Babies and sleeping

Monday, May 21, 2007
"I slept like a baby" — we've all said it, but it's only when we become parents that we know it's not always a good thing.

As a new dad, Dr Andrew Rochford knows just how important sleep time is, not only for little ones but parents too. So he's looking at what a baby's normal sleep patterns are. What can you do to make sure your baby gets the precious sleep time they need?

Settling a new baby can be pretty difficult and there are plenty of parents who suffer from a distinct lack of shut-eye because their little one won't sleep. Newborn babies spend about two-thirds of each 24 hours asleep. Sleep is important for growth, brain development and the immune system. But babies who don't get enough sleep can be cranky, which is highly stressful for their sleep-deprived parents.

Meet six-month-old baby Daniella, her mum Denise, and her big brothers, James and Liam. Thanks to this little angel, no one's getting any sleep.

"She's waking up every two hours at night, which is quite tiring I must admit, and it's starting to affect how I function basically for the next day and it sort of rolls into one, so it gets worse each day," says Denise.

Denise is too tired to try techniques like controlled crying: "When I'm waking up in the middle of the night, I could try and let her cry a little bit more, but when I'm so tired and each night it gets worse, it's easier if I just quickly breastfeed or put a dummy in and I can at least know I'll get two hours sleep."

But Denise isn't taking this lying down — she's called in expert Jo Ryan, a parenting consultant at Babybliss. Jo is a kind of "baby whisperer".

Jo: So Denise, tell me what's been going on, what ritual you've had with Daniella.
Denise: I give her dinner, then I give her a bath, then I breast feed her, put her in her sleeping bag, into bed, then she'll wake up maybe 10 minutes later if the dummy's fallen out. Then I'll have to go back in, put the dummy back in, till she's fallen asleep.
Jo: So it's classic stuff really, what she's doing — she's using props, or aids, to help her go back to sleep — it's very normal behaviour.

Jo immediately sees the source of the problem.

Jo: So no more dummies.
Denise: No more dummies?

Here's Jo's plan:

  • Denise carries out her usual night-time routine.
  • After dinner, she gives Daniella her bath.
  • A quick final feed.
  • Then Denise gets Daniella ready for bed.

Jo encourages Denise to give Daniella a massage: "It's like when we go to have a massage of a facial … it's just a nice relaxing end to the day for them."

Next, Denise puts Daniella down, says good night and it's time for Jo to take over and let Denise get her first good night's sleep in six months.

"If you teach them how to sleep for long periods of time and to self-settle — that is to put themselves to sleep without needing you as the parent, then all babies can be good sleepers," says Jo.

The big question is, did it work?

After a week has gone by it's time to check in with Denise to see how Daniella's going.

"Daniella is now sleeping through eleven to twelve hours at night and it's like a miracle ... it is a miracle. I never expected that would ever happen and at six months old I think it's the best thing I've ever done to get Jo's help."

Wow, that's some endorsement! Just what is Jo's secret?

"My technique is basically removing whatever the prop is that they've been using to go to sleep. So that's dummies, bottles, if the parents have been rocking the baby to sleep ... so basically what I do is I teach the child to go off to sleep without using that."

Importantly, Jo never lets babies cry for longer than five minutes. She goes back in to reassure them, until they learn to settle and nod off naturally.

The results are fantastic, but baby whisperers like Jo don't come cheaply — it could cost you around $350 a night for house calls.

A much cheaper option is Tresillian or a similar childcare advisory service, where babies are treated free and parents only pay a nominal fee if they stay the night.

Here are some steps to baby-sleep heaven:

Step one — recognise signs of tiredness: knowing when your baby is tired is important.
Step two — the routine: what routines do you do with your baby? These routines train babies to anticipate sleep, so they're ready for it.
Step three — the put down: wrap or swaddle your baby. Read on to learn more about this technique.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Tragically, some otherwise healthy babies die suddenly in their sleep. What can you do to help avoid it? Dr Andrew Rochford visits the Ritchie Research Centre for Baby Health at Monash University to find out more about baby sleep.

Professor Rosemary Horne says many parents expect their babies to sleep through the night before they're ready to: "they often expect that babies should start so called sleeping through the night from about three months of age, but actually sleeping right through the night for 10 to 12 hours is usually not until they're a year of age."

Dr Horne and her team are also trying to find out why Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) occurs.

Andrew: So what's SIDS?
Professor Horne: SIDS is the sudden unexplained death of a well, healthy infant.

This is really important research because SIDS is still claiming almost 60 babies a year. Fortunately, the incidence of SIDS has fallen a massive 84 percent since the introduction of an education scheme by the charity SIDS and KIDS, which teaches parents how to put their baby to bed safely.

Karla Kelly is a SIDS educator.

Andrew: So Karla what are the big no-nos when you're putting your baby to sleep?
Karla: The no-nos are don't put it on its tummy — sleep the baby on its back at all times. Don't overheat the baby — that means not too many layers of blankets and no beanies or hats on, and keep the baby in a smoke-free environment at all times.

Next, provide a safe sleeping environment, such as tucking them in down the end of the cot where they're less likely to wriggle free and hit their heads.

To summarise:
Step one: always sleep back on back. Step two: don't overheat the baby.
Step three: keep baby's environment smoke-free
Step four: provide a safe sleeping environment


Dr Rochfords tips for swaddling are:

  • Use light material — so they don't get too hot.
  • Make sure baby is snug — so they feel secure.


There's no magic cure for getting a difficult baby to sleep — just like adults, they're individuals, so the trick is trying to find what method works for your little one. Occasionally, troubled sleeping can be associated with medical problems so it's a good idea to talk to your doctor as well.

Fast facts

  • We know that babies get a better sleep if they're not overheated. But what about the rest of us? Are we more likely to get a good night's sleep if we're warm or if we're cool? Cool's better because if you overheat, you disrupt your brain's sleep cycle. That's why you often get a rotten sleep on a hot night. The ideal comfort zone is between 18 and 30 degrees — that's when the transfer of heat between your body core and your skin works best. So remember, to drop off you need to cool off.

  • While we're on the subject of babies, women seem to be having them later in life. Thirty years ago, the average first-time mum was 21. Can you guess what age it is today? By the year 2000, that had jumped to 29, by 2008, the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that the average age of new mums will be 31 — a decade older than they were 30 years ago!

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