Why won’t my baby sleep?

A little one who enjoys 12 peaceful hours in the land of nod is the holy grail of every new parent. Here’s how to get there…

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  • You’re staring out of the window into the darkness of your street. It’s the middle of the night and your little one is whimpering in your arms. You begin to wonder if anyone’s ever had this much trouble getting their baby off to sleep.

    Perhaps you’re mum to an early riser, an all-day sleeper, a non-napper or even a baby who just won’t sleep at all. But we guarantee you’re not alone and are one of the army of ‘noctomums’, a group of mothers who are awake when the rest of the world seems to be tucked up in their beds and sleeping soundly.

    Ann Herreboudt, sleep expert at Viveka, a clinic specialising in women and children’s health, explains, “Babies don’t have a clue what’s day and what’s night. Some are ‘larks’, getting up as early as 5am, and others are ‘owls’, happy to stay up really late into the evening. Their sleep rhythms are completely different to ours. They wake up twice as much, and power nap. In fact, a bit like puppies, they work on a cycle of waking, eating, pooing and sleeping!”

    While you do everything you can to get your little one to settle for 12 hours of restful sleep, no baby is perfect and all of them will wake up at odd hours and have strange sleeping patterns at times. Find yours among this collection and start working on a solution – today!

  • Asleep all day, awake all night

    Your days are relatively silent and peaceful, and any visitors who drop by your house always remark on what a calm baby you have – well, they’d mind change their minds if they were there when she’s screaming the house down all night!

    The solution...

    Imagine you’ve woken up in the night. You realise you feel hungry. What would you do? Probably get a snack, a drink, go to the loo then return to bed and try to settle back down to sleep again. The trouble is, it’s not so easy for a baby, says Ann. “Many mums who find their baby fits this sleep pattern are using a sling. It’s a great practical solution when you’re a busy mum, but it lets your baby sleep a lot of the day.”

    Chireal Shallow, sleep consultant and founder of Naturally Nurturing, adds, “With a baby like this, the sleep rhythms are all back to front. Adjusting daytime naps will help, too. Reduce a nap by a half hour increment each time, giving your baby a chance to adjust.”

    “We call Holly ‘Nighthawk’ because she sleeps like an angel all day then starts to stir later on and cries in the night! It’s early days, so we’re seeing how it goes. I sing to her, cuddle her and tickle her feet to try and soothe her. I also take her out for a walk in the buggy if she’s restless during the day – she loves it when I push the buggy fast!” said Jo McGahon, 32, mum to Holly, 2 weeks.

  • Up all night, sleeps all morning

    There’s three of you on the sofa until 10 or 11pm at night – you, your partner and the baby, who’s wide awake! Then, next morning, she’s dozing away.

    The solution...

    “This is the ‘owl’ baby,” says Ann. “They’re vibrant and happy late into the night, sleep from 2am onwards then have little naps in the day.” Turning it around is a gentle process, she says. “Try little structure changes. Don’t let her sleep until she wakes up in the morning – instead, gently wake her, and start to adjust her waking time.” You should see the sleeping time start to become earlier in the evening by default.

  • The night-time yo-yo baby

    She goes down to sleep fine, and you even manage a top-up feed without her stirring too much. But throughout the night, she wakes up on and off  – sometimes crying loudly and others just unsettled.

    The solution...

    Some babies are just not very good at self-soothing – getting themselves back to sleep when they’ve woken up. That makes you feel like they just won’t sleep at all.

    Practical solutions are key here, says Ann. “Consider if you’re picking her up too much – that can unsettle her more. Perhaps gentle stroking would be better while she’s in the cot. If she goes to suck her thumb, encourage her, or offer a soother to replace the need to suck on your breast or finger. Try a snuggle toy, too, if she’s craving comfort to help her doze.”

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  • The non-napper

    It’s time for a nap according to your schedule, but your baby seems to have missed the memo! Instead of getting on with things during the day, you’re constantly holding and comforting her.

    The solution...

