What is sleep shaping? Basically, we’re going to use sleep biology principles to improve sleep! Remember: your baby has the ability to fall asleep. It is a biological process after all. Adjusting nap timings and bedtimes often increases sleep pressure and helps facilitate sleep. You can use this to reduce night wakings, make naps happen more quickly, and often change the way that sleep happens – for example, if you want to stop rocking to sleep.
When can you start doing some sleep shaping? I’d not start before 3 months. Until babies start to develop a more adult-like sleep cycle (ie falling asleep via NREM sleep), sleep usually happens spontaneously, when a baby is tired enough. Also, sleep is often quite erratic and there is no discernable pattern to naps. Once a baby is over 3 months, and you can see a more regular pattern to naps, then you can start doing some sleep shaping. Sleep often becomes disrupted because of a developmental leap or during teething – so it’s best not to try any major changes at these times. It also goes without saying that you should have tried the Simple Sleep Solutions first.
Around half of all babies will have significantly improved sleep with just the Simple Sleep Solutions and some Sleep Shaping.
If, after going through this module, you want some help with bedtimes and optimizing naps, you can book an online clinic appointment with me:
Reducing night waking
This is the big one! This is the one issue that most parents struggle with. So, before diving in to look at how you can use sleep shaping to reduce night waking make sure that:
- There are no underlying medical issues that might be affecting sleep
- Your baby is gaining weight well, and feeding well during the day
- All your sleep hygiene measures are in place (you’ve looked at the Simple Sleep Solutions).
Next, remember that we all wake up at night, babies and adults. What we’re trying to achieve in this module, is to shape sleep so that babies link more sleep cycles. They may still wake during the night and signal a need – for warmth, feed, or comfort. I’m not going to promise you that following any process in this course will eliminate all night waking/ night signaling. I don’t think that is possible for the vast majority of babies. However, if you find you baby is waking and needs support at the end of every single sleep cycle, then there are definitely improvements to be made.
For this section, we’re going to be focusing on that trade off between day sleep and night sleep. Babies have a maximum number of hours sleep that they need in total. I’ve included my chart again for reference to help you understand what I’m talking about.
Let’s start by looking at making your baby’s night shorter. Very few babies under the age of 18 months can do a 12 hour stretch. In spite of what a lot of baby books say, this just doesn’t fall within the average range for most babies. If your baby is getting 3 hours of naps, and you’re putting them down for a 12 hour night, but they actually only need 13 hours sleep in total in 24 hours, the sleep pressure at night time isn’t going to be high enough and so they will wake more often. So one option is to space your naps out more, and have a later bedtime (or earlier wake up!). Aiming for a 10-11 hour night often reduces some of the wake ups.
One way to do this is to try a bedtime nap – this works well if you have a long night, and your baby wakes up within an hour of falling asleep for the night. You just get your baby up again for 30-60 minutes at that first wake up, engage in some quiet play in a dim room, and then take them back to bed. This often helps to consolidate sleep in longer chunks overnight. You can then work on gradually pushing their bedtime a bit later (say 15 minutes every 2-3 nights) and spreading their day time naps out, until you find the right time for bedtime. A word of warning: make sure you keep your morning wake up time consistent while doing this!
Your next option is to consider reducing your baby’s day sleep. This is a good option if they are at the upper end of that average for day sleep, so say for example they are getting more than 3 hours of sleep during the day. Often the way to do this is to reduce the length of the first nap. If your baby gets more than two naps a day, reducing the length of the last nap often helps too. If you are having split nights (when your baby is awake for long periods of time in the middle of the night), reducing day sleep should help eliminate those middle of the night parties. Check the timing of the last nap. Sometimes it is worth playing around with the last nap to see if it improves sleep. If there is a big gap between the last nap and bedtime, often it impacts on sleep at the start of the night. If you’re seeing a lot of wake ups in the first few hours of the night, it is worth shortening the gap between the last nap of the day and bedtime. If you have a very long last nap then you might need to shorten the length of the nap – it may be reducing sleep pressure too much – but keep the gap between the last nap and bedtime tight!
Doesn’t sleep beget sleep?
This is a theme in a lot of baby books! The more naps they get, the better they’ll sleep at night time, or so the narrative goes. Some babies do need a lot of sleep. If your baby is at the upper end of that average range, and sleeps well at night time, with long naps, then it’s perfectly ok to carry on with that pattern.
However, if your baby has a lower sleep need (is at the lower end of that average range), then more sleep isn’t going to help. In fact, unless your baby is getting less than an average number of hours of sleep, trying to increase naps or time in bed at night probably won’t help. We’d all love it if our babies had three long naps every day, and slept from 7 am to 7 pm. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the biological reality for the vast majority of babies – and there is a whole industry out there promising that you can make your baby do this. Of course, those promises will work for the small number of babies who do genuinely need more sleep. This programme is for all the other completely normal babies!
