Baby Sleep: Understanding and Settling Your Baby

The adjustment to early parenting is not something that anyone can really prepare you for. Your world shifts, and baby comes first, like it or not. Babies let you know when they need something, and they do not have the social grace known as patience. The emotions evoked by a crying baby are no coincidence, because without the care of another, a human baby would not survive. The exhaustion of the early months of parenting would leave the average person saying, “I hear you and will get to you in a while, I just need to rest”, however a baby’s cry is designed to encourage you respond to help them, and it does.

When your baby cries, and you offer them care, then they calm - it is a very empowering experience. But what if they don’t calm? What if your baby can’t just relax and drift off to sleep? Before your very eyes, they become overtired and overwhelmed and find even a change of position intolerable.

You feed them, change them, burp them again, and do everything to help them feel comfortable, yet they just don’t settle for sleep. This experience is the exact opposite to that empowering sense gained from calming and comforting your baby. This experience can leave parents feeling helpless and incompetent, and often frustrated. Nobody can make a baby sleep. You can create the ideal environment yet still your little baby cannot sleep, but why?

Why do some babies struggle with sleep?

The first and most notable point is that many babies struggle to drift to sleep at some time or another. A large study in the UK found that about two thirds of parents say their baby sleeps when they don’t! The reason for lying that most of the parents identified, was that they felt that their sleepless baby was a reflection of their parenting ability, so to save face, they told porkie-pies. Does it not make you think that if around two thirds of parents have babies with sleep problems, then maybe, just maybe, if that many babies have irregular sleep with unsettled times maybe, just maybe this is normal sleep and the babies. So perhaps the babies who are not in the majority are the ‘sleepers’, making them more the exception than the rule. Just a thought. In terms of maturational development of human babies, they are the most immature primate when born; unable to regulate their temperature, they cannot reach their food source unaided, and nor can they regulate intense emotions. It seems quite reasonable then, that human babies need a lot of care and that their developing systems, including emotional regulation, means they will not be skilled at self calming, especially when tired. In some countries, where babies wake more frequently than those in the western world, they are not considered to have a sleeping problem. They are considered to be normal babies.

So what can we do to help babies at sleep time?

In the first 3 to 4 months, babies can become overwhelmed quite quickly, and need care and soothing from an adult, to help them calm. Rhythmical rocking motions, or a cuddle, or both, can be soothing. Shh-ing sounds, just like those the baby heard during their time in utero, is surprisingly calming as well. Think about using a sling, babies often calm in them, or even think about a stroll in the pram, that too can be very calming. A feed might just do the trick, or your baby may benefit from sucking on a dummy to help them calm. Whatever you offer, keep in mind that your baby may respond sometimes and not other, so have a range of comforting things to offer your baby, for example singing, swaying and or patting rhythmically.

The critical factor is that you remain calm, kind and considerate of the underdeveloped nature of your baby’s emotional regulation system.

Some parents may be tempted to expect great things from their baby, such as going into their cot and falling to sleep when they are tired! But some babies, depending on who they are, may need more assistance to wind down and calm for sleep than others. Have you seen your baby’s temperament yet? Here’s a way to prompt your thoughts; who does your baby remind you of when they are unhappy?

How a baby can, and will, respond to your comforting, depends on many factors, one very important one is their ‘ability’ to respond. Babies who are alert and taking in every moment of their waking life, are often babies who may become overwhelmed quite quickly may seem to just suddenly start crying or may not able to soothe readily. However, perhaps your baby melts into your body when you cuddle together, and seem they to ‘be able’ to tolerate changes without any major distress. This baby is more likely to be able to shut their eyes and drift to sleep with greater ease than an alert baby. Your baby is made up of DNA from both parents and often it is easier to be understanding of your baby if you understand who they are, and who they are like. This may help you offer them comforting that is appropriate for them and not just offering something that you have been told to do, even though it does not seem to help your baby.

It is completely normal for babies to need assistance to calm and prepare for sleep, so they can eventually develop the ability to sleep, with your support, kindness and care.

Babies are unique and therefore will have different ways of expressing their experiences. Be guided by your baby’s behaviours and cues, so the care you offer will be appropriate for your unique baby.

Don't forget you can access more sleep and settling content, including, our Guide to Babies course which provides a step-by-step, age specific settling strategies from birth to 12 months.

About the Author:

Helen Stevens; Early Parent & Infant Consultants (EPIC Baby Sleep). RN. RM. MCHN. Published author, Infant Mental Health practitioner, Educator and Researcher, specialising in infant and toddler sleep worldwide.