Common questions

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by Professor Colin Espie

How can I help my baby stop crying and go to sleep?

On average, babies cry for 3 hours a day. He is trying to tell you something, but it won't always be possible to figure out what. The most common reasons are probably hunger, tiredness, discomfort, pain, over-stimulation and boredom – but in babies with colic, crying can continue for hours without an identifiable cause. Colic affects up to 1 in 5 babies from a few weeks up to 6 months old.

If your baby cries excessively, see a healthcare professional to rule out common causes like reflux or eczema. If crying is combined with other symptoms, seek medical advice.

I'm still waking up to feed multiple times during the night. Is this normal?

After six months, infants don't physically need a night time feed, but up to a half will continue to wake up during the night. This is particularly common where a baby has learned an association between feeding and falling asleep – when they wake up, they expect milk in order to fall back to sleep.

In an infant older than six months, try and reduce the association between feeding and sleeping by moving feeding earlier in the pre-sleep routine. For example feed in a different room, before getting ready for bed in the bedroom.

You can also wean your baby gradually from requiring a full bottle or feed just before they sleep by reducing the volume of milk in a bottle each day over a week, or gradually reducing feeding time for a breastfed infant.

Once a baby has learned to fall asleep at bedtime without a feed, they should be more able to get back to sleep during the night without a bottle.

Is it true that putting a baby to bed later means they're more likely to fall asleep faster?

It may sound logical, but in fact children of any age will have a harder time settling down if they're overtired.

Does co-sleeping mean they're more likely to sleep through the night?

Whether or not you share your room, or your bed, with your baby is a very personal choice. In some societies, co-sleeping is the norm. Research suggests that on average, children who sleep in their parents' room are less likely to sleep through the night, and their mothers wake up more frequently.

Are breast-fed babies are more likely to sleep through the night?

Since breast milk is easier to digest than formula, it typically means shorter intervals between feeding. An 8 week old bottle-fed baby might sleep for 4 to 6 hours, while a breast-fed baby is like to wake to feed every 2 to 3 hours. Breast-fed babies are also more likely to form an association with nursing to sleep, which can mean it takes longer to learn to 'go solo' and self-soothe to sleep.

My daughter only falls asleep in the car – what can I do?

Your daughter has learned an association between falling asleep and specific conditions, and will need to learn to fall asleep by herself. Try the 'Learning to go solo' techniques to gradually increase her tolerance for sleeping by herself.

My toddler gets hyperactive at bedtime. How can I calm him down?

Young children need lots of sleep, although they are often reluctant to admit that they're tired. Look for signs of sleepiness before your child starts to be overtired, which frequently results in 'hyper' behavior. Start the bedtime routine at a consistent time each evening so that your toddler is in bed before 8:30pm. If they really don't feel tired they can play quietly in their crib with the lights low. If they are often overtired at night, experiment by shifting the whole bedtime routine forwards by 15-30 minutes.

How can I persuade my 4 year old son that he wants to go to sleep?

He probably thinks he'll be missing out – little does he know it'll probably only be on the washing up! The bedtime routine and consistent schedule are important. Have a regular pattern which includes things he enjoys, but ends in bed. Be firm in setting limits. Warn him when bedtime is coming up, and stick to what you tell him. For example, warn him “In 10 minutes it'll be bath time, and then it'll be time for a book.” Try using a timer to show when playtime is running out, so that it's not you always saying when to stop.

If he refuses to stay in bed, try avoid giving extra attention for bad behavior. Be as neutral and uninteresting as you can, and return him to his bed. You may need to do this multiple times. Be consistent. Don't reward him for his persistence by letting him stay with you. If he's not tired, he can play quietly in his bedroom with the lights low. Tell him you will check on him at regular intervals, and do so. Congratulate him for getting back into bed. In nights that he does stay in his bed at the time you've set, try a star chart to reinforce good behavior.

How can I stop my 5-year-old napping every day?

Although many children give up napping after their third birthday, around 15% of 5-year-olds still have a nap most days. Naps can be very positive – toddlers who nap typically have longer attention spans and a longer total sleep time than those who don't.

Trying to keep your child up won't necessarily help them sleep better at night – in fact, better daytime sleep is often associated with better nighttime sleep.

After age 5, deliberately eliminating afternoon naps can help get your child earlier to bed in the evening. If transitioning out of naps, start by alternating days. Encourage your child to be outside in the sunlight when they would typically be napping to help keep them alert naturally, and move bedtime forward if they start to feel sleepy.

My daughter is afraid of the dark, how can I reassure her?

Listen carefully to what she's afraid of and try to understand the source of fear. Reassure her that she is safe but don't dismiss her fear. Explain how you have overcome fears in the past, and find stories to read in which children conquer their fears. A comforting soft toy or object, and keeping a dim night light on through the night, could help her feel more secure.

It sounds obvious, but don't read scary stories or play chasing games before bed.

Just as a child's imagination can conjure up scary things, it can also conjure up imaginary defenses – a force field, or magic wand could help her feel safe. Encourage your daughter to come up with solutions that will give her confidence.

Relaxation strategies such as imagining a favorite secure, peaceful, environment could be helpful to help older children get to sleep.

I'm going on holiday – what about the routine?

There are lots of reasons that the daily schedule gets thrown into disarray – illness, holidays, new babysitters, working late.. Unfamiliar surroundings will almost certainly cause a temporary blip, but don't worry, things will settle down again! If you're anxious about bedtime being disrupted, so will your child.

Find ways to re-create any 'rituals' that are transferable. Do things in the same order, and pack an object they're attached to, familiar bedding and favorite books. Even a few days of a consistent schedule should help your child settle in a new location.

Is it true that my child will grow out of being a poor sleeper?

Babies and children are unlikely to grow out of sleep problems unless something is done about it. Studies show that most babies with sleep problems at age 1 are still sleeping poorly at age 4 without intervention.

Next: The science of sleeping in childhood

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