The first, and most obvious, thing is to make sure your baby or child is sleeping as well and as long as they can for their age. All this information is available in detail from our experts in the baby and child sleeping articles and courses.
Now – on to YOU.
You need to be realistic – with a little baby, you’ll be waking through the night to feed, and there’s nothing much you can do about that. But as your baby gets older and they have a period of, say, 6 hours, sleep between around 8pm and 2am – you can plan to sleep through that time as well. It means your social life will suffer, but during those first few months, sleep is more important for most of us.
Plan as many naps as you can through the day as well – if you can, sleep when your baby sleeps. Easier said than done when you have a life to lead as well, and jobs to do, but try when you can.
Having your baby in the same room as you helps reduce the impact of breastfeeding through the night – you don’t have to actually get up – you can gently bring your baby over near you, feed them and hopefully get back to sleep more quickly. Learning to breastfeed lying down means the whole process can be done (ideally!) when you’re both half-asleep.
Cortisol is the sleep/stress hormone which controls when you wake up. Cortisol levels should be as low as possible when you go to bed. Through the night, cortisol levels gradually rise, and when they reach a certain level, you will wake up.
If you’re consistently waking up too early, or you are not able to get to sleep, that means your cortisol levels are too high when you went to bed, and you need to lower them.
To reduce your cortisol levels at night:
Melatonin is the sleep hormone that triggers sleep. In the days of cavemen, at nighttime, it became cool and dark – and that triggered the release of melatonin.
So the key is to replicate these conditions about an hour before you want to sleep.
To increase your melatonin levels at night:
You might think that napping through the day (if you’re lucky enough to be able to) will prevent you sleeping at night – but the opposite is true.
If you are over-tired when you go to sleep, you will be stressed, and your cortisol levels will be raised.
Counterintuitively, if you go to bed very late and very tired, your cortisol levels will be raised and this will cause you to wake up earlier. It’s a vicious cycle – and one that can be helped by napping as much as you can on and off through the day. “Sleep breeds sleep” as the midwives say about babies – it’s the same principle for adults.
Reduce or cut out sugar, caffeine and alcohol from your diet. All of these will reduce the quality of your sleep.
Exercise is hugely helpful in increasing the quality of your sleep. It reduces stress, and therefore your cortisol levels won’t be as high when you go to sleep.
As much as you can, get outside into the fresh air through the day. Even a long walk is great exercise and will help reduce stress levels and promote better sleep.
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Sleep Faring, Jim Horne / Oxford, 2006.
Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep, Judy Owens and Jodi Mindell / Marlowe and Co, 2005.
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Children, Dr Marc Weissbluth / Vermilion, 2010.
Sleeping Better, A Guide to Improving Sleep for Children with Special Needs V Mark Durand / Brookes Revised Edition 2014.
Outcomes at six years of age for children with infant sleep problems:
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Short Nighttime Sleep Duration and Hyperactivity Trajectories in Early Childhood,Tourchette et al. Pediatrics. 2009.
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Longitudinal analysis of sleep in relation to BMI and body fat in children: the FLAME study. BMJ 2011
Short sleep duration is associated with increased markers in European adolescents
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Kids’ behavior impacted by lack of sleep, Jase Donaldson, Insight Journal, Feb 13 2006.
What affects the age of first sleeping through the night? S M Adams, D R Jones, A Esmail and E A Mitchell, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol 40, issue 3, March 2004.
Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children; An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Review, Jodi A. Mindell, et al SLEEP, Vol. 29, No. 10, 2006
References are reviewed on a regular basis and are updated when applicable.