When we’re becoming parents for the first time, we all know that we’re not going to get much sleep for the first few weeks, right? Newborn babies are notorious for their frequent waking but if, like me, you had absolutely NO idea that you’d still not be getting a full night’s sleep for several months, a year or even two years later, maybe you’ll agree that expectations about what infant sleep looks like are completely different to the reality.
Endless sleep regressions, hours and hours of rocking and pacing back and forth, desperately trying not to cry when your baby just won’t stay asleep for more than half an hour at a time… it’s no wonder some parents get so desperate they feel like they need to resort to a baby sleep training schedule or baby sleep training methods.
You can read my full post on why sleep training baby is harmful, but if you’re here for alternative baby sleep techniques here are my top respectful, gentle and ethical no-tears methods to use instead of sleep training.
Note: in this post I’m putting an emphasis on sleep techniques for night time as I’m assuming that’s when you the parent are most likely to want some solutions, but many of the tips below apply to naps as well.
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1. Check the Wonder Weeks app
First stop, if you haven’t already, download the Wonder Weeks app and input your child’s data. All babies and young children go through a series of developmental leaps, with a whopping 10 leaps taking place in the first 18 months of life. Around the time of these leaps, your baby will usually start to fuss more often, become grumpier and clingier, be more prone to crying, resist naps and wake up more often in the night.
The Wonder Weeks alerts you to impending leaps, giving you a chance to not only prepare yourself for a bumpy ride on the rollercoaster of infant sleep. It also lets you know what new understandings of the world your baby is experiencing so you can empathise with the mental shifts and changes they’re making at that time.
For me, having this understanding of what was going on for Ursula (along with the advance warning of when I’d likely have a grumpy-ass baby on my hands) made dealing with her sleep problems so much easier. It wasn’t a magic solution to make her fall asleep instantly, but it helped me find a bit more patience and empathy, as well as plan ahead for getting myself to bed early in order to cope with the long nights.
If you’re currently experiencing extra sleep problems with your baby, check the app to see if they’re going through a leap. Alternatively, if your baby or young toddler is around 4, 8-10, 12, 18 or 21 months old, these ages are common for children to experience sleep regression. If you’re on the verge of trying baby sleep training and your baby is undergoing either a leap or a regression, please know that this is absolutely the WORST time to start the comfort-withdrawal methods that sleep training programmes rely on. Your child is going through developmental shifts and changes and they need your comfort and soothing cuddles now more than ever.
Having now been through all of the 10 leaps and regressions above, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing you can really do during this time is to take care of yourself. Get to bed early so you can grab some extra sleep, take up any offers of support you get from friends and family, and then repeat THIS TOO SHALL PASS over and over again. Believe me, I know it’s hard when you’re in the thick of things and you feel like you’ll never sleep again, but leaps and regressions DO come to an end!
Not only that, once they do end, your baby usually comes out the other side with an ever-so-slightly more adult-like sleep pattern and you get back some of the time you spent nurturing them through that tumultuous period. They may drop a nap but make their remaining one/s a bit longer so you can actually start getting some stuff done, or their nightly wake ups might reduce and you’ll find yourself actually getting some decent sleep. Caring for an infant is no picnic when it comes to their sleeping habits, but I promise you there is always some light to be found at the end of a regression tunnel.
2. Introduce a bedtime (or nap time) routine
Research has shown time and time again that infants and young children with a regular bedtime routine have more consistent sleep patterns and sleep for longer periods than those who don’t. Even if it’s just a simple case of bath, milk, stories and a cuddle, the predictability of a nightly bedtime routine can do wonders for a baby’s sleep habits as they start to feel gradually more secure in knowing what’s going to happen next.
As for when to introduce one, I’ve seen some advice to follow a bedtime routine from day one. In my personal experience though, the fourth trimester (first 12 weeks) of a baby’s life is easiest to handle if you go with the flow and let go of the idea of routine. I started to introduce a simple baby bedtime routine with Ursula when she was 12 weeks old. By this age, I felt like she was starting to become more familiar, aware of and engaged with her surroundings and could start observing and responding to the habits I was going to start introducing. If you’re looking to introduce a baby bedtime routine, I love gentle sleep and parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s video below for her top tips on where to start.
Sarah’s excellent The Gentle Sleep Book has been my absolute Bible when it comes to Ursula’s sleep and I thoroughly recommend getting a copy. It gives you a comprehensive guide to what normal infant sleep actually looks like as well as giving you genuinely gentle, no-tears sleep solutions that help everyone get more rest. It also covers a wide age range (0-5-years) so you’ll have it there on standby to turn to further down the line.
