MHspeaks to the experts and finds out some bedtime hacks you need to try now.
WORDS CHERYLENE RENÉE
If you are a new parent, getting your child to sleep smoothly through an entire night could seem incredibly daunting. After all, haven’t we all heard nightmarish tales of babies lying awake — or screaming themselves breathless — for hours, night after night? Newborns, in particular, find it difficult to distinguish between day and night, giving rise to erratic sleep patterns, bursts of energy, and sudden tantrums. This behaviour not only affects baby’s energy levels throughout the rest of the day but also has a massive impact on us as parents. We feel the brunt of it, via wrecked sleep patterns, plunging vitality, and dips in emotional health. But here’s the good news: there is a treasure trove of baby sleep techniques you can use to teach your baby how to sleep better, and all through the night. Here are the quintessential bedtime hacks and expert tips every new or young parent should grasp, to ensure healthy sleep for your little ones.
1. Get Rid of Sleep Props
Many infants come to rely on their favourite items, such as their pacifiers, as a means of comfort. Solace is also found in the calming actions by Mummy or Daddy, when patting, rocking or nursing them to sleep. However, Chu warns that these items and actions function as “sleep props,”and your baby may become overly reliant on these in their efforts to reach sleep. “If your child is relying on sleep props to help him sleep [...] then the chances are that your child will not be sleeping well,” says Chu. Remove sleep props from the crib, and let your baby drift off to sleep on her own without any aid if possible. Over time, your baby will develop the ability to soothe herself to sleep.
2. Have Predictable Daytime Activities
A healthy sleep cycle begins not at night, but actually during the day! Most babies take a while to stabilise their sleep patterns, which become slightly more regular when they are around two or three months old. Dr Petrina Wong, a consultant at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s Department of Paediatrics, advises that parents of newborns can help their babies develop their circadian rhythm (or internal body clocks) by simply introducing predictable daytime activities. “Encourage play and fun times during waking hours of the day, with toys and visual stimulation,” says Dr Wong. Over time, this helps your baby to recognise the difference between night and day.
3. Implement a Bedtime Routine
Dr Pradeep Raut, a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist at Kinder Clinic, advises that parents should follow the baby’s routine in his first few weeks. “Rest when your baby is resting. As baby grows, nature will take its own course,” says Dr Raut. However, by baby’s third month, parents can start to introduce a consistent bedtime routine. Dr Wong recommends that parents can line up “three to four soothing activities during the 15 to 20 minutes leading up to bedtime”, to help prepare your child for sleep — these activities may include pampering your baby with a warm bath, helping your baby into her pyjamas, reading a bedtime story to your little one, and singing a soft lullaby to lull her to sleep. Once your little one recognises these activities as a steady bedtime routine, she will fall asleep much more easily.
4. Set an Early Bedtime
Zoe Chu, baby and child sleep expert and founder of SG Supernanny, emphasises the importance of having a regular sleep-wake schedule. “Babies thrive on structure and routine. When they know what to expect next, they will protest less and be more willing to go down for a nap or sleep,” says Chu. Parents are recommended to wake their baby at around the same time each morning and put her to sleep at about the same timing each night. Louise Duncan, the founder of Petite Dreamers Sleep Solutions and a certified Sleep Sense™ Consultant, advises that the best time to put the baby to sleep is between 7-8pm every evening. “If your child is already an overtired child, the best thing for them is to help them reduce their sleep debts by getting them to bed early. Some parents make the mistake of putting their child to bed too late, like 9 or 10pm, thinking that their child is still active and energetic.” She explains that when babies are extremely tired, their fatigue may manifest as hyperactivity — which could lead to baby waking up even more frequently in the middle of the night.
5. Recognise Signs of Drowsiness
Duncan adds that while it is helpful to have regular sleep-wake timings and a consistent routine, it is also important for parents to identify signs that their baby is getting tired. “Watching for your baby’s sleep signals, whether that be rubbing the eyes or yawning, will always be more conducive to good sleep than watching the clock and sticking to a schedule,” says Duncan. Other signs your baby may display can also include pulling her ears or being more fussy than usual.
Ideally, you should have your baby in bed while she is still moderately sleepy, but awake enough to be aware that she is being placed in her crib.
