A room with a snooze
How to create the ideal baby sleep environment
Your baby’s sleep environment is incredibly important. It’s one of the few things you can control that can improve (or challenge) your baby’s sleep habits.
You’ll probably be hearing from plenty of other parents about what they think are must-haves or the right way to do things. There are lots of ways babies sleep all around the world – Danish and Swedish parents leave sleeping babies outside during the day, wrapped up warm in their strollers against the bitter cold. Spanish babies are in bed no earlier than 10pm, and many African cultures see mothers attached to their babies 24/7. So, in short, there isn’t a ‘right way’. There is only what’s right for you and your baby, now and down the track.
Here we share some ideas on creating a sleep environment to help your baby sleep better and longer – and keep them safe too.
The perfect baby sleep cave
Picture where your baby first became aware, safe and warm inside mum. It was a tight fit in there, very dark, and surprisingly noisy – babies listen to their mother’s heartbeat, stomach gurgles, speech and sounds from the outside world. They’re also jostled about by the mothers’ walking and other movements for months and months, and then suddenly, they’re out. It’s cold, bright, still and, by comparison, very, very quiet – it’s no wonder most small babies have trouble sleeping! It’s why most of the sleep advice western parents are offered is aimed at mimicking the comfortable familiarity of the womb.
What environment you create, and the sleep aids you offer, will all come with a trade-off – ultimately, most parents hope their babies will eventually be able to go to sleep, and stay asleep on their own, without the need for parental intervention. Some sleep habits that work beautifully for a newborn may mean you need to wean your little one off them as they grow – and when it stops working for you.
For newborns: turn nursery into bed-womb
Newborns particularly will respond well to an environment that mimics the womb – warm, squashed, dark and noisy. Here are some elements to consider when creating your newborn’s sleep environment.
Bassinet or cot?
While many parents opt for economy and put their little one straight into a cot, others find buying a bassinet is worth the added cost. It will more easily fit in your room, can be carted around the house for day sleeps, and can also feel cosier for small babies.
Black out curtains
Many, many parents swear that total darkness is a game changer for their babies – especially for slightly older newborns who are more aware of their surroundings. And that makes sense, given what we know about the way light affects sleep patterns. Other parents see some downsides to black-out curtains – some want to ensure their babies are more flexible about where they sleep. Others simply can’t stand sitting in a pitch-black room while they settle their babies. Again, it’s about what suits you.
If you do choose to use black-out curtains, make sure your baby goes outside or is placed near windows during the day – the daylight will help them more quickly adjust their day/night patterns. Black-out curtains don’t need to be expensive – you can buy them ready-made, get stick-on shades, or simply cover windows with tinfoil or cardboard.
A shhhing machine, ocean sounds, a running fan, static from off-station radio – white noise is a catch-all term for a consistent, soft noise in your baby’s room. Parents swear by white noise, and so do research findings. It offers a soothing reminder of the womb, with the added bonus of deadening other noises – perfect for when the recycling truck comes crashing up the street the minute your baby falls asleep. As with any sleep aid, your baby may become used to falling asleep with white noise and may find it difficult to sleep without it. White noise is easy to ‘wean’ off – simply reduce the volume a small amount each day. Be careful – you may see recommendations to turn your white noise way, way up – louder than a lawn mower! This could damage your baby’s hearing, so start quiet and adjust up until you find a volume that works for your baby. Some parents really enjoy sleeping with white noise – others find it very irritating and choose not to introduce it at all.
Tightly wrapping your baby in a cotton nappy or a light blanket can be very soothing. Snuggled in tight, most babies feel safe and cocooned, and won’t be woken by their own startle reflex – when their arms and legs suddenly jolt. There are few downsides to swaddling – as babies become more mobile and active, most will work their way out of swaddles in their sleep. This makes it fairly easy to help them adjust to sleeping without one at all. When you swaddle, be careful to leave your baby’s hips free to move, and choose natural, breathable fibres like cotton, merino or bamboo to avoid overheating. For very hot weather, many parents find leaving their baby’s legs bare and wrapping just the arms works well.
Firm, clean mattress, breathable bedding
As an absolute minimum, your baby’s mattress should be clean and very firm. Mould and other allergens can build up very quickly, which is why most experts recommend buying a new mattress for each new baby. Choosing a very firm mattress is a safety issue – soft bedding can increase SIDS risk.
Safety standards in New Zealand provide really good guidance for a mattress firmness, however these standards aren’t mandatory – they’re only suggestions (our airnest mattress has passed the standard). There are also no regulations around the make-up of the mattresses. There is no way to tell the quality of foam or the safety of the glues. For example, some could create potentially dangerous off-gassing – not something you’d want your baby breathing.
Similarly, while a mattress may be breathable – an important safety measure against SIDS – the layers placed on top, like plastic mattress protectors, might cancel that out. It’s part of why we went looking for a better option – a full mattress system that was ultra-breathable, machine washable and free of chemical nasties.
