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I need sleep! Baby bedtime routines

I need sleep! Baby bedtime routines

The way to improve the chances of your baby sleeping well through the night is to ensure you establish a good bedtime routine for them from very early on. Babies, like all children, need to know their boundaries; this helps them to feel secure. Even a very young baby will benefit from having a (reasonably) fixed schedule of events at bedtime, as these will teach them to relax and wind down in anticipation of sleep.

You should start the process of settling a baby down for the night by choosing a similar time each evening. For example, at six o’clock you could prepare a bath for her. Bathing your infant daily will establish a routine that relaxes them and prepares them for bed. It is also an opportunity to bond and spend some one-on-one time with her. Ensure that the rooms you will be using are warm enough for when they are taken out of the warm water.

After a bath, wrap baby up in a soft, warm towel and lay them, facing upwards, on a changing mat or bed. Dry her carefully and put on a fresh nappy. You could use this period to give your baby a massage or a cuddle. Next, put on sleep clothes. Make sure her temperature is neither too hot, nor too cold as either could hamper her efforts to sleep.

Dim the lights slightly and check you won’t be disturbed by too much noise from anywhere in the house. All things in moderation though; it can be a real hindrance if your baby needs complete silence to sleep, especially during the daytime, and some parents swear by a healthy dose of background noise so their baby will learn to sleep without being too disturbed by a vacuum cleaner or music. 

Now, you can give your baby her last feed of the evening. Often babies will fall asleep when they have this feed, but in order not to build up too much of an association between the two things, it might be an idea to try and put her down in her cot before actually falling asleep. Otherwise, she could wake up and cry for the missing comfort of her breast or bottle. Experiment a little to see if this is what happens. She may not wake up again so establish what works for you.

Avoid leaving a baby in an adult bed. At this stage, a cot or crib is the best place for sleeping. Instances of cot death have been linked to babies being placed on their stomach to sleep, so even though this was the advice given to new mothers in the not so distant past, make sure your baby is asleep on their back, with blankets tucked in around her.

Try to be flexible about the routine too. Otherwise, you might limit your own life unnecessarily. If you plan on visiting friends or having a social life that takes place without a late afternoon curfew, try to accept that sometimes the bedtime ritual will not be able to take place in the same way. Your baby will not suffer if you both have the odd night off.

Summary of Bedtime Routine:

  1. Pick a time to start the wind down before bed. Make sure the room your baby is going to sleep in is warm (around 18-22°C) and not overly light.
  2. Run your baby a bath and spend some time washing her (the warm water will help to soothe her) before taking her out.
  3. Wrap baby up in a soft towel and lay her on a changing mat or bed in the room she will be sleeping in. Dry her thoroughly and put on a fresh nappy.
  4. Massage or cuddle your baby before you dress her for bed. Don’t forget to talk to her and tell her what you are doing. Even young babies like to hear their parents talking to them. They might not understand the words, but they detect the tone and are comforted by your voice.
  5. Feed your baby their last feed before bedtime (don’t forget to wind her).
  6. Finally, lay her down, so that she is lying on her back, in her crib or cot. 

Understanding your baby's sleep

Sleep comes in different cycles, which we are hardly aware of, but are in fact pronounced stages of consciousness. The first phase is known as ‘light sleep’, and this is the stage that takes us into ‘dream sleep’, or what is referred to as the rapid eye movement ‘REM’ stage of sleep. This stage is so-called because our eyes move quickly under their lids, and apart from the odd twitch, our bodies are still. The other phase of sleep is known as ‘deep sleep’, and in this stage, we do not dream but lie extremely still and are ‘lost’ in a deep level of sleep.

Newborn babies need nearly twice the amount that an adult requires, and even when they are 18 months old they will still need, on average, five hours more sleep than their parents do. They spend a lot more time in the dream sleep stage, which you can distinguish from the other stages by the occasional twitch and her eyes moving underneath her lids. On the other hand, when she is in the ‘deep sleep’ phase of her sleeping cycle, she will be hard to awaken and will make little sucking movements with her mouth. She may also ‘startle’ in the same manner that adults do as they are falling asleep.

Before the age of three months, your baby will not be able to differentiate between night and day, and so her sleep will be scattered across the twenty-four hour period. After the three month stage, your baby will start to learn that night equals a longer period of sleep than the daytime naps that she receives. As she grows older, you will find her naps become less frequent, but are more predictable and longer than the frequent but short ones of her early months. By six months you can reasonably expect more of a routine.

Sleeping through the night

A full night's sleep is often the much longed-for holy grail of parenthood. Pacing the corridors at two am with a screaming baby is nobody’s idea of fun and it is natural that you yearn for a more mature approach to sleep from your infant! In the beginning, sleeping through the night will probably mean about seven hours of interrupted and not particularly restful sleep for all concerned. By one year of age, she will probably be able to sleep for much longer, uninterrupted chunks of time.

It is important to remember that your newborn has a tiny stomach and part of the short sleeping cycles are due to the fact that she is hungry and needs to feed. This is perfectly normal, and as she grows, so will her stomach and digestive abilities. This will allow you a bit more respite from the seemingly endless demands for food all day and night.

A much-touted approach to this problem of feeding at night has been to go about your task in the quietest, most business-like way you can; that is, keeping the lights dim, speaking in a whisper (if at all) and administering the milk in the most practical way possible. The idea behind this is that the baby will soon understand that this is not time to play and have fun with mummy or daddy. It will help her to differentiate between night and day and make her realise it is time to go back to sleep.

After the age of about six months, you may wish to try and wean your baby off her night feed. This can be tackled by offering a bigger feed before she hits the hay and by gradually offering her less when she wakes up. It won’t take her long to establish that the trickle of milk you are offering is a pretty poor incentive to wake up for. Some parents find that watering down the night-time milk feed (once the baby is getting enough milk and solids during the day), works well. This would mean gradually diminishing the number of milk scoops you put in your baby’s bottle over a week or so. That way, the withdrawal is not such a shock.


Leah Giles

Leah is a childcare professional who has worked in nursery education for over five years. She has a level 3 CACHE Diploma in Childcare and Education, and has two daughters.

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