Sleep like a baby Our com­pre­hen­sive sleep guide for chil­dren

Our com­pre­hen­sive sleep guide for chil­dren – from new­borns to preschool­ers – ad­dresses the most im­por­tant ques­tions about forty winks, says Terésa Coet­zee

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

CHIL­DREN AND THEIR sleep­ing habits – it’s prob­a­bly one of the most talked­about top­ics among par­ents.

How many times have you lis­tened to sto­ries (a lit­tle jeal­ously) about the won­der baby that started sleep­ing through at four weeks?

And then there’s the big de­bate about where chil­dren should sleep: in their own beds or snugly be­tween Mom and Dad in a cosy fam­ily bed? Not to men­tion the best age to send your lit­tle one to his own room...

The good news is that there are no set rules and reg­u­la­tions about chil­dren or their sleep­ing habits. Just as some kids eat well and oth­ers don’t, some sleep well and oth­ers not so much. There are no quick fixes, but we do have some guide­lines to make ev­ery­one’s life a lit­tle eas­ier.



New­born ba­bies sleep for the big­gest part of the day – about 18 to 20 hours out of the 24-hour cy­cle. Your baby won’t eas­ily stay awake for longer than 40 to 60 min­utes at a time be­fore fall­ing asleep again. But re­mem­ber that she’ll want to nurse ev­ery two to three hours, al­though some ba­bies kick off with a four-hour cy­cle. (Breast ba­bies of­ten want to drink more reg­u­larly than bot­tle ba­bies, as breast milk di­gests quicker.)

Er­ica Neser, au­thor of the book Sleep Guide for Ba­bies and Tod­dlers, writes that many new­borns sleep best on Mom or Dad’s chest or at least next to them in bed. In his book Touch­ing, Ash­ley Mon­tagu even refers to the first cou­ple of months of a baby’s life as the ex­ter­nal preg­nancy phase.

As the par­ents, the de­ci­sion about where your new­born baby will sleep – in bed with you or in her own cot – rests with you. This has been de­bated for years, but it all de­pends on your pref­er­ence. Sleep­ing prob­lems in new­born ba­bies are of­ten at­trib­uted to the chil­dren feel­ing inse­cure and rest­less in the big beds in which they’re sud­denly ex­pected to sleep. Re­mem­ber, for nine months your child was safely and snugly wrapped up in your womb – no won­der all the space around her is sud­denly in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Try a por­ta­ble bed or cra­dle rather than a stan­dard or camp­ing cot, and swad­dle her firmly in a blan­ket. (Some ba­bies don’t like their hands be­ing tightly swad­dled in a blan­ket. You’ll quickly re­alise if she prefers her hands above the covers.)

“If a baby lies on her side, it’s eas­ier for her to calm her­self by suck­ing her hand or hold­ing them to­gether. It’s an in­nate way in which ba­bies soothe them­selves. If you put your hands on her shoul­der and hip and gen­tly rock her, she feels like she’s be­ing picked up,” Er­ica ex­plains.


You can start get­ting your new­born baby into good sleep­ing habits by us­ing an evening rou­tine to sep­a­rate day and night.

Limit stim­u­la­tion dur­ing the evening rou­tine, and cre­ate a calm en­vi­ron­ment. Draw the cur­tains, play gen­tle mu­sic, limit eye con­tact and talk­ing. Af­ter her last feed, al­low her to sleep un­til she wakes up her­self. There should be no un­nec­es­sary cud­dling dur­ing night feeds, and lights should be low and eye con­tact, talk­ing and stim­u­la­tion lim­ited.

It might be a good plan to have a rou­tine from the get-go. You can per­haps bath her, feed her and then sing lul­la­bies or read to her to help her re­lax. Even if your new­born is too young to un­der­stand these signs, the rou­tine will quickly be­come part of her lit­tle frame of ref­er­ence.

But keep in mind that it will take a good cou­ple of weeks be­fore your baby will un­der­stand this rou­tine and then start to dis­tin­guish be­tween day and night. And there are no se­cret tips to speed up this process.

Al­ways be aware of safety. Don’t put any­thing in the cot that could ham­per breath­ing – this in­cludes toys, cush­ions and blan­kets. Also avoid ob­jects with strings and rib­bons and sharp edges or cor­ners.

Have your baby sleep on her back. There’s a strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween cot death and ba­bies who sleep on their tum­mies. If a baby’s ly­ing on her tummy, the chances of her smoth­er­ing are so much greater, and she’ll also in­hale her own car­bon diox­ide over and over be­cause she’s not yet able to change the po­si­tion of her head.

