Tired of being tired? We've sourced expert advice to get you some shut-eye.
All too often, when you look back on your earliest attempts at parenting, what you see staring back is a blinking, dim-witted and painfully ignorant version of yourself with pain and fear in their eyes.
Certainly that’s how I remember a lot of the first six months of my Dad career, a point in my life where sleep became not only more valuable than money, sex and food combined but the most commonly used word in my lexicon.
“Why won’t he sleep?”, “Will he ever sleep?”, “I would kill everyone on this bus with a plastic spoon for some sleep”.
At the time I blamed my son — a pudgy yet perfect ball of innocence as fresh and sweet smelling as a cooked donut falling into a bed of sugar and cinnamon — for this painful obsession, but now I realise just how much of the suffering was self inflicted.
I wouldn’t say that we did everything wrong when it came to getting him to sleep — we put him in his own room from day one, for example, which isn’t everybody’s choice — just most things.
I distinctly remember long, long hours spent in a rocking chair (a special, baby one with hydraulic something-or-others as I recall, which we were promised would improve our lives), patting my tiny boy with a kind of Buddhist devotion — 1000 times with the left hand, then 1000 with the right. And repeat until you think he might be going to sleep.
Then, like a stumbling, slothful Ninja I would attempt to stand up — on legs long since gone to sleep without me — and carry him to his bed, drop him into position before he could wake up, and run for my life. And when that, inevitably, failed, I would go back and repeat the whole process like a fool.
Incredibly, I don’t remember doing that with our second baby, even once, although I may have, because the second time around we had gotten wise as a result of repeated failure (it really is the best teacher, although Dr Karl is good too).
It’s not at all that the second time around was easier because our daughter was a better sleeper, far from it, it was just that we didn’t waste quite so much time on foolish errands.
Frankly, if you learn that much between the first two, it does make me wonder how good people with six kids are at getting babies to sleep.
What we all need, though, is some good, sage-like advice about how it’s done, so we spoke to Alanna, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) manager at a busy Melbourne hospital with many years of experience.
“Sleeping and feeding are the top concerns of parents taking their babies home for the first time, and there are a few simple tips to remember that may help with common problems experienced by new dads,” she says.
1. Breathing is important
“Having a snuffly or snotty baby is not uncommon, in particular for babies who are preterm or delivered via C-section,” Alanna says, adding that calls to the hospital to complain about noisy sleeping by babies is quite common.
Because babies only breathe through their nose for the first three months of their lives, and because, as you may have noticed, their nostrils and airways are tiny, blocked noses can be a big problem for their sleeping.
“A bit of excess mucus or leftover fluid from when they were in utero can make them sound like noisy little pigs,” Alanna laughs. “This is not unusual, but the sound can be worrying for parents, as well as being loud enough to keep you awake.
“You can use a preservative-free saline spray or drops in your baby’s nose, which can
help to dilute the mucus or fluid, allowing it to drain away more easily.
“A little less snuffling may help baby sleep more soundly and could help you get
some much-needed shut-eye too.”
2. Get them in a routine
This a line you’ll hear a lot from experienced parents, and grandparents, and it seems utterly absurd at first, because nothing at all about what you’re going through seems “routine” or even likely to lend itself to such a thing. The random way in which tiny babies seem to sleep suggests that such an ideal is a long way off.
Thankfully, Alanna advises that you shouldn’t expect to get into a routine, or any kind of set patterns, for the first six to eight weeks. That period can be, particularly the first time around, like being hit by a tsunami of new and disconcerting experiences.
When you do begin to establish a routine, Alanna advises that “sleep, eat, play” is what you should be going for. Sounds simple enough.
“Aim for a feed after baby wakes, then incorporate some tummy time before it’s time to go back to bed,” she says. “Don’t worry about the length of play time, your baby will let you know when she’s had enough. You’ll learn to follow bub’s cues and just 10 or 20 minutes might be enough play for some babies.
“The ‘sleep, eat, play’ routine is backed by the medical literature and it helps to stick to it. You should find you’re running through these steps about three or four times a day.”
3. Keep them warm
Babies who have a cold are not going to be babies who sleep easily or well. During the first few months of their lives, children are still getting most of their immunity from their mothers, via breast milk, so they are susceptible to catching viruses and the common cold.
Keeping them warm and snug will help, but Alanna says if they do fall foul of a cold it’s worth trying to take them into a very steamy shower.
“A vaporiser may also be worth a try, particularly if the air in the home is very dry which can happen with air blown out from heating ducts or air-conditioning units,” she adds.
4. Wrap it up
Wrapping a squirming baby in what you’ll soon start calling a “blankie”, even though you hate the word, is a skill you’ll soon develop as a Dad (and there are YouTube videos for when you’re learning).
For some strange reason, little humans have something called a “startle reflex”, or “Moro”, which means that even when they are asleep they will suddenly flail their arms around and wake themselves up in doing so.
Honestly, I couldn’t believe what an alarming design flaw this was when I found out. Why hasn’t someone in manufacturing fixed this yet?
It’s vital to make sure your baby is properly wrapped when you put them down, or, as sleep gurus Tresillian advise, “use a sleeping bag with fitted arm holes and no hood”.
5. Calm down (not you, them)
If you’re talking to other parents about problems with babies sleeping you’ll eventually hear the word “Tresillian”, which is not some weird character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but an organisation that focuses on getting young ones to sleep, and even offers Sleep School for desperate parents.
Don’t want to go back to school? They advise that if you are struggling to settle a mewling (aka whimpering) baby, try “lots of reassurance” and its three-step plan:
1. Talk quietly and cuddle baby until calm.
2. Put baby on their back in the cot awake (but drowsy)
3. Comfort baby with gentle ‘Ssshh’ sounds, gentle rhythmic patting, rocking or stroking until baby is calm or asleep.
As your baby calms, move away from the cot or leave the room, but if your baby becomes or stays distressed return and comfort them using the steps 1 through 3.
6. Controlled crying
This is one of the most contentious procedures for getting your baby to sleep, so we’re not about to recommend it (it’s bloody hard work, emotionally, for a start). But we’d suggest you do your own research on it.
Basically, controlled crying means letting your baby cry, for quite some time, while you and your partner also blub hopelessly on the other side of the door, feeling evil. The idea is that they will “self settle”, eventually, but not everyone agrees that this is a good idea, even if it does work.
Tresillian, for example, refers to it, rather scathingly, as a popular method “used in the 1980s”. So, horribly uncool then.
In short, Tresillian is against the idea: “Tresillian does not recommend or use controlled crying. Parents are encouraged to learn to identify their baby’s cues and state of wakefulness and recognise the intensity of the baby’s cry; this may include picking the baby up and cuddling and soothing baby, repositioning and patting baby or offering a feed or trying to settle at a later time.”
And finally, hang in there
This isn’t so much a tip, as a statement. Some parents do end up attending Sleep School, basically moving into a Tresillian centre for four nights and five days so that its staff can help you learn to settle better. Which sounds pretty full on, unless you get to stay at home for those four nights, in which case it’s bliss.
In short, getting your children to sleep when they’re very young is tough, and no two children — even in the same family — are the same. You might get lucky and have an instant good sleeper, but it’s pretty unlikely.
You’re just going to have to get through this stage, and everyone does (although for one mate of mine it took five years — he still looks tired 10 years later).
Tresillian advises you to remember that there is a lot of variation in the sleep patterns of infants. “For many babies, waking once or twice during the night is normal. It does not mean you are a failure in any way.”
Which makes me feel slightly better about how rubbish I was at this the first time around.