5 Bad Sleep Habits and What to do about Them

Mother sleeping with child

Bad sleep habits are often rooted in desperation. You really want to get some sleep and will do anything to get your baby to comply. In this article, baby specialist, Meg Faure, talks about how to reverse bad sleep habits in babies. 

Habits in any area of life have a way of sneaking in. One day they’re not there and then suddenly you wake up one day and a habit has developed over time, without you even noticing! 

Before classifying any habit as good or bad, it is important to know a few things:

  • Habits do not develop in babies before three months old. If your baby is little and demanding a certain method to get to sleep, it is because of the sensory feature of that sleep association, not the fact that your baby recalls it from one sleep to the next.
  • Bad sleep habits very commonly become a problem between 7 and 11 months old.
  • Anything you don’t want to do for a long time to come or have to deal with breaking must be avoided after five months of age.
  • Most babies develop bad habits after an illness and take a few days to readjust to the old ways.
  • A habit is only bad if you are not happy with it. Anything is acceptable if it works in your home for the long term.

Let’s look at the top 5 bad sleep habits and what to do about them:

1. Rock to sleep

WHY: Your newborn will love the movement of rocking because it reminds them of the womb world.

EARLY ON: Use movement to get your baby drowsy but try from an early age not to rock your baby all the way to sleep.

SOLUTION: Wean your baby off rocking slowly by stopping just short of them falling asleep. Keep your hand on them as they settle in their cot. If they scream, pick them up and rock them gently but put them down when drowsy. The trick is to be consistent.

2. Breastfeed to sleep

WHY: Breast milk is sweet and soothing and the sucking helps your baby fall asleep.

EARLY ON: If your baby consistently falls asleep on the breast, burp them at your shoulder and they will rouse a little.

SOLUTION: In the older baby, make sure they are fully awake (can be drowsy) when you put them down. Sit when you feed them. Avoid lying next to them so they feed lying down because they are more likely to fall asleep. After 6 months old, your baby does not need breast milk at night. Don’t offer a feed between bedtime and 4am.

3. Drive around the block

WHY: The movement is settling and the white noise of the car makes babies drowsy.

EARLY ON: Many newborns fall asleep as soon as they are in the car. This is fine because your baby sleeps so much it’s almost impossible to keep them awake or you would be trapped at home. Early on, just relax about this one.

SOLUTION: From 6 months old try to have your baby sleep in their room or sleep space for every sleep. This applies to both day sleeps and at bedtime so they don’t have the chance to develop this habit. If you are in this habit: wean your little one off it by using a pram to rock them to sleep for a few days. The next step is to rock them to drowsy for a few days and thereafter put them down to sleep in their cot drowsy but awake.

4. Milk bottles through the night

WHY: The milk is sweet and comforting and the sucking on the teat also induces sleep. This is a bad habit for two reasons: firstly, it’s a pain to have to get up repeatedly to give them a bottle but secondly, it’s not good for your baby’s health. Bottle drinking at night is associated with ear infections, tooth decay and very fat babies.

EARLY ON: Always give your baby their bottle in your arms and NOT in the cot

SOLUTION: You have to go cold turkey on. Just don’t give your little one a bottle of milk at night. If your little one is a toddler say: “I can’t get you a bottle because the kitchen is closed.”

5. Any part of your body that is used as the crutch to fall asleep

WHY: Babies will choose part of your body as a comfort object – your hair, your elbow, your nose or some other part. It is inconvenient because outside of cutting off the body part, you cannot leave it with your baby to self soothe in the middle of the night.

EARLY ON: Offer a comfort object from early on.

SOLUTION: Find a comfort object that feels like your body part – e.g. a taglet cloth if your baby likes the silkiness of your hair, a soft toy if they likes your jersey, a soft plastic toy if it’s your elbow they like. Offer this object consistently if they cry or are unsettled when awake. They will soon associate the comfort object with soothing to sleep instead of your body part.

As mentioned above, the trick to breaking bad sleep habits is to be consistent in your response. Giving in – even if it’s just once or twice – is a sure way to go back to square one. Decide what is unacceptable and reinforce your decision in a loving, gentle manner. Remember – better sleep is waiting for you just on the other  side of this bad habit! 

For more about instilling good sleep habits in your little one, click here

Meg faure

Meg Faure

Hi, I’m Meg Faure. I am an Occupational Therapist and the founder of Parent Sense. My ‘why’ is to support parents like you and help you to make the most of your parenting journey. Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked with thousands of babies, and I’ve come to understand that what works for fussy babies works just as well for all babies, worldwide.

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