Re­mem­ber, ba­bies who are overly tired tend to strug­gle even more to sleep well dur­ing the night com­pared to those who also got good forty winks dur­ing the day. To keep your tiny baby awake dur­ing the day so that she sleeps bet­ter at night is not the so­lu­tion.

A new­born baby can­not be spoilt! If your baby cries or is nig­gly, it’s com­pletely fine to rock and pacify her un­til she calms down. Stud­ies have even shown that ba­bies who’re picked up and car­ried around quite of­ten are less prone to colic.


Well, the hon­ey­moon is over, for now. The rea­son why new­borns sleep con­tin­u­ously and so well is be­cause there are still rem­nants of the mom’s me­la­tonin (a sleep­ing hor­mone) in baby’s blood. Af­ter two weeks the me­la­tonin

is ex­hausted, and it takes a fur­ther four weeks be­fore she starts mak­ing her own. Yet it only kicks in by 12 to 16 weeks, round about the same time when baby’s sleep­ing pat­terns start to be­come fixed.

Your baby’s al­ready sleep­ing a lit­tle less and should sleep for 16 to 18 hours of the 24-hour cy­cle. She prob­a­bly needs three naps in the day, one long and two short ones. You’ll find she be­comes tired af­ter be­ing awake for 60 to 80 min­utes. Your baby can still wake up at night for a feed, but one of her night feeds (usu­ally the one at ten or eleven at night) should now start fall­ing away. Your baby can now also start sleep­ing for six or seven hours be­fore wak­ing for a feed.

Re­mem­ber to never force a baby of this age to sleep or skip a feed. Her body has to be ready first.

Start­ing with solids now (be­fore 4-6 months) won’t en­sure she sleeps through – in fact, it can just make her sleep­ing pat­tern worse.

It’s usu­ally dur­ing this time that baby starts strug­gling to stay asleep through sounds and noises com­pared to when she was a new­born. Al­though ex­perts say the house doesn’t need to be dead quiet for a baby to sleep, you may start real­is­ing that she does need si­lence for her naps.

“Give her the op­por­tu­nity to sleep in peace and quiet, at least for cer­tain times of the day. You can teach older chil­dren to re­spect ‘quiet time’ when noises start wak­ing baby. Back­ground mu­sic can help to dim un­avoid­able noise a lit­tle,” Er­ica says.


By this time you shouldn’t be up ev­ery two or three hours any­more. Your lit­tle one should sleep for six to eight hours dur­ing the day and for 10 to 12 hours dur­ing the night (a to­tal of 14 to 18 hours in a 24-hour cy­cle).

If your baby is healthy and happy, she can now sleep eight to ten hours con­tin­u­ously at night be­fore she wakes up for a feed. (If it hasn’t hap­pened yet, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean she’s un­healthy and un­happy.)

She’ll en­joy three or four naps dur­ing the day, de­pend­ing on her awake times, which now last 90 min­utes. By six months your baby will prob­a­bly cut down her day­time naps to two a day.

By the age of six months, ba­bies are phys­i­cally able to sleep through the night. Whether she will in fact do so, is an­other is­sue.

That would prob­a­bly de­pend on whether she’s learnt the cor­rect sleep­ing habits and pat­terns by now.


Ac­cord­ing to Ann Richard­son and Megan Faure (au­thors of the book se­ries Baby Sense), ba­bies and chil­dren can stay awake for this long be­fore they be­come over­tired:


Your baby should be sleep­ing be­tween 14 and 16 hours in a 24-hour cy­cle by now. If she eats prop­erly, she can sleep 10 to 12 hours at night be­fore her next feed. Don’t give her milk when she wakes at night. She prob­a­bly also only takes two day­time naps now, of an hour-and-a-half to two hours each.

By this time, your baby should know ex­actly how your bed­time rou­tine works (and she can even start com­ing up with schemes to stretch it out or post­pone it a lit­tle!). Again en­sure that you fol­low the rou­tine in the same order. Your baby will love the pre­dictable rep­e­ti­tion.

Fix your child’s day­time rou­tine, so that naps take place around the same time dur­ing the day. Give her enough op­por­tu­nity to put her­self to sleep. Try not to cre­ate a de­pen­dence on rock­ing or ei­ther a breast- or bot­tle feed to get her to fall asleep.

Ba­bies who never had prob­lems with sleep­ing can now sud­denly wake up, as sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety starts emerg­ing at

this age. If your baby goes to bed af­ter half past eight in the evening, she can also wake dur­ing the night. It may sound strange, but she’ll prob­a­bly sleep bet­ter if you put her down ear­lier (be­tween six and eight o’clock). Er­ica Neser writes in Sleep Guide for Ba­bies and Tod­dlers that teething is one of the big­gest rea­sons why sleep­ing habits take a turn for the worse from six months. It can cause sleep dis­rup­tion for three to four days be­fore and af­ter the tooth makes its ap­pear­ance.