    Babies who are like this just don’t need as much sleep as others. Here’s when a sling can really help. “Remember, just because your baby’s awake, you don’t have to be holding her or interacting constantly,” says Ann. “Why not do something together, like going for a walk? Or use a sling so you can still get on with chores and feel like you’re paying her attention.”

  • The one that won’t sleep – ever!

    What more can we say? There are naps, there are odd moments of quiet in the night, but generally you can’t remember the last time that you slept properly and it’s just not funny anymore.

    The solution...

    It’s unlikely, if you added up the hours of your baby being awake, that she’d be not sleeping 100 per cent, but when she’s not getting enough sleep, you certainly know about it.

    Sleep deprivation means a reduction in sleep hormones, making your baby more active and therefore making it harder for her to shut down,” says Chireal. It’s a vicious circle. Imagine an older tot, or even yourself, wired from not having enough kip. The answer lies in her environment.

    “You need to help your baby shut down,” advises Chireal. “Look at her roomis it dark enough? Would a blackout blind help? Is it the right temperature? Is it calm and peaceful? Look at your bedtime routine, too. Do you have a calm evening routine, with a bath and quiet time? Don’t be afraid to give her a daytime bath and try to soothe her into a sleep then, if needs be.”

    “I guess I’m one of the lucky ones! My daughter sleeps 11-12 hours a night, and self settles if she wakes. If she’s having trouble sleeping, I take her to her room, dim the lights and pat her on the bottom whilst holding her until dozy,” said Rachel Long, 24, from Coventry, mum to Alexis, 7 months.

    It’s worth thinking about various other factors, too, says Ann Herreboudt. How was the birth? Could the baby be stressed? Is she feeding OK? Are you stressed, as this can have a knock-on effect? Or could it be colic or teething? But don’t forget, as your baby gets older she will learn to sleep better, which of course means you will too.

  • Why don’t babies sleep like we do?

    We all know when it’s bedtime – we’re either tired, our TV programme has finished or we simply look at the clock. Darkness + lateness = bed. Sunrise and coming round from sleep = a new day. But for babies it’s a whole other world. Chireal, explains:

    When a newborn baby first comes home from hospital, those first couple of days it seems all she does is sleep. Then suddenly, the baby starts to wake all night, all day, or half and half. You think, ‘Hang on, what have I done wrong?!’

    For a baby aged up to 18 months, sleep issues are generally dependency-based, says Chireal. “Dependency can be on anything from the breast, to rocking, sucking, cuddles or preferring to be held in your arms rather than placed in the cot or Moses basket.” So while we’d be able to just think ‘I need to go back to sleep’, a baby cries for her mum.

    “Babies are born with immature sleep rhythms,” adds Chireal. “Sleep will fluctuate before it can mature into a regular pattern. And because babies sleep much more lightly than adults, when they wake, they’re suddenly very awake.”

    “From the moment we got home from hospital with Charlie, we had a rough bedtime routine in place,” said Zoe Ellis-Martin, from Somerset, mum to Charlie, 23 months.

    “I say rough because for the first six weeks I breastfed Charlie and at night-time between 7pm and 11pm he’d feed constantly with short bursts of sleep (cluster feeding) and then sleep through until 7am. Charlie’s bedtime routine has stayed the same – it’s adapted in some places as he’s gotten older but he has his tea, then some quiet playing, then bathtime, PJs on, bedtime story and then bed.”

  • To help you cope…

    It can be hard coping with sleepless nights, so remember it’s important to look after yourself too. Sleep consultant Chireal Shallow advises:

    • Talk – and be honest! Sharing your experiences of sleepless nights might be rewarded by understanding and advice from a fellow noctomum. It might help to know you’re not alone, too.
    • Sift out the information you do need. Don’t feel like you have to read every book out there on sleep and try out every routine. Define what will work for you as an individual and your child – you know her best, after all.
    • Embrace the good things. Yes, your baby might be awake, but is she breastfeeding? Is she generally a happy and healthy tot? Are you awake at night in a tidy, clean home? Sleep deprivation can be all-consuming, and makes it easy to forget everything else is going well.


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