Written by: Aileen Dunbar, Founder of Connected Slumber Baby/Toddler Sleep Support.
As a new parent, you are bombarded with lots of advice, particularly pertaining to your baby’s sleep. The mainstream narrative seems to be that if you want your baby to “sleep well”, you need to sleep train, otherwise, they will never learn to sleep on their own. In today’s blog post, I will continue to share with you ways that you can improve your baby’s sleep without any sleep training, as this is what I do as a Baby-Led Sleep and Well-Being Specialist. (See my previous blog post here for 4 other ways to get more sleep without sleep training).
1. Improve your own sleep habits
Since there are a lot of aspects of your baby’s sleep that are beyond your control, I often advise clients to focus on controlling what they can and one of these aspects is focusing on improving your own sleep! Here are some tips to help you improve your own sleep as a sleep-deprived parent.
a) Follow a relaxing bedtime routine as this signals to your body it is time to sleep.
For example, you could have a bath with lavender, read 10 minutes of a book, drink a cup of herbal tea, etc.
b) Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages a minimum of 6 hours before bedtime.
Research has shown that caffeine interferes with circadian melatonin rhythms, which can lead to it taking longer to fall asleep if it is consumed too close to bedtime. Furthermore, caffeine can also impact other aspects of sleep such as sleep time, efficiency, and satisfaction levels.
c) Avoid using electronics an hour before bed
This is important as electronics may lead you to be overly stimulated and they emit blue light which interferes with melatonin production (sleep-inducing hormone).
d) Have some sleep-inducing foods and drinks before bed
Here are some examples of foods/drinks that may help you sleep better according to research: kiwis, tart cherries or tart cherry juice, fatty fish such as tuna, salmon or herring, nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios or cashews) and malted milk such as Ovaltine.
e) Prioritize sleep as much as possible.
I know this one is tough because it can be very tempting to stay up late once baby is asleep, but especially in the early days when baby is waking up more frequently, it is crucial to go to bed as early as possible so you can get more sleep.
2. Be flexible about your baby’s sleep
There is a lot of societal pressure around where babies should be sleeping, how they should be put to sleep, how long they should sleep for, etc. A lot of these expectations are not realistic based on a baby’s biological needs and development. For example, the presumption that a baby should sleep long stretches in a crib independently without any parental assistance to go to sleep. Let’s break each part of that down with why it’s not necessarily realistic! First off, short naps (less than 30 minutes) are very common, especially in babies under 6 months. Other factors can lead to babies being more likely to be cat nappers, such as temperament and genetics. If your baby takes cat naps, but wakes up seeming well-rested, then it is likely they are getting the rest they need. There are things you can do to try to extend the nap, such as adjusting wake windows (the time between naps), holding baby in arms and/or using motion to get baby back to sleep upon waking and making sure they are receiving appropriate stimulation throughout the day. For the expectation of baby sleeping in a crib, most babies’ favourite place to be is close to you as babies attach through their senses in the first year of life, so it is perfectly reasonable that wouldn’t love sleeping alone in their crib. Using a carrier or contact nap is a great way to meet this need if you can. In terms of the societal pressure that babies shouldn’t receive parental assistance to go to sleep, this is also inaccurate. Babies rely upon their caregiver to enter into calm state through a process called co-regulation. To be able to be relaxed enough to enter into sleep, using relaxing associations like rocking, singing, nursing, etc. are all great ways to help with this. Furthermore, according to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist, babies and children seek more connection when they are facing an imminent separation such as bedtime, so helping put them to sleep is a way to feel more attached to their caregiver before this separation.
3. Look at daytime sleep totals
When your baby is a newborn (0-3 months), they have not yet developed their circadian rhythm and so they are not necessarily sleeping longer stretches at night compared to the day. Therefore, at this stage, there is no need to be concerned about the amount of daytime sleep having an impact on their overnight sleep. However, once they are past the newborn stage and their circadian rhythm emerges, you should see a shift to more nighttime sleep compared to daytime sleep. At this point, your baby could be napping too much during the day. So if you find you are experiencing things such as split nights (when baby wakes up in the middle of the night and won’t go back to sleep for at least an hour) or false starts (when baby wakes up about 30-40 minutes after going down for the night), then you may want to examine how much sleep your baby is getting during the day. Each baby is unique of course, but here is a chart with some guidelines for hours of daytime sleep based on age of baby:
Age of baby
Average range of daytime sleep (hrs)
*Based on data found in study by Paavanon et al., 2020
So, if your baby or toddler is getting more daytime sleep based on age shown in the chart above and you are experiencing nighttime issues like false starts and split nights, then you may want to cut back on daytime sleep and see if that helps!
4) Ensure your baby's sensory needs are being met
Different babies have different sensory needs (called a sensory diet) and meeting these needs has an important relationship with their sleep. Similarly to how it is important to tune into your baby’s tired cues to figure out when they should sleep, it is helpful to tune into your baby’s level of stimulation throughout the day to figure out what types of activities they require in order to be functioning at their best. To further help you with this, here are signs of under and overstimulation in babies:
a) Signs of overstimulation in babies
-clenching fists, waving arms or kicking
-fussiness/turning their head away
b) Signs of understimulation in babies
-actively trying to get you to engage with them by making noises, crying, etc.
-if it is taking a very long time to get them to sleep, this is a potential sign they did not receive enough stimulation
-baby seems uninterested in engaging with things around them and appears zoned out
For example, if you notice that at bedtime, your baby seems very restless, that may mean they are understimulated and required more time to freely move throughout the day. Conversely, if they are showing signs of overstimulation at bedtime such as crankiness or crying, it is possible they require more calming activities to help them down-regulate. Figuring out these signs can help reduce nap/bedtime battles.
One of my goals as a Baby-Led Sleep and Well-Being Specialist is to empower parents that you can do things to optimize your baby’s sleep without resorting to sleep training! I hope this post provided you with this reassurance and ideas of things to try. If you would like individualized support with improving your baby’s sleep without sleep training, book your free 15-minute discovery call here to see how I can support you with your particular situation.
Paavonen, J., Saarenpää-Heikkilä, O., Moralez-Munoz, I., Virta, M., Häkälä, N., Pölkki, P,, Kylliäinen, A., Karlsson, H., Paunio, T. & Karlsson, L. (2020). Normal sleep development in infants: findings from two large birth cohorts. Sleep Medicine, 69, 159-167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2020.01.009