How do I get my baby into a sleep routine?

By Kaz Cooke
From the latest edition
of Babies & Toddlers

How do I get my baby into a sleep routine?

In the first 6 months the ‘average’ baby wakes two to three times a night, then between 6 months and 1 year old they wake one to two times.

Most babies older than 6 months will be having one long stretch of sleep, perhaps six to eight hours, and will be getting enough milk during the day not to need a night feed. It’s good to try to get this long sleep to last until the dawn or early-morning feed.

Most babies over 6 months will have a morning and afternoon nap, and then just the afternoon nap from whatever age it suits them – could be at 10 months, or 4 years old. Depends on the kid. Older baby and toddler naptimes usually range from about 45 minutes to two-and-a half hours. They often sleep longer when they seem to be having a growth spurt and eating more too, also known as ‘on the fang’.

Your baby will adjust to whatever bedtime or naptime ritual you decide to use. Many people develop one accidentally, although this might not end up being the most useful one for them; for example, exhausted mum breastfeeds, then baby and mum flake out and so baby only learns to go to sleep when mum is there.

When babies are little – before the age of 6 months – you always need to go in to comfort them if they cry or call out, but it is good to be able to comfort a baby back to sleep without picking them up (of course, they might have done a particularly irritating poo and need to be changed).

The usually recommended way to help a baby get to sleep on their own is some sort of variation on the following.

  • Have some wind-down time.
  • Wrap your baby firmly, but not too tightly.
  • Place your baby to sleep on their back.
  • Give them a dummy if you want to.
  • Pat their tum gently, with a slow rhythm, a few times until they’re sleepy.
  • Leave the room before they actually fall asleep.

You can train your baby over time to understand that they are being put to sleep by themselves (a book read together in their bed; a darkened, familiar room; a comforting back rub or gentle pat; and the same catchphrase, such as ‘Nightie-night, possum’) but that you’ll return reassuringly if they need you, so that they understand they’re not being abandoned. The idea is to get the baby to realise that it’s safe and fine to go to sleep by themselves in their own bed, without you rocking the side of the cot forever or always breastfeeding them to sleep – or worse, putting them in the car and driving aimlessly because they’re rocked to sleep. It will go a long way to setting up good habits that you’ll be grateful for later.

The key is that after comforting rituals, the baby is left in the room calm, happy, safe, hopefully sleepy, but still awake, and learns how to go to sleep independently without your obvious presence so that when they wake during the night, which is totally normal, and don’t need a feed, they can go to sleep again without your help.

There’s a LOT more on babies and sleep, and sleep routines for babies at all stages, and toddlers, in the book Babies & Toddlers: The Sequel to Up the Duff.