Jo Frost shares her 10 steps for blissful baby bedtimes

What can you do to encourage your baby to sleep longer? Supernanny's Jo Frost reveals all

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What’s most important is to be in tune with your little one and her surroundings. In many ways, your baby is just like you. What she does during the day, how she’s feeling in herself and how the room is set up all affect whether she’ll drop off easily and stay asleep. Here’s my 10-step parental guidance plan to help you achieve that tuning in, so you can start to enjoy blissful bedtimes.

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1 Understand why she won’t sleep

Your baby can’t tell you what’s wrong when she can’t sleep – it’s up to you to figure it out. The best way to do that is to look back over her day, or at least the last few hours. Try keeping a record, either in a book or on a chart. That way you can see if anything different is happening to make her unsettled. Be attentive to everything about her.

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It could be that your baby is unwell and that’s why she’s crying and won’t settle. If you hear a different cry or feel her temperature is different, make sure you consider all the options, including talking to the doctor.

2 Use props in the right way

There’s nothing wrong with using something that lets your baby know the ritual of bedtime has begun. For example, a musical mobile playing when you lay her down to sleep lets her know it’s sleep time. A favourite blanket says, “We’re going to sleep now.” But don’t overload her senses! I worked with a family who had problems getting their baby to sleep because the nursery was like a rock concert, full of lights and sounds. Calm soothing music or one small light is all you need for a short period of time.

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Don’t rely on feeding to get your baby to sleep – you should be putting her down while she’s still awake and letting her fall asleep naturally as she gets older.

3 Think about why she’s waking

Your baby should wake up naturally in the morning, but when she’s waking up in the night and there’s no obvious reason, think through why that might be. Is she hungry or are her gums ‘bubbly’? It could be she’s cutting a tooth and that’s why sleeping is harder. If you’re moving her onto different foods, check her nappy. It may smell a bit more and need changing at a time when it hasn’t usually needed changing.

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Don’t worry that too much outside noise will disturb your baby as she’ll actually find the sound of white noise comforting. Enjoy your evening while she settles so she knows you’re around.

4 Set bedtime

When I go into homes where I’m dealing with stressed-out parents, there’s usually an issue around the fact there’s not a healthy bedtime. A good time 
to put your younger baby down is anywhere from 6pm to 7pm. Babies need 12 hours’ sleep a day at least, but what time that happens is up to you. If your baby is awake at 5am, that’s when her day begins. Or she might sleep from 6.30pm to 6.30am. 
I’ve seen a large number of parents in the UK, who think it’s important to put their baby to bed because they need the break. Let us be motivated by knowing what’s good for them first.

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Wind down prior to bedtime rather than setting a time and expecting your baby to suddenly be ready to go down. Make the day calmer towards the end, and give her time to relax into a sleepy mood. Make that your routine every night, and the set bedtime will become more familiar.

5 Get napping sorted

If you let her sleep for too long in the day, she won’t be sleepy enough to go down in the evening. Look for tell-tale signs specific to your child, which show she’s tired. Babies often have what I call ‘red eyeliner’ – a very fine veiny thread on their eyelids, or tiny habits like playing with their earlobes. 
Napping gives your little one energy but she should be napping no later than 3.30pm. You should be able to split the day into sections that include naps – morning play, mid-morning nap, lunchtime, play, mid-afternoon nap, early evening, bed.

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I went to see a family who had a child who wasn’t sleeping until 10.30pm. He was 14 months old and the mum was letting him nap from 2.30pm until 5pm. Then they’d expect him to go to bed at 7.30pm. It’s just not possible! Reassess your child’s day napping times if that sounds like where you might be going wrong.

6 Include time to wind down

Babies know when you’re rushing and it panics them. So make bedtime a time to treasure. Once you’ve given her a warm bath, spend time bonding. Baby massage can be gentle and soothing. Stroke her skin and, if you like, use oil or camomile gels. Baby foot massage is great too, using circular motions for 10 minutes or so from the tip of her toe to the heel of her foot. If you like being in the bath with your baby, go for it. It’s natural and great for togetherness.

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Dads like to come home and fuss over their little ones. Great but not very calming. Let him have dad time perhaps while he bathes the baby. Then be calm together, afterwards, so your baby still winds down for sleep.

7 Remember sleep patterns change

So you’ve just got it all sorted – a set bedtime routine and your little one sleeping well, and suddenly everything changes. She’s older – that means her activity and eating habits change, and in turn so do her sleep needs. Your baby will change because you go from feeding on demand to feeding every four hours. Then when she’s 6 months, she’s even more alert than ever and expends more energy. At 8 or 9 months her teething will affect how well she sleeps. Remember, the process just keeps evolving.

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If your baby isn’t sleeping, re-evaluate her routine. Is she too busy later in the day? Is bath time rushed? Re-evaluating routine helps establish the right amount of sleep for that stage in her development, normally the cornerstones need changing.

8 Get night feeds right

If your newborn wakes up at 2am she’s most likely to have woken for a feed. If you’re worried about whether you’re feeding her enough, keep an eye on her weight and how much you feed. A feed is a feed – with newborns there’s no such thing as a snack. As she starts solid food, she’ll end up feeding at 11pm then sleeping through.

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Worn out from night feeds? Express your milk earlier in the day and let your partner get up instead. Try to get into the routine of sharing night feeds, so the whole family gets the sleep they need.

9 Keep an eye out for illness

Every baby falls ill, and when she does it’s likely to disrupt her sleep patterns, just like it does ours. So be prepared for your routine to be thrown upside down while she’s ill and she recovers. Just like when we’ve been ill, babies need time to get themselves ‘back into the game’. If she’s had gastric diahorrea, for example, she’s not going to start feeding and sleeping as soon as the illness has gone. She’ll need to be brought back to full eating habits gradually with lighter foods and short, sporadic play. Her battery has been wound down so you need to give her time to recharge it.

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When your baby’s poorly she might sleep a bit longer. Sleep’s needed for recovery, so factor this in, and push your schedule for the next day back a bit if needs be.

10 Don’t rush straight in

When your little one won’t settle it’s tempting to rush back in and comfort her. But if you’ve had a healthy daytime with lots of one-on-one time, you’re OK to allow her time to settle. Look out for signs that things aren’t right. And by 8 months, you should be able to see the signs if she’s not feeling herself. Also get used to identifying these situations when listening on your baby monitor.

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If she won’t settle, especially when she’s older (around 18 months) you might like to try my sleep separation techniques. With one family I worked with, we stayed in the room with the baby, sitting near to the cot while she cried for a bit. After a short period of time mum was reassured that all was OK and baby was safe. Eventually the baby fell asleep and everyone had a peaceful night.

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