When cuddles only end in tears

Babies may feel rewarded for their crying if parents pat them, argues one children’s sleep specialist

Babies may feel rewarded for their crying if parents pat them, argues one children’s sleep specialist

'How's the sleep?" This is often the first question people ask the parent of a new baby. They know - particularly if they are parents themselves - how stressful tending to the needs of an infant in the middle of the night can be.

Pregnant pop star Dannii Minogue recently posted a picture of her first baby gift - a babygro emblazoned with the slogan "Sleep is for the weak" across its front - on her Twitter page. She is already gearing herself up for the night-time activities she and her newborn will experience after the birth in July.

A baby who keeps you up night after night is an absolute drain and can make parents tearful and irritable, even leading to postnatal depression. Who wouldn't be desperate if they were denied more than three consecutive hours sleep night after night? Add to that the worry that you are not raising your baby correctly and you can understand why mothers get emotional.

But Mandy Gurney of the Millpond Children's Sleep Clinic in north London says that people should not associate a wakeful baby with being a bad parent.

"It's seen as a reflection of your skills as a parent, which is nonsense," she insists.

Conversely, if your baby does sleep through the night you become the envy of all your fellow parents.

"People don't want to admit that they have got a problem," Gurney adds. "It can become quite competitive."

But since all babies are different, making comparisons is pointless.

"Temperament has a huge role to play in children's sleep," says Gurney. "The more feisty the child, the more likely they are to have sleep problems. With young babies, you have got issues like colic, reflux and food allergies. And there are certain babies who won't slip into routines."

Gurney does suggest trying to implement a bedtime routine from three months which is not necessarily as strict as Gina Ford's - the childcare expert whose advice splits parents. Popular as she is, she has also come under fire from some, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Instead, Gurney recommends a schedule that fits in with family life.

"To regulate body clocks, you do need to have some structure," suggests Gurney. "It does not need to be Gina Ford. It can be what works for you as a family."

Another controversial technique suggested by Ford is "controlled crying", which sounds harsh but if done properly, should sort out poor sleeping habits in a matter of days.

"Controlled crying does not mean that you abandon your baby to their tears but instead you return to briefly check them at set intervals to reassure your baby and yourself," says Gurney, who does not recommend the technique for children under six months. "The length of time between visits is gradually increased until your baby is asleep. The key to this technique is not to stroke, pat or re-position your baby. This type of contact could be seen as a reward for crying and instead of reducing the crying could teach your child to cry for a set period knowing that you will cuddle or stroke them."

After two or three gruelling nights with hours of crying, Gurney insists your baby should be able to settle himself independently. But she warns against using aids like dummies or rocking motions for sleep as it is important for a child to "self settle".

"Creating inappropriate sleeping associations like rocking, feeding or lying with them is dangerous because when babies come into a light sleep phase they will need those same connections put back in place," she says. "They need to know how to get to sleep without those props."

How to get your baby to sleep

● Establish a regular bedtime. This helps eliminate bedtime battles with your child.
● Stick to a set routine. This might include quiet play, a bath, a story, then lights out and a purposeful "goodnight". It should take no longer than 45 minutes.
● Enforce clear boundaries at bedtime. Once boundaries start to become stretched, most children will push them even more.
● Place a baby in her cot when she is drowsy, not asleep. If your baby can get used to falling asleep without your presence, she is likely to wake and demand you far less frequently.
● Do not rely on props. When your baby wakes at night, she needs to be able to get back to sleep without cuddles or dummies.
● 15 minute rule. This is the maximum amount of time it should take your child to fall asleep. Any longer and he may be having a nap too late in the afternoon – or a too stimulating bedtime routine.
● Keep daytime naps regular and consistent in length.
● Create the right sleep environment - children sleep better in a cool bedroom.

    Last updated: 3:00pm, May 27 2010