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Steps to changing baby sleep patterns
If you're interested in changing baby sleep patterns, the important thing is helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently at bedtime and settle by herself if she wakes during the night.
It might take anything from three days to three weeks to change baby sleep patterns, depending on the approach you use and your baby's temperament. Be prepared for your baby to protest for the first few nights, until he gets used to the change. After that, sleep usually improves for everyone.
Here are the steps to changing baby sleep patterns:
- Identify the habit associated with the sleep problem.
- Phase out the habit.
- Set up a positive bedtime routine.
- Teach your baby to settle to sleep independently.
Step 1: identifying your baby's sleep habits
If you want to change your baby's sleep patterns, the first thing is to work out what habits your baby depends on to go to sleep.
Usually, the way your baby falls asleep at the start of the night is the way she'll want to go back to sleep after waking in the night. For example, if she's rocked or fed to sleep at the start of the night, she'll want to be rocked or fed back to sleep in the middle of the night.
Here are some ideas for thinking through your baby's sleep habits.
Where does your baby fall asleep?
Is this the same place where your baby wakes during the night? If your baby is in the habit of falling asleep in the family room or in your arms, he might need to be in this place to get back to sleep after waking in the night.
How do you help your baby fall asleep?
If you're in the habit of picking up, cuddling or rocking your baby to sleep, she might be in the habit of needing you to get to sleep. She's likely to need you in the night as well as at bedtime.
How do you settle your baby?
Is your baby put into the cot asleep or awake? If your baby is awake, how do you settle him? The things you do when you settle him for the night are the things he'll want after waking later.
Does your baby use a dummy to fall asleep?
Can your baby put the dummy back in without your help in the night? If not, she might call out to you for help.
Does baby have a mobile or music at bedtime?
Do you put on music at baby's bedtime? Do you have to turn music on again when your baby wakes in the night? If so, it's likely he's in the habit of needing music to settle.
Step 2: phasing out sleep habits associated with night waking
Here are some strategies to help you phase out your baby's existing sleep habits if that's what you want to do.
If your baby routinely falls asleep at the breast or with the bottle, she might depend on feeding to help her get to sleep. You can try to change this habit by:
- finishing the last feed at least 20 minutes before bedtime
- giving baby the last feed outside the bedroom - for example, in a quiet family area of the house. This helps break the link between feeding and sleeping
- phasing out night feeds altogether for babies older than six months - this is important if you're trying to help your baby settle independently during the night.
If your baby needs you to find his dummy and put it back in during the night, you can help your baby give up the dummy or learn to manage his own dummy during the night.
Music and mobiles
In general, if your baby is having problems re-settling overnight, it's probably best to stop playing music at bedtime - especially if you have to get out of bed to turn the music back on in the night.
Step 3: establishing a positive bedtime routine
A positive bedtime routine helps your baby settle to sleep.
A routine involves organising bedtime around a series of consistent activities and tasks, which you do in the same order and at the same time each night.
A bedtime routine will work better if your baby is getting enough sleep during the day. Babies who get overtired during the day can find it harder to settle to sleep at night.You can decide on the bedtime routine that works best for you and your baby. Here's an example of a bedtime routine: have dinner, have a bath, breastfeed or bottle-feed (but not in baby's bedroom), read a book together, put baby to bed and have a goodnight kiss. For more on getting your baby ready for sleep, see our article on positive bedtime routines.
Step 4: teaching your baby to settle back to sleep
As well as a positive bedtime routine, you need a strategy for managing crying during daytime sleeps, at bedtime or during the night when your baby wakes.
If you're confident that your baby gets enough attention during the day but needs you for help getting to sleep, you can use a behaviour management technique like controlled comforting or camping out.
These techniques aim to teach babies to fall asleep without your help:
- Controlled comforting involves putting your baby to bed, and quickly comforting, settling and leaving her. You gradually cut back on how much attention you give to your baby when she cries and calls out.
- Camping out is when you stay in your baby's bedroom to help him settle. You gradually move further away from your baby and cut back on how much help you give him while he's settling.
Choose the approach you're most comfortable with and try to use it consistently for at least three nights. For some babies, it might take up to three weeks. If things aren't improving after a few nights, or if your baby is becoming more and more upset, it's a good idea to consult your GP or child and family health nurse.Controlled comforting and camping out solve sleep problems in about 80% of cases. Babies who have learned to sleep and settle with controlled comforting are more likely to sleep better in the short term. They're also as well adjusted in behaviour and sleep as their peers in the long term.
Tips for success with controlled comforting and camping out
You might want to think about these ideas if you're introducing these sleep strategies:
- Think about when to start. Both approaches can be demanding and tiring. If your child is ill or you're going through a major change like moving house, wait until later.
- Stop using these strategies if you or your child becomes ill.
- If you can't take any time during the day to have a rest and catch up on some sleep, you might be better off waiting until you can.
- If your baby shares a bedroom with an older sibling, remember that crying babies rarely wake older children overnight.
- If you co-sleep with your baby, pat her briefly to encourage settling. Turn away when your baby is quiet to allow her to settle to sleep.
Problems with changing baby sleep patterns
About 20% of babies who learn to re-settle during the night start waking again about two weeks later. If your baby is otherwise well, keep going with your settling strategy. Usually babies go back to good habits after a couple of nights.
But it's a good idea to talk with your GP or child and family health nurse if:
- you're still having problems after two weeks of controlled comforting or three weeks of camping out
- at any stage after the first few nights things are getting worse not better.
Your health professionals might be able to help you tailor a program that will work better for you and your baby. You could also contact a local early parenting centre for more support and help.
For some babies, techniques like controlled comforting and camping out don't work. If they're not working for you and your baby, it's a good idea to talk to your GP or child and family health nurse.Contact a child health professional if at any time you feel things aren't working, or you're anxious, distressed or don't know what to do next. You can also call a parenting hotline in your state or territory for help.
Looking after yourself
Changing baby sleep patterns is a challenging and tiring task. You need to look after yourself by resting during the day when you can, going to bed early and asking family and friends for help.