We’ve all struggled with sleep problems at some point in our lives, but baby sleep is far different from adult sleep.
You might think that something crazy is going on when our little ones simply can’t seem to settle, but often this is just a result of normal developmental behaviour. At other times, certain preventable triggers might be stopping your baby from sleeping.
So, before you start thinking there’s something actually wrong with your child when they simply won’t stop fussing at night or before their naps, we’ve outlined some of the most important things you need to know about how to soothe your baby to sleep, with 5 easy steps you can follow today.
Difficulty sleeping is often a result of normal developmental behaviour in infants during their first 12 months of life.
1. Understand What’s Stopping Your Baby from Sleeping
Figuring out how to soothe your baby to sleep starts with being able to identify any common health issues, illnesses or development stages that might be preventing them from achieving long periods of restful sleep.
Generally, newborns need to feed 8-12 times every 24 hours and the transition to long uninterrupted sleep during the night (when adults sleep the most) is a gradual process. Sometimes it takes babies quite a while to adapt their biological clocks to match what we, as adults, consider “normal sleeping behaviour”.
As such, <strong>we shouldn't expect babies to sleep for more than 4-5 hours at a stretch until they are at least 3 months old</strong>. If you’re still seeing inconsistent sleep patterns past this period, this is also normal. Until your child has fully developed sleep independence, you could see their sleeping behaviour fluctuate.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies from 4-12 months should sleep between 12-16 hours each day, including naps.
Sickness or Other Medical Conditions
We’re guessing that one of your worst fears is that lack of sleep is some kind of indicator of illness or an underlying health condition? It’s true that this is possible, as various conditions could interfere with sleeping, but also remember that there are a great many normal (nothing to panic about) triggers of poor sleep, so don’t stress out too soon! Some common illnesses among children include:
- Ear infections
- The common cold
- Bladder infections
- Sinus infections
- Virus related coughs
Each of these can be treated easily with a trip to the doctor and the right medication.
Soothe Your Baby to Sleep by Reducing Discomfort
From being enclosed inside the womb to then being in the wide open world full of stimulating sounds, smells and interactions, babies can be somewhat uncomfortable with all the newfound space and excitement around them.
Sometimes, if you are able to recreate a safe and restrictive womb-like environment for your little one, you can help put them at ease when it comes time to sleep. This includes making their room nice and dark, as well as swaddling them in a tight but comforting bundle.
Some even believe playing white noise can emulate the kind of natural sounds babies hear when in their mother’s tummies.
Also, consider how you can remove anything that makes them uncomfortable, such as ill-fitting baby sleepwear, itchy mattresses and sheets, too many items cluttering their crib space or other things that simply stop them from feeling relaxed enough to nod off.
Babies commonly experience digestive issues, such as gas, acid reflux, indigestion and hiccups. As their digestive systems are still developing, they’ll find it much harder to break down their breast milk, formula or baby food. Any consequential acidity caused by indigestion can easily make them feel off and stop them from sleeping.
We advise being extra careful about the kind of foods mothers consume while breastfeeding, as this can sometimes promote digestive problems for infants. For instance, you could try to reduce your volume intake of caffeine, garlic, spicy foods or dairy.
Colic is more than just gas and reflux. It is ongoing crying in a healthy infant, which peaks between 6 weeks and 3 months of age. These bouts of crying can last up to 3 hours (and sometimes more) at a time and carry on for multiple days, with seemingly no identifiable cause.
Theories about what causes colic include overstimulation, hormones, and spasms in the digestive tract. While some believe the only way to overcome this hurdle is to bear with it, parents can try to reduce the effects of colic by helping their babies to relax, giving them a pacifier, perfecting the sleeping environment and generally doing everything they can to promote healthy sleeping habits.
Is Hunger Stopping You from Soothing Your Baby to Sleep?
Sometimes babies are just hungry… that’s just a fact. Don’t think they just won’t notice if you miss a feed and send them to bed half full. Even if they do manage to nod off, they’re much more likely to wake up sooner when their tummies start rumbling.
Introducing a dream feed can help in this situation, as well as making sure you don’t skip any meals and feed your baby well before it’s time to sleep (this will also give them enough time to digest their food properly).
Overstimulation and/or overtiredness happens when children are swamped by more experiences than their little brains and bodies can handle. This will activate the release of more cortisol (the stress hormone), which will, no doubt, make it harder for them to sleep.
The more tired a baby gets and the more stimulation they receive, the more stressed they’ll get and the less likely they’ll be able to relax their bodies and minds when it comes time for rest. Overstimulated children get tired and can feel overwhelmed. It's best to give them plenty of rest and let them discover their new and exciting environment in smaller doses.
A baby is considered overtired when they have been awake for longer than their bodies can tolerate, which will activate the release of more cortisol (the stress hormone).
Babies have a certain reflex we like to call the startle reflex, also called the Moro reflex, which describes the natural instinct infants have when faced with changes in their environment.
Certain triggers, albeit subtle to the senses of an adult, can seem huge and massively disruptive to the delicate sensibilities of a baby. Triggers of baby startling you can try to avoid include:
- Loud and unexpected noises
- A sudden touch
- A change in sleeping position
- A change in lighting conditions
- Movement of the baby’s body
- Other changes in the baby’s immediate environment
2. Soothe Your Baby to Sleep with a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
After your baby is around 6 weeks old, they will start to develop a more regular sleep schedule. At this point, you can look to implement a bedtime routine to encourage structure and consistency.
