Do you dread the hours between 6pm and 10pm? Perhaps it’s because you’re spending all your time running up and down stairs desperately trying to calm your fractious baby and get her to sleep. Nearly every new mum has been there, but there are ways you can help your baby learn it’s time to sleep.
‘If you start to make small signs to your 8 week old at bedtime every evening, such as lowering the volume of your voice and dimming the lights, she will automatically start to associate them with sleep time,’ says Lucy Atkins, author of The First Time Parent (Collins, £17.99). ‘By about 3 months, the routine will probably be established.’
Those first few weeks will help you get to know your baby and recognise the signs that she’s tired. When you begin to spot her sleepy signals, you can start the routine. At first it will probably be hit and miss – you may find a bath wakes her up rather than helps her wind down. But that’s why it’s a good idea to start trying the routine early – it’ll give you time to discover what works for you and your family.
Lucy says, ‘If you establish a routine in the early days you are less likely to have problems in the toddler years because she will still associate a bath, a story or dimmed lights with bedtime.’ Aim to carry out the routine every night so it becomes a way of life for your baby. There will obviously be exceptions, such as holidays and if you go out for the evening. But carrying out the same routine when your baby is sleeping away from home will help her to settle more easily.
A set sleep routine will also make it easier for your partner to spend time with your baby. This is particularly important if you are breastfeeding. Bathtime and reading a story are great times for your partner to bond with your baby. And, as well as giving them some special time together, it will also give you a well-earned break.
Some parents start their baby’s bedtime process in the sitting room by playing a game to tire her out. While this is fine, it helps if you can wind up by spending some time in the bedroom together. You can read her a familiar story, sing a lullaby, or even play a quiet game of peek-a-boo. Whatever you do, the aim is for your baby to associate the bedroom with enjoyment and contentment rather than just a place she gets left alone at the end of the day.
There are various activities you can include in your child’s bedtime routine. It’s just a question of finding out which ones work best for you and your baby. And in the meantime, here are some suggestions:
The period between dinner and bedtime is a good time for some active play. This is when he can get excited for half an hour or so – let him bounce in his bouncer and use up all his energy so he’s tired for bedtime.
A warm bath
After all the fun and games, he’s unlikely to want to go to sleep straightaway, but a warm bath can make him more relaxed. While you don’t need to bath your baby every day, it can help to make it part of your routine just because it’s so calming.
After playing in the bath or downstairs with daddy, you may find your baby is too excited to settle. Try massaging her into calmness by gently stroking and patting her back and tummy. The calm atmosphere will help her unwind and feeling your reassuring touch should make her feel safe and sleepy.
Although your baby will wake up for a feed during the night for the first 6 months or so, you can still start to teach him the difference between night and day from very early on. Make the mood in your home calmer and quieter so he learns that night-time is for sleeping and daytime is for activity. Keep your voice soft and quiet, use night lights and lamps rather than bright main lights, and keep disturbances to a minimum.
Be oh so quiet
Once she’s ready for bed, put your baby in her cot or Moses basket and wind down with a quiet activity. Reading a familiar story or singing a lullaby will help send her to sleep. The familiarity and softness of your voice will help make her feel secure and less vulnerable at being left alone.
Don’t forget ted
Many babies have a comfort object such as a blanket or soft toy. Putting their favourite teddy in their cot with them while they are dropping off will help them feel safe, secure and generally happier about going to sleep – especially if you are leaving the room while they are still awake.
I’m hungry, Mummy
It will be a while before she goes through the night without a feed, but try to feed her in the same place every night. Ideally, this should be next to where she sleeps and keep noise to a minimum. ‘Try not to let her fall asleep during the feed as you don’t want her to associate milk with sleep,’ advises Lucy. ‘Also, make sure you wind her well – a baby with a tummy ache won’t sleep.’
Your baby will probably want attention once you have left the bedroom and may make a fuss, but don’t rush back in immediately. She will soon learn that part of the routine is to fall asleep after you have left the room. If she cries, try leaving her for a bit to see if she settles down. If her crying continues it may be because she is scared or frightened, and may need a reassuring cuddle. Try leaving a night light on so she isn’t completely in the dark.
What real mums say…
‘I’ll never forget trying to bath Callum in the first weeks. He hated it and would scream and thrash around. It was stressful but I persisted, as I wanted to start a routine early on. But my health visitor told me not to force him. Instead, she told me to top and tail him until he was ready. We left it a month and when we tried again, he was fine. I’m glad I listened to her.’
Charlotte Davies, has a son, Callum, 8 months
‘Hannah actually looks forward to her bedtime routine and often asks me, “Is it story-time yet?” But she’s just reached that age where she wants to prolong the process, with just one more book, kiss or cuddle. Sometimes she manages to drag it out by up to 20 minutes. Still, I can’t really complain as she normally sleeps right through.’
Kerry Dance, has one child, Hannah, 2
‘At 6 months, Lily became attached to a strange-looking towelling toy. Part of her routine was rubbing him on her face and if it went missing, all hell broke loose. I used to spend hours looking for it but thankfully, she’s forgotten about it now.’
Colette North, has two daughters, Mimi, 6 weeks, and Lily, 20 months
‘My husband’s Spanish and believes in the Mediterranean way of raising babies where routines don’t exist. But as Cristo’s got older, we’ve realised he needs some consistency at bedtime, even if it’s just a bath and a cuddle. But we don’t make things too rigid and don’t worry if he sometimes falls asleep in his buggy.’
Laura López Hernández, has one son, Cristo, 5 months