Baby sleep problems: when, why and how to handle them

Baby sleep problems: when, why and how to handle them

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Baby sleep: what's normal and what's a problem?

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

But you might have a baby sleep problem if, over a period of about three months, your baby aged six months or older:

  • consistently wakes more than three 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 GP or child and family health nurse. In the end you might decide not to work on changing 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 can make it less likely that you'll have 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 grizzly. She might be more demanding when she's awake, and need more comforting and be harder to settle when she's in bed.

And 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 run down 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 day-to-day demands of caring for your baby. It might also make it harder for you to feel warm towards your baby and to give him the loving attention that you want to give.

Being very tired can make it hard to think straight, and you might have trouble concentrating. It can make 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, it can be harder for you to have patience with your other children.

Our grown-ups section has lots of articles on maintaining your wellbeing and coping with stress if baby sleep concerns are making things hard for you.

Solving baby sleep problems: where and how to start

It might help to begin by reading about 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 your baby and your situation.

Next, our article on changing your baby's sleep patterns takes you through four 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 controlled comforting or camping out.
Learning new sleep habits won't be easy for your baby or you. He'll prefer things the way they are and might be upset by the change. So it's a good idea to be ready for some trying times while your baby is getting used to a different routine. But hang in there - most parents who try the strategies above have success.

About behaviour strategies for baby sleep problems

The strategies mentioned above are all behaviour strategies.

These behaviour strategies are based on the idea 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, there are a few things worth noting:

  • These strategies are OK for babies aged over six 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 medications. Experts recommend medications for baby sleep problems only when the problems are very bad. And even in these cases, experts would usually suggest using behaviour strategies as well as medications.

Behaviour strategies are supported by many years of Australian and international scientific research into what works with young children's sleep problems.

If your baby's sleep problems are getting you down, 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 wellbeing.