Sleep struggles? Here's help

From his personality to yours, here are a few reasons your little one might be struggling to sleep.
From his personality to yours, here are a few reasons your little one might be struggling to sleep.

You’ve checked all the basic reasons why your baby may not be sleeping and he’s not hungry, wet, cold, hot or upset but he keeps waking up in the middle of the night.

Read on to discover some surprising reasons why he may not be sleeping as well as you’d like.

His personality

Some babies are born easygoing and able to self-soothe. Others – usually the active ones – are more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and are not so willing to settle down to sleep. In fact, your baby’s personality may be a clue to identifying the best way to get him to sleep.

Take 17-month-old Gabriel. “He still wakes up 3 to 4 times a night,” says his mom, Vickie Lancaster. “I’ve made sure that his room is nice and cosy. He is on iron supplements, eats well and naps daily. I thought perhaps he was restless because he’s teething, but that’s not it either. The only problem is that Gabriel is hyperactive. He only goes to bed when he’s very tired, often only after 9pm. I’ve tried to keep him calm before bedtime but he just keeps going and going.”

Sleep expert and author Ann Richardson says, “This is a classic case of the parents thinking that their children are not tired when in fact their “hyperactive” behaviour is a result of being overtired.

This is because the brain recognises that the body is in a state of exhaustion, and is over-stimulated, and it releases stimulating chemicals and hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger the “fight or flight” response, causing this toddler to zoom around late at night, when he is in fact dead tired.

Vicky needs to institute a bedtime routine for Gabriel with reduced stimulation (quiet time after supper) and certain bedtime boundaries such as drinking milk in his quiet bedroom, before putting him to bed and saying a firm and loving good night.”

Your personality

Some mothers are easygoing, while others are a little more highly strung. And some mothers let their children dictate the flow of things, while others need to make – and stick to – rules. Thinking about your own needs when deciding on a sleep strategy for your baby doesn’t make you selfish. In fact, it’s a good way to help you choose a plan that you can stick to.

If you’re very organised and a stickler for schedules, you’ll want your baby to fall asleep at a certain time. But if you’re more laid back, you may not mind following his lead. Just remember, no matter what your personality or his, life with your baby is going to call for a little flexibility.

Ann says, “In terms of sleep, if your lack of routine or schedules is having no impact on your little one’s sleeping habits, then obviously there’s no reason to change your style of parenting. But if you’re suffering from sleep deprivation, and the whole family dynamic is suffering, then it might be time to re-examine your strategies around certain issues such as bedtime routines.”

Sleep science

Sleep experts say that a 6-month-old should sleep for about 12 to 13 hours a day, including naps. Babies need to sleep so much because their brains and bodies grow when they’re sleeping. Well-rested children are also better learners.

How your baby acts when he’s awake is a good indicator of whether he’s getting enough rest. A tired baby may be clingy, short-tempered and unwilling to play by himself or go exploring. Or he may go into overdrive and have a harder time nodding off.

“This is often when “bad habits” creep in, says Ann. “An over-tired baby is a needy baby – especially when it comes to sleep time.”

If you recognise these signs it may be time to rethink whatever bedtime approach you’ve been taking. Perhaps your baby has come to expect a middle-of-the-night lullaby and stroll around the house, but too much stimulation could be keeping him awake. That’s why some experts recommend dim lighting and no talking to your baby in the middle of the night. But that doesn’t mean that you should leave him to cry.

If your baby isn’t calm there is no way he’s going to fall asleep again – even if he is extremely tired. “All of us need to be calm before we become sleepy, and we need to be sleepy before we fall asleep,” says Ann. “If your baby isn’t calm, you can’t expect him to fall asleep unassisted. If he is always rocked to sleep, then that’s what he’s going to expect if he wakes in the night.”

Sleep deprivation

The National Sleep Foundation of America says parents lose over 200 hours of sleep in their baby’s first year. Your newborn baby needs to eat around the clock, so there’s little chance of you getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. If your baby is no longer needing nutrition during the night (usually from about 5 months) and you still feel like a zombie from rocking and feeding all night long, it may be time to try something different.

Elizabeth Beaumont was adamant when she fell pregnant with her third child that she was not going to raise her without a night nurse. “I was so exhausted with my first two babies that I developed postnatal depression and had to go onto antidepressants. I wasn’t prepared to risk my health again.

"So I booked a night nurse to live with us for the first 3 months after Emily was born. Busi would work from 7pm till 7am. It was bliss! I would bath Emily, give her a bedtime feed and put her to bed. From then on she was in Busi’s care and I could spend time with my husband and sons (aged 5 and 8), until we all went to bed and got a good night’s rest.”

It’s history

How you were parented may play a role in how you get your baby to sleep. A mom who feels she didn’t get enough attention from her own parents as a child may want to comfort her baby when he cries at night. Moms who had fertility issues, difficult pregnancies, or preterm babies also may not want to let their babies cry. Others may respond to their own chaotic upbringing by making sure their children have a predictable sleep schedule.

As long as feelings about your past don’t keep you from creating a successful sleep environment for your baby, go with what feels best.

Helping hand!

You and your partner may not agree on how to get your baby to sleep, or whether to rock him back to sleep in the middle of the night, but you’ll need each other’s support. If you’re worried that your current sleep strategy is driving a wedge between you and your partner, it may be time to regroup.

What most moms have learnt is this: there’s no right way to get a baby to sleep. What works for me, may not work for you. The key is figuring out which strategy works best for you and your baby.

The 3 most popular sleep strategies

The he’ll-get-it-when-he’s-ready game plan

Advocates of attachment parenting say you should do whatever your baby needs to get to sleep, whether it’s nursing, rocking or bringing him into your bed.

The get-with-the-programme game plan

Authors of Sleep Sense, Ann Richardson and Megan Faure, say one effective approach is to put babies to bed before they become overtired – when they are calm and becoming drowsy. If your baby has always been assisted to sleep, expect him to protest when he is put to bed while still awake.

If your baby can’t sleep and is crying, Ann says, “Pat him or pick him up and rock him for a bit to calm him down. You must meet his emotional needs and comfort him till he’s calm, no matter how long it takes. Then place him gently back into bed with some reassuring words.

"Then leave him for a minute or two. If he cries when you’ve left, go back in after a few more minutes. It’s vital to comfort him when you return, so that he doesn’t feel abandoned. Then leave him for a little while – each time leaving him a tiny bit longer (and so on), until he falls asleep.”

The ease-him-into-it game plan

This is a gradual approach of comforting your baby until he’s very sleepy, then putting him to bed and staying with him (but not holding or rocking him) until he’s fully asleep.

Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution, says eventually parents will be able to soothe from the doorway and then the hallway, until their babies don’t need it at all.

But Ann doesn’t agree. “This doesn’t work, as a baby can’t understand why on earth Mom can’t pick him up or touch him when she’s right there! If you opt to stay with your child, then touch such as stroking, etc is vital. You gradually do less and less of this as your child calms himself more easily, knowing that you’re there.”

How did you get your little one to sleep through the night? Tell us by commenting below or emailing and we may publish your comments.

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