If your child’s going through a sleepless phase it can seem like a never-ending, exhausting black pit – and it’s often worse with older babies and toddlers, who’ve reverted to wakeful sleeping after a spell of untroubled nights. Health visitor Kate Daymond, author of The Parentalk Guide To Sleep(£5.99, Hodder & Stoughton), gives her advice.
The most common situation parents find themselves in is that their baby only falls asleep while they are either nearby or holding her, or while she is sucking on a dummy, bottle or breast. This is fine in the day or even at bedtime, but parents aren’t so keen to start searching for lost dummies in the small hours.
At 4 months old your baby will begin to respond to the patterns you have established and her sleep habits will become fixed. Now is the time to get her out of your bedroom unless you want her there forever!
Decide if you want your baby to learn to fall asleep on her own or with you there in the room. Once she’s learned one way or the other, you should stick to the same approach with naps, bedtimes and in the night.
There are several reasons why your child won’t sleep – and as many ways of helping her get into good habits. It’s important for you to choose an option that not only suits you and your partner, but also your child.
8 months: He was waking out of habit
Linda Hunter, 34, from St Neots, has one son, Joshua, 18 months
‘Joshua slept well at first, but by 8 months he was waking up regularly at night for a feed. For months I breastfed him back to sleep. Then we tried controlled crying. The first night we went to him after five minutes, then 10, then 20. And 45 minutes after he’d stopped crying, he was asleep. The second night it took 20 minutes. The third he went straight to sleep. We nearly fell over backwards!’
Kate says: ‘With controlled crying, you let your child fall asleep on his own and gradually lengthen the gaps between visits. First-time parents may not last 30 seconds before returning, but later they wait five or 10 minutes. Don’t leave a crying baby unattended for more than 20 minutes at a stretch though.’
1 year: She wanted to know we were there
Maria Sava, 31, from Basildon, has three children, Amy, 6 months, Eloise, 3 and Matthew, 7
‘Eloise slept in a crib in my room for the first year and woke once or twice a night, but it wasn’t that bad. She goes to sleep now with a bottle of milk, drinks half of it and wakes in the night for the other half. But I can handle that – I don’t find her waking in the night too much of a problem.’
Kate says: ‘This approach means sitting it out. It won’t speed up the process of good sleep habits, so if you’re on your knees you may want a more direct approach. But this is a good option if you don’t mind being disturbed in the night. Don’t feel you have to change your child’s sleep habits because everyone else thinks you should.’
1 year: She always wanted to be held
Marsha McCartney, 30, from Stevenage, has one daughter, Coco, 1
‘Coco never fell asleep alone. We tried controlled crying but she screamed incessantly. We were told to take her straight from bathroom to bedroom at night, not back downstairs. We would put her in the cot, sit on the floor with our face at her eye level, read her a story, say “Night, night” and turn out the light. She’d cry, but when she had calmed down I’d shuffle away. If she was distressed I would go back, say “Shhh” and stroke her tummy – but I’d never look at her. When she was settled, I’d move away again and do this until she fell asleep. It took nearly two hours the first two nights. Now, by the time I have finished her story, she’s asleep.’
Kate says: ‘The “elastic band” method was developed by Dr Olwen Wilson, a child psychologist. Once your baby is in her cot you can reassure her by touching, but you can’t make eye contact. It’s like an elastic band being stretched. When she’s calm you move away and return to her before she becomes distressed. As she gains confidence from your presence you’ll reach the other side of the room before you need to return.
‘Many parents say it’s a kind method as their child’s not afraid of being left alone, just cross at the lack of attention. It is labour intensive for the first night, but by the end of the first week, most children will fall asleep quickly.’
16 months: Her bedtime dramas became routine
Jeni Cohen, 27, from Walsall, has two children, Marnie, 8 months, and Tabitha, 2
‘When Tabby was 16 months old her sleeping problems came to a head. I talked to my health visitor and she advised us to put her in her cot to sleep, then visit her every five minutes to reassure her, until she fell asleep. We had to be so disciplined and cheerily say “Night, night” even though she was screaming. She was so angry. We’d sit downstairs listening to the screams – it was awful. I was sceptical and didn’t think it would work, but we were amazed when it only took five days. Finally, we started feeling human again!’
Kate says: ‘Checking is similar to controlled crying, but instead of stretching the time between visits, you return at regular short intervals – two minutes for a baby and five minutes for a toddler. You say your goodnights, leave the room, wait the allotted time, return to your child and then like a broken record repeat the pattern until your child has fallen asleep. If you stick like glue to this method, most children will be enjoying a good night’s sleep within six nights.’
3 years: She woke up every few hours
Paula Matthews, 36, from Herne Bay, is mum to Rebecca, 3
‘We had a bad patch when Rebecca was waking every two to three hours, so we gave her a bottle as she got into the habit of sucking it until she fell asleep. I started reducing the amount of milk gradually and also making it more diluted so that after several weeks she’d gone from having 5-6oz bottles two or three times a night, to just having a bottle of milk at bedtime and water to drink in the night, if she’s thirsty. She drinks that happily without even waking me up now, which is great.’
Kate says: ‘This is a gentle method that is especially good for toddlers and older children. It works by dividing the goal of sleep-filled nights into small steps and makes each step last several days before moving on to the next.’