Don’t forget to think about whether your baby’s naps could benefit from a special nap time routine too. Even something short like a story or song, a feed and getting into a swaddle or sleeping bag may be enough to set some sleep signals for your baby. I personally found my attempts at nap time routines were rather unsuccessful as, when Ursula wants to nap, she wants to get on with it and was never very tolerant of my efforts. This is entirely down to her personality though so don’t let that put you off trying it out if you’re struggling with naps.
3. Use white or pink noise
In case you’re unfamiliar with what has become a familiar soundtrack to many a mother’s life, white noise is the sound that is created when you mix together all the possible sound frequencies and tones that the human ear can hear – similar to that hissing sound you get between stations on a car radio. Pink noise is pretty much the same but with the bass end of the frequencies turned up slightly.
Both help (most) babies fall and stay asleep, partly because it’s a similar sound to the loud whooshes that they heard in the womb, partly because both pink and white noise block out other sounds that might disturb the baby, and partly because the consistency of sound helps them to connect their sleep cycles together (for that reason it’s important to keep the noise running through the entirety of the sleep, not just at the beginning while baby drops off).
A famous study back in 1990 showed that a whopping 80% of newborn babies fell asleep quicker to the sound of white noise than those in the control group. Another study in 2005 showed that patients in noisy Intensive Care Units were less likely to have disturbed sleep when white noise was played, so it’s not just babies that benefit from the sound. My husband has always been a poor sleeper but, since having pink noise on every night for Ursula, sleeps so much more soundly himself!
If you want to give white or pink noise a go (personally I find pink noise a bit easier on my own ears when awake and hearing it through the baby monitor) then it’s important that you make sure not to blast it out. Research carried out by the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) found that many white noise machines on the market are loud enough to damage an infant’s tender hearing, so ensure that whatever is producing the the white noise is placed at least 7-feet away from your baby and that the volume is no louder than 50dBA (decibels). That’s approximately the volume of someone having a shower or the sound of moderate rainfall.
In theory, you don’t actually need to buy a white noise machine to start using it. There are plenty of free apps and videos on YouTube that will play constant white or pink noise from your phone, so if you’ve got a speaker to hook it up to you’re set. Certainly I recommend giving it a go using a free solution first to make sure your baby responds well to it (some babies don’t show any difference in their sleep patterns and a few actively hate the sound, so do test it first).
However, I personally didn’t like having my phone tied up playing white noise all night and I wanted to be able to use it after Ursula had gone to bed (once she was over 6 months old of course – all babies under this age should take all their sleep in the same room as an adult). Once I’d established that it worked, I decided to invest in a proper white noise machine, and it was honestly one of the best baby investments I’ve made (certainly better than most of the snazzy organic wooden toys or pretty little dresses I bought!)
For a wider range of soothing sounds, including actual recordings of a mother’s resting heartbeat, all wrapped up in a snuggly baby and toddler friendly package, look no further than the infamous Ewan the Dream Sheep. Unfortunately I’d already got my white noise machine by the time I heard of this guy, but I know so many mothers who swear by him for helping to settle their babies to sleep. He also has a warm, sleep-inducing night light so he’s helpful for the next one of my top baby sleep techniques.
4. Pay attention to lighting
To understand the importance of these baby sleep techniques we need to talk a bit about circadian rhythms, the body’s natural, instinctive daily cycle and behavioural changes that work in response to light and darkness. Our circadian rhythms partly determine our sleep patterns, helping our body to wind down for sleep when it gets dark and gradually rouse when it’s morning (yes, even without copious amounts of coffee so I’m told!!)
As they’ve spent their entire existence in the darkness of the womb, when babies are born their circadian rhythms are vastly different to that of an adult. Their bodies literally have no idea whether it’s day or night and therefore when it’s time to be awake or time to be asleep. Part of the process of newborn development during the first 3-4 months is the establishment of circadian rhythms that align with that of an adult. They need to learn the difference between night and day so that their bodies know when to release the appropriate levels of hormones, body temperature changes and other elements that facilitate wakefulness and (probably of more interest to you!) sleeping.
Now this is all very well and good if you’re a hunter-gatherer already living in response to natural light, but now that we have artificial lighting we can fool our bodies into thinking it’s daytime for much longer than it actually is. This is a nightmare for establishing circadian rhythms in a young baby.
During the newborn period in particular it has been suggested that babies be exposed to as much natural daylight as possible during waking hours and basically no light whatsoever at night. Following this guideline as closely as possible, especially during the first 3-4 months of life, should help promote the development of normal circadian rhythms in babies.
