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Some babies sleep much more than others. Some sleep in long patches, some in short. Some soon sleep right through the night, some don’t for a long time. Your baby will have his or her own pattern of waking and sleeping, and it’s unlikely to be the same as other babies you know. Also, the pattern will change over time.

One thing is certain. In the early weeks your baby’s sleeping pattern is very unlikely to fit in with your need for sleep. Try to follow your baby’s needs. You’ll gradually get to know when sleep is needed. Don’t catch up on housework while your baby sleeps. Snatch sleep and rest whenever you can.

A baby who wants to sleep isn’t likely to be disturbed by household noise. So there’s no need to keep the house silent while your baby sleeps. In fact, it will help you if your child gets used to sleeping through a certain amount of noise.

Most parents want their children to learn to sleep for the longest period at night – when they are sleeping – and it helps if you encourage night-time sleeping right from the start by teaching your baby that the night-time is different from the daytime. During night feeds:

  • keep the lights down low;
  • keep your voice low and don’t talk much;
  • put your baby down as soon as you have fed and changed him or her;
  • don’t change your baby if a change is not needed.

If your baby always falls asleep in your arms, at your breast, in your partner’s arms, or with someone by the cot, he or she might not easily take to settling alone. This might not matter to you and may be unavoidable in the early weeks, particularly with a breastfed baby. But, if you want your baby to get used to going off to sleep alone, it’s wise to start right from the beginning, by putting the baby down before he or she falls asleep whenever this is possible. However, you may need to wait until the baby is alert for longer or more frequent periods. Remember though, the longer you leave it, the more difficult it will become.

Once you’ve established a pattern you may want to try and shift things around a bit. For example, you may wake your baby for a feed just before you go to bed in the hope that you’ll get a good long stretch of sleep before he or she wakes again.

Safe sleeping

Reducing the risk of cot death
Sadly, we don’t know why some babies die suddenly and for no apparent reason from what is called ‘cot death’ or ‘Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’ (SIDS). But we do know that placing a baby to sleep on his or her back reduces the risk, and that exposing a baby to cigarette smoke or overheating a baby increases the risk.

All the advice that we now have for reducing the risk of cot death and other dangers such as suffocation is listed below.

  • Always put your baby to sleep on his or her back.
  • Cut out smoking in pregnancy – fathers too!
  • Don’t let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby.
  • Don’t let your baby get too hot and don’t overheat the room (see The right temperature, right).
  • Keep your baby’s head uncovered in bed – place your baby in the ‘feet to foot’ position.
  • If your baby is unwell, seek advice promptly.

A safe place to sleep

  • Your baby should always be put to sleep on his or her back unless there’s clear medical advice to do something different. Babies sleeping on their backs aren’t more likely to choke, and the risk of cot death is increased for babies sleeping on their fronts.
  • It is advisable to keep your baby in a cot beside you for the first six months.
  • Avoid plastic sheets or bumpers, ribbons and bits of string from mobiles. If they’re anywhere near your baby, he or she could get tangled in them.
  • Make sure there’s no gap between the cot mattress and the sides of the cot through which your baby’s body could slip. This is particularly important if you replace the mattress with a new or secondhand one. If you do use a secondhand mattress, make sure that it is firm, clean and dry, well aired and generally in good condition.
  • Remove any loose plastic covering from the mattress that could come off and smother your baby.
  • Don’t give a baby under the age of one a pillow.
  • Don’t let anyone fall asleep nursing a baby.
  • Don’t let your baby fall asleep propped up on a cushion on a sofa or armchair.

The right temperature
Small babies aren’t very good at controlling their own temperature.

It’s just as important to avoid them getting too hot as it is to avoid getting chilled. Overheating is known to be a factor in cot death.

  • If the room is warm enough for you to be comfortable wearing light clothing (16–20°C), then it’s the right temperature for your baby.
  • Give your baby one light layer of clothing (or bedding) more than you’re wearing. If the room is hot for you, keep your baby’s clothes or bed covering light.
  • Don’t use duvets (quilts) until your baby is one year old. They get too hot. 
  • Although it is fine to take your baby into your bed for comfort, a baby falling asleep under your duvet may get too hot.
  • Keep your baby’s head uncovered indoors (unless it’s very cold) because a baby needs to lose heat from his or her head and face.
  • Never use a hot water bottle or electric blanket. Babies have a delicate skin, which can scald or burn easily.
  • Ill or feverish babies don’t need any extra bedding. In fact they usually need less.
  • If you smoke, sharing a bed with your baby may increase the risk of cot death.
  • Remove hats and extra clothing as soon as you come indoors or enter a warm car, bus or train, even if it means waking your baby.

Clean air
Babies shouldn’t be exposed to tobacco smoke, either before birth or afterwards. If you, or anyone else who looks after your baby, smokes then don’t smoke anywhere near the baby. It would be even better if everyone could make an effort to give up completely. Smoke is present in the air that is breathed out for a considerable time after smoking has taken place. Babies and young children who breathe in cigarette smoke are more likely to get coughs, asthma attacks, and chest and ear infections.

Cot mattresses
Current research has found that there is absolutely no risk of cot death from toxic gases from fire-retardant materials found in some cot mattresses.

Following the advice given above will help reduce the risk of cot death. 

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.