How to improve sleep (without sleep training!)

Becoming a parent is one of the most life-changing events you can go through. Some of it is amazing, and some of it is, well, exhausting. And often we aren’t prepared for the reality of sleep during the first few months (or years) of our babies lives. The truth is, it is normal for babies to need support to get to sleep, and to wake frequently overnight.

However, when you google “How to make my baby sleep” at 3am, you’ll often come across 100s of articles about how you should sleep train. That the trick to getting them ‘sleeping through’ is to teach them how to self-settle. All of a sudden, you’re faced with leaving them to ‘cry-it-out’, or potentially spending years ‘waiting-it-out’.

But is there a middle ground? Can you improve sleep without sleep training?

5 ways to improve sleep without training

Here are a range of gentle, responsive ways to support sleep without sleep training:

1) Rule out any red flags

The first place I start with any family is understanding any potential underlying causes for their child’s sleep difficulties. Of course, we know that night waking is normal and to be expected but sometimes very frequent waking can be a sign something else is going on. In particular, if a baby is waking hourly or more, ALL night, with no longer stretches of sleep at all.

Some things to watch out for are:

  1. Snoring & mouth breathing. These can be a sign of a tongue tie, enlarged tonsils, sleep apnea or other medical sleep disorders. If you notice your little one breathing through their mouth, or snoring when they don’t have allergies or a cold speak to your GP, or seek out a local tongue tie practictioner.
  2. Reflux & excessive vomiting. Severe reflux can caused disturbed sleep, and often babies with reflux struggle to lie flat. If your little one seems very unsettled, hard to put down or crying a lot – please speak to your GP or a reflux specialist to get a diagnosis and some support.
  3. Shallow latch when feeding. Babies with a shallow latch (on the breast or bottle) can mean they take in too much air when feeding, and also that they aren’t feeding effectively. Speak to a lactation consultant or your health visitor if you aren’t sure.
  4. Excessive air intake when feeding. If you hear your little one clicking, gulping or spluttering when feeding – these can be signs of taking in air. They are also likely to spit up, vomit, have explosive nappies or lots of painful wind/hiccups. Again, speak to your GP, health visitor or a feeding/reflux specialist if you think this could be an issue.

It’s absolutely vital to address underlying causes of sleep issues – as an uncomfortable baby is never going to sleep well. By addressing the root cause, often sleep will begin to improve without making any other changes.

2) Make sure the basics are covered

Once you’ve ruled out any wider issues, it’s time to make sure you’ve nailed the basics. For example:

  1. Are they waking up at a similar time each morning? This can help anchor their day, and make things more predictable.
  2. Are they getting enough exercise and daylight?
  3. Are you spending lots of lovely quality 1:1 time together, particularly before bedtime?
  4. Are they feeding & eating well? And if on solids are they eating a healthy range of foods?
  5. Are they winding down enough before bedtime? TV or screens should be turned off at least an hour before bed.
  6. Do you have a calming, predictable bedtime routine?
  7. Is their room nice and cool? 16-20 degrees is the ideal temperature.
  8. Is there room dark enough? Installing black-out blinds can make a huge difference.
  9. Do you use white or pink noise to drown out external noise, and create a positive sleep association?

3) Work out your child’s individual sleep needs

Every child has their own individual sleep needs (as does every adult!) When I say ‘sleep needs’, I simply mean the amount of hours they are capable of sleeping over a 24-hour period. Wondering what the averages are?

  • 0-3 months – 14-17 hours
  • 5-11 months – 12-15 hours
  • 1-2 years – 11-14 hours
  • 3-5 years – 10-13 hours
  • 6-12 years – 9-11 hours

The way to work out your little one’s sleep needs is as simple as calculating: total day sleep + total night sleep (minus any long periods awake overnight). Your baby will fall somewhere on the spectrum of low – high sleep needs (or more likely somewhere in the middle).

High sleep needs children are at the top end of sleep totals. They need more sleep than the ‘average’ baby, and want to sleep more frequently than the average baby too. So you often find they have shorter than average awake windows, early bedtimes, long naps and are late to drop their naps too.

Low sleep needs children are the exact opposite. They need LESS sleep than the average baby. So they might have longer than average windows awake between naps, take short naps, like later bedtimes and generally be less likely to get ‘overtired’.

You cannot change how much sleep your child needs. This is simply how they are – we can’t make them sleep more, and we can’t make them sleep less. Instead, it’s about figuring out the routine that works for them and their sleep needs. For example if you have a lower sleep needs child you might want to consider capping naps, stretching awake windows and pushing bedtime later to avoid early rising or long periods awake during the night. But if you have a higher sleep needs child you might want to encourage longer naps with cuddles/motion and bringing bedtime earlier to avoid false starts and frequent wakes before midnight.

4) When making changes – swap the comfort, don’t remove it

Often, steps 1, 2 and 3 can lead to really huge changes in a little one’s sleep – and nothing else is needed. However, at other times parents may want or need to make bigger changes. For example they need to move away from rocking to sleep as their baby is getting too heavy. Or they may want to get their baby in a cot and stop bed sharing. Or they may be struggling with 2-hourly night feeds.

Once you know what you are trying to move towards, you can support your little one through this change. The key here isn’t to completely remove the comfort (as in sleep training) but instead swap it for something else. For example, in the daytime if your little one wanted chocolate for lunch you wouldn’t say “No chocolate, and also now you can’t have lunch either”. You would say “Sorry, I know you want chocolate but we don’t have it for lunch. But you can have eggs or a sandwich – which would you prefer?”.

The same principle applies at night. If you no longer want to rock your baby to sleep, you can choose to set this boundary and replace with cuddling instead. Your little one might not be happy about this change, but you would support them through the change with lots of cuddles & reassurance. This way, they can co-regulate their emotions with us, whilst getting used to the new way of falling asleep.

5) Try and respond not react when they wake

Often when our babies stir during the night, we rush to them to stop them fully waking. We either pop in the dummy, pat back to sleep or offer a feed to get them back ASAP. Problem is – in some of these situations we may actually be waking or babies, or at least stopping them from settling back to sleep. Babies are notoriously noisy sleepers – and these noises they are making may be in their sleep, or them trying to get back to sleep themselves.

This is why during the night I recommend RESPONDING not reacting. But what is the difference?

  1. Reacting
    When we ‘react’ – we are going to our babies before they have asked for anything from us. Babies are notoriously noisy sleepers, so by reacting very quickly we may actually be attempting to soothe them before they even wake up!
  2. Responding
    This is when we go to our babies in the night to give them something they need. For example if they wake and cry, and we go to them and offer a cuddle or a feed.

Hopefully you can see the subtle difference here! So next time your baby stirs in the night, my tip is to just wait a moment. Are they just making sleepy noises? Are they trying to settle themselves? Or are they starting to cry and need your help? If they need your help OF COURSE go straight to them. But if you get the sense they don’t need you right now, then give them some space. This can make a huge difference in overnight sleep!

If you need help, support or guidance in improving your little ones sleep (without sleep training!) then get in touch. Click below to send me a message, and get started. Get in touch!