Good vs bad sleep habits for babies

Habits in any area of life have a way of sneaking their way in: one day they were not there and suddenly one day you wake up and a habit has developed over time, without you noticing!

Before classifying any habit as good or bad, it is important to know a few things:

  • Habits do not develop in babies before three months old. If your baby is little and demanding a certain method to get to sleep, it is because of the sensory feature of that sleep association, not the fact that your baby recalls it from one sleep to the next.
  • Habits very commonly become a problem between 7 and 11 months old
  • Anything you don’t want to do for a long time to come or have to deal with breaking must be avoided after five months of age
  • Most babies develop bad habits after an illness and take a few days to readjust to the old ways
  • A habit is only bad if you are not happy with it. Anything is acceptable if it works in your home for the long term.

The Top 5 Bad Sleep Habits and what to do:

  1. Rock to sleep

WHY: Your newborn will love movement as it reminds her of the womb world.

EARLY ON: Use movement to get your baby drowsy but try from an early age not to rock your baby all the way to sleep.

SOLUTION: Wean your baby off rocking slowly by stopping just short of her falling asleep and keeping your hand on her as she settles in her cot. If she screams, pick her up and rock her gently and put her down when drowsy. Be consistent.

  1. Breastfeed to sleep

WHY: Breast milk is sweet and soothing and the sucking helps your baby fall asleep

EARLY ON: If your baby consistently falls asleep on the breast, burp her at your shoulder and she will rouse a little.

SOLUTION: In the older baby, make sure she is fully awake (can be drowsy) when you put her down. Sit when you feed her. Avoid lying next to her so she feeds lying down as she is more likely to fall asleep. After 6 months old you baby does not need breastmilk at night. Do not offer a feed between bedtime and 4am.

  1. Drive around the block

WHY: The movement is settling and the white noise of the car makes babies drowsy

EARLY ON: Many newborns fall asleep as soon as they are in the car. This is fine as because your baby sleeps so much it is almost impossible to keep her awake or you would be trapped at home. Early on just relax about this one.

SOLUTION: From 6 months old try to have your baby in her sleep space for every sleep – both the day sleeps and at bedtime so she does not have the chance to develop this habit. If you are in this habit: wean her off it by using a pram to rock her to sleep for a few days. The next step is to rock her to drowsy for a few days and thereafter put her down to sleep in her cot drowsy but awake.

  1. Milk bottles through the night

WHY: The milk is sweet and soothing and the sucking on the teat also induces sleep. This is a very bad habit as not only is it a pain to have to get up repeatedly to give the bottle but also for your baby’s health: bottle drinking at night is associated with ear infections, tooth decay and very fat babies.

EARLY ON: Always give your baby her bottle in your arms NOT in the cot

SOLUTION: This one you have to go cold turkey on. Just don’t give a bottle of milk at night. If your baby is a toddler say: “I can’t get you a bottle because the kitchen in closed.”

  1. Any part of your body that is used as the crutch to fall asleep

WHY: Babies will choose part of your body as a comfort object – your hair, your elbow, your nose or some other part. It is inconvenient because apart from cutting off the body part, you cannot leave it with your baby to self sooth with in the middle of the night.

EARLY ON: Offer a comfort object from early on.

SOLUTION: Find a comfort object that feels like your body part – eg a Taglet if your baby likes the silkiness of your hair, a soft toy if she likes your jersey, a soft plastic toy if it’s your elbow she likes. Offer this object consistently if she cries or is unsettled when awake.  Soon she will associate the comfort object with soothing to sleep instead of your body part. The Top 5 Good Sleep Habits to encourage:

  1. A security blanket – an essential from 3 months onwards – find an object that has the following qualities:
  2. You can replace it if lost
  3. It can be washed
  4. It is small enough to carry around in a nappy bag
  5. It has soothing sensory qualities
  6. A dummy or thumb –any oral comfort that can be used without you is great – thumb, dummy or water bottle. Don’t listen to people who discourage dummies – they are GREAT!
  7. A water bottle for toddlers –If your toddler wants tea or milk, he must get used to water.
  8. Being able to fall asleep independently –any baby who can fall asleep on their own in the evening from 4 months onwards will be a good sleeper. Let your baby fall asleep independently by putting her down and walking out from 3 months old. Don’t go back into your baby’s room unless she is really crying. Moaning or fussing is fine to be left. As soon as your baby cries go back but help her to find a way to self sooth to sleep.
  9. Falling asleep in a consistent sleep zone  – your baby must fall asleep in a consistent sleep space from 4 months onwards.The best place is a cot in a calming sleep space. Do not let your baby fall asleep in front of the TV ever.