Skip to content

Help, my baby won’t sleep!

“Help, my baby won’t sleep,” a statement that many parents with young children will recognize. Sleep problems in babies are quite common and can drive parents to despair. Fortunately, there are several solutions for struggling babies, such as bedtime fading, good sleep hygiene and swaddling.

Sleep problems in babies

The sleeping pattern of newborn babies is a source of frustration for many parents: people wake up at every turn to a crying baby, have to rock the baby for hours before he or she finally falls asleep, while the baby sleeps like a baby during the day. Although newborns need some time to find a reasonable sleeping pattern and sleep problems generally decrease on their own, there is a group of babies where sleeping remains problematic. However, a healthy sleep pattern is necessary for the baby’s development. Moreover, in practice it often means that the baby’s sleep problem becomes a problem for the entire family.

The normal sleep cycle of babies

The sleeping pattern of babies and adults differs in a number of ways. Not primarily in the need for sleep: babies need an average of sixteen hours of sleep per day, while the average adult needs eight hours of sleep. During development, the need for sleep slowly but surely decreases.There is also a difference with regard to the content of sleep. Babies spend a large part of their sleep in the so-called dream sleep, the REM sleep. Adults spend most of their sleep in non-REM sleep, a very deep, restful sleep. While newborns still spend approximately 50 percent of their sleep in dream sleep, the share of this dream sleep is only 20 percent when children are three to four years old.

Research into the sleep of babies and toddlers

When you want to treat a baby’s sleep problem, you first need to know where sleep is actually going wrong. It is therefore wise to keep a so-called sleep diary for a few weeks, in which you answer a number of questions every day:

  • How often does the child sleep in a day?
  • Does the child sleep several shorter stretches in a row or does he sleep several times a day for a longer period?
  • How and how quickly does the child fall asleep when put to bed?
  • How do the parents react when the child wakes up at night and cries?
  • Are there differences between both parents when it comes to experiencing sleep problems? Does the sleeping problem occur in both parents?
  • Is there a fixed ritual around going to bed? If so, what does this ritual look like?
  • Is the child very sleepy during the day, or is he an active and alert child?

Once you have kept the sleep diary for a few weeks, you can look for patterns in sleeping and the complaints surrounding sleeping. In addition, one can try to investigate what the cause of the sleeping problem is and try to eliminate this cause as far as possible.

Treating sleep problems in babies

To treat a baby’s sleep problem, parental involvement is essential. Parents are often part of the sleep problem and it is common for parents to unconsciously and unintentionally perpetuate the sleep problem. A number of factors are very important to promote a baby’s healthy sleep.

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene may play the most important role in solving sleep problems in babies. Good sleep hygiene means that the conditions for falling asleep and staying asleep are optimal. The factors below are all part of good sleep hygiene:

  • Fixed sleeping place : always let the baby sleep in the same room and in the same bed
  • Well-darkened bedroom : make sure it is dark enough in the bedroom by using heavy curtains or shutters. Light makes it more difficult to fall asleep, because light is associated with being awake and active. However, it is no problem to leave a small night light on.
  • Sleeping conditions : no one sleeps well in a bedroom that is too hot or too cold, so ensure a pleasant temperature in the bedroom. In addition, make sure that the room is quiet and tidy, so that soporific stimuli are absent.
  • Bedtime ritual : create a fixed ritual around going to bed, so that the baby knows where it stands and when it is time to go to sleep. For example, read a quiet bedtime story or sing a lullaby, after which you turn off the light.
  • Bedtime : try to keep the same bedtime every evening, which promotes the natural sleep rhythm. The body will, as it were, learn to send out the signal “I want to sleep, I am tired” every evening around a fixed time.
  • Preventing naps in the evening : make sure that the baby does not take short naps in the hours before going to bed. This reduces natural fatigue at the end of the day, making it more difficult to fall asleep. After all, the baby is not really tired anymore after the cat nap.



Some babies benefit from swaddling: wrapping the baby in cloth from shoulders to feet. This limits the baby’s movements, making it easier for him to transition to sleep. There are different ways to swaddle your baby, see this website about swaddling for an overview. Swaddling is not suitable for every baby, it is not recommended for babies with fever, respiratory infections and babies who continuously try to turn on their stomach despite being swaddled. In addition, keep in mind that swaddling is a means and not an end in itself: it can give babies peace and regularity, but ultimately the baby must also learn to fall asleep without being swaddled.

Gradual extinction

The premise of gradual extinction is that behavior disappears if it is not rewarded. When parents hear their baby crying, they often have the tendency to immediately run to the nursery to comfort their baby. The baby does not learn how to comfort himself, but he does learn that mom or dad will give extra attention when he cries. And what baby doesn’t love extra attention? Parents unintentionally reward their baby’s crying when they comfort him or her. This will cause the baby to show crying behavior more often, as it provides a reward. So the baby must learn that he is not rewarded when he cries. Parents can do this by removing the link between crying and comforting (extra attention) by checking when they hear their baby crying, but reassuring him or her very matter-of-factly (go to sleep, mom and dad are in bed). the neighborhood) and then immediately leave the room without comforting the baby extensively. Parents should repeat this procedure until the baby falls asleep. It may take some time for the baby to realize that he will not receive extra attention when he cries. That is why gradual extinction requires quite a bit of perseverance and patience from the parents.

Fading of bedtime

Ultimately, every baby falls asleep at some point, after all, you can’t live without sleep. You can use this if you want to advance the baby’s sleep time. For a few days, you only put the baby to bed when he or she normally falls asleep and can no longer keep their eyes open. Then, advance the time you put the baby to bed by a few minutes every few days until you reach the desired bedtime. You should not change the time at which you wake the baby in the morning.

If these tips don’t help…

Although sleep problems in babies generally resolve themselves over time, the tips described in this article may not be sufficient. In that case, it is advisable to ask your GP for a referral to a sleep center or child psychologist.

read more

  • Help, my toddler or preschooler doesn’t want to sleep!
  • Sleep disorders in children: insomnia (insomnia)