Even after the end of that first trimester, however, babies and young toddlers can still benefit hugely from parents continuing the principle of exposing them to natural light in the day and keeping light to a minimum at night.
In fact, working to support your baby’s circadian rhythms is one of the best baby sleep techniques you can use as it is simply encouraging the natural sleeping habits that are already there but just need to be facilitated. You can work with lighting to help promote your baby’s natural sleeping instincts in the following ways:
Get them out of the house in the morning light as soon as you can, even if it’s just in the garden and even when the weather is less than appealing. This helps your baby’s body understand that it is morning and therefore “awake” time.
Invest in a black out blind for the room they sleep in. Just as conscious exposure to natural daylight will help your baby’s circadian rhythms respond by releasing “awake” hormones, shutting out as much light as possible will help foster sleeping hormones.
Keep screens away from your baby at least 90 but preferably 120 minutes before bedtime. The blue light from screens has huge impacts on a baby’s ability to sleep and produce melatonin so turn off the TV, say goodbye to bedtime hour on Cbeebies or nighttime lullabies on YouTube, and keep all screens off and away from your baby’s environment from 1.5-2 hours before bedtime until the morning.
Invest in a night light that has been designed to emit low red lighting instead of bright white or blue based light, then use this instead of your overhead or bedside lamps during nightly wakes. My wake ups with a young Ursula improved dramatically once we got a night light, as it didn’t wake her up in the same way that the brighter bedside lamp did. Soon afterwards she began to only wake when she was hungry for milk and it became easy to get her back to sleep because she had barely even woken up properly. I thoroughly recommend getting something like the Lumie Bedbug, which is specifically designed to mimic natural lighting hues and provide sleep-optimised lighting that doesn’t interrupt your child’s nightly sleeping rhythms. It’s something that will serve you well into the toddler and preschool years when children often want nightlights to keep under-the-bed monsters at bay, so it is definitely worth seeing as a long-term investment.
If your baby is a newborn and isn’t yet showing signs of rolling around, then one of the most ancient and traditional techniques to help baby sleep is swaddling. Wrapping your baby up in a swaddle blanket or popping them in a swaddle bag may help them to feel more comforted during the night and therefore need to wake less.
Swaddling is a traditional practice that involves wrapping your baby up tight in a breathable piece of fabric to try and recreate the tight, restricted feeling they experienced everyday in the womb. As well as providing a familiar, comforting sensation for young babies, swaddling also prevents babies from flailing their limbs around and startling themselves awake.
I loved using Aden + Anais organic swaddle blankets for Ursula. The fabric is ridiculously soft, light and breathable and their prints are to die for.
They still come in handy even now she’s nearly 2 (😱😱😱) and find use as summer blankets, buggy shades and ad-hoc picnic blankets.
If you do decide to try swaddling as a one of your newborn baby sleep techniques, please do read the NCT’s guide to safe swaddling for further information on the pros and cons on the practice and how to swaddle safely.
However, if the thought of all that swaddling origami fills you with horror, a lot of mothers swear by swaddle bags such as the Love To Dream Swaddle. I hadn’t heard of these when I had Ursula but, if ever there’s a second Ecofeminist Bubba, I’ll definitely be investing in these. They’re made from bamboo, a sustainable and breathable fabric that helps regulate baby’s body temperature, and they mimic the restriction of the swaddle but simply have a zip up the front. They also have a Stage 2 version that provides a transition between swaddling and the far more open sleeping bag, which babies sometimes struggle to adjust to after the tight feeling of the swaddle.
6. Embrace co-sleeping
As previously mentioned, the safest place for your baby to sleep up to the age of 6 months is in the same room as an adult (that includes naps as well as night time sleep). Many parents in the Western world, however, decide to try and make their baby sleep independently in their nursery after this age. If this is you and you are experiencing multiple wake ups through the night and hoping to get some more sleep, you may want to consider co-sleeping as an option.
I’m using the term ‘co-sleeping’ here in its’ truest sense and to refer to any means of sleeping in the same room as your baby. Although many use the term to refer to sharing a bed with their child or children, that’s just one way of co-sleeping – all bed sharing is co-sleeping but not all co-sleeping is bed sharing. You could have the baby’s cot in your room, standing independently, or find a ‘side car’ option where you attach your baby’s separate sleep surface to your own bed.
This is how we currently sleep, with Ursula’s Mokee Mini cot open on one side (it converts to a toddler bed so has a bar to stabilise it in a three-sided set up) and secured to my side of the bed. It’s really just a toddler version of the excellent SnuzPod newborn crib that she slept in next to me until she was 6 months old.