As I’ve mentioned before, adjusting naps often helps with night sleep. Remember, the basic principles with naps: make sure they’re evenly spread throughout the day, cat naps are ok if you can’t extend a nap, and naps happen differently from night sleep.
Are nap routines are a good idea? Well, once your baby’s circadian rhythm is established and you can see a pattern emerging with naps, it can be helpful to have naps at roughly the same time every day. So for example, if you notice that your 3 month old needs a nap roughly every 1.5 hours, then you can start to plan your day around those times. I usually say that until you’re down to 3 naps a day, it’s a good idea to just go with the flow as long as the naps are equally spaced. If your baby only cat naps, you don’t need to do anything else at all with naps. Bear in mind, that the shorter the nap, the shorter the wake window, so you may actually need to add in a nap somewhere, usually towards the end of the day. If your baby can link sleep cycles for naps, however, you might want to adjust when the long nap happens.
So, if your baby is on 3 naps a day, and will sleep longer for at least one nap, you might want to adjust the length of the naps. To do this, we want to work backwards from the last nap of the day! If you’re keen for a 7 pm bedtime, then you need to aim for the last nap to finish around 5 pm. So, I’d plan for that first nap to happen around 2-2.5 hours after your baby wakes up and keep it fairly short – usually around one sleep cycle. If your baby gets a long nap first thing, then it’s hard to build up enough sleep pressure for that second nap – often then there is too long a gap between the first and second nap (which affects the timing of the third nap) or that second nap ends up being too short.
Likewise, for a two nap day, you want that first nap to be the shortest one, so that the second nap (which will be early afternoon) can be the longer nap and get you to bedtime with the right amount of sleep pressure. A long morning nap, and a short afternoon nap often leaves a baby really tired for bedtime!
If you want to work on extending the length of a nap, that’s ok – we’ll look at this in a little bit more detail in the Sleep Strategies module, but you may want to use some sleep associations here – these both help your baby settle for sleep to happen, but also can help them fall back to sleep if they stir between sleep cycles. You can try physically helping your baby resettle, so perhaps going to them about 5-10 minutes before the time they normally wake up, and patting/shushing/feeding them through that transition to the next sleep cycle. Another option is actually “rouse to sleep” – you wake them up a little before the end of that sleep cycle and then coax them back to sleep. These tactics often do not work well with really alert babies – some babies have serious FOMO, and will only nap long enough to take the edge off the sleep pressure – any attempts to coax them to nap longer often aren’t successful. (If your baby is like this, they are normal!)
Normally, the transition from 4 to 3 naps isn’t that difficult. When you make the transition from 3 to 2 naps, or from 2 to 1 nap, it can have a big impact on night sleep. Often sleep becomes disturbed as they adjust to that bigger wake window between naps. There are a couple of ways to manage this transition:
- If your baby is really, really tired, you can bring their bedtime forward for a few weeks, and then gradually push it a bit later.
- You can try a bedtime nap – this works well if you have a long night, and your baby wakes up within an hour of falling asleep for the night. You just get your baby up again for 30-60 minutes, engage in some quiet play in a dim room, and then take them back to bed. This often helps to consolidate sleep in longer chunks. You can then work on gradually pushing their bedtime a bit later (say 15 minutes every 2-3 nights) until you find the right time for bedtime. A word of warning: make sure you keep your morning wake up time consistent while doing this!
- Introduce a very short cat nap around 4:30/4:45 that only lasts around 15 minutes. That often takes the edge off the sleep pressure and gets them through to bedtime.
A final word on naps: they will change constantly over the course of the first two years. Quite often, you will be working with a great routine for a few weeks, then they are ready to drop a nap, and you have to repeat the whole process and get back into a good routine. It can really feel like shifting sand!
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU AREN’T A ROUTINE PERSON?
Some parents find it really tough to plan their day around naps. That’s ok! There is a great approach that originated in Australia called Possums. I already use a lot of their principles in this sleep course, as it forms the basis of the NDC accreditation that I have. They advocate a very flexible approach to naps during the day. So if you want to be out and about, then the theory is your baby will sleep when they are tired. This approach works really well for some families, so if the thought of timing naps and changing the length of naps seems like it’s just too much work, that’s completely ok. Sleep is sleep, and it doesn’t matter where it happens. So if your child falls asleep on a car journey, you can either wait for 10-15 minutes for them to finish their nap, or just lift them and go with the flow. They may just need a longer nap later on. The trick is to be flexible and facilitate sleep when your child is tired, but not to focus on length of naps. The Possums approach advocates playing around with day sleep and working towards as little day sleep as possible – finding that balance between sleep pressure and night waking. So for example, one day might look like this (but the next day might look completely different):
7 am Awake
8:30 am 15 snooze on the school run
10:00 am 30 minute nap in the sling in Tesco’s
1 pm Car nap for 45 mins (mum took a cup of coffee and left early for the school run)
3 pm 30 minute snooze in the sling at the play park
5 pm 15 minute nap in the sling while mum making dinner
8 pm Asleep for the night.
