Why won’t my baby sleep?

There are many reasons why sleep time may be a challenge for you and your baby. Here’s the top 10 reasons why your baby won’t sleep:

1) Too cold – Remember that inside your womb it is a nice and balmy 37 degrees celsius, and that our babies can’t regulate their own body temperature until they are around 12 months old. Being too cold is far more common than being too hot when it comes to sleeping difficulties. The ideal temperature for a baby’s sleeping environment is 19-22 degrees celsius, in addition to a swaddle/sleeping bag and appropriate bedding layers; cotton is preferable as it breathes more easily than polyester, fleece, or other synthetic blends. Be mindful not to over bundle your baby. If you are concerned they may be overheating – feel their chest, ears, hands or feet; if these body parts feel hot to touch, then you may need to ease up on the layering or room temp.

2) Hungry: To rule out hunger for catnapping babies, try moving feed times to 20-30 minutes before nap or bedtime (instead of, or in addition to upon waking). Also, if your baby isn’t receiving adequate nutrition during the day, they will compensate by waking more frequently for feeds overnight. I am an advocate for feeding on demand in the early months, and move toward a 3-hourly feeding schedule by the age of 3 months (which naturally increases as your baby grows older). If you are concerned about spacing of feeds, volume of formula, or number of breastfeeds according to your babies’ age and individual requirements, then ask your midwife or healthcare professional. 

3) Not swaddled: It is important in the first three months that we replicate the womb environment for our babies. The womb is warm and snug, with constant noise and motion. Babies who are swaddled sleep sounder and longer, and it helps makes them feel secure, warm, and safe. Swaddling also effectively disables their moro (startle) reflex, which means they won’t constantly wake themselves with a smack to the head. Generally, the more a baby resists being swaddled, the more they will benefit from it (usually if they are already overtired); as swaddling helps to switch on their calming reflex.

4) Over stimulated: Babies cannot process information as efficiently as adults. This means that all the stimuli entering their little brains; colours, sounds, shapes, faces, etc can overload their central nervous system. This is also true for developmental milestones in the first 12 months and beyond; they are so busy practicing new-found skills during the day, that they can have difficulty ‘switching off’, impacting sleep quality and duration. Introducing wind down time before naps and bedtime will give your little one the chance to unwind before going to sleep. This may involve rituals such as reading a book, massage, swaddle, white noise, songs etc. Keeping these sleep associations consistent will also give your baby the ‘heads up’ that it’s time to sleep, and result in less resistance at bedtime. I also recommend removing all distractions from where your baby sleeps, including toys and cot mobiles. Bed time should be as boring as possible, so don’t provide any extra stimulation which may prevent them sleeping.

5) Missing the sleep window: I can’t stress enough… timing is EVERYTHING! Whilst being overtired is one of the main contributors to sleep problems, putting your baby down to sleep when they are not tired enough can also result in them resisting nap or bedtime. It only takes 5 minutes to miss that sleep window either side, and this can mean the difference between them being able to fall asleep will little fuss (and sleep for longer) to battling with a baby who will either stay awake protesting/babbling for 45 minutes, scream the house down crying, or if they do manage to finally fall asleep, they will wake again after 30-40 mins. For guidelines on the recommended awake time in the first 12 months, refer to my article on getting into a routine, and be attentive to your baby’s tired cues.

 6) Noise: Believe it or not, the constant sound in the womb is about as loud as a vacuum cleaner (albeit muffled by amniotic fluid); and therefore it can be rather unnerving for babies to sleep in quiet environment after they are born. Not only this, but because babies spend the majority of their time in REM (light sleep), they will wake at the slightest noise or change in their environment. This is why I always recommend white noise to all my clients to improve sleep quality and duration. This constant background noise not only soothes them as they reminisce about the good ol’ days of  womb service, but also prevents them from waking due to household noises (e.g. siblings, plumbing, creaky floor boards, talking), and outside noises (traffic, birds, garbage trucks, neighbours). I recommend Sleepy Sounds (free download on iTunes), or Conair Sound Therapy white noise machine.