She should now sleep be­tween 14 and 15 hours in her 24-hour cy­cle.

Your child no longer needs to eat or drink be­fore she goes to bed, so try not to get to a place where she as­so­ciates bed­time with a feed. By now, she’s able to sleep 10 to 12 hours with­out need­ing to feed.

She should take two hour-and-a-half to two-hour naps dur­ing the day. En­sure she gets enough sleep, as it’s es­sen­tial for her devel­op­ment.

1 – 2 YEARS

Ac­cord­ing to Ann Richard­son in the book Sleep Sense there are no def­i­nite an­swers as to how much sleep a tod­dler needs. For her, it’s de­ter­mined by age, per­son­al­ity, health and stim­u­la­tion. By this time you should know when she’s tired, though.

But a tod­dler be­tween 12 and 24 months can’t re­ally stay awake longer than three to three-and-a-half hours be­tween naps. And if she wakes by four o’clock in the af­ter­noon, she should go down for the night by half past seven.

You might con­sider get­ting her a bed­mate such as a bear if she has sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety. Avoid large posters, paint­ings and stuff that might look fright­en­ing when she wakes up at night.


Night ter­rors and night­mares char­ac­terise this age group. These con­cepts are im­por­tant to un­der­stand. She might also be scared of sleep­ing in the dark. A night-light might solve this.

If she wakes up cry­ing and scream­ing, go and put her at ease. Don’t shrug off her fears. If you feel they hap­pen too of­ten, you can take her to a pae­di­a­tri­cian. She might have other un­der­ly­ing fears or a prob­lem with ad­just­ing.

Night­mares are quite com­mon at this stage, as well as talk­ing in her sleep. Sup­port her and tell her that you un­der­stand. Some chil­dren find com­fort in a spe­cial toy they can take with them to bed. Mon­i­tor what your child watches on tele­vi­sion.

Other prob­lems that can oc­cur in this age group: • Your child wakes of­ten at night. • She strug­gles to fall asleep. • She wets her bed. • She gnashes her teeth. For all chil­dren of this age, bed­time is gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with sep­a­ra­tion from Mommy and Daddy. To avoid com­mon sleep prob­lems, it’s im­por­tant for you to have a fixed and reg­u­lar bed­time rou­tine.


Prob­lem 1: Your older baby or tod­dler still takes milk at night

When older ba­bies ask for reg­u­lar night feeds, it is usu­ally be­cause they as­so­ciate this habit with sleep rather than that they are re­ally hun­gry or thirsty. So you need to dis­tin­guish be­tween “need” and “want”.

This be­hav­iour usu­ally devel­ops grad­u­ally be­cause as the par­ent you seek the quick­est and eas­i­est so­lu­tion to a prob­lem, es­pe­cially if you’re tired. In this case it’s to give baby an­other bot­tle and get­ting back into your own bed as fast as pos­si­ble. This is a short-term so­lu­tion for a long-term prob­lem, though.

Reg­u­lar milk feeds at night give baby kilo­joules (en­ergy), quicken her me­tab­o­lism, stim­u­late di­ges­tion, cause dis­com­fort be­cause of a full blad­der and a wet nappy, and in­flu­ences her hor­mone bal­ance. And so a vi­cious cy­cle devel­ops: The lit­tle one eats badly dur­ing the day be­cause of lots of milk at night, which mom gives to make up for the lit­tle she ate dur­ing the day. Be­fore long the habit is fos­tered, and the lit­tle one then starts ex­pect­ing a feed in order to fall asleep. So­lu­tion: There are two ap­proaches to solve this prob­lem: Sep­a­rate baby from the feed grad­u­ally, or take it away in one go.

It’s im­por­tant that both par­ents con­sider what route to go and make the de­ci­sion to­gether. Also de­cide dur­ing the day how you’ll re­act if your lit­tle one wakes up dur­ing the night. It’s dif­fi­cult enough to make de­ci­sions dur­ing the night, and if you’re suf­fer­ing from chronic sleep de­pri­va­tion, it’s even harder.

