How can I get my baby to sleep through the night?

Late nights, early mornings and night wakings with a baby can be unbearable, leaving mums and dads knackered and cranky. So we asked sleep expert Jo Tantum to share her secrets for getting babies to sleep through the night…

Sleep expert Jo Tantum shares her experiences of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to encouraging your baby to sleep through the night. If you’re a sleep deprived new (or seasoned) parent and can’t make it through the whole article, scroll to the bottom for a five-point summary…

“I always listen to the parents; they know their child inside out. I get them to write a 48-hour log of feeding and sleeping – and then we work out a routine that fits around them, according to natural napping and feeding times. I don’t advocate controlled crying or crying it out; it stresses the parents and baby.

The technique I use is called spaced soothing – it’s about listening to a baby or toddler and the noises they make before they go to sleep. You then respond if they need you, by soothing them. You’re ultimately teaching your baby how to be a confident sleeper.

If you go in at every sound, they won’t learn to self-settle. Also, they might think they need the motion of pushchair, car seat, a feed or a dummy to fall asleep – these are all sleep props. I often say that we, as adults, have a sleep prop… a pillow; we’ve had it forever. You’d be cross and think you couldn’t sleep if someone took it away.

It’s the same with babies. But after 72 hours – with you saying it’s fine, making sure they’re calm, telling them they can go to sleep – they will be able to sleep without their prop. So it usually takes 72 hours for the baby to process, then seven to ten days, depending on their age, to really feel secure and confident.

I take the sleep prop away, and stop them feeding to sleep, but I get them a muslin square, tuck it down mum’s top so that it smells like her, and that becomes their security blanket.

I don’t agree with demand feeding, as it’s causing parents lots of issues. The baby may be tired, over stimulated, hot or cold. But health visitors are saying if the baby cries, feed him

If I’m helping the mother to stop feeding the baby to sleep, I let them have a small feed then I’ll get mum to settle baby in their cot, using different patting and soothing techniques that I teach the parent. This way, they’re falling asleep in the cot rather than arms, the car seat or somewhere else.

You know that feeling when you wake up in a hotel room, panicked, thinking: where am I? Well, it’s the same for babies when they keep waking up in different places. Whereas if they wake up in the cot, they know where they are. Then you greet them with lots of smiling and tickling when they wake up, before you take them downstairs. You’re making the cot a positive place to be.

People say you can’t sleep train a baby – but that’s the wrong expression; we’re just teaching good habits. Maternity nurses sleep train from birth, get them into really good feeding and sleeping routines from the word go. We’re finding if a baby needs to be sleep trained, it might be because they have sleep props but it also might be a medical issue – reflux, dairy intolerance. So first we get rid of sleep props then see if there are underlying issues.

I admire Gina Ford for being a pioneer in the importance of routine but she’s taken it too far. It’s too harsh – saying it’s ok to leave your baby to cry; if baby refuses a bottle, he doesn’t get any food. She beats them into submission. People equate her with crying it out and we don’t want to put our babies through that.

So I teach babies to sleep without distress. If you start a really good feeding routine from day one, there’s no reason your baby can’t be a really good sleeper. We do it very flexibly for the first two weeks, and then get the baby into three-hourly feeds.

I work with Professor Robert Winston at baby shows and we’ve spoken about whether babies need feeding during the night. He says that up to six months, some babies need to feed depending on their weight but after six months it can affect their development. They need that deep sleep where the neurons are really developing. It helps the immune system, and bone and muscle development.

The best place for the baby’s day and night sleeps is the cot. But obviously when there are older siblings, it can be difficult to stay in all day, so if you can give them just one nap a day in the cot, that’s really important. It’s all about consistency. So parents might do the nursery or school run then come back and put the baby down in their cot.

If you’re walking somewhere and think the baby might fall asleep, put them into the car seat or pram 10 minutes before you need to set off. This means they are self-settling and not using motion as a sleep prop. Otherwise, at nighttime they’ll wake up because the cot’s not moving.

I don’t agree with demand feeding, as it’s causing parents lots of issues. The baby may be tired, over stimulated, hot or cold. But health visitors are saying if the baby cries, feed him. They are then feeding often and snacking, instead of having proper meals, falling asleep on the boob – and the cycle continues.

The most important thing is to do a log: look at nap times, look at the signs your baby’s making before sleep and feeds. Most often, babies aren’t sleeping enough in the day so they go to bed overtired then wake up and need feeding to get back to sleep.

