We all know that feeling – when you come home from a night out or a work event and you are really shattered but your brain just won’t switch off. Most of us would find it impossible to go straight to bed and sleep. We need to unwind first, to calm our active brains. Our babies need this time too.
As parents we are really good at looking for our baby’s sleep cues. We notice the eye-rubbing, staring, yawning and we think, “great, time for a nap”. We take them from their play mats or activities into their nice dark room, place them into their cots and then are dumbfounded when they won’t settle. Why are they fighting their sleep when they are clearly tired? Did I miss their sleep cues?
Actually all that has happened is that you have missed out a key stage – the wind down.
Babies’ brains are extremely active. Every emotion they feel, everything they see, smell and touch is sparking neurological connections in their brain – they are constantly learning and their minds are rarely restful. As a result, in order to help prepare their body for sleep, we need to bridge the gap between stimulation and rest with some wind-down time.
For babies 6 months and younger, a 3-5min wind-down period can be enough. For babies 6-12 months, this increases to 5-10mins, and for babies over a year, a good 10-15mins can be helpful.
Here are my top tips for wind-down time routines to help your baby settle more easily at nap time.
- Pre-empt. Once you have worked out your baby’s natural awake window (see my sleep charts for a guide), you will know when they are likely to need their nap. Begin your wind-down in advance of this, rather than waiting for the first tired sign.
- Limit to non-stimulating activities. The aim during your wind-down routine is to help calm your baby’s mind.
- Dim the lights. When it gets darks, the eyes send a message to the brain to start producing melatonin, the sleepy hormone. This hormone not only helps us fall asleep, but also to stay asleep.
- Avoid light displays. Whilst cot mobiles that project light shows on to the ceiling seem like a good idea, they actually interrupt your baby’s natural production of melatonin. In the long run they can negatively impact on your little one’s sleep.
- Bedtime books. Sleep cues are a great way to signal to the body it’s time to prepare for rest. Reading the same bedtime stories before naps and at bedtime can act as a really clear cue that it’s time for sleep. The best bedtime stories have rhythmic reading sounds and are not interactive. Reading them in a nice calm and relaxed voice can help too.
- Snuggle time. Some babies love a nice cuddle before a nap. You can hold them close, offer a gentle sway and sing a soft lullaby.
If you would like any support or advice on your little one’s sleep, please feel free to get in touch.