It can be hard enough mastering sleep routines for one child - what happens when your tribe expands? Baby Sleep Consultant Emma Purdue has some advice for getting through...
Once you move on to baby two, three, four or more, having just one child’s sleep needs to deal with seems a distant memory. You probably had the luxury of sticking to your first baby’s nap routine no matter what, and you could schedule your life to ensure that baby and their sleep needs were a top priority.
Move on a few years and you’re struggling to manage the school drop-off, the kindy drop-off, and the groceries – all while being aware your baby needs a morning nap, and in theory they should be in their bed, right? Wrong!
When juggling family and sleep, you quickly learn that a nap in the car seat, stroller or front pack while you do the shopping is still a nap! You have to be pragmatic about what you need to achieve with all these little people to look after.
Regularly offer naps in the buggy or front pack to teach your baby to nap on the go. The consistency will make it easy when it is necessary.
Babies, especially those under nine months, don’t cope with skipping naps completely, but they do cope with haphazard days and short naps on the go if they’re given the chance to catch up at some stage.
Try scheduling a quieter day at home after a couple of busy days.
The most effective way to allow your baby to catch up on sleep after a busy period racing around with your family is their midday nap, or heading to bed early in the evening. These two times are the most restorative of the day for your baby to sleep. Even if your morning nap and late afternoon naps are still on the
go with school and pre-school, your baby
will do well with a big catch-up nap at midday when their circadian rhythm has its natural dip in energy and their little body craves sleep
Entertaining toddlers while trying to settle a newborn is a common problem parents ask me about. Your new baby is too young to self-settle while your toddler needs attention and supervision. Try not to completely exclude your toddler from your baby’s settling routine; instead, allow them to come into the room where your baby sleeps, but be prepared with a small box of toys and books that you know your toddler will like. Play some background white noise for your baby so your toddler’s loud requests don’t startle them and your toddler doesn’t feel like they are always being told to be quiet!
Once your toddler realises settling the baby to sleep is boring, they’re likely to wander off to play. But a shut door and toddler exclusion is likely to result in tantrums and crying and no one sleeping!
Big families often have chaotic evening routines with different demands to be met all in the lead-up to sleep. A reality for many families is Mum juggling this on her own while Dad is still at work, and the task of getting a herd of small children into bed at a similar time can feel impossible.
Get everyone’s pyjamas organised and bath everyone, including the baby, at the same time after an early dinner. This way no one is unsupervised in the bath and everyone is ready for bed on time.
Try reading to your older children as you breast or bottlefeed your baby if you are on your own in the evening. You can still dim the lights to prepare everyone for sleep, then give your older children some books to look at while you finish settling your baby to sleep, with the promise of another story as soon as you’re finished. This allows you to stagger bedtimes but not feel overwhelmed with having to settle multiple children individually.
If you have siblings who share a room, you might find a staggered bedtime works best so that one child doesn’t keep the other awake with bedtime antics! Kylie, mum of four under 10, says, “When Molly and Emily were younger I would wait until Molly was in a deep sleep, so about 45 minutes after she went down for the night I would put Emily to bed. This meant they both went straight to sleep.”
Louise, mum of three, advises, “Pick your battles. Children who room-share inevitably play up and play tricks on each other. Remember, they’re just children, and the less you react the faster they will fall asleep.”
Sara, mum of four, says that when her younger two were sharing, Max was three and Jules was eight months. Her biggest issue was teaching Max not to climb into Jules’ cot!
“I found Max in there the first morning they shared, it gave me a huge fright, so I had a big talk to Max about how Jules needed to have her cot to herself and he must let her sleep.”
Kate, mother of three, says that once her four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter were sharing, the difficulty was that her son needed a night light, while her daughter slept better in the dark. “I got him a small portable turtle toy that lit up when he squeezed it, only for a few minutes. This was enough that he felt secure and would go back to sleep, and it was only temporary, so a continuous light didn’t wake my daughter.”
Having a big family can often mean a big age gap between your youngest and your oldest. Dealing with teenagers who have evening sports training and a baby who needs an evening routine can be tricky once they leave the newborn stage when they could sleep anywhere.
Renee, a mum-of-three, suggests teaming up with the parents of your older children’s friends so you can share the load around evening sports trainings. She found offering to do the pick-up later in the evening once she had settled her baby and her husband was home, was easier than a drop-off when it was bath and feed time.
If you don’t have help at bedtime and your baby can’t fit into the classic 7pm routine, try offering a longer late nap to help with a planned late bedtime. Or even a quick evening nap, which will help your baby get to bed not quite so over-tired.
Melanie, mother of four aged two – 14 years, remembers taking Mila Rose to her first rugby game when she was just five days old. “She had no routine, and with such a busy family she was forced to go with the flow. Luckily she coped really well and adapted to naps on the go. On busy days we tried to ensure she had her evening routine of bath, feed and bed by 7pm. It really helped on the days when it was achievable.” Big families can also mean that baby might stay in your room for longer. This can present difficulties if you feel you’re keeping them awake, or they’re waking you with their noises. Try some background white noise for a consistent sound and better sleep. Long-term room sharing with your baby can come with positives too.
“I shared with all my babies until 18 months,” says Kylie. “It was easier to settle them back to sleep at night without worrying they were waking their siblings. When I was really tired my husband could get up and change them; all I had to do was feed them, and he would settle them back to sleep. It saved me walking to and from their rooms at night, and meant I didn’t need a monitor.”
Different ages and stages can mean complicated sleep needs and juggling toddler and baby sleep may seem overwhelming and impossible, but with a bit of flexibility and forward-planning everyone can be well rested and get the sleep they need. ′
You might also like
Understanding how starting solids can affect your baby's sleep could save a lot of discomfort and wakeful nights. Our Baby Sleep Consultant, Emma Purdue, explains
Top tips to newborn sleep
We give you our top tips to no more sleepless nights!
Newborn sleep: How much can you expect? (part one)
Understand the development of your baby's sleep with our newborn sleep timeline.