Expert advice on how to settle a baby to sleep

The first few months with a new baby can be stressful, especially when parents are regularly woken up at odd hours of the night and have to stay awake, trying to coax a crying baby back to sleep. This is just one of the challenges new parents have to deal with when adjusting to a little one.

Short, irregular sleep patterns are part and parcel of the new baby experience, but fortunately, there are things you can do to help a baby sleep on those restless nights (or afternoons). Knowing how to settle an infant to sleep makes the first months a lot easier and healthier. 

As an early learning and care provider, you can help caregivers and new parents in your centre find the answers they’ve been looking for. Ternity provides a host of maternity and parenting education resources to help first-time mothers and fathers, and even caregivers, when it comes to settling a baby to sleep. Expert health professionals suggest trying sleep settling to ensure a routine for both you and your baby. 

Here are a few questions parents and caregivers might be asking. 

Why does my baby only sleep for short periods?

While it seems strange to us as adults that a baby would sleep in short bursts, this is actually quite normal for infants. Babies ease into longer and more predictable sleep patterns as they grow. In the weeks after birth, there’s a considerable variation in their sleep rhythm and feeding times, which is related to their development speed.

Natalie Van Winckel, a Circle of Security parent and early childhood educator, shares that babies sleep to conserve energy, consolidate memories, and release growth hormones. When teaching parents and caregivers, she gives them the following advice: “Very young babies spend much of their day feeding and sleeping. They need plenty of sleep because they have lots of growing to do, and their feeding supplies the energy which their growth requires.”

Due to this energy consumption and conservation process, newborns don’t have regular feeding or sleeping patterns. They can even go off to sleep in the middle of feeding or even when being cuddled. They also can’t stay awake for a long time without showing tired signs. 

And that brings us to our next common sleep settling question…

What are the signs of a tired infant?

When newborns are tired, they display a range of behaviours to tell you that they need to rest. While most of these tired signs are obvious, some can be counterintuitive and harder to detect. 

These are some examples of behaviours which your tired baby might show when he or she needs to rest:

  • Yawning
  • Pulling at their ears
  • Closing their fists
  • Fluttering eyelids or difficulty focusing (they may even go cross-eyed or stare blankly into space)
  • Making jerky arm and leg movements
  • Arching backwards
  • Frowning or appearing worried
  • Sucking on their fingers 

If your baby shows any of these signs, they probably need to go back to sleep, even if they haven’t been awake for very long. Another thing to note is that if your infant shows tired signs but doesn’t want to drift to sleep, they might be unsettled.

Why do babies become unsettled?

Your infant may protest about going to sleep for several reasons. According to Cindy Davenport, director Tenitry group and a registered midwife, IBCLC, and maternal and child health nurse, these reasons may vary according to their age and stage of development. Along with the individual natures of different babies, this leads to variations in their personal sleep requirements. 

Since babies respond differently to the idea of going to sleep, it’s important to change your approach depending on what your baby needs. 

Here are some reasons Davenport suggests why your newborn may be unsettled:

  • Overtiredness: Overtired babies find it enormously difficult to drift off to sleep, and they often cry loudly to signal this to you. Missing a baby’s tired signs can lead to overtiredness like this.
  • Nervous system immaturity: Almost all babies go through a period of unsettledness between 6 and 12 weeks. Many researchers believe that an immature nervous system might cause this. During this stage, crying becomes a way of soothing and calming themselves.
  • Separation anxiety: Many babies will go through a period of separation anxiety around the age of 7 months. This can cause babies who have been used to staying asleep through the night to start waking up again at random intervals, because they need reassurance and an emotional top-up from their parents.

Do any of these signs sound familiar? Then you may have the answer to why your baby has been struggling to settle down to sleep!

Now that you’ve identified the signs when your baby is unsettled or needs to rest, let’s look at some techniques for settling your baby.

Expert techniques to settle your baby

Depending on where they are in their development, the way you settle your baby to sleep will vary. But some tried and tested methods that Van Winckel suggests include:

Create an environment that supports sleep 

Making the room quiet, calm, and darker helps your baby associate it with sleep. Consider drawing the shades when trying to settle them to bed during the day. Also, try playing gentle music or white noise to see how your baby responds to them.

Swaddling

Many infants enjoy being swaddled. We’ve seen this in several scientific studies that have shown that swaddling creates a calming and sleep-promoting effect on babies. More importantly, it can also reduce how often they wake up spontaneously throughout the night.

Provide support during bouts of pre-sleep crying

Some babies will cry when you prepare them for sleep. While this might seem distressing, this is perfectly normal; crying is simply their way of getting ready to sleep.

When babies cry before sleeping, hold them in an upright cuddle until they calm down. Then place them in their cot or bassinet. Once they calm down, then you can leave quietly to allow them to drift off to sleep.

When babies don’t calm down after being placed in their cot, start by giving them time to nest. Wait and listen for a while. After a period of grizzling or fussing, babies often drift to sleep after finding a comfortable position. Loud, forceful crying is your signal to step in with shushing and potentially comfort them with more upright cuddling before trying again.

Xplor recently partnered with Ternity to provide educators and parents with round-the-clock access to expert advice on Home+. You can rely on videos, articles and more resources from trained and qualified professionals to support each step of the parenting journey. By attending to the needs of children in your care and sharing settling techniques with parents, you are also improving the quality of care imparted at your service. 

Help babies get to sleep with Home+

Educators can improve parent engagement and fulfil National Quality Standard (NQS) elements by documenting and implementing child safety standards through Playground and sharing children’s progress directly with parents.

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