Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Is your baby a ‘sleep thief’?:

There's no right or wrong way with babies who are 'sleep thieves', but work out what is best for baby, you & your family.
By Carolines' Angels
Date: February 24 2015
Tags: baby sleep,
Editor Rating:

We get asked on a daily basis, “Why doesn’t my baby sleep well? What am I doing wrong?” There is no definitive and general answer to this but one that we can take a good look at to see why this occurs.

All babies are different and all babies have different needs. Many of the needs will be similar, but there will be some that differ from baby to baby. This is the fundamental element that we must keep in mind when discussing babies and sleep.

If we sat down with a group of mothers and had a discussion on how their babies go to sleep, how long they sleep for and what they have to do to assist their baby to sleep, the answers would all differ.  

For one mother who chooses to feed her baby to sleep, she may find that her baby sleeps for longer than one hour at a time in the day and sleeps all night and is perfectly happy to continue doing so, because it works for her, her baby and her family. For another mother, she may find that choosing to feed her baby to sleep does not work at all for either her or her baby, because her baby can’t cope with the change in feelings that it feels when it first goes to sleep, to the difference in feelings when it wakes up from a sleep cycle.

Babies rely on their feelings. They know and recognise what feelings they have when they go to sleep. So for a baby that is breastfed to sleep, they may have the following sensations:

  • Mother is present, as opposed to anyone else;
  • Smell of mother;
  • Taste of milk;
  • Feeling of nipple in the baby’s mouth;
  • Fullness of the baby’s tummy as it feeds to sleep;
  • Hearing mother’s heartbeat, gurgling stomach, perhaps her singing or humming as she feeds;
  • Deep touch around the baby as the mother holds her baby while feeding;
  • Perhaps some motion from a chair that rocks while feeding; and
  • Some gentle patting or stroking from mother while the baby feeds.

The baby feeds off to sleep with these being the last memories and sensations that they felt before going to sleep. They are placed into their cot and sleep. Some time later the baby will rouse from a light phase of sleep and possibly fall back into a deeper sleep or rouse from that light sleep then full waken. 

At that point, the baby is confused about where they are and why they feel like they do, even though they are tired and would like to sleep longer. The baby wakes, cries out for help to go back to sleep and its mother returns to feed the baby back to sleep, sometimes successfully and other times unsuccessfully. As the baby gets older, these unsuccessful times are becoming more frequent and the baby is now catnapping in the day and waking hourly at night. The ‘Sleep Thief’ baby is here.  

A baby who cat naps in the day and wakes frequently at night, is usually not self-sufficient at putting themselves to sleep.   They are not necessarily babies that feed to sleep, other things that are common are:

  • Rocked or held to sleep;
  • Take a bottle to bed with them and drink it until they fall asleep;
  • A dummy;
  • A comforter;
  • A specific position that they baby is always put to sleep in, however they are older and more mobile and now wake in a different position;
  • Fall asleep in places other than their cot such as the car, pram or in the living area in front of the television;
  • Fall asleep to the sound of music or white noise, only to rouse to silence

For each baby, they have a ‘sleep recipe’ if you will. When the correct requirements are there for that baby, they can then fall asleep and stay asleep. For many families they find this recipe early and for others it takes a much longer time.  

As their baby continues to sleep poorly, it is not uncommon to see that the baby needs more and more help to go to sleep and then stay asleep, so much so that it becomes too difficult for the family to sustain this. They may try to assist their baby to improve sleep, but are often confused and misguided as to the best way to approach this. 

Taking into account personal preference and tolerance, what one family considers to be appropriate methods to do this, is completely unacceptable to another family. Families will discuss this issue with each other and one will recommend a method that was really successful and acceptable to them and encourage another family to try the same method with completely different results. It may be that the method that they used does not suit the baby’s needs or is not acceptable to the family, or that the method did not achieve desirable results as quickly as the recommending family and simply is not sustainable to wait for results that may or may not be achieved. 

The trick is to give things a go, and see what results you get, if you are happy with the progress, then sure keep going, but if you are not getting progress then quite possibly this is not a method that suits your baby, or that things have not been accounted for that allows the method to work.

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