In your baby’s first weeks, chaos often rules. Newborns – apparently – sleep 16 hours out of 24. But for frazzled new mums, it can feel like less, says our health visitor Annette Maloney, because those hours are broken into snatches, not spread out in a glorious expanse of zzzzzs that enable you to rest, too.
Military planning can be effective
In The Complete Sleep Guide for Contented Babies and Toddlers , Gina Ford recommends working towards a routine from the very start.
‘If parents were to take control and structure their babies’ feeding and sleeping needs from early on, a huge number of sleeping problems could be avoided.’ For some mums, this works a treat.
‘From day one, I’ve put Hannah to sleep in her cot in the daytime,’ says Lucinda, mum to Hannah, 3 months, Poppy, 2, and Jessica, 4. ‘That way, she knows it’s time for sleep.’ And the routine continues wherever they are. ‘I put Hannah down at the same time every day, even if we’re out. If we’re at someone’s house, I put the travel cot in a bedroom.’ But those R-words – routine, regime, rules – don’t go down well with parents who prefer a less structured, more easy-going approach.
Working around the baby’s instincts
Establishing good sleep patterns can happen whether you prefer tough tactics or the gentle touch. Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution , doesn’t go for strict regimes, but believes there are ways to encourage good sleep – day and night. ‘You can do this in a gentle, loving way that requires no crying, stress or rigid rules.’
Arabella was content to let Ellie, now 2, sleep where she was happiest: ‘In the early days, as soon as I put Ellie down, she’d wake. So I let her nap on me, lying on the sofa with her on my tummy. I got to watch lots of daytime TV!’ And when Arabella needed to get things done? ‘Ellie napped in a sling so my hands were free.’
Whichever approach you take, it’s crucial to help your baby learn to fall asleep without you. ‘It’s important that babies can settle themselves to sleep, without feeding or rocking,’ says health visitor Annette. ‘Otherwise, they’ll find sleep impossible without help from you.’
Annette also warns against preventing your baby from napping in case they won’t sleep at night. ‘In fact, overtired babies are less likely to sleep well.’ Lucinda agrees. ‘The main reason children whinge is that they’re tired, so put them to bed – simple as that.’
She favours the strict approach. ‘If your baby cries when she goes down, let her! She’s crying because she’s tired. She’ll soon drop off.’ Some mums find this unbearable. But Karen, mum to George, 3 months, knows tired babies need sleep. ‘I do put George down when he’s grizzly and tired. I stroke him until he drops off because it’ll get worse if I don’t.’
Sometimes, a nap is needed at any cost. Many a mum has pounded the pavements with a pram to this end. Charlotte’s son, William, 3 months, is a reluctant napper, but a hammock helps. ‘I hang one up between a door frame, put him in, set him swinging and he sleeps for three hours!’
Some babies now settle into a pattern, with perhaps two or three naps a day. During this phase sleep patterns really begin to evolve, so consistency with sleep times becomes very important.
You’ll start to recognise the signs when a nap is imminent. My older son’s eyes would glaze over, and he’d groan like a creaking door out of a Frankenstein film! If you spot the signals, act on them. ‘Naps should happen as soon as your baby shows signs of tiredness,’ says Pantley. ‘If you wait too long, he becomes overtired, “wired” and then unable to sleep.’
With more structured days, nap time becomes catch-up time. Caroline goes into housewife overdrive the moment that little Tom, 5 months, drops off. ‘I’m a hyperactive road-runner, rushing around the house unloading washing, paying bills over the phone, changing the bed linen. If anyone or thing wakes him I’m distraught about how I’ll get everything done.’
But don’t overdo it, advises Annette. ‘Take time to rest and catch up on sleep yourself. Being exhausted will get you down.’ That’s certainly what Susie, mum to Jack, 18 months, found. ‘Hormones and adrenaline got me through the early weeks.
By three months, I was flagging. Finally, I said “sod the housework” and did what everyone advises but no-one that I’ve talked to does – I napped when Jack napped.’
‘At first, as soon as Toby, 6 months, slept, I’d panic. Should I cook the supper or pay the bills? Once, I was so stressed I stuffed the bills in the dishwasher. Now I choose one thing and if it’s a chapter of a bonkbuster or a sleep, fine!’ Alison, 29
‘How do I use Callum’s nap time? Have my chakras balanced and meridians realigned? My toes pedicured and my locks coiffed? No! I scrub the loo, take
the bin out and remove rancid broccoli from the fridge.’ Stella, 36