Changing how sleep happens
You can definitely use sleep pressure to change how your baby falls asleep too! We’ll look at this in more detail in Sleep Strategies, but here’s a brief introduction. Say, for example, you’d like your baby to fall asleep in the cot, rather than in arms. You may have to add in a little bit more support in the form of sleep associations (more about them in the Sleep Strategies module), but some babies can actually make the transition easily, if they are tired enough. If you are going to make a change to how your baby falls asleep I’d always start with bedtime first (because you have the double advantage of sleep pressure and circadian rhythm), and if you need to change naps, start with the first nap of the day.
You need to make sure your baby is tired enough first of all, and then you try to get them to sleep in the new way first (eg falling asleep in the cot). If they either get too upset, or they aren’t falling asleep after 15-20 minutes, you can do a “dramatic wake up”, act like it’s time to get up, so you can go downstairs, do some quiet play, and then try again 20-30 minutes later. You repeat this cycle until sleep pressure kicks in and they fall asleep in the new way. This method minimizes crying, let’s you respond appropriately, and uses sleep pressure to facilitate sleep. After a few days, you have less false starts so eventually they’ll fall asleep in the cot on the first go.
Video – late bedtimes, early wake ups
Let’s face it, we all love getting our kids into bed early so we can have some much needed “me time”. So bedtimes that drag on, or happen very late, can be really tough.
Here are some ideas for dealing with a late bedtime:
- Is your baby maybe just naturally a night owl? (Most babies aren’t, but the trade off is that you usually don’t get woken up too early).
- What’s sleep hygiene like? Are they having exposure to screens/bright lights in the two hours before bedtime?
- Has their circadian rhythm shifted? Are they starting the day quite late? If so, you might need to decide whether you want a lie in, or an early night. Start waking your child up 15 minutes earlier every 2-3 days, and shift your nap timings and bedtime earlier too.
- Could they be ready to drop a nap? Often dropping a nap results in an earlier bedtime.
- Are they tired enough? Do you need to adjust the length of naps and perhaps reduce the amount of day sleep towards the end of the day?
- Are they overtired? Sometimes it’s easy to miss that bedtime window, especially if parents are rushing home from work, making dinner, doing baths, homework etc. If you’ve missed that window, your baby might have progressed to that hyper stage that isn’t conducive to sleep.
- Is bedtime taking a long time? Consider doing some “bedtime fading”. Say for example, you’ve done your bedtime routine and your baby goes down to bed around 7 pm, but isn’t asleep till 8 pm. Somehow, the signal isn’t getting through to your baby that bed = time to sleep. So, for a few nights, only take your baby to bed around the time that they normally fall asleep. This will mean that sleep pressure is really high, they’ll fall asleep quickly and it will help to reset that expectation that bed = sleep. You can then gradually bring your bedtime forward again, by 15 minutes every 2-3 days, until you get to the right time, that works with your baby’s sleep pressure and sleep onset latency.
Early wake ups
If you are not naturally an early bird, being woken up repeatedly can be really tough. To be honest, I think a wake up after 6 am is acceptable with babies. Most of them are just early birds, and there is next to nothing that you can do to change that – you probably just need to go to bed a bit earlier yourself (sorry!). However, if you find that your baby is waking around 5 am (or even earlier), there are a few things you will probably want to rule out:
- Is their bedtime too early? Remember, most babies only have a maximum number of hours they can actually spend in bed at night. If you find that they are really, really tired and ready for a 6 pm bedtime, then it might be worth inching naps and bedtime later every few days by around 15 minutes.
- What’s sleep hygiene like? Are there black out blinds in place to block out early morning light? Are you keeping curtains closed, lights dim for an hour or so after they wake, acting like it’s still nighttime, to reinforce that it is still night time?
- Is there a big gap between the last nap and bedtime? Overtiredness at bedtime sometimes contributes to an early wake. By that same token, are they getting enough sleep during the day?
- Is the first nap too early? Try to keep the gap between your baby waking up and that first nap reasonably big (at least their average wake window). If a baby wakes too early, and then is “rewarded” with an early nap, often that early nap just becomes an extension of their night.
- Would bringing them into your bed (safely) for a snooze and a sleepy feed help them doze for a bit longer?
- Are they getting an early breakfast? Once babies are eating solid foods, being given breakfast too soon after they wake up will just reinforce that early wake up. So, if your baby is up at 5 am, don’t give them breakfast 20 minutes later! Wait till 7 am, or whenever the rest of the family is eating breakfast.
Don’t forget that no matter how tired your child is, they still need to feel calm, and connected to you, in order to fall asleep!