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Mother awake on sofa with baby

How to have a calming bedtime and slowly reduce night-time waking for your little one

Babies need to wake up for feeds at first

At first your baby will wake through the night for feeds every two to three hours and this is an important part of their development. Babies need to wake up for milk more frequently as they have tiny tummies. Feeding in the night also builds your milk supply.

Parents sometimes worry and some family and friends can be unhelpful if they assure you that their babies all slept through the night from three weeks of age! Remember, it’s absolutely normal and healthy for little babies to be waking throughout the night for feeds.

How can I ease my baby into sleeping through the night as they get older?

It’s important to remember that all babies are different – some sleep very well from a young age and some don’t. This is down to genes, sleeping conditions, size and maturity of the baby and learned behaviour.

Most babies are physically big enough to sleep through the night without needing food by around six months. If your baby was born prematurely or is small for their age, check with your health visitor as to when you can start to think about reducing night-time feeds. It’s still quite common for babies to wake through the night for feeds after this time, but this is not the same nutritional need that younger babies have.

It’s very much your choice from this age onwards – if you don’t mind waking up through the night to breastfeed and you don’t find it too tiring and disruptive, that’s fine. But if you do want your baby to move towards sleeping through the night, then there are some guidelines you can follow that will help you.

You can look at how much they are napping through the day, what time those naps are, whether they have any ‘associations’ with going to sleep (such as cuddles or sucking milk) and what sort of night-time routine your baby has.

The most important thing is to separate the last feed from the going-to-sleep moment

If you are trying to reduce night feeds, you need to get your baby to drop off on their own without being lulled to sleep with a feed at bedtime. Otherwise, when they wake through the night they’ll need a feed to get back to sleep again. This is what is meant by an ‘association’.

If my baby wakes through the night, they always wants to feed to get back to sleep – what should I do?

If your baby cries and then you cuddle them,  breastfeed or give them the bottle and they lull off back to sleep, then you are continuing the cycle. Again, if you are happy with this and you want to respond to your baby at night, that’s fine. If you’re desperate for your baby not to need a feed to settle them back to sleep, then you’ll have to change what you do when your baby wakes up at night.

It’s really hard though when your baby is crying, won’t go back to sleep and you know they would if you fed them. You’re so tired yourself that it’s really hard to resist doing whatever it takes to get your baby back to sleep. If you can make it through a few nights in a row, the habit of feeding to get back to sleep should start to subside.

Is my baby having too much sleep through the day?

Take a look at our our article ‘How babies sleep and nap in the first year’ to see the number and size of naps babies need during the day. Remember, each baby is different though, and if your baby sleeps all night despite napping during the day, then there’s no need to cut their daytime sleep.

Don’t try keeping your baby up all day in the hope they’ll be exhausted and sleep at night. If you keep them awake too much during the day, they’ll get cranky, their cortisol (stress hormone) levels will rise, and she’ll actually end up sleeping worse at night (and waking earlier) than they did before.

Why is the bedtime routine so important?

The better your baby can go to sleep on their own in the evening, the greater chance they’ll have of getting back off to sleep on their own if they wake up through the night.

Why does my baby always wake at the same times through the night?

Our article on the different types and stages of sleep in babies explains how your baby will have a couple of hours of deep sleep when they first goes to sleep in the evening but then sleep very lightly thereafter.

Should I leave the light on or off?

When a baby wakes through the night, your little one will want the same environment they had when they went to sleep the first time to go back to sleep again. For example, if they drift off to sleep with a night light on, then leave it on all night.

Is it OK to cuddle my baby to sleep?

It’s up to you – if you’re happy to get up through the night and cuddle your baby each time they wake up, then it’s fine. If you’re too exhausted, then it’s not going to work for either of you in the long-term.

Is it OK to sing lullabies?

It’s great to sing to your baby as part of their night-time routine when they’re relaxing and getting ready for bed. Again, try not to sing your baby right off to sleep. The reason is the same – if you do it in the evening, you’ll need to do it again when they wake up through the night.

How warm should my baby’s room be?

Around 18°C. Melatonin rises when your body temperature drops, and that’s the hormone that puts you off to sleep. So you don’t want the room to be too warm or the bath water either.

Should my baby have a bath before bedtime?

The bedtime bath should be part of the night-time routine – one of the steps the baby knows they’ll go through getting ready for bed. It should be no more than five minutes and not too warm. The bath should be calm and short, so she doesn’t get overexcited and think it’s playtime again!

How can I teach my baby to fall asleep on their own?

If your baby has got used to falling asleep in your arms, or next to you, you can try something called a gradual distancing technique. This means gradually phasing out the amount of contact each night, a little bit less each time, over a few weeks.

Some people use a ‘crying down’ technique, where they’ll let the baby cry, but go back in at regular intervals to reassure the baby and let them know you’re there.

It’s up to you to choose what you want to do and what you feel would work best for you both, but never leave a baby to cry on their own without going back in to reassure them often.

How can I do all this when I’m exhausted?

It’s hard, but it’s also hard getting up four to five times a night to feed or soothe a baby. At least with the gradual distancing programme, you know you’re heading in a direction that will hopefully mean you’ll be sleeping through the night soon.

If you have a partner who can help by taking turns through the night, that’s fine too – it doesn’t always have to be the same person! So make sure you chat through what needs to be done in advance so it’s clear what step you’re at. Try to catch up on sleep at the weekends – it’s almost like having a newborn baby again, but hopefully just for a short time!

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