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July 14, 2016

Sharlene Poole shares her advice for the best ways to settle baby

Settling a baby to sleep is the most common topic when parents seek help with their babies.  Because babies require so much sleep, both night and day, day in and day out, it can quickly become overwhelming when things are a struggle. All babies can settle to sleep – some just take longer than others and some require more support and guidance – but they all can and will sleep. How much is a different story though, and this is where many of the clients I help need advice.

In the first six weeks of a baby’s life, I would say the majority of parents find some days, or some times in a day, a little harder to settle their baby. Then there are the few who contact me saying that from day two or three their babies could not settle and they never had the ‘honeymoon’ period, which is the term used to describe the sleepy first few weeks when a baby is first born and relatively easy to settle and sleep well.

All babies can settle to sleep  some just take longer or need more support and guidance.

The general advice is that newborn babies should be awake for no more than an hour at a time and to look for their tired signs before putting them down to sleep, keeping in mind that newborns can get over-tired very quickly and become harder to settle.

This advice can be spot on for most, but things can and do change, and it’s at three to six weeks of a newborn’s life that parents can start to have a few problems around sleep. Around this time your tiredness can start to set in too, as these beautiful little beings start to wake up more! And just as you might start to feel confident in your parenting to date, your baby will go through their first developmental changes.

Many suffer from wind and/or digestion discomfort, reflux babies for example, and these babies might struggle to digest their milk and bring up enough wind to be comfortable within the one hour you are aiming for, then get over-tired easily.

Then there are babies whom I describe as ‘wise owls’: babies who are visual and active and can start expressing their dislike for being put down to sleep and will often have what I describe as a ‘great sense of injustice’!

It can be one thing or a combination of factors that can hinder our abilities to settle a baby, so  I always suggest taking a moment to sit back and consider the following:

  1. Is your baby a ‘wise owl’? Were they ever that sleepy newborn? Or from very early on  were they wide-eyed and aware? These babies are often easily over-stimulated but can cope with a little more time awake, as long as the balance of their ‘play’ time is not too stimulating.
  2. Does your baby gulp, suffer from a lot of wind and have explosive poo? These babies get very tired when coping with lots of touch (physical contact) and digestive discomfort and therefore can’t handle much more than just feeding, winding, changing and cuddles from Mum and Dad.
  3. Is your baby older now, used to settle well but now starts to protest about being put down to bed, or has started to sleep for only short periods of time? Often, as our babies go through their frequent developmental changes parents can be a little slow in tweaking or increasing their time awake and what we do with them in accordance with their progression. From play time to feeding well enough, now they can get easily distracted.

Once you have taken this time to think about your baby, you can start giving thought to what settling technique is best going to suit both of you. Something I often say to my clients is that there’s no right or wrong way to settle a baby; but there are many options and styles and some are easier and less stressful if we’re supported and patient and listen to what the babies are telling us.

A good starting point for all parents is to watch for their baby’s tired signs. These can include: yawning, jerky movements, grizzles, turning their head away when you’re talking to them, ‘wide eyes’, and looking to suck but not hungry to feed.These signs are very helpful but not always very obvious, and so having a time guide can be helpful too. This will give you an idea of how long your baby should be awake, based on their age and personality. You could look for a guide online or ask your Plunket nurse.

Once you have determined your baby is tired you need to have a few settling options up your sleeve, as there are times in a day (or even in a week) when one settling technique will work, but another one (or two) may be required as back up. Choose techniques that you are comfortable with, confident in using and that work well for you and your baby.


 Options for settling are:

  • Rocking to sleep, in or out of their bed
  • Swaddling or wrapping
  • Use of a dummy
  • Feeding to sleep
  • ‘Ssh/Pat’ hands-on technique
  • Verbal reassurance
  • Supervised settling
  • Controlled crying

I like to advise parents that they shouldn’t feel naughty about what they do. (Many tell me they do, because they’re using options like feeding or rocking their baby to sleep!) We do what works at the time, and if that’s not the style or method that you had hoped to use, or had been advised not to use, it’s  okay, there is always time to change. As long as your baby is warm, safe, well loved and fed, it’s more important that you both get rest and sleep (however you can) and then when you’re able you can seek help or guidance on other techniques that might better suit your family.

I believe consistency is key, so if you find one settling technique, or even a few,  that work for you then stick to them for at least three to five days to give you and your baby a chance to settle into them and for you to gain confidence with them  so that your baby feels comforted and less stressed. Try to express an air of calm, confidence and patience when settling your baby and if this is something you’re struggling with seek help from friends, family or professionals as it is key to establishing successful settling routines


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