Although for many people in the UK the idea of an older baby sharing their bedroom and even their bed is an alien concept, this is how the majority of the world arranges their family sleeping situation. It’s really only in Western societies that independent sleeping is pushed on infants and young children, largely as a result of false beliefs stemming from the Victorian period through to the 1950s that solitary, uninterrupted sleep in a crib should be the normal standard for infant sleep.
Many parents find that once they implement a suitable co-sleeping arrangement, whether that’s bed sharing or just room sharing, the quality of their child’s sleep improves dramatically. As well it being so much more convenient for you not to have to get up and go traipsing down the corridor to the nursery to deal with every wake up, having the security of knowing that their parents (especially their mother) are right there to keep them safe is often enough for babies and young children to sleep more soundly at night. And, far from creating “clingy” or “mollycoddled” children, fostering a strong and secure sense of attachment with your baby through practices such as co-sleeping has been shown to lead to more emotional security and confidence in later life. Also, there’s nothing to make your heart burst with love and joy like waking up in the morning to find your little bundle rolling in close to snuggle up with you 😍
If you think that co-sleeping might be worth a go to solve your sleep problems, please take the time to read through The Lullaby Trust’s guide to safe co-sleeping (with an emphasis on bed sharing) and their broader guide to safer sleep. Always make sure you have a high-quality, firm mattress if you are choosing to bed-share.
If the side car option is more appealing to you than sharing a bed then Basis (a UNICEF-supported sleep research project at Durham University) have a guide on how to do this safely. If you have concerns about the safety of bedsharing or other forms of co-sleeping, the excellent Beyond Sleep Training Project has compiled a list of high-quality, academic research to help put your mind at ease.
7. Introduce a bedtime bath, or don’t go anywhere near one
If you watched Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s video on bedtime routines above, you may have noticed she mentions a bath as being a potential element for a sleep-friendly nightly routine. Bathing your baby every night isn’t really necessary from a hygiene point of view and it has the potential to dry out their skin (potentially even causing eczema), but if they enjoy it and you are having persistent sleep problems it may be worth trying a nightly bath as a very short term solution. I find them particularly helpful during developmental leaps sleep regressions as they have always seem to calm a fraught and angst-ridden Ursula. Also the drop in temperature experienced when you take your baby out of a warm bath can stimulate a melatonin (sleep hormone) release.
Whether you bathe them nightly or just two or three times a week, joining your baby in the bath yourself is also a potentially sleep-friendly solution, especially with younger (less wriggly and splashy!) babies who benefit so greatly from skin to skin time with their mother (or anyone else for that matter, but especially with their mother). Skin to skin touch between mother and baby releases oxytocin (the love and bonding hormone) on both sides, so as well as helping to give your baby the warm, relaxing, lovey-dovey feels to help get them in the mood for sleep, it allows a crucial bonding opportunity that is particularly helpful for mothers who struggled to bond with their baby after a traumatic or pain-relief heavy labour, or who are living with postpartum depression or anxiety.
Obviously water and a bath is all you really need for this step, but I’ve always added lavender scent in some form, partly for its’ relaxing qualities but also as a sensory signal to Ursula that bedtime is on the horizon. In the early months, I used my postpartum herbs recipe and it had an almost magical knock-out quality, making her feel super relaxed and drowsy:
Mix and distribute into small organic cotton drawstring bags, filling each bag about ¾ full. Soak each in 1 litre boiling water for at least 2 hours (I would make mine first thing in the morning and leave it to steep all day so it was super strong). Add to baby’s bath – for the first use I would recommend doing a patch test on baby’s skin to make sure they are not allergic to any of the ingredients.
When I ran out of my herbs, I switched to Earth Friendly lavender bubble bath, an organic, vegan all-natural product that is 100% safe for babies and I found it had a similarly soothing effect. So what’s not to love about a soothing, lavender-infused skin-to-skin love-fest of a baby bath, eh? Well, at some point our little angels stop gazing lovingly into our eyes while we gently scoop water over their precious little heads, and instead learn how to sit, stand, maybe walk a bit and, most importantly, figure out that WATER IS FUUUUUNNNNN!!! Suddenly out go the organic herbs and in come the bath toys, big splashes and hair-raising lunges towards what we’ve suddenly realised are scorching hot and very pointy taps.
