Ok, so we’ve all heard the saying ‘never wake a sleeping baby’ but there are times when you may need to. Babies don’t have the same sleep cycles as adults; they sleep for shorter periods of time and haven’t yet developed their circadian rhythm, which tells them when to feel sleepy or hungry. As they develop they will learn to tell the difference between night and day which will, in turn, help you to establish a good sleep routine.
There are no set rules for when you should wake a baby, you need to go with your instinct but you can follow these basic guidelines:
Newborn A newborn baby will do just as it needs to do in the early days; they tend to feed and sleep, feed and sleep without much in between!
It isn’t advisable (and almost impossible!) to wake a sleeping newborn but you can help them to learn the difference between night and day by keeping things light and busy in the daytime; don’t try to limit noise, just carry on as normally as possible! At night it is a good idea to try to keep things quiet and boring; keep their room dark and even when they wake at night for a feed keep it as quiet and dark as possible (so no singing or playing at 3 in the morning!).
If your baby is sleeping for more than four hours in the day you could try waking him by changing and washing him with a cool flannel, stroking or tickling his cheek or toes to get him ready for a feed. Often you may wake your baby for a feed and he will drop straight back off again! You could try stripping him down to his nappy as babies seem to respond to skin to skin contact, which helps them to stay more alert during feeding. If it is chilly lay a blanket over you and your baby to keep them warm. You could also let your baby suck your (clean!!!) finger for a few minutes to wake him up and prepare him for a feed.
If you are worried that your newborn is sleeping too much and not feeding enough speak to your midwife.
6 weeks At this stage you can help your baby to tell when it is time to be awake and time to be asleep by interacting with her in awake time. Make it exciting with daylight, fresh air, singing, play mats and cuddles. This doesn’t mean you have to be looking at your baby every second she is awake (although you might want to!); lay her on a mat on the floor in a safe place within sight and let her look around her; quiet time alone and awake is important for her development too, as well as giving you a chance to put the washing on, make lunch or sit down and have a cuppa!
As far as possible make sure that your baby’s nap time is in a quiet environment. Darkness can help a restless or easily stimulated baby to settle. You could try using soothing sleep sounds to lull your baby to sleep. Maintain this quiet environment as long as they are supposed to be asleep, so that when they do stir between sleep cycles they feel secure and sleepy and can go back to sleep by themselves.
If you want to wake your baby for a feed or to establish a routine, try switching on all the lights and doing things in her room, such as putting clothes away. Sing a song, don’t try to be quiet but at the same time don’t be too noisy! You don’t want her to wake up frightened. Bustle around the room for a few minutes, open the window and allow your baby to wake up gradually but securely.
If you are waking your baby to establish or change a routine (if, for example, her last nap is too late and you want her to settle for the night earlier), don’t try to do too much too quickly. Gradually wake her up 5 or 10 minutes earlier each day so that you can put her down earlier at night until she is waking at the right time for her age (see How Much Should My Baby Sleep).
Remember that your baby is constantly developing, physically and mentally and as a result her sleep needs will change too. So don’t panic if your baby is sleeping more, she’s probably getting ready for a growth spurt or a developmental leap. Only start waking your baby if you think that long naps are affecting her nighttime sleep or that she isn’t feeding enough in the day.
6 months and upwards At this stage you will probably have established a fairly consistent routine. Although your baby is still developing at an amazing rate, his sleep needs are probably changing on a monthly basis rather than weekly (or sometimes daily!). You may want to wake your baby up from a nap because you are worried that his sleeping too long will affect his daytime routine or bedtime. You may want to wake him up in the morning if you want to move his bedtime forward because he is settling too late at night.
You can wake your older baby by lightening the room and allowing normal daytime noise (housework, singing etc). If he doesn’t wake in this way pick him up and give him quiet cuddles until he gradually wakes. Whatever age your baby is, it is important that you wake him or her gradually. None of us likes being woken with a start and it is especially scary for a baby who doesn’t yet have the ability to know what has woken them and that they don’t need to be afraid. By waking your baby gradually and gently they should wake up contented instead of grumpy!
If you are waking your baby because you want to change his sleep or awake times (for example, if he is sleeping too late in the afternoon, which then affects his bedtime which then affects his morning waking time), do so gradually a few minutes earlier each day. Suddenly waking your baby an hour earlier is likely to result in an overtired, grouchy baby who is even harder to settle!
If you are not sure whether you should wake your baby it can help to keep a sleep diary. You may see a pattern emerging which will help you to find the right amount of daytime and nighttime sleep for your little one. Remember everyone is different and we all need different amounts of sleep. The guidelines given are just that; some babies will need more and some less and it is only through getting to know your baby and his sleep habits that you will establish the right balance for you and your family.