Swinging or other movement
Most babies love to be jostled – walk them around, put them in the car or push them in the buggy, and they’ll drift off fast. It’s why many parents opt for a swing hammock bed, or a rocking bassinet – a gentle nudge can often help their baby move between sleep cycles with only the hint of a grizzle. But rocking and other movement is a sleep aid that needs your involvement. You need to be driving, rocking, pushing, nudging or bouncing (certainly not relaxing or sleeping!), which means this sleep habit is often the one parents want to break first.
Temperature is important – too cool and your baby will be more wakeful, too warm and the risk of SIDS increases. Most guidelines suggest a room temperature of between 17 and 20 degrees – surprisingly cool! Some parents like to use a thermometer or heating and cooling equipment to keep the room at an even temperature. What’s most important is that your baby is dressed for the temperature – they should feel warm in their neck, but not sweaty.
Introducing a dummy is a hot-topic button – but for many babies, sucking on a pacifier can help them drift immediately off to sleep. A dummy can sometimes create sleep problems later – babies wake when they lose their dummy – but it won’t cause dental problems until your child is over four. Using a dummy may also reduce the risk of SIDS.
Older babies – getting ready for big kid’s sleep
There are plenty of sleep aids that you may feel comfortable continuing with your baby – often ones that don’t need you to be there. Some you may decide to wean off – again the choice should be based on what is and isn’t working for you.
Crib or bed?
When their babies are ready to move into their own room, most parents opt for a crib, but they aren’t the only option. Some parents put their babies into very low trundle beds, futons or mattresses on the floor, or make normal beds baby-friendly by attaching a roll-barrier.
Sleep sack or blankets?
Once your baby shows signs of rolling, or if they are wriggling out of their blankets frequently, many experts suggest it’s safer to stop swaddling. Blankets are a traditional choice – just ensure they are firmly tucked in to reduce the risk of suffocation. Another option is a sleep sack – these warm, wearable blankets can’t be kicked off in the night, and are far less likely to get tangled around your baby’s face.
Your baby’s own room
Expert recommendations and studies suggest it’s safest to sleep with your baby in the same room until they’re at least six months old. While it’s still safer for your baby to sleep in your room until they’re one, about 90% of SIDS deaths happen in babies under six months old. Having their own room may help babies – and parents – get more sleep, particularly when the baby is at least four months old.
A lovie or attachment objects
While toys can be a risk for SIDS, Red Nose Australia (a charity dedicated to reducing SIDS) suggests it might be safe to introduce a soft toy at seven months old. A lovie – a special blanket or toy – can often be a comfort to a baby when they wake in the night. Being attached to an object is not a sign your child is less secure or difficult to manage.
What is SIDS?
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a catch-all term to describe when a baby dies without explanation, generally while they’re asleep – you may have also heard this called crib or cot death. Babies between the age of 2-4 months are most at risk, with the chances declining as they get older.
No one is exactly sure what causes SIDS. Some experts suspect it may be due to abnormalities in nerve cells that mean babies are less likely to wake up or move – even if they are dangerously hot or being smothered. While we can’t yet precisely diagnose or prevent the potential causes of SIDS, controlling the sleep environment can significantly reduce the risks:
Avoid tummy sleeping
Putting babies to sleep on their backs is potentially the single most important way to reduce the risk of SIDS. It’s thought that when a baby is facedown they may ‘rebreathe’ stale air against their mattress. Tummy sleeping can also make it harder for babies to regulate their body temperature if they become overheated.
Parents may find that babies who have started rolling choose to sleep on their tummies – organisations like Plunket and Red Nose Australia suggest that you can leave them to sleep this way – but only if the rest of their sleep environment is as safe as possible.
Remove unsafe bedding
For the same ‘rebreathing’ issues, it’s best to choose firm, breathable mattresses, and bedding made of natural fibres. These should be minimal, and firmly tucked in, or replaced entirely by a sleep sack.
Ban toys, bumpers, blankies early on
Remove anything that could be suffocating, making your baby too hot or leading to them to rebreathe air: plush toys and snuggies, cot bumpers and blankies.
While no one is quite sure why, overheating is certainly a risk factor for SIDS, particularly in older babies. While keeping the room at a cool, comfortable temperature can make things easier to manage, what’s more important is that your baby is dressed appropriately. Remove hats, wheat bags and hotties, regularly check on your baby’s temperature and choose bedding made from natural, breathable fibres, like wool, cotton or bamboo.
The evolving environment
While some things will remain constant in your baby’s sleep environment as they grow, you’ll find that most things will evolve. Sleep aids will come and go, ultimately working towards the point where your baby feels safe, secure and comfortable to sleep alone throughout the night.
The most important elements in creating your baby’s sleep environment are you and your baby – what do you both need to feel safe and comfortable, and maximise your sleep? If that means keeping your baby in your room until they are one, creating pitch darkness, or maintaining white noise throughout the night – so be it. You will quickly find the set-up that works best for your family.