There comes an age (different for all babies but somewhere between 6-12 months) where you may find that the bedtime bath that used to be so successful is now a sensory activity that gets your baby more revved up than is really wise at such a delicate time. If, like me in the first few months, a bath is part of your routine but now doesn’t have the relaxing qualities that it did when babe was younger, don’t be afraid to ditch it. I don’t know about you but, when it comes to anything related with sleep, I’m always incredibly slow and reluctant to change something that’s been working. It’s not so much about fearing change, it’s just sheer optimism that the Magic Thing That Always Works will somehow start working again, even though it’s clearly not been doing us any good (and possibly even making matters worse) for some time.
Generally speaking I now keep bath time separate from our nightly bedtime routine, as Ursula’s clearly so stimulated and excited by them that she resists any underlying oxytocin or melatonin production. If you’ve got an older baby or toddler and are struggling to wrangle them into bed, consider whether you need to ditch the bath and find other ways to wind them down before bed such as stories or (if a bit older) puzzles, building blocks or another quiet activity that encourages focus and attention.
8. Harness the power of scent
A successful bedtime routine that helps to facilitate infant sleep incorporates a number of signals to let your baby know what’s coming next. Babies and toddlers feel a great deal more safe and secure in knowing what’s happening which, given that we adults tend to decide what it is that’s happening most of the time, is fair enough really – imagine you were entirely in the hands of someone else and you had no idea what was going to take place from one moment to the next. I bet you wouldn’t feel very comfortable about going to sleep…
We can give cues and signals to our baby that sleeping time is imminent through a number of ways, but the more senses are engaged the better. Babies are very sensory beings and communicating with them through the senses is a great way to engage them.
You can add scent to your bag of baby sleep techniques by using essential oils in a diffuser and setting it going in the room where your baby will sleep at least half an hour before you expect to take them in there. The most obvious choice of scent here would be lavender but if you fancy trying something different, other sleep-friendly scents include:
Cedarwood – has mild muscle relaxant qualities
Chamomile – naturally calming, chamomile helps soothe emotions
Geranium – has a mild sedative effect
Jasmine known for its calming effect and may help reduce tossing and turning
Important note: the above essential oils are all safe to use in a high-quality diffuser (not on baby’s skin) from age 6 months upwards*. Always check that any essential oil you use is safe for your baby and never use any essential oil neat and undiluted on their skin.
* Source: Nourishing Joy
9. Get creative with your movement
If you’re concerned that your baby isn’t falling to sleep by themselves and needs to be helped along somehow, know that this is perfectly normal and natural even into the toddler and preschool years. Many so-called baby sleep problems are in fact parent’s problems, and they disappear as soon as you learn and accept what your baby is actually developmentally capable of and shift your expectations accordingly.
No matter what the sleep training baby books tell you, babies aren’t developmentally capable of putting themselves to sleep in the way that we adults do, where we can just lie down, settle ourselves and eventually drift off. One of the goals of sleep training is to “teach” a baby how to do this (under a false claim that babies need to learn how to “self settle” or “self soothe”, but sadly this isn’t what is happening when people sleep train their babies. All that’s happening when you’re sleep conditioning a baby is that they just give up asking for help to get to sleep when they realise that no-one is coming for them. They drop off from sheer exhaustion but remain in a state of stress and anxiety at not being comforted to sleep as is biologically normative.
So if part of your angst over your baby’s sleep patterns is to do with how to actually get them to sleep in the first place, I totally feel you. Ursula was combination fed from birth and, at around about 6 months old, stopped falling asleep on the boob. She also self-weaned at 12 months so then even the drowsiness she felt from her nightly breastfeed was gone. In both cases I had to get creative with how I helped her get to sleep. One night when the boob had failed yet again and I had no idea what to try next, I remembered something I’d read about how babies were used to sleeping in a state of movement whilst in the womb. I had already tried rocking her to no avail but then I thought back to when I was pregnant and what kind of movements I was doing regularly.
Two things stuck out in my mind: the first was that I had carried on doing my weekly ballet lessons up to about 38 weeks, and the second was that I had been working in an office in Central London and walking through Covent Garden during rush hour every morning and evening. I started out by holding her upright and trying to replicate some of the bouncing and lilting movements I would have done in ballet class (no pirouettes obviously!!) and, to my delight, it worked a treat and sent her off into a lovely deep sleep. On a night when that didn’t work, I paced back and forth really quickly as if I were walking through rush hour London and (to my great surprise, because it must have been a very bumpy ride!) that also worked perfectly. I then had two new sleep methods to add to my toolbox and they continued to work up until very recently around 21 months, when Ursula started asking to lie in her cot to fall asleep instead.
