Your feeling of sanity as a parent can revolve a great deal on how much your baby or child sleeps. It is difficult for all of us to function at our best when we are deprived of sleep. As parents we are likely to each have our own individual approach and beliefs around sleep, but it frequently evokes a great many challenges and feelings.

First few weeks:

In the first few weeks after birth, a baby’s sleep pattern is often very chaotic with no routine. Babies will sleep at odd times and seem to have their clocks set so they are awake for much of the night.

Different parents will have a different response to this. Some will be happy to go with the flow and endure endless nights broken nights, believing that attending to a baby’s early needs will provide them with the inner resources they need to feel safe and secure, and will allow them to find their own rhythm after a while. Other parents will find this lack of routine and sleep intolerable. They might try to guide their baby towards a more routined pattern of behaviour right from the start. It is important to recognise that each of us is different and needs to manage things in our own way.

Whatever your approach, it is important to remain in touch with a newborn baby’s experience and not push them beyond what they can manage. They will feel bewildered and lost much of the time and life will sometimes feel chaotic, frightening and without boundaries. When you leave the room, they do not yet have the awareness that you will return. It can feel as though you have left forever. The smell of you, your soft skin and curves, will be much more comforting than a cot that might seem less soft, smell differently and be full of empty space. Balanced against that, are your needs, which are equally important, for sleep and some sense of order. Each one of us will find their own balance with these differing needs.

Sleep is a process of separation. When a baby is drifting off to sleep, they need to let go of the world around them. Our own feelings about going to sleep, about letting go and separating will influence our approach to sleep and whether we are able to present sleep confidently to our baby as something pleasant and restful. Previously painful and unresolved separations from our past may be evoked. Feelings of loneliness and longing for comfort, or missing your baby during the day if you have been away from work may also influence your responses. Our feelings about this will be communicated to our baby in many, subtle ways.

Although parents have read baby books, babies have not. With the best will in the world, sometimes a baby will not settle to sleep. It can be frustrating, you can feel overwhelmed by exhaustion, or feel that you’ve failed as a parent. Whatever the approach you are trying, there are times when it can feel that ‘nothing works’.

It is usual for a baby’s sleep patterns to be erratic and chaotic in the first few months. Many babies settle after this time of their own accord as they grow and develop. It is worth keeping going with what you are doing. Sometimes a baby will develop in a week or two and will be able to manage something that wasn’t possible only a short time before.

Three to six months:

Issues with sleep often continue to pre-occupy parents. It can be an exhausting process persuading a newborn baby that night-time is for sleeping.

By three months a baby will have developed more internal resources. They have a greater sense of trust that their needs are important and will be (overall) responded to. They are more certain that when you leave, you will be coming back. This is often a time that parents decide to impose more boundaries, either in the form of moving their baby from their bed to a cot, to a separate room, or establishing more of a sleep routine.

It can be helpful to stop and consider how you feel about this. Do you feel guilty about the boundaries that you are imposing, or that somehow you are being mean or cruel? This lack of confidence will communicate itself to your baby. If you don’t believe that being in a cot is okay, you are hardly likely to convince your baby. If you feel that leaving your baby is callous, you will feel increasingly anxious as they cry themselves to sleep.

On the other hand if you feel positive about the need for sleep, the need to be in a secure but separate space, you will find it easier to encourage your baby to sleep in their cot. You will feel less guilty as they grizzle and moan as they learn how to settle themselves and you will be stretching and developing their emotional resources.

You are communicating your belief that your baby will survive and holding on to what you know they need, which is rest, which they get less of in your arms, or in your bed. Your need for sleep is also important. Sleep is vital for remaining sane, maintaining a perspective on things and enjoying your baby.

If a baby constantly falls asleep in the arms of someone else, they may be alarmed to wake up alone. They have not mastered the separation by drifting to sleep by themselves. This means that if they wake, they are less likely to get themselves back to sleep, leading to endless broken nights for them and you. A baby who is comfortable in their cot will devise means to get themselves to sleep and may very much enjoy this time alone.

They might, with time, discover that if they wriggle they can find a comfy spot against the rolled up towel you’ve laid beside them, or that they can fix their eyes on a light, a plant or a pattern that is interesting to them. You might offer them music, a pat on the back, a soft goodbye to help them feel more secure.

All of this takes time and some babies will respond more quickly than others. Again it is important to be attuned to your baby’s development and not push them beyond their resources. Perhaps it might be helpful to discern between a cry of desperation and a complaining, grizzling cry at being left alone.

It remains important however, to have an approach that you feel comfortable with. Some parents are firm believers in what is commonly termed ‘controlled crying’, in which a baby is left (for short periods) to cry themselves to sleep. They might view picking their baby up as overly indulgent and creating bad sleep habits. Other parents feel that leaving their baby to cry is callous and controlling.

Whatever your feelings, it is likely that if you use an approach that you are comfortable with and can follow through on, your baby will pick up on your confidence that things will be okay and you will have a greater chance of success.

This early time can often feel very intense and many parents can experience a great pressure to get ‘everything right’. However sleep patterns can be addressed when a baby is older, or even when they are a toddler. It is never too late. Parenting often requires very different approaches for different phases. But it is important to hold on to the fact that how your baby is right now, is no indication of how they might be when they’re older. Early difficulties can be ironed out and issues that seem very worrying at one particular time can disappear as a child grows and develops.