The most common baby bedtime mistakes

Most people take sleep for granted, but for many parents of young children who are sleep deprived, the word torture takes on new meaning!

Sleep is vital for our physical and emotional wellbeing. It promotes the secretion of growth hormones, restores brain processes, and allows us to function.

Typically, during a full night’s sleep, we pass through sleep cycles many times, drifting back into deep sleep from light sleep, thereby linking sleep cycles resulting in us waking feeling rested and refreshed. Young babies who still need to be fed during the night will wake up for feeds, but will link some sleep cycles together before waking up for the next feed a few hours later. Toddlers no longer need nutrition during the night, so they should be able to stay asleep for the whole night.

Instilling healthy sleep habits from the very beginning is obviously the way to go, but many of us unwittingly make some crucial mistakes when it comes to teaching our children healthy sleep habits.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common bedtime mistakes we may make.

Extended awake times:

Did you know that it is actually the AWAKE time that drives the SLEEP time, and not the other way around? Depending on the age of your baby, it is important to monitor how much time is spent awake before the next sleep is due. This simple plan is the single most important factor in ensuring that your baby learns how to put himself to sleep.

See grid below with guideline of awake times


0-6 weeks40 – 60 minutes18 – 20 hours
6 – 12 weeks60 – 90 minutes16 – 18 hours
3 – 6 months1 – 1 ½ hours14 – 18 hours
6 – 9 month2 hours14 – 18 hours
9 – 12 months2 ½ hours14 – 16 hours
12 – 15 months3 hours14 – 15 hours
15 – 18 months3 – 3 ½ hours13 – 15 hours
18 – 24 months3 ½ – 4 hours13 – 14 hours
2 – 3 years4 – 5 hour13 – 14 hours
3 – 4 years5 – 7 hours13 – 14 hours
4 – 5 years7 – 12 hours13 – 14 hours

Mis-interpreting baby’s signals

If you don’t know what to look for, you may miss or misinterpret many of your baby’s signals to you indicating that she is tired and is ready to sleep. Many of these signals are very subtle and include:

  • loss of eye contact
  • back arching with a stiffened body
  • fisting of hands
  • yawning
  • sneezing
  • hiccupping
  • tongue thrusting up into the palate
  • bringing her hand up onto her face

If you learn to read your baby’s tired and overloaded signals, and act on them appropriately, by allowing her to go to sleep then, your baby will almost always be able to self-calm and go to sleep on her own.

Not putting your baby down “happily awake”

If you miss the window of awake time, your baby will soon start to cry from overtiredness. This is often the very time when you try unsuccessfully to put your baby to sleep. Remember the more tired your baby is, the harder it will for her to self-calm and go to sleep without a fight. It is important to do some calming stimuli in the short period (about 10 – 15 minutes) before the awake time is up. This will help her to become drowsy, but still be happy.

Not putting your baby to bed!

If possible, always put your baby to bed in the same place. Try not to let her fall asleep just anywhere ( for example in the pram or on the couch). With time, she will start to recognize her own ‘sleep zone’ when you put her to bed, and will settle quickly.

Having no routine, or one that is too rigid

By structuring your baby’s environment around her needs, you can create the perfect background for a routine that is structured, but that retains some flexibility. This way, you will be able to identify and meet her needs as they change.

Not swaddling your baby at sleep time

Remember that by the time your baby is ready for a sleep, her nervous system is heading towards overload. The last thing your baby needs is for her startle reflex (when her little limbs shoot out all over the place) to wake her up as she is drifting off to sleep, or worse, to actually wake her up from a deep sleep. Swaddling your baby in a cotton sheet or blanket at sleep time is the best way to imitate the tight hug of the womb environment and to provide deep touch pressure which is extremely calming to the nervous system.

Rocking to sleep

If your baby is overtired (if you have missed the window of ‘awake time’), she will struggle to fall asleep unaided, and may even battle to stay asleep for any significant length of time. Your baby’s sensory system reaches a state of overload very quickly. When she reaches this state of over-stimulation or overtiredness, her nervous system simply loses its ability to shut down quickly and easily from a very awake (and sometimes crying) state down to the state of deep sleep. Watch those awake times, avoid excessive handling and keep her environment calm and quiet at sleep time, especially in the first 3 – 6 months of age, and you will find that her need to be rocked to sleep will lessen, and with time, disappear altogether.

Feeding to sleep

If your baby is healthy and thriving, it is important to teach her that feeding is not the only way to get her to fall asleep. However, for the first 2 weeks, follow baby’s cue, and feed on demand. This will help you to establish a good milk supply if you are breastfeeding. Keep feeding to a nutritional outing only, and should she need comfort (when it is not feed time), offer her an alternative way of calming such as non-nutritive sucking (dummy or fingers), massage, swaddling or rocking. If she is consistently falling asleep whilst feeding, try offering a feed slightly earlier, so that she has had her fill before she nods off. Bear in mind that a sleep may happen (watch those awake times) without a feed, and that is OK.

Unnecessary night feeds

Provided your baby is healthy and thriving, from 6 months of age, she no longer needs nutrition during the night. Ensure that she is getting adequate nutrition during the day, by offering milk feeds (if you are formula feeding, don’t forget to move onto a follow-on formula) 3 – 4 times a day, and a variety of solid food from all the food groups ( vegetables, fruit, grains, rice, cereals) 3 times a day. Make sure that she is getting at least 8 teaspoons of protein (meat, poultry, dairy, egg yolk, beans) into her solid food to rule out hunger at night. When she wakes in the night expecting a feed, you will need to teach her to fall asleep by herself and without an unnecessary feed.

She needs to learn self soothing techniques such as sucking her fingers, stroking her face or holding a security object such as a soft, cotton blanket or favourite teddy.

If you choose to stay with her, sit next to her cot and put a hand on her. Say ‘ssshhh’ quietly and repetitively. You may need to stroke her back with a firm and deep touch to settle her.

  • Expect her to cry for a period of time.
  • Pick her up if she is really upset, but only hold her and comfort her until she has stopped crying (no matter how long it takes). As soon as she is calm, place her back into her cot and continue.
  • It may take a few sessions of crying until she falls asleep, so don’t give up.
  • If you would rather be out the room adopt the following approach to controlled crying:
  • When she wakes expecting a feed, don’t rush to her the minute you hear her stirring. If she is simply moaning, give her the benefit of perhaps being able to self-calm and go back to sleep.
  • If she is really crying – go to her and pick her up and comfort her (no matter how long it takes). As soon as she is calm, place her back into her cot (even if she starts to cry immediately).
  • Leave the room for ONE minute.
  • Return to her, and pick her up and comfort her again – whatever you do, don’t feed her! When she is calm, but not asleep, place her back into her cot (even if she begins to cry) say “go to sleep” in a firm and loving voice, and leave the room again. This time stay out for TWO minutes.
  • If she continues to cry, repeat the procedure, each time adding TWO more minutes of crying time before going back in to soothe or settle her.
  • It may take a night or two of this until she no longer wakes expecting a feed.
  • If you feel sorry for her and give in (anything for peace and quiet!) she is likely to get confused, so try to be as consistent as you can. Remember, provided she is healthy and thriving, she does not need night feeds.

By Meg Faure