Sleep problems aren't fun, but the good news is that they won't last forever.

Sleeping mother with baby

This is the part of our series on 'The baby fog', which covers major challenges new parents might want to be aware of ahead of time.

Waking in the middle of the night, although tiring, isn’t the only sleep challenge babies present to their parents. Before babies learn to sleep through the night, the family is likely to face several other sleep issues.

The good news is that these sleep habits continue to improve as your baby grows 

The first challenge? Catnapping. At around 12 weeks of age, babies become more aware of their surroundings and start to surface more between sleep cycles, making it common for them to wake after 45 minutes of sleep. This can happen during the day and night, and even when they’re not hungry. Teaching your child to self-settle can help, but most sleep coaches say babies are physically incapable of doing this before three or four months – which means you can only start teaching your baby to self-settle around the same time as when the problem starts.

This is why using other techniques – such as rocking or feeding your baby back to sleep, or co-sleeping – can seem much easier, even though most sleep coaches say these create bad habits for the future.

“If your baby only sleeps for quick bursts, for 20 minutes to half an hour, it can be especially challenging,” says Kirsty Busuttil, an early childhood education expert. “A cycle of catnaps will make you and your baby tired and cranky.”

Julia, mum to 13-month-old Daniel, says it wasn’t until she resolved her son’s catnapping problems that she realised how exhausted she was.

“For the first eight months, Daniel was a catnapper. During the day he’d fall asleep breastfeeding then nap for 30 minutes in my arms. He’d do this maybe three times a day. It was exhausting. The nights got progressively worse until he was in our bed all night, waking every hour to breastfeed back to sleep,” she says.

Early morning rising – when a baby regularly wakes before 6am and won’t go back to sleep – can also lead to exhaustion. This began for my husband and I when we read a baby book that stated that babies should be put to bed around 7pm because it was most optimum time for their circadian rhythms. This just resulted in 4-5am wake-up calls.

The traditional advice parents are given – such as sleeping when the baby sleeps, and getting to bed early yourself – is well-meaning but can be impractical. It can be difficult to relax enough to fall asleep during the day, especially with a catnapping baby. And many parents wake up out of habit during the night, even when babies sleep for a longer periods.

As if it isn’t enough for babies to have interrupted daytime sleeps, early morning starts and middle-of-the-night waking, a phenomenon called ‘the witching hour’ can also make evenings a very difficult time.

The witching hour is the period between 5-7pm, when many babies are at their fussiest due to overtiredness. While all babies are prone to it, catnappers and early risers are more likely to be affected, simply because having less sleep, or more broken sleep, can bring on overtiredness.

Early childhood expert Kirsty explains, “Witching hour is a combination of the entire family’s sleep deprivation, which can result in a very unsettled household. The trick to coping is to be as organised as possible. Get into a routine where bath time, mealtime and winding down for bed can be done simply and quickly.”

So what’s the cure for all these problems? It can help to follow a routine where feeds and naps take place at specific times – this helps gradually ease babies into sleeping at the same times every day, so there’s less waking up during both day and night.

“Life became much easier once we started following a routine,” Julia says. “I think because our days are somewhat predictable, so is our son’s behaviour. We’re not waiting for the overtired or hungry tantrums, we’re working with his body clock and catering for his needs – and even pre-empting them.”

The good news is that these habits continue to improve as your baby grows. And at approximately six months of age children have sleep cycles of around 90 minutes (although there will always be ongoing challenges, such as growth spurts, separation anxiety, teething and illness).

You can also speak to experts to get some help with your child’s sleep patterns – chat with your doctor or early childhood health nurse, or contact support centres such as Karitane or Tresilian. (You can read more about this in our article on parenting support.)  

And remember that there will be times when your baby just won’t go back to sleep. Kirsty advises, “Try to accept it and find ways to work around it, such as putting your baby in a sling or BabyBjorn as you go about your business.”

Other articles in our series on 'The baby fog': breastfeeding, growth spurts and wonder weeks, illness and parenting support