7)  Colic or reflux: In the first few months, colic and reflux can be quite common which can make  sleep seem like a constant battle. I always recommend getting a diagnosis from your pediatrician or health care professional prior to following any general advice on treatment or managing these conditions, especially as some babies will require medication. They say your baby is likely to have colic if they; cry for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, and for longer than three weeks (in an infant who is well-fed and otherwise healthy). Reflux can usually be described as the baby regurgitating milk after a feed; sometimes painful, sometimes not. The symptoms of both conditions vary in severity and duration, but on average, symptoms seem to subside from around 3 months onward. So what can you do?  With colic, much of the fussiness can be eased (or even avoided altogether) from being sensitive to your babies’ need for a fourth trimester, and replicating the womb environment. Baby wearing, co-sleeping, feeding on demand, using a dummy, rocking bub in a swing or hammock and white noise works wonders in the first three months. As for reflux, some things you can try to improve sleep and make your baby more comfortable include; elevating the bed head, spacing out feeds slightly (dummy can help with this), and keeping baby upright as much as possible following a feed (in a carrier or swing). For both colic and reflux; it is important to keep to a minimal awake time to avoid them becoming overtired, which can exacerbate symptoms.

 8) Day and night confusion: A baby’s circadian rhythm or internal body clock (ability for their brains to distinguish day from night) is not fully established until 10-12 weeks. Therefore, it is not uncommon for babies in the early weeks to have their days and nights mixed up (sleep more during the day, and wake more frequently for feeds overnight). What can we do? Wake them after 3 hours during the day for a feed and play, sleep them in a light room during the day for the first 6 weeks (dark room for night always), exposure to natural, unfiltered sunlight will help kick-start their body clock, and ensure you feed on demand/have a regular feeding schedule during the day so they won’t need to compensate overnight. If you are concerned about how often, or how much to feed your baby, it is always best to consult your midwife or healthcare professional.

9) Darkness: After 6 weeks of age, I recommend moving your baby into a darker room for sleep during the day (as well as night). The main reason for this, is that at 6 weeks of age, your baby will become much more aware of their surroundings, and more alert. The lighter the room, the more stimulated and distracted they may become (and therefore more challenging to get them to sleep!). At around 3 months (once their circadian rhythm has been established), a dark room for sleep signals to the brain to release melatonin (sleep hormone). I recommend at least an 8/10 for darkness (allow enough light in the room so you can navigate for feedings overnight).

10) Feeding rocking or patting to sleep: A baby’s sleep cycle is shorter than an adults; typically 45-50mins long. During this time, they cycle from a light sleep (REM) to deep sleep (non REM, or quiet sleep), then back to light sleep again before either waking or transitioning into another sleep cycle. As a survival mechanism, babies will naturally awake after just one sleep cycle (or less) if they are alerted to a change in their environment from when they fell asleep. This includes noise, temperature, where, and how they fell asleep. So… if baby falls asleep whilst mum or dad are feeding, holding, rocking, or patting them, you can imagine the shock when they  wake and find themselves in a different place and you are nowhere to be seen. Kind of like us waking up on the front porch in the middle of the night, with no recollection of how you got there. Unfortunately, this cycle usually results in mum or dad becoming a sleep prop; engaging in whatever action it was to get baby back to sleep again. Repeat this process up to 10 x per night, and you get my drift.
So.. what can we do? By all means we don’t have to stop feeding, rocking, patting or holding our babies. We just need to be mindful not to be doing these actions until our babies are completely asleep. Until they are drowsy is fine. Encouraging our babies to fall asleep independently will enable them to sleep longer,without as much intervention from mum and dad.
Please note, it is almost impossible to spoil a baby from newborn to 3 months of age, so this mainly concerns babies from 4 months onward – after the fourth trimester, when memory and sleep habits begin to establish. 

In addition to the above tips, I always recommend implementing a consistent day and night routine, and optimising your baby’s sleep environment to assist your baby to sleep better during the day and overnight.

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