Working Out a Night Routine: A Parent with a Plan!
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is one of parenting’s greatest achievements. You get a full 8 hours and wake up feeling like you can take on the world and win. It’s also one of those things that can be extremely hard, demoralising and can make you feel like a failure. There is nothing worse than that parent who does the old humble brag about their kid sleeping through the night when you and your babe are still having some raging milk parties at 1 am. And 3 am. And 5 am…
With a second baby on the way, it's safe to say that I remember absolutely nothing from when my now 2 year old was a baby and how we managed her sleep. I’ve been giving myself a refresher course and looking at lots of different things I can do with Baby 2 to help ensure we are all getting some sleep once baby arrives. After a tonne of research, I've compiled the most important information you need to get some more rest. Here's an outline of what I'll be going through:
- Your Baby's Age Matters
- Building a Night Routine
- Bedroom Environment
- Your Baby's Awake Times
- Teach Your Baby to Self Settle
Your Baby's Age Matters
What sleep time looks like for newborns is very different to what sleep time looks like for toddlers. The first months of a baby’s life is all about listening and watching for their cues. On average, a newborn will sleep for 16 hours out of every 24. Your baby will let you know whether they want to sleep, feed or ‘play’ with you and it's okay to follow their lead. The Raising Children Network suggests a simple routine if both parent and baby feel like it, of 4 simple steps:
- A feed when they wake up
- Change the nappy
- Talk, cuddle and interact with baby
- Put your baby back down for a sleep
But they do also recommend watching for your baby’s cues and going with that over any routine. Those newborn days are about doing what you have to do to get through! One piece of advice I do remember from those early days was that it is impossible to ‘spoil’ a newborn baby so go ahead and ignore that outdated advice and snuggle your new baby to your heart's content!
As your baby gets older, nap times will become shorter and awake times become more important and getting the balance right will help to create a hopefully more peaceful, longer lasting, overnight sleep. This is where timing comes in but also, you will still need to keep an eye on your child’s sleep cues.
Building a Night Routine
Firstly, a routine is not a schedule to be adhered to at all costs. A night routine is some steps to go through to help your child wind down and get ready for a full night’s sleep (crosses fingers and toes, braids hair for good measure). Like the routine above, being flexible is also important. Keep an eye on your baby’s cues and let them guide you.
According to the Raising Children Network, creating a positive routine is important to help children wind down before bedtime and includes things like a bath, a story, brushing teeth, having cuddles. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as the atmosphere is calm and positive. They recommend starting a bedtime routine about 20 minutes before bedtime and also say a positive bedtime routine will improve settling time and decrease the amount of times a child calls out for a parent during the night.
They even have a plan for getting your child to bed at a time that you want as bedtime. Here's an example of what to do if you want an 8pm bedtime but your baby has been sleeping at 9pm:
- Start your night routine at 8:40pm so that your baby is ready by 9pm
- Repeat for two nights
- Then, start your night routine at 8:25pm, so that your baby is ready by 8:45pm
- Repeat for two nights
- Continue this incremental process until your baby is asleep at 8pm
Again, it’s important to be a bit flexible with your routine depending on what kind of day your child has had and how many naps they have had. It could be that everything needs to be moved forward half an hour if you can see your child starting to exhibit sleep cues like yawning, rubbing their eyes or getting cranky. Every once in a while, it might be that the whole routine goes out the window, if, for example, your child is sick. As the parent, you will know what is best for your child.
Setting up a cosy, dark, calm environment for your baby is super helpful when it comes to helping them sleep through the night. There are a few things you can invest in to help with this!
- White noise machine: The uterus is a pretty noisy place with gurgling bellies, noise from the outside world, a parent’s voice. A white noise machine can help soothe your baby by muffling sudden or loud noises outside the room your baby is sleeping in. It’s important to not crank the white noise to maximum, the point is not to drown out all other noise but just to give a gentle sound to lull baby off to sleep. Think a nap in the shade on a beach, not front row at a rock concert.
- Block out curtains: These can help with a little bit of a sleep in, especially in the summer months when the sun rises very early. A darkened room at a comfortable temperature is great for encouraging babies to stay asleep as it stimulates the production of melatonin, the hormone which encourages sleep.
- Swaddles or sleepsuits: Our daughter HATED being swaddled and it didn’t matter how I swaddled her, she managed to get her arms out anyway. We switched to a sleepsuit relatively early on and she started sleeping better from the first time we used it. However, there is research that suggests that using a swaddle can help babies stay asleep as it prevents them from thrashing about and waking themselves up. This is another one of those things that it's important to be flexible on and as the parent, you will know what your child prefers.
Your Baby's Awake Times
As your child gets older paying attention to how long they AREN’T sleeping for becomes just as important as how long they are sleeping for. Those pre-child, afternoon naps on the couch were never very conducive to an early night as an adult and the same principle applies to our kids.
We based our nap routine on Little Ones's Sleep Journey Chart and found huge success in getting our daughter to sleep for longer stretches overnight. By paying close attention to sleep cues and figuring out a rough nap schedule based on how long naps should last, we managed to get a routine in place that made for calmer nights and helped with sleeping through the night. Once we let go of the old adage of ‘never wake a sleeping baby’, it was easier to put our daughter down for the night because she was ready to go to sleep but also wasn’t overtired which leads to a whole host of other problems.
Something I found crazy when first looking into babies and sleeping, is that when a baby becomes overtired, they get stressed which floods their bodies with cortisol and adrenaline. This makes it even harder for them to fall asleep. Not the best idea from an evolutionary standpoint, you have to admit!
What you’re looking for is that sweet spot between not at all tired and too tired, and this is easier to figure out once you start paying attention to both awake times AND asleep times.
Teach Your Baby to Self Settle
Probably the most important thing when it comes to sleeping through the night, is the ability for your child to self settle. When your child wakes up in the middle of the night (which everyone does), are they able to roll over and get back to sleep by themselves? Or do they call out for a parent to come in for a cuddle? The Mayo Clinic have a great section on their website about babies and toddler sleep habits and recommend a few things that can encourage your child to learn to self settle:
- Once you have gone through your positive bedtime routine, putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake helps to get them used to drifting off to sleep by themselves. Doing this from a relatively young age can lay the foundation for when they are a little older. They know how to drift off to sleep alone which will hopefully mean less calling out for you in the middle of the night.
- The other thing is to give your child a little bit of time to settle themselves. We are definitely not talking about letting them cry and cry and cry here. Sometimes children may fuss a little before falling asleep. Going into their room at every noise can create the opposite of what you want, and mean they stay alert long after they have been put to bed. If your child actually starts to cry however, of course go in and check on them! Sometimes they just need one last soothing touch or comment before they can fall asleep.
- If you do need to interact with your child overnight, make sure things are kept calm and quiet and dark so that the message is still that it is time for sleep. Having a low light lamp or night light can be helpful for you to see without waking up your baby completely. The last thing you want to signal is that 3am feeds and nappy changes are also time to party.
I think the most important thing to remember when it comes to a baby that doesn't sleep as much as you would like, is that it is absolutely no reflection on you or your parenting. It’s way too easy to get caught up in what babies ‘should’ be doing or comparing what your child is doing to someone else’s kid (a certain episode of a cute cartoon involving Blue Heeler’s springs to mind here). This journey into good sleep routines for me has been a reminder that at the end of the day, if my child did not want to be asleep, then no positive routine, dark and cosy room or baby massage helped that along.
I think it’s good to have some strategies in the back of your mind but really, the most important thing is to watch for your child’s cues and be flexible. Saves a lot of stress when things don’t go according to plan! Good luck and sleep tight!