Of course, all that bouncing, jiggling, pacing and rocking can be hard work on the back when babe starts to get bigger. At around 8 months old I started to use my carrier to hold her while I bounced her down to sleep and, after a couple of nights getting used to it, this again became the best way to get her to sleep until very recently. If you don’t yet have a soft but supportive baby carrier to use then I recommend giving the ErgoBaby OMNI 360 a go.
It has ergonomic lumbar support but is soft and not so structured that it will hinder baby sleep. It will also be a worthwhile investment as it is suitable not only for newborns but for toddlers up to 20kg – it doesn’t even require one of those notoriously losable newborn inserts! They’re also great for back carries when your little bundle turns into a big handful.
Like most carriers they are an investment, and everyone is different when it comes to the best baby carrier that will work for their body types and their baby. If you’d like to try before you buy, have a look to see if you have a sling library in your area that stocks an ErgoBaby so you can give it a test drive.
10. Sing your heart out
The sight of a mother gently rocking her baby to sleep while singing a lullaby is a bit of a cliché these days but, like most good clichés, it’s become one because it’s true. Sending our babies off to the gentle sound of a lullaby is something mothers have been instinctively doing for centuries, with the earliest lullabies being traced back 4,000 years ago to Babylonian times, but these days we also know more about the why and how of music’s positive impact on baby sleep.
One study from Great Ormond Street Hospital back in 2013 showed that hospitalised children had reduced pain levels and increased emotional wellbeing from being sung lullabies, while another study among preschool children found that overall sleep was improved among those who had background music playing at bedtime. If you’re looking for relaxing, low-stimulation music to play in the background for your child, I can highly recommend Sarah and Ian Ockwell-Smith’s Gentle Sleep Music For Babies album as an excellent choice for helping to send your little one off to sleep. It incorporates elements of white noise such as the sound of sea waves on the shore, as well as simple and gently repetitive musical intonations to help soothe your baby. I’ve been using it as the background music for Ursula’s bedtime routine since she was around 5 months old and it still helps to calm and settle her down in the run up to bedtime.
When it comes to actually sending her off to sleep, I’m a big fan of singing lullabies. I’ll do a list of the best baby lullabies in a future post but I’ve always found that my own made-up ditties have had the most powerful effect. You don’t even have to come up with anything very complicated or be terribly musical to come up with a successful lullaby.
One smash-hit of mine I call The Very Boring Lullaby and it simply consists of me repeatedly singing sleep-encouraging words like, “Go to sleep, rest your head, time to sleep safe in your bed” on just two or three notes.
My biggest and earliest success, however, was with a lullaby that my own mother made up for me when she was rocking me to sleep. The first time I tried singing it to Ursula she instantly went very quiet and dropped off to sleep within minutes. I had tried all sorts of other songs up to that point but it was her grandmother’s simple melody about the beauty of the sun, the moon and the stars that got her attention and settled her down. Perhaps it was partly because the sound of my childhood lullaby soothed and calmed me as well, or maybe it sparked off some genetic memory in her, but it continued to work for several months. Whatever the reason for the magical effect of lullabies, it’s one of the most loving and gentle baby sleep techniques you can use and has the added bonus of helping to create some beautiful memories for you as a mother.
When we’re in the midst of sleep deprivation and struggles with our baby’s sleeping patterns, it’s easy to get caught up in despair and forget the short-lived beauty of this time we spend with our babies. Singing a soft lullaby, especially one that is meaningful to you and comes from your heart, is a lovely way to reconnect with and feel gratitude for our babies. And I’d be willing to bet that if you allow yourself to slow down, feel that authentic love and gratitude and sing from your heart, that your baby will respond positively.
If you’re already using lullabies for your baby, what are your favourites and your most successful ones? Fill in this form and let me know so I can share your best baby lullabies in a future post for other mothers who need inspiration!
11. Cut out screen time
When looking at how lighting can impact the quality of your baby’s sleep, I mentioned how the blue light from screens inhibits the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and should therefore be avoided in the 90-120 minutes before your baby’s sleep onset. However, guidelines from the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) suggest that this might not be going far enough. They advise that children under 18 months old shouldn’t be given any screen time at all (with the exception of video chatting), for a number of reasons:
Screen time distracts and takes time away from valuable physical activity that keeps our children healthy and active, as well as using enough energy to sleep soundly. In case you were wondering, this applies even to non-mobile babies whose physical development relies on having plenty of opportunities for physical exploration, even if it’s just lying on a playmat and exploring how their limbs move.
As mentioned, the light from screens inhibits the body’s ability to wind down and produce the hormones necessary for peaceful sleep.
