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October 3, 2018

Did you know new parents on average lose 750 hours of sleep in the first year?

words Mark Broatch

But, to be brutally honest, the amount that is taken from you by piercing cries in the dark may be even more. Research repeatedly shows that losing sleep is not only bad for your everyday thinking and mood but your long-term brain health. While being sleep-deprived, possibly hormone-wild and a touch shell-shocked, you have to make some of the most important decisions of your life. All while appearing calm, sane and future-employable. Easy. 

The truth is, apart from keeping your darling fed and safe, getting them to sleep well is your primary goal. Advice will come from all quarters, much of it, if not confusing, probably conflicting or actually contradictory. That doesn’t mean there is not a wealth of tried and true techniques and evidence-based research. It’s just that babies are unique and, like much of life, require customised plans and endless improvisation. You’ll have to figure out what yours needs. But you knew that when you signed up.

Okay. So you have a vague idea of how to hold, feed, burp, cuddle, bathe and lay down baby. Most experts agree on having a sleep routine as soon as you and your baby have established a rhythm, by about six weeks or so. Like adults, babies sleep in cycles, but whereas ours are about 90 minutes, for the first few weeks theirs last only around 20-30 minutes. By a year old the cycle takes about 45-60 minutes. Babies typically sleep for 16 hours a day in their first months. But because your baby’s sleep can be anything from 20 minutes to an hour or two each time, it can feel like the kind of torture spies undergo to reveal state secrets.

While being sleep-deprived, possibly hormone-wild and a touch shell-shocked, you have to make some of the most important decisions of your life.

When it comes to sleep strategies, three main views prevail. One is to get babies to cry themselves to sleep if it’s needed to self-settle. Another is to use it as a last resort. A third, from the attachment parenting school, is to never use it ever. Cry-it-out – many parents decide not to or find they can’t when it comes to it – has variations within the many techniques. There’s ‘extinction’, such a terrible term, where the child is put to bed and the parents leave the room for up to 60 minutes. You will need stiff resolve and perhaps ear plugs. There’s ‘controlled crying’, aka spaced soothing or capped extinction, when the child is left for periods that gradually increase before the parent returns to offer comfort in the form of soothing words or patting. In the ‘pick-up’ method, the parent comforts the child until they are drowsy and are then put down to sleep. If the baby cries he/she is picked up and put back until they falls asleep. In ‘parental presence’, the parent sits or lies close to the cot in the child’s room until the child sleeps, but doesn’t comfort. The chair is then moved further from the cot each day until it’s outside the room. In ‘fading’, parents rock or pat but do less and less each day until the child is settling itself. Whatever strategy you choose, remember it only has to work for you and your family.

7 Top Tips

  • Nap when baby naps or at least put your feet up. The chores can wait, or just do the most pressing one
  • 'Up and down within the hour' is a good rule of thumb for how long a baby should be awake in the first three months. Aim to feed, change nappy and enjoy some smiles and eye contact within that window - then baby should be ready for another sleep
  • If you choose crying it out, buy a cheap video monitor to keep an eye on baby
  • Consider one parent sleeping in another room during the week so that at least one gets a good night's sleep
  • If you have a trigger-hair sleeper, consider a swing hammock for naps, especially one with a standalone frame- it costs more but saves you losing a doorway
  • If you're of a culture that stays up late, a different schedule can work. Your routine only has to work for you
  • When all else fails, car rides and long pushchair walks are great sleep triggers. 

Read more in our latest issue, out now! 

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