No sleep in sight
What to do when sleep training (and everything else) fails
Your baby doesn’t sleep. You’ve trawled the forums, delved deep into those ‘miracle’ training guides and tried a parade of sleep consultants, and your baby still won’t sleep. Maybe you’re lucky to get a two-hour stretch at night, with 45-minute intervals more usual. Maybe it’s that your baby is much older, but still needs you a few times a night when all the blogs say she should be sleeping through. What makes a baby a ‘bad sleeper’ is in the eye of the beholder – but if you’re struggling, then you need to find a better way to cope, regardless of how you or your baby compare to others.
Why won’t your baby sleep?
Infant sleep is so complicated that there’s no precise way of telling why one baby sleeps when another doesn’t. There is evidence to suggest that genetics are behind as many as 50% of babies’ individual night-time sleep habits. Peculiarly, day sleeps seem more related to environmental factors. If that’s your baby, this is just the way they are – it isn’t something you can change (or fail at!)
For other families, it might be down to being stuck in a pattern of stress and poor sleep habits, or a run of bad luck – teething, disrupted home life or schedules, illness, developmental milestones like crawling, walking and talking – all layered one after the other.
Whatever the causes, if you feel like you’ve tried everything to help your baby sleep longer, you may be ready to just accept the status quo. If that’s the case, developing some practical and emotional coping strategies could make the sleepless nights far easier to bear.
6 ways to weather (and enjoy) your no-sleep baby
- Lower your expectations
Learning to sleep through the night is a developmental milestone and kids hit it at different points. If yours is later, this is normal – at 12 months, 16% of babies don’t ‘sleep through’.
Parents also have wildly different ideas on what constitutes ‘sleeping through’, while some are ignorant – or dishonest – about what their child is really doing overnight.
Studies have shown that babies under the age of 12 months awaken, on average, 3-4 times a night.
So, parents with ‘good sleepers’ either don’t hear their babies wake up, successfully ignore them, or simply aren’t telling you about it. Either way, waking is normal – accept this and you’ll avoid adding anger, indignation and self-pity to your sleep deprivation. This has a positive knock-on effect too – your baby is very attuned to your mood and will add your stress to their own. Come with zen, and things will get better.
- Set yourself up for the night
What are the things that make being up overnight more comfortable? Arrange a sofa or bed to lie back on, place glasses, nightlight and warm shoes in easy reach. Set out a bottle, preload medicine syringes, fill the jug and have a teabag in the mug waiting. Whatever will make things easier, prep for them now. Planning for wake-ups won’t jinx things – but it will make them easier to bear.
- Ask for help
Asking for help is often hard to do – you might feel guilty or that the logistics make it impossible. You’re wrong on both counts. Parenthood isn’t supposed to happen in a vacuum – you need aunties, uncles, grandparents, neighbours and friends to help. Even a few hours to yourself, a cooked meal or a load of laundry could make all the difference. This shouldn’t be a last-ditch emergency effort. Do it often and regularly.
- Pool your resources
If you’re like many families, both parents will wake each time the baby calls out.
If you can, try to take turns – split the night in two, or take turns with each wake up. The goal should be to protect the sleep of the parent ‘not on duty’ – they should sleep in another room, wear earplugs or put on white noise, whatever it takes to get rest. Mothers still breastfeeding could consider expressing milk for their partners to use overnight, or arranging a system where their partners fetch the baby for feeding and then take on the task of resettling.
- Take any help you can get
When it’s a hard night, and the baby has been waking up every 20 minutes, it’s tempting to be fatalistic – why bother going to sleep, when the baby will be up again soon? The reality is that small snatches of sleep really do add up. Try to go back to sleep, even if you think it will only be for five minutes. The bonus? If by some miracle your baby stays settled, you won’t have wasted all that time waiting for them to wake up when you could have been asleep.
The same goes for naps – a growing body of evidence suggests that power naps can significantly improve your alertness and brain function, boost your immune system and lower your stress. A power nap is 20-30 minutes, so you awaken before you hit deep sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy. You’ll feel most ready for a nap between 2 and 4pm – the nap zone in your circadian rhythm. Dim the lights, remove any uncomfortable clothes, turn your phone to airplane mode and set your alarm for 40 mins. As you get better at napping, you’ll find you’ll awaken after 10-30 minutes naturally.
- Be kind to yourself and each other
Sleep deprivation makes people horrible. You become unreasonable and sensitive and may lash out at the ones you love. Forgive yourself for those nasty moments, ask for forgiveness, and readily offer it, too. You are not yourselves and deserve compassion.
Many couples also find counselling incredibly useful to help navigate these tricky times with empathy, self-awareness and understanding.
This too shall pass
When you’re in the trenches of sleep debt, it can be impossible to believe that things will get better. The truth – born up by studies – is that most ‘bad sleepers’ will start sleeping through. At some point, it will just click. Your child won’t sleep through every night – no one does – but by and large, you’ll get your nights back. In the meantime, take every step you can to make life a bit easier. Tweak your household arrangements to maximise everyone’s sleep, go easy on each other (and yourself) and take naps wherever and whenever you can.
As with everything in life, it’s your attitude in hard times that will make the most difference. Looking back on this period, it will seem very short, and you might even miss parts of it! If you can, project yourself forward three years, when multiple wake-ups are a distant memory, and see if you can enjoy moments now that you might soon miss: that downy head under your chin, those anxious little fingers, the moment when their body finally gets heavy and the warm breath evens out. Obviously, you’re not going to feel grateful for all night childcare! But, capturing even an inkling of appreciation will make yet another night pacing the hallway just a smidge easier.