A high intake of screen-based content during infancy and early toddlerhood is associated with cognitive and social delays, in part because of the reduction in adult-infant interaction that occurs when the child is entertained by a device but also due to the immaturity of the brain and its’ limited capacity to understand what it is seeing. This impact can be limited by making sure there is always an adult watching the screen with the child and talking about what is happening.
Having seen the AAP recommendations, I had every intention of keeping Ursula screen-free until two-years old. However, what these recommendations don’t particularly address is the fact that there are situations when a limited amount of high quality, age-appropriate screen time is a real sanity saver for parents. For me that day came when Ursula was around 15 months old. She was having a terrible time teething and was grumpy as hell, I had a rotten cold, and I was solo parenting for 30 hours while my husband was away working. I very much needed a break from the constant entertainment I was having to do to keep her happy and the Teletubbies came to my rescue.
Since then she’s had a strictly limited amount of carefully chosen TV time. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with parents introducing some screen time below the AAP age recommendations if it’s done mindfully and not as a substitute for parent-child interaction. That said, if your TV is on all day as “background noise”, or is being used as part of your bedtime routine and you are having problems with your baby’s sleep, I highly recommend seeing what difference it might make to cut it out during your baby’s waking time.
12. Reduce your baby’s room temperature
Most of us know that the temperature of the room that babies sleep in is an important factor for reducing their risk of SIDS (the Lullaby Trust recommends that the room should be between 16-20ºC), but a room at the cooler end of this scale may also help improve the quality of your baby’s sleep. Studies suggest that a cooler body will sleep deeper, whereas when our bodies get too hot our sleep will be lighter and we’ll be more prone to waking. So as tempting as it is to wrap our precious bundles up all nice and cosy, you may be adding to a disruptive night if you’re keeping them warm in a warm room – a cold room and a warm body will provide the most optimal sleep environment in terms of temperature.
Invest in a good quality thermometer and aim to keep the room between 16-18ºC if possible. Then, if you’ve moved on from swaddles already, make sure your baby’s core temperature is given the best chance to self regulate by putting them in a sleep sack with feet. This will help to keep them warm without overheating and the addition of the feet will eliminate any wake ups caused by the restriction of a sleeping bag.
I found that, once she was standing, Ursula slept so much better in a sleep sack with feet as she had become much more active in her sleep and the bags were restricting her legs too much.
These ones come with little booties to keep those teenty-tiny tootsies warm – studies have found that sleeping in bed socks shortens the time for sleep onset and reduces the number of nightly wake ups so make sure your little one has cosy toes!
If keeping your room cool is a challenge for you, I feel your pain. Ursula was born just as an almighty heat wave hit the UK and nothing I did could keep our bedroom less than 24º at night, even though our flat was generally very cool. In situations like that, your best chance to keep your little ones as comfortable as possible is to keep their room cool throughout the day by closing the windows, curtains and blinds and circulating a fan in the run up to their bedtime, then dress them in just a nappy and thin vest. Keep nightwear and bedding to a minimum, although remember that the temperature may drop during the night so keep a summer sleeping bag on standby.
13. Skin to skin and simple touch
Ever wondered why it’s tough to stay awake during a really good massage? Skin to skin contact is one of the biggest triggers for releasing the hormone oxytocin. A 2003 study into the impact of oxytocin on sleep patterns suggested that, under otherwise stress-free conditions, oxytocin may help to promote sleep. So if sleep eludes your little one then increasing your skin to skin contact with them may help.
Giving your baby a massage as part of their bedtime routine is a wonderful way to create connection and spark off that lovely, relaxing oxytocin-fest for you both. As well as helping to soothe and comfort your baby, massaging away any tension in their hard-working and rapidly developing muscles, having that skin to skin connection helps to solidify your bond with them and give you a peaceful moment in your day when you can feel connected to them.
You don’t need any special training to do a baby massage, although if you can get to a baby massage group in your vicinity they are brilliant for helping to boost your confidence in how to massage your baby. Obviously YouTube is a rich source of baby massage instruction videos but I really love this bedtime massage routine video from Mumma Love Organics, which includes special tummy massage moves to ease digestive discomfort or trapped wind.
14. Adjust wake up and bed times
If you’re utterly desperate for your baby to sleep more, then you might want to take a deep breath and make sure you’re sitting down for this next one: it’s possible that your baby doesn’t actually need as much sleep as you think or hope they do.
