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What to do when your baby is not sleeping?

23 Jan, 2024
Jürgen Swinnen

Babies really do sleep a lot! Newborns need around 16 hours a day – which makes sense because their little brain is in full development. During sleep, we recognise two different types of sleep: non-REM sleep and REM sleep. The latter is recognised by the alternating fast and slow eye movements.

REM sleep allows the brain to process information. These can be events, emotions or all kinds of impressions. The proportion of REM sleep will never peak as high as during the first few years of your life.

What to do if your baby is not sleeping?

Lack of sleep is a common problem among young parents. The theory of a newborn sleeping 16 hours a day sounds great. However, a newborn’s sleep pattern is often very different to ours. From the moment they are born, they have to learn to sleep – which means their sleep is often more fragmented over a 24 hour period.

As newborns are yet to learn the difference between day and night, it can sometimes be difficult for them to fall asleep in the evening and then sleep through the night. New parents often don’t recognise all the signs of when their baby needs sleep – which sometimes can lead to a lot of stress, and long periods of no sleep in the early hours of the morning. In this article, we’ll give you 5 tips to help you, and your baby sleep better.

Tip 1: recognise your baby’s sleep signals

Babies signal when they are tired. Pay attention to these signals to prevent your baby from becoming overtired. Fatigue signals include:

  • Rubbing in the eyes
  • Tickling the ears
  • Red cheeks or ears
  • No longer feel like playing
  • Whining or just being very busy

Over time, you will recognise your own child’s signals and know when it is sleep time or when your baby is hungry.

Tip 2: create a safe sleeping environment

A baby needs to feel safe to sleep well. Therefore, make sure the bedroom is dark, quiet and cool for the night. The temperature in the room should ideally be around 18 degrees celsius. Until the age of 1 year old, and certainly until the baby is 6 months old, your baby should preferably sleep in its own bed in your bedroom. This way you can hear, see and feel if everything is going well.

This does not mean that you have to put a baby in a dark bedroom during the day for its naps. A relatively quiet room, near supervision, which has a comfortable cot to sleep in undisturbed will be fine. This will help the baby to slowly learn to recognise the difference between day and night – because eventually we teach them to adapt quietly to a circadian sleep rhythm. Just like us adults, they then sleep in a rhythm of day and night.

Always avoid using pillows, cuddles or toys in the cot and avoid putting the baby to sleep in a playpen. This can be potentially dangerous for your baby – and your baby doesn’t need a pillow. To avoid overheating and suffocation, it is best not to use a duvet. Put your baby to sleep on its back from day one, unless your doctor advises you otherwise. A baby sleeping bag is also a great way to help the baby stay on their back whilst sleeping.

The prone position, of the baby whilst it is sleeping, is strongly discouraged. This is due to the increased risk of cot death because breathing can be obstructed and there is more chance of overheating or heat congestion. A regular and quick check, when your baby is sleeping during the day or in the evening, is also advised. This way you can check that everything is going well and the baby is comfortable.

Tip 3: Make sure you have a fixed sleep ritual

A fixed sleep ritual will help your baby fall asleep – and it will soon learn when it is time to sleep. The ritual has a calming effect and prepares your baby for sleep. A simple ritual can consist of a bath, some cuddling, a story or a lullaby -but do what feels right for you. In time, you will find that you can find some peace and quiet in this calmer time yourself.

If you start a sleep ritual from the newborn stage, a child will easily learn as a toddler or preschooler that it is sleep time, time for rest. Do it together with your partner or alternate regularly, this way your baby will learn that the ritual is not tied to one person.

Mother looking at baby boy playing with toys in living room
Mother looking at baby boy playing with toys in living room at home

Tip 4: Your baby sleeps even when it’s noisy

Don’t worry about keeping your home in silence, especially during the day. Your baby needs to get used to the daily noises – and will very quickly learn to sleep through it. Indeed, there are certain ASMR sounds, such as white noise that your baby will even find pleasant. White noise is a constant noise that babies find relaxing. There is no conclusive scientific evidence but it sometimes could help your baby fall asleep or fall back to sleep if they wake up during the night.

Tip 5: Let your baby fall asleep independently

It is important to teach your baby to fall asleep independently – so try to put your baby to bed when they are still sleepy but not quite asleep. If you notice that your baby is sleepy or tired, don’t wait too long.

If your baby wakes up at night, wait a while to see if they fall back asleep on their own. Because babies sleep so fragmented, they often fall asleep again quite quickly. Of course, they may be hungry, going through a lot of emotions, experiencing a growth spurt or are unwell. As parents, you will recognize over time the signals that may, temporarily or not, confuse your baby’s sleep rhythm. Pay extra attention if your baby is unwell or behaving differently than usual.

Seemingly simple situations such as a move, a vacation or the first days in daycare can generate quite a lot of stimuli in your baby, but your baby has to get used to change. Whilst change in their routine could affect sleep patterns – take time to get your little person used to the change, as it will reduce the stress and pressure of expecting the ‘normal routine’ to continue automatically.

How much sleep is actually normal for a baby?

A baby up to 6 to 8 weeks needs feeding every 2 to 3 hours on average but can sometimes sleep for up to 6 hours at a time. Starting at 6 weeks, babies learn about their biological clock. As a result, according to the Belgian ‘Kind & Gezin‘ (Child & Family), more than half of 6-month-old babies will already sleep 6 to 8 hours in a stretch and especially at night.

From the age of about 1 year you should notice that sleep time during the night increases, whilst napping during the day continues. As your child gets older, until about three years old, the afternoon naps will slowly reduce to one to two-hours.

Baby nutrition and sleep

Help! If things suddenly seem a little different and your baby is sleeping noticeably worse…. this period is called a sleep regression. This period is linked to learning a new motor skill. A jump can also cause temporarily worse sleep but is more linked to mental processes.Don’t worry – it is just a growing phase.

A baby develops his or her sleep daily. Babies do not yet have a sleep rhythm and fall asleep when they are tired. When a baby becomes overtired, he will seem to fight sleep, after which he will still fall asleep.

Getting a crying baby to sleep involves getting your baby to calm down. Often this succeeds by holding and comforting him for a while. After this, repeating the sleep ritual again ensures the development of the sleep pattern.

What to do if your baby doesn’t sleep – Conclusion:

Keep in mind that it may take some time for your baby to get used to a new routine. As parents, you are trying to teach your child to sleep, and this is a process that takes a long time and involves trial and error. In the meantime, take good care of yourself and try to agree amongst yourselves how to manage your sleep disruption. That way, one of you is not alone in managing disrupted sleep patterns. Also, enjoy the peace and quiet when your baby sleeps during the day. If you can, get some extra sleep – who doesn’t love a little nap in the afternoon!

Here are some additional tips that may help you:

  • Make sure your baby eats and drinks enough before going to bed.
  • Create a calm atmosphere before your baby goes to bed.
  • Avoid using electronic devices near your baby’s bed.
  • If your baby has trouble falling asleep, you can give them a gentle massage or sing to them softly.

If you find that you’ve already quietly tried everything you’ve read and notice that your baby is still having a lot of trouble falling asleep, consider getting professional help.

Useful links for young parents about sleeping with babies: