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BABY SLEEP PROBLEMS: WHEN, WHY AND HOW TO HANDLE THEM

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Baby sleep problems usually involve babies older than 6 months not settling or waking at night over a prolonged period. If your baby’s sleep patterns are causing you or your baby distress, it might help to know that there are practical, behaviour-based strategies that can help.


B
aby sleep: What’s normal and what’s a problem?

In the first 6 months of life, it’s normal for your baby to wake regularly at night. Your baby will probably need you during the night for feeding and help with settling during these early months.


Even after the first 6 months or so, baby sleep habits and behaviour may vary a lot. This means it can be hard to tell when baby sleep and settling has become a problem.


Y
ou might have a baby sleep problem if, over a period of about 3 months, your baby aged 6 months or older:

  • consistently wakes more than 3 times a night
  • consistently takes more than 30 minutes to settle
  • has difficulties with sleeping and settling that cause you a lot of distress.

If you’re not sure whether you have baby sleep problems, it’s a good idea to talk about your baby’s sleep patterns with your paediatrician. In the end, you may decide not to change your baby’s sleep habits, but it’s still a good idea to rule out any underlying health concerns that might be causing unsettled sleep.

Although it’s normal for young babies to wake during the night, you can help them develop healthy sleep patterns in the early months. This may reduce the likelihood of baby sleep and settling problems in the future. Our article on sleep routines for newborns has more information.


Baby sleep problems: Why you might want to do something about them

Baby sleep problems can affect both you and your baby.


If your baby isn’t getting enough sleep, she’ll be probably be tired and cranky. She might be more demanding when she’s awake, and may need more comforting and be harder to settle when she’s in bed.


If your baby isn’t getting enough sleep, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep either.


You might be feeling exhausted and stressed. You might find yourself getting lethargic or getting sick more often. Lack of sleep can also lead to anxiety and depression.


Lack of sleep can make it harder for you to cope with the daily demands of caring for your baby. It may also make it harder for you to feel warm towards your baby and to give her the loving attention that you want to give.


Being very tired can make it hard to think straight, and you might have trouble concentrating, making it harder to balance paid work and parenting.


Baby sleep problems can cause relationship difficulties with other family members. For example, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you may have less patience with your other children.


Solving baby sleep problems: Where and how to start

It may help to read up on baby sleep needs. This can help you understand how much sleep babies need and how your baby’s sleep compares to other babies her age.


Before you make any changes, it’s also a good idea to look at what’s causing your baby’s waking and settling problems. This way you can tailor a sleep strategy to suit your baby and your situation.


Next, our article on changing your baby’s sleep patterns takes you through 4 strategies for helping your baby settle and ‘sleep through the night’:

  • Identify the habit associated with the sleep problem.
  • Phase out the habit.
  • Set up a positive bedtime routine.
  • Help your baby get used to settling to sleep independently. This might involve looking into our article on Camping Out: Baby and Child Sleep Strategy.

Learning new sleep habits won’t be easy for your baby or you. She’ll prefer things the way they are and might be upset by the change. So, be prepared to be ready for some trying times while your baby is getting used to a different routine. Hang in there! Most parents who try the strategies above have reported achieving success.

About behaviour strategies for baby sleep problems

The strategies mentioned above are all behaviour strategies.


These behaviour strategies are based on the notion that the way children are settled to sleep will become the way they want to go back to sleep when they wake during a nap or at night. For example, a baby who is rocked to sleep will probably want to be rocked again after waking during the night. Behaviour strategies aim to help children change sleep habits like these and get used to settling by themselves.


If you’re interested in using behaviour strategies to solve your baby’s sleep problems, do note the following:

  • These strategies are suitable for babies aged over 6 months, but not for younger babies.
  • It’s a very good idea to get professional help for settling babies, especially if you’re not sure what the problem is or how to put a behaviour strategy into action.
  • You need to feel comfortable with the sleep strategy you’re using. For example, many parents don’t like the idea of controlled comforting, which involves leaving a baby to cry for short periods.

Behaviour strategies work better and keep working for longer than medication. Experts recommend medication for baby sleep problems only when the problems are very bad. Even in these cases, experts would usually suggest using behaviour strategies coupled with medication.

If your baby’s sleep problems are bothering you, you’re not alone. It can be hard to be the parent you want to be if you’re not getting enough sleep yourself. The good news is that doing something about baby sleep problems can make a big difference to your health and well-being.



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