If you’re not a routine-based person, that’s fine. But have a look at the log and see what’s happening with your children. If they’re happy, and happy to nap whenever, that’s ok. But routine isn’t just for you – it’s for the kids. So if they’re unhappy, crying and then falling asleep in the corner – it’s not good for anyone. Watch their routine: work out when they want to sleep, eat – and you’ll see what they need.

I’ve found that 10-month-old boys can be quite resistant to sleep training – it may be their testosterone kicking in. They tend to be quite cross when you put them in the cot, and stubborn; they want to be in charge

The routines I work with are flexible but the idea is if your toddler’s not happy, work out when the last feed or nap was and work out the issues. Everyone hates the word routine, but actually, babies thrive off it; it just means they are having their needs met.

Obviously if the baby has medical issues, they need medication because they’re in pain. If we’re working with a family where this is the case, we get the mum on a dairy-free diet, if she’s breastfeeding, or the baby on dairy-free formula if they are taking bottles, so we deal with that first. Parents are going to their GP saying their baby cries all night and are told this is normal. It’s not. Doctors need to be a bit more understanding about the symptoms.

With regards to the cry it out or controlled crying methods, a lot of the research papers surrounding this are based on children from neglected backgrounds who’ve been left for hours in a cot and are traumatised by that. If you’re from a loving family and you have left your baby to cry, don’t worry that they will be psychologically damaged, they won’t be – but spaced soothing is gentler; it doesn’t need to be with tears.

We tend to work with babies up to 15 months. Toddlers tend to be quite happy for someone to go in. After that, they get clingy and don’t like anyone going near them. So if we’re asked to come and help with kids aged 15 months to three years, one of our Sleep Angels will go in and support the parent.

Interestingly, I’ve found that 10-month-old boys can be quite resistant to sleep training – it may be their testosterone kicking in. They tend to be quite cross when you put them in the cot, and stubborn; they want to be in charge. They protest – but with consistency, it should still work.

When babies/toddlers get older, routines change. They’ll be awake longer, feed less. Parents find it hard that everything is constantly changing – just when things are going smoothly, the baby may have moved on to the next routine and everything has to be adjusted. I always suggest moving everything forward by just 15 minutes.

The only time our method hasn’t worked is when the routine hasn’t been continued after we leave. For instance one baby, aged four months, had really bad reflux. He was put on medication and started sleeping really well. Before, he’d been waking every hour, feeding, but when I left he’d do four hours, have a feed, then four more hours.

I called his mum after a while and she said it had gone back to hourly feeds. I asked what had changed and she said she had taken him off the medication as she didn’t want him on it, but he obviously still needed it. They will grow out of reflux and then you can wean them off medication but it’s important to continue medicating while it’s still an issue.

If I were to give new parents one piece of advice, it would be don’t demand feed. See what baby’s doing – look for hungers signs, look for tired signs. Mothers say: I knew baby wasn’t hungry, was tired, but I’d been told to feed every time he cried. That’s why the log is crucial; to track when baby needs food, sleep – and then develop a routine around it. Often the reason baby isn’t sleeping is something so simple but parents miss it because of sleep deprivation. Then they do the log, we point it out and they can’t believe it.

So, how should you sleep train?

– Do a 48-hour log of baby feeding and sleeping. You should see a pattern emerging. You’re looking for if they go down quickly, meaning it’s the right time for sleep, or if it’s taking a while – indicating they’re overtired.

– Look for baby’s tired signs in the day – yawning, playing with ears, rubbing eyes, staring into space – so that you can put them down at exactly the right time, without them getting overtired.

– Put your baby down for as many naps as possible in his/her in cot.

– From the age of four/five weeks – when they develop sensitivity to light – have blackout during sleep time, whether it’s in the pram or nursery.

– Try not to have a sleep prop – dummy, milk, motion – so after feeding, wake up your baby, have a play and then put them down to go to sleep once some time has passed, removing the association of feeding with sleeping.”

Jo has spent over 26 years working with babies and children around the world, including 10 years as a maternity nurse. She’s been invited a guest on GMTV, ITV’s Baby House and Richard and Judy – radio shows, and featured in most major newspapers as a baby sleep expert. She was Prima Baby magazine’s sleep expert for six years, and now writes for many of the top parenting magazines and online parenting sites. She is also a best-selling author, and runs Sleep Angels – a team of women across the UK who go into family homes to support parents with sleep training.

How does your baby sleep? Have you tried any methods (like spaced soothing or cry-it-out)? Would love to hear how you’re getting on in the comment section below…

(This article was originally published in 2016)

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