Do your best to re­main calm and not

be­come an­gry when baby wakes up at night. If your stress lev­els start go­ing up, you’ll bat­tle to fall asleep when baby fi­nally does. A few ideas: • Try giv­ing wa­ter or weak, black rooi­bos tea in­stead of milk. • Di­lute her milk grad­u­ally un­til it’s so wa­tery that it’s no longer worth her while wak­ing up for it. • Give her 25ml less per bot­tle per night. But en­sure that she still gets the rec­om­mended amount of milk in a 24hour cy­cle. • Al­ways try and get her to fall asleep with­out a bot­tle, and try and stretch the times be­tween bot­tles. • Re­place the bot­tle with a sippy cup or a bot­tle with a lid that needs to be sucked. • If she asks for more, you’ll have to stand firm and con­sole her in a dif­fer­ent way un­til she falls asleep. • If she asks for mul­ti­ple bot­tles at night, you can de­cide to give her only one and use other meth­ods for ev­ery time she wakes up at night. In this way, she won’t need to sud­denly get used to go­ing from say 600ml to noth­ing per night. • You can re­place the bot­tle as a sleep­ing aid with an­other like a dummy, rock­ing or rub­bing her back. You can later with­draw the new aid – it’s usu­ally not as hard to break as with the drink­ing as­so­ci­a­tion. • An­other plan is to cut the bot­tle com­pletely dur­ing the night and only of­fer wa­ter in a sippy cup. That’s when you’re feel­ing brave and ready for a cou­ple of wild nights. It can be done! The se­cret is lots of pa­tience, love and courage. Hold her up­right on your lap, and give her a cou­ple of sips. When she’s done drink­ing, you can rock her to sleep or put her back in her bed. • Some­times it helps when Dad rather than Mom takes her un­der his wing at night. Prob­lem 2: Your baby or tod­dler only wants to sleep in your bed

It’s en­tirely nat­u­ral for chil­dren to want to be close to their par­ents day and night, es­pe­cially in win­ter! This doesn’t mean that your chil­dren will want to sleep with you in your bed for­ever. At some point in their lives, most chil­dren want to have their own lit­tle spot to sleep! Stud­ies have shown that sleep­ing in the fam­ily bed (when it’s han­dled cor­rectly) does not only cre­ate a feel­ing of safety but also helps chil­dren to be­come well ad­justed and bal­anced adults. It’s even been claimed that all chil­dren should sleep with their par­ents un­til they’re five!

It is a fairly re­cent phe­nom­e­non in our his­tory that chil­dren sleep alone. The fam­ily bed was the norm un­til about 100 years ago, and it still is in most parts of the world.

There is no right or wrong place for your child to sleep. Do what works for you and your fam­ily. The best sleep­ing place for your child is where ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily will get the most shut-eye.

Some par­ents de­cide to keep their baby in the bed up un­til a cer­tain age, or that the baby sleeps in her own bed for the first part of the night and joins them in the fam­ily bed later. Don’t break your head about what oth­ers do or say. It’s you who needs to sleep, not them.

“Sleep­ing mu­si­cal chairs” is more com­mon than you think, and is con­sid­ered com­pletely nor­mal. It’s where one or more chil­dren come crawl­ing into bed with Mom and Dad dur­ing the night, and Mom or Dad goes to sleep in the spare room or in one of the chil­dren’s beds un­til the sun’s up. You never know where you’ll wake up!


• You can keep a mat­tress un­der your bed, and if your tod­dler comes to your room at night, whip it out and have her sleep there un­til morn­ing. • If your lit­tle one wants to move from your bed to her own room, first have her sleep on her own mat­tress next to your bed. There­after, you can move her mat­tress to her own room. An­other strat­egy is to sleep with her in her room un­til she’s ad­justed. Then you can grad­u­ally move out of the room. • Some fam­i­lies have a chil­dren’s bed, where a tod­dler can share a dou­ble bed with an older sib­ling. • Chil­dren older than three can be given a star chart re­ward­ing them for good nights. • Try and get your lit­tle one as far as fall­ing asleep in her own bed and stay­ing there for the first half of the night. That gives Mom and Dad time to spend some spe­cial alone time with each other in their room. It’s also im­por­tant! • Many chil­dren ask their par­ents to lie with them un­til they fall asleep. It’s not wrong – if it’s prac­ti­cal and it works, it’s ac­tu­ally noth­ing to worry about. Re­gard it as your spe­cial time with your lit­tle one. Mas­sage her back while you tell her a story. • The “dis­ap­pear­ing chair” works quite well with very young chil­dren. Sit with her on her bed at first. To­mor­row night you sit at the foot of the bed, and then on a chair by the foot of the bed. Move the chair a lit­tle closer to the door ev­ery night. It might sound strange, but it can work very well! Don’t al­low your child to start chat­ting to you. If she keeps talk­ing, leave (but tell her you’ll come back when she stops talk­ing).

Don’t lose faith – chil­dren also grow out of this phase. Don’t put too much pres­sure on your­self or your child to grow up or be­come in­de­pen­dent. Re­search has shown that chil­dren who are cher­ished of­ten, later be­come more in­de­pen­dent than chil­dren who are pres­sured to be­come (too) in­de­pen­dent from a young age. YB


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