6. Place Baby to Sleep in the Same Place
Whether it’s a mid-afternoon nap, or bedtime after dark, as much as possible try to always place your baby in the same crib whenever it’s time for some shut-eye. This way, your baby associates her crib as a safe place and also connects being laid down in the crib with sleep.
7. Avoid Eye Contact when it’s Bedtime
If you are tucking your little one into bed and she is fast falling asleep, try to avoid looking her in the eyes. Babies are often stimulated by eye contact — which signals playtime — causing them to become even more alert. This rule of thumb should also be applied even when you are calming a fussing baby in the middle of the night.
Avoid gazing directly into baby’s eyes as much as possible, and use a
gentle, calming voice to ease her back to sleep.
8. Use Light Strategically
Melatonin is an essential hormone regulating our circadian rhythms. When the light-sensitive receptors in our brain detect the presence of bright light, our melatonin levels fall and it is more difficult to sleep. On the contrary, darkness releases melatonin, triggering sleep. To help your little one sleep better, install blackout curtains and use dim lighting where your baby’s crib is located. Dr Wong also advises against switching on the lights if you are tending to your baby when she wakes up in the middle of the night. To also be avoided is carrying your infant into a brightly-lit room. “The change from a dark to a bright environment will tell his brain that it is time to wake, and he may experience difficulty falling back to sleep again,” says Dr Wong.
9. Don’t Go to Baby Immediately if She Cries
When your little one starts to scream at the top of her lungs in the dead of night, it can be hard to resist the urge to rush to her side immediately. “Anxious parents [may] find it hard to deal with a long cry,” says Dr Raut. However, he advises that if there are no underlying medical conditions, “babies can be easily trained to sooth themselves once they are off the night feeds.” By attending to baby’s call immediately, parents reinforce this behaviour, leading to more frequent cries and baby waking up more often. “It might be that they have roused themselves while transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next, and if you race in their you could stimulate them to awake further,” says Duncan. Learn to identify your baby’s cries — is she hungry or simply craving attention, or is it truly a distress call? If it is the former, our experts advise waiting for a few minutes before going to check on them, as that affords your baby the chance to fall back asleep on her own.
10. Avoid Partial Feeds During the Night
Give your little one a full feeding before commencing your bedtime routine, and where possible avoid feeding her to sleep (where she falls asleep while breastfeeding or on the bottle) or when she is drowsy. Doing so means that your child is not learning to sleep on her own, and relies on feeding to enter sleep. Chu explains that this could give rise to a cycle of unwanted sleep debt for your baby. “A baby who is being fed on demand [in the middle of the night], and not getting full feeding [prior to bedtime] will wake up frequently to satisfy their hunger, thus resulting in babies not getting enough sleep, and causing them to be overtired.”
11. Be Patient
You might have followed all the steps above and noticed that baby is making a significant improvement in her sleep patterns. But what should you do if the late night rousings and screams come back? Don’t worry — babies may experience temporary hiccups or sleep regressions, but it’s perfectly normal. If this happens, stay calm, and repeat the techniques above — consistency is key. “Always stick to the basics: a regular sleep-wake schedule, a consistent bedtime routine, keep the sleep environment conducive for sleeping and put your baby to bed sleepy but not fully asleep so he can self-soothe himself to sleep. Many babies do not develop a regular sleep-wake pattern until they are about four to six months old, with some developing a sleep-wake pattern at an older age,” advises Dr Wong.
12. Sleep Training
For parents who are still experiencing tough nights with baby despite practising the above bedtime hacks, consider engaging a baby sleep expert such as Chu (SG Supernanny) and Duncan (Petite Dreamers Sleep Solutions). Duncan believes that it is “more about the parent being ready for sleep training than the baby,” especially when they are juggling a severe lack of sleep with a full day of work in the office. “My job is to guide exhausted parents who are sleep deprived to get their babies to sleep well and through the night,” says Chu. She explains that sleep training is “the art of self-settling and getting them on a routine”, and that sleep training ideally should start when the baby is around four months of age. Sleep training with the experts involves a specialised sleep plan based on your baby’s unique needs, which will help you teach your baby how to sleep better. Chu adds, “The best thing we can do for our child is to create a loving home with a well-rested child and well-rested parents.”