Trying to get an unsettled, unhappy baby to sleep can be an stressful experience, but it’s normal for babies to need our help to get them into a dozy, sleepy state. 'Babies aren't born with the ability to settle themselves,' explains Beth Barclay, Founder and Director of Mothercraft for Babies.
The good news is there are lots of ways to soothe your unsettled baby into a calm state, ready for restful sleep, although parents need to keep in mind the age of their baby and what they need developmentally from their caregivers. ‘It’s important that parents are responsive to their baby’s needs in line with what they can developmentally cope with, and what they need,’ agrees Beth. It's also important to refer to SIDS for safe sleep guidelines, to ensure your baby's sleep environment and the settling technique you use is considered safe.
With all this in mind, it makes sense to have a ‘tool bag’ full of strategies and techniques to use for when your baby is unsettled and having trouble with sleep.
Here are 15 things you can try to get your baby relaxed and ready for bed.
Use a baby carrier
If your baby refuses to be put down for sleep and only seems to calm down in your arms, try using a baby carrier to keep him close to you - and give your arms a break. Being close to your scent and heartbeat, as well his food source, can be very comforting for a baby, and will soon have him in a dreamy state.
Offer a feed
Newborns have tiny stomachs and may not be able to go as long between feeds as you think, so it's worth offering an extra breastfeed. Besides this, in those early months while breastfeeding is still being established, those extra feeds are great for keeping your supply healthy. Breastfeeding can also be incredibly soothing for babies of all ages, who often seek comfort as well as nourishment.
Rock your baby
In the womb, your baby slept, ate and played while being rocked to and fro whenever you moved, so it's no big surprise that rocking your baby is a hit on the outside too. You can increase the overall calming effects of this by singing or humming softly while you do it. Consider using a rocking chair so you can enjoy the soothing motion as well!
Wrap or swaddle
Wrapping your baby offers extra security and reassurance for young babies who are not able to actively roll yet (it's not considered safe after this time). 'Wrapping gives babies a sense of containment similar to that found in utero,' agrees Beth. 'It tends to help them settle more quickly, and stay settled.’ According to Beth, wrapping can also help contain the startle reflex, which can be more of an issue with overtired babies.
Try a dummy
Sucking helps babies calm down, which is why breastfeeding can be so effective at settling babies. However, a dummy, also known for its calming qualities, can be a useful substitute in helping unsettled babies wind down and prepare for sleep. Love them or hate them, dummies can be a saving grace when it comes to settling your baby.
Deal with the wind
If you have a windy baby, that excess gas might be getting in the way of settling. It's not uncommon for little babies to have immature digestive systems that make dealing with wind an uncomfortable matter, says Beth. 'These babies may need more hands on support and comfort, especially with going off to sleep,' she adds. Keeping your baby upright after feeds and offering plenty of warmth and patience will help your bub settle comfortably.
The power of melody
Singing, humming or playing music can be super effective in helping your baby settle for sleep. Recent research has shown that singing is even more effective than our talking voice when it comes to keeping babies calm. This makes singing an ideal tool to use for settling as well as part of your bedtime routine.
Using white noise can help soothe your baby because it mimics the noises experienced in utero, says Beth. 'It can also be useful if there's a lot of external noise in the home or if there's a noisy toddler around,' she adds. Some gentle shooshing from you can also be helpful. 'Shooshing is similar to white noise but it's using your voice, which your baby might respond to more,' says Beth.
Escape to a darkened room
Babies can easily become overstimulated and overtired, which can make settling for sleep a challenging endeavour. If your bub has had a long, busy day, he may have trouble shifting into 'downtime' even though he's due for sleep. Taking him into a dark, quiet room and offering a long cuddle can help him wind down from all that activity and slip into a sleepy state.
Make sure baby is comfortable
It's worth checking baby's physical comfort to eliminate dirty nappies, overly warm clothing or a cold bedroom as the source of the problem. Is baby’s outfit suitable for the bedroom environment - too warm, not warm enough? It’s also a good idea to check the temperature of the room to ensure it’s just right for sleeping.
A warm bath
Many mums will swear by the calming powers of a warm bath when bub is feeling fractious. Float bub around gently in a warm bath, which can simulate the womb environment, where he was constantly soothed. You can make this a beautiful bonding opportunity by using lots of eye contact and singing a little tune to ramp up the soothing factor.
Known for its soothing and calming qualities, baby massage can very effective in helping your bub settle ready for bed. 'If your baby responds well to hands on massage, then it can be a very calming and relaxing experience for both the parent and the baby,’ Beth explains. Babies experience love and affection through touch, adds Beth, so baby massage also offers a wonderful bonding opportunity.
Most babies love being patted on the bottom or back, which can be very calming for unsettled babies. Hold your baby close to you while you offer strong, rhythmical patting that resembles the same pattern as your heartbeat. Babies tend to be comforted by the repetition, which resembles the constant beat of your heart they grew so used to listening to while in utero.
Check for ill health
If your baby is unwell, chances are he’s not going to settle easily for sleep without extra support from you. It’s worth checking your baby’s temperature and whether sore gums or a troublesome nappy rash is the source of the unsettled and grizzly behaviour. You can then decide on a more hands on approach if bub needs it.
Get out of the house
If your baby just won’t settle for sleep, try getting out of the house and using the pram or baby carrier to calm bub down instead. The change of scenery can do wonders for shifting the stressful energy that comes with trying to get an unsettled baby ready for sleep. Even better, the walk in the fresh air can be a great energy booster for you.
Using these techniques when you need to, and even incorporating some of them into a bedtime ritual can pave the way for better, longer lasting sleep. Best of all, plenty of them offer relaxing elements for parents, which means you get to benefit from them too! However, if your baby remains unsettled despite trying a variety of safe settling techniques, and if you're finding the situation increasingly stressful, please consult a health professional, who should be able to get to the source of your baby's unsettled behaviour.