There are a few reasons why a baby may struggle to be able to fall asleep and I’ll go through them here. It’s the goal of many of the parents I work with to be able to put baby down for a nap or evening bedtime and walk away, happy in the knowledge that their precious little bundle will drift off into a peaceful sleep and stay that way until they’ve had all the sleep they need! And while this may seem an impossible dream when you’ve maybe spent months rocking, feeding or holding your baby to sleep, it absolutely is possible, we just need to find out why your baby can’t do it yet, and then help them to learn how.
- Age – Your baby’s age plays a big part here. A newborn baby is born with no way to settle themselves to sleep, they need a lot of help from you to be able to do this. There are newborns who, given the perfect conditions (sleep environment, timing of sleep etc) can drift off happily once put to bed, but this does take practice to get all your ducks in a row. If your newborn can’t settle themselves to sleep don’t worry, they aren’t broken! We can start working on healthy sleep habits that work towards the ultimate goal of self-settling from early on, but baby won’t have the skills to do this until more like 3-4 months of age.
- Sleep Environment – If your baby’s sleep space isn’t set up to encourage baby to have great sleep, it’s not going to happen. Think about how you like to sleep, comfortable temperature, dark room, comfortable sleep space, white noise for babies. Keeping the room dark is important for cutting out stimulation for young babies, and for melatonin production once they’re around 8 weeks.
- Hunger – If baby is hungry, they’re not going to be able to fall asleep and if they do, they won’t sleep for long. Make sure babies are taking full feeds when they wake from a nap, whether that’s bottle or breast milk, and don’t be afraid to offer a top-up feed if you feel they need it before their next nap. Remember that babies who miss out on calories during the day will make up for them overnight, so make sure they are getting the milk they need. If on solids make sure baby is having quality protein and plenty of complex carbs with their meals. Shop-bought food is great for occasional use, but the quality often isn’t great and you’re much better off making your own baby food and freezing in portions.
- Sleep Associations – If baby is reliant on being rocked, held, fed, walked to sleep they will need this whenever you want them to go to sleep (and often when the wake between sleep cycles overnight or for naps) Helping baby to learn the skills to be able to put themselves to sleep without relying on outside sleep associations is huge in encouraging healthy sleep habits.
- Baby is Overtired – I know, sounds ridiculous right?! But when baby is overtired their bodies are flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. This makes them crazy, and often when parents rely on sleep cues or tired signs to tell them when baby needs a nap, being overtired can look a lot like baby is just having a really good time, they’re babbling like mad chatting with Mum or Dad, their arms are flailing enthusiastically and they’re hitting the dangling toys in the baby gym in a way that would make Rocky proud. But this usually means that we’ve missed the magic window for putting baby to bed, and instead of them being just the right amount of tired, they’re now overtired. Once this happens it can be really hard to settle them to sleep, especially for a baby who doesn’t have the skills to self-settle, and it often has a knock-on effect to the next nap, which may be cut short due to higher than normal cortisol levels, and the next nap is affected, and pretty quickly baby is in a cycle of being overtired and unable to catch up on the sleep they so desperately need. The prevention to this is to keep an eye on your baby’s awake time and keep this time age-appropriate. Download my routines so you know you’re on the right track.
- Sickness – Babies who are sick might struggle to sleep. Just as we as adults can struggle if we’re uncomfortable or not feeling well, the same is true for our children. Even babies who can usually self-settle may need a little extra help to sleep when they are unwell, and we should absolutely offer them this assistance so that they can get the sleep they need to get better. See a doctor if you are concerned, offer pain relief to your baby, and help them sleep. We can work on getting back on track once they’re feeling well again.
It pays to remember that babies aren’t born with the skills they need to be able to fall asleep on their own, we need to teach them how to do this, just like we need to teach them how to feed themselves, and how to use the toilet, tie their shoes, dress themselves, and a million and one other things that we are privileged to be able to do for our kids as a parent. Teaching them how to fall asleep is important, and a huge step in the right direction of getting them the sleep they need to be able to grow and develop to their full potential.