Take a look at the chart below from the National Sleep Foundation (click here to see the methodology behind the chart):
If you have a baby of, say, 6 months old, the recommended sleep for them within a 24 hour period is between 12 and 15 hours. HOWEVER, anything as low as 10 hours or as high as 18 hours may be appropriate. So if you have a baby who is on the lower end of this 10-18 hour spectrum and they are taking naps lasting up to 2 hours during the day, they may only need another 8 or 9 hours at night. If you’re putting them to bed at 7pm then they’d naturally be done with their total sleep by 4 or 5am. But if you’re expecting them to stay in bed relatively happily until 7am, you’re going to have a problem somewhere along the line whether it’s resistance to falling asleep, a 4-5am wake up, or a series of prolonged wake ups overnight.
Baby sleep problems caused by parents trying to get their baby to sleep for too long are best resolved by gradually adjusting their bedtime (in this, sleep onset time) to be later and their wake up time to be earlier. When it comes to shifting to a later time for sleep onset, it’s important to adjust only by 15 minutes every 2-3 days to avoid overtiredness. You also need to be patient and not expect an instant miracle. All of us, from babies to adults, take time to adjust to major changes surrounding sleep and your baby may experience something akin to jet lag while they’re getting used to a later bed and earlier rise. Just be patient and try to remain consistent with what you’re doing to give your baby the best chance of settling gently into the new routine.
At the other end of things of course is the 6 month old baby who needs upwards of 15 hours sleep within a 24 hour period, although I suspect you probably weren’t hunting around on the internet for baby sleep solutions if that’s the case! The exception to this would be if you’ve been actively limiting your baby’s daytime sleep by waking them up after a set period of time, or in other ways attempting to fit them into a specific sleep schedule that doesn’t give them the full number of hours they actually need. In this case it’s possible that any baby sleep problems you’re encountering are to do with them overtired, in which case your best bet is to keep a consistently early wake up time but then allow them to finish their naps naturally, even if this means shifting their bedtime later on. Follow their lead on naps and try to trust that your baby will naturally fall into a nap routine that fulfills their biological needs. It may mean a week or two of inconsistency or late bedtimes, but given the time and space to follow their body’s natural instinct for more sleep they should settle into a natural rhythm.
15. Medical troubleshooting
If, after trying all of the above, your baby is still having significant sleep problems that sit outside the realm of what is biologically normative (and by that I mean waking up every hour or less and not around the time of a known sleep regression**) then it’s time to look at whether there’s a physiological or medical issue at play. This could include a dietary intolerance, glue ear, severe reflux or other digestive problems. I highly recommend the Evolutionary Parenting Brief Infant & Toddler Sleep Screening as an excellent place to start if there’s something going on that no amount of lavender oil will fix! It’s a short questionnaire that will make an assessment of whether your baby’s sleep patterns might be impacted by a physiological issue that requires further medical investigation or interventions such as dietary changes. Of course if you are concerned for your baby’s health, please visit your GP or health visitor – just don’t let them try and talk you into sleep training…!
**Approximate ages for known sleep regressions are 4 months, 8-10 months, 12 months, 18 months and 21 months. You can also expect them to occur around major life changes such as moving house, entering into childcare or a new childcare setting, the arrival of a new sibling and beginning potty learning.
These baby sleep methods work better than sleep training because they seek to create an optimal sleep environment, address the root cause/s of your baby’s frequent wakes and/or make any wake ups that still occur easier for you to cope with.
If you use the full combination of these baby sleep techniques as appropriate to your situation, you can make a massive difference to the quality of your and your baby’s sleep. I have used every one of them and Ursula now consistently sleeps through the night without waking – she’s done this for the last 8 months, having started at 14 months old.
That said, the biggest improvement you can make to your life when it comes to baby sleep is to make sure you have realistic expectations. Most of the so-called “problems” of baby sleep are in fact perfectly normal sleep patterns for young infants, and it’s the parents who are unrealistic about what their child is capable of. The amount of times I’ve seen a mother post in a Facebook group about how their 3 month old “still needs to be held, can’t put herself to sleep and won’t sleep through the night”. Newsflash: that’s NORMAL! This is why I really recommend joining The Beyond Sleep Training group on Facebook as they are all about educating parents to help us understand the reality of baby sleep and to help us use ethical baby sleep techniques that align with our baby’s developmental capacity. If you need more support, do join the group and tell them that Ecofeminist Mama sent you!
Everything you need to know about baby-led weaning on a vegan, vegetarian or other plant-based diet. Includes free printable vegan baby nutrient guide!
The top 12 evidence-based reasons why sleep training your baby is harmful to them and to you. Includes a FREE 15-page mini guide on what you do instead to help ethically reach more optimal sleep.