby’s sleepiness cues. Ideally you want to put your baby to bed when they are tired but not overtired, and this can be a really fine balance and change within a matter of minutes. Miss that optimum moment, and you can end up with a fractious and frustrated baby who takes far longer to settle. Look out for signs of tiredness such as yawning (the more obvious one!) fussiness, groaning, rubbing or pulling / tugging at their ears. The aim is to put them down when they are drowsy but awake to teach them to self soothe.
I will be honest here and say I didn’t quite master the self-soothing with either of my girls, but if you can it’s definitely worth persisting! We all naturally wake during the night, but can generally settle back without assistance, where as babies who fall asleep on their parent or by being rocked or cuddled quite often look for that same comfort when they wake during the night. Helping your baby to settle back to sleep without external support can get some independence back for you both.
Whilst these steps won’t guarantee you a perfect night’s sleep (if only!), helping your child to understand the difference between night and day is a definite step in the right direction! If you’re not quite there yet, remember that soon your baby will be sleeping through the night and you will miss all those extra cuddles!