When you have a new baby, you can expect some sleepless nights, but after the first few weeks, when they start to get their days and nights sorted out, most babies begin to sleep through the night.
Everyone in the family benefits when babies and children sleep well - especially the little one’s themselves. Here are some facts:
- Sleep strengthens baby’s and children’s immune systems and helps them to fight infection.
- It improves their memory, learning and concentration skills.
- When a baby or child sleeps well, they are happier in the day and on an emotional even keel.
- The most intense period of growth hormone release is during sleep - Having a good diet is only part of what makes them tall and strong.
If you’re worried about the sleepless nights in your family, the best thing that you can do is to start a bed time routine. This is simply a repeated series of steps leading up to bed time, which help a baby or child to mentally and physically prepare for sleep. A really consistent routine can make them feel both sleepy and safe.
The best bed time routines are very repetitive, and this is important, as babies and young children like to be able to predict what is coming next. In fact, they thrive and feel safe with familiarity and predictability. When the bed time routine regularly culminates with them falling asleep, they often become conditioned to feel sleepy towards the end of their familiar bedtime “script.”
An established and familiar bed time routine is great for parents too, as it gives you a well practiced structure to follow at the end of the day. Being a parent of a baby or toddler is very hard work, and as their bed time approaches, everyone, including you will be tired. It really helps when you can switch onto “auto pilot” and not have to think too hard about how to settle your child for the night.
Just because a bedtime routine is established and consistent [strict!], it doesn’t mean that it can’t also be fun and loving. It should incorporate cuddles and little songs/rhymes/games along the way, such as in the bath, cleaning teeth etc.
Having a nightly bath or shower is a great way for them to expend their energy reserves and don’t worry if it seems to energise them. If they are running around and giddy afterwards, this is normal and they will settle down when they get into bed if you direct them to. This nightly bath or shower serves as marker that the day is finished and now it’s time for bed.
Depending on your circumstances, your routine can be as long or as short as you like, provided that it is familiar.
Here’s an example of the kind of routine that you might want to try:
- Begin your routine about half an hour before you know your baby or child is ready for sleep.
- If they have been watching TV, turn it off now.
- The sequence is more important than the timing and it’s a mistake to start the routine too early or too late. You need to know your child’s ideal awake windows.
- Take everything that you need for the night with you, to avoid having to come back into the living area.
- Follow a similar bed time “script” by using familiar phrases and actions at key points during the routine.
- Bath or shower every night if you can.
- Go directly to your child’s sleep room from the bathroom.
- Clean nappy and dressed for bed.
- Milk if your child is still having it, and whether they have the breast or a bottle, don’t let them fall asleep as they are drinking it. Keep the bedroom light on or the curtains open, so that the room isn’t dark.
- Read stories together, sitting on on your knee. The final story should be the same each night, so that it becomes a sleep trigger.
- Put them into their cot or bed whilst they are still fully awake.
- Kiss them goodnight and leave the room. It’s important that they fall asleep alone so that they don’t feel upset or confused when they wake later and you’ve gone.
In addition to a good bed time routine, one of the best ways to improve a baby’s or a child’s sleep at night time, which involves no sleep training and doesn’t cost a penny, is to expose them to daylight - especially in the morning. The contrast of lightness in the day and darkness at night helps them to produce healthy levels of melatonin; the hormone responsible for putting them to sleep at night and keeping them asleep. Not only this, but daylight exposure can also improve your whole family’s mood, as it increases the release of the “feel good” hormone, serotonin.
This article was written by Andrea Grace, a Child Sleep Expert in the UK who works online and from her clinic in Harley Street, London with families from the UK and all over the world. She has worked in the field of child health and family support for 25 years and has helped thousands of families to overcome their children’s sleep problems. She is also a mum of four.