This will help them to establish good sleep habits as well reduce the chances of certain triggers stopping your little one from relaxing in the evening, such as overtiredness or overstimulation.
When building a strategy for how to soothe your baby to sleep, focus on creating an environment where your baby can sleep peacefully and uninterrupted by establishing simple “rules” that you can follow every single night. You should build a plan that suits your own preferences (and those of your child) but a few great ideas are:
- A relaxing bath and skincare routine
- A soothing massage
- Play classical or ambient music 1 hour before bed
- Change them into comfortable clothes (swaddles or swaddle transition products)
- Put your baby into the crib while still drowsy (not asleep)
- Introduce a dream feed
- Read a book
- Close the curtains or turn off the lights at the same time every night
- Diffuse essential oils
- Sing or hum a lullaby
- Consider a pacifier
For more information on this important topic, take a look at our popular blog: How to Help My Baby Sleep — The Perfect Evening Routine.
After your baby is around 6 weeks old, they will start to develop a more regular sleep schedule.
3. Create a Soothing Environment in Your Baby’s Room
Another great thing you can do when wondering how to soothe your baby to sleep is to pay close attention to the items in your baby’s room and how they contribute to the overall atmosphere. Always remember that babies are much more sensitive to their environment. Colours, textures, temperature, sounds, air quality and more can all affect the mood of a baby.
During winter, for example, you may have your heaters on extra hot, and the air might be drier. This can sometimes make it harder for babies to breathe, so installing some kind of humidifier could help soothe them to sleep.
At least an hour before your baby’s bedtime, begin changing the environment that your baby is in so that it is more sleep conducive. This ties in nicely with the above point on bedtime routines too, and will help to communicate with your little one that they should start winding down.
Ultimately, the calmer, quieter, and more soothing you make your baby’s sleep environment before and during their sleep, the better.
4. Make Sure They’re Comfortable
One extremely underestimated aspect of the sleeping process is the clothes that your baby sleeps in. What you choose to dress your baby in can have a huge impact on whether they feel comfortable and if they’ll be able to overcome any restlessness and finally nod off.
Some babies will prefer an enclosed swaddle position when they’re sleeping while others will want more freedom. If you find your little one struggling free from the swaddles they once loved so much, it could mean that they’re ready to flex their limbs and build some new mobility skills.
If so, consider using a swaddle transition product like our Zipadee-Zip, which offers the kind of restrictive comfort babies need to feel secure and comfortable, while giving them a bit more room to move. Doing so can also prevent the risk of SIDS, which is one of the leading causes of the approximate 3,500 infant deaths that occur in the US each year, according to the CDC.
You’ll also want to choose clothes that are temperature suitable, soft to the touch, and practical in all the right ways (a crotch zipper or snap will certainly come in handy when you’re doing a diaper change at 4 am!).
5. Give Them What They Need (Before It’s Too Late)
Preempting any sleep challenges is a big part of learning how to soothe your baby to sleep. This is because encouraging sleep once your baby is overtired or too hungry is a million times harder. Their ability to control their emotions and self-soothe will be greatly impaired and getting them off to sleep can be a real trial amidst constant bouts of crying.
To avoid this, do your best to anticipate the needs of your little one before it’s too late. They’ll be more likely to end the evening content and relaxed if you’ve given them all the naps, food, and cuddles they need to be happy and healthy.
Placing Your Baby in the Crib
Don’t place your baby in the crib when they’ve already dropped off. It’s best to place them down while they’re drowsy about 15-20 minutes before you want them to actually sleep.
This will reduce the chance of you startling them when you move their body around, and will also encourage independence as they will start to practice how they can soothe themselves to sleep without constant support from an adult.
Encouraging sleep once your baby is overtired or too hungry is a million times harder.
Quick Baby Soothing Checklist for Better Sleep
- Is your baby still hungry?
- Could they be too hot or cold?
- Are they wearing a clean diaper? (and are you sure…)
- Do they look sick or unusually unhappy?
- Have you eliminated all excess sounds in your baby’s room? (nearby televisions or radios)
- Is your baby’s room dark enough?
- Do they look comfortable in their baby sleepwear? (not struggling to break free)
- Are there any unnecessary distractions in your baby’s room?
- If they’re crying, is this in a way you recognise?
Want to know why your baby is crying? We explore how you can decipher the mystery of baby crying sounds in our blog post: Why is My Baby Crying at Night? Different Baby Cries and What They Mean.
Still Don’t Know How to Soothe Your Baby to Sleep?
Most problems with baby sleep will phase out over time, however, in some unfortunate cases, sleep problems will continue to persist for several weeks and months. At this point, you may start to question whether your child has an underlying problem.
If you are still concerned about your baby’s sleep problems or inability to sleep, the best thing to do is contact a child nurse, GP, or paediatrician for more advice on what might be causing this baby insomnia.
Just remember though that every infant is different and most periods of poor sleep can be overcome with consistent bedtime routines and by creating the right environments for your little one to sleep in each night.
Final Tips For How to Soothe Your Baby to Sleep
Despite the seeming chaos of it all, you should gradually see certain patterns of behaviour in your child's sleep emerge beyond the 3 month mark, and hopefully by 6 months they will be showing good signs of independent sleeping where they can sleep for 6-8 hours uninterrupted during the night.
Remember though that the first year of your infant’s life is a period of “training” for their future. You don’t need to get it right straight away, and if there are a few hurdles along the way, rest assured this is natural.
The most important thing you can do is implement healthy sleeping routines and practices so you can eventually rely on your little one to soothe themselves to sleep.