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And so to bed...

"TO sleep perchance to dream, aye there's the rub" uttered Hamlet in one of Shakespere's most famous soliloquies on the fear of losing consciousness. It's hard to imagine any new parent sharing such worries though – as most will tell you, sleeping, let alone dreaming, is pretty unlikely in those first few weeks of parenthood, when the new arrival needs round-the-clock attention.

While we can't explain exactly why we sleep, we do know that we can't survive without it: children, so that they can grow and develop properly; adults, so they can rest suffficiently to be able to deal both physically and mentally with the challenges that parenthood (and, indeed, life in general) bring.

According to paediatric specialist and clinical psychologist Jodi A. Mindell, author of the book Sleeping through the Night: How babies, toddlers and their parents can get a good night's sleep, between 20–30pc of infants have a sleep problem, and most infants wake up to six times every night. However, she also says it doesn't have to become a pattern, and advises a specific bedtime routine.

This three-step routine, which was recently advocated by Johnson & Johnson, comprises a warm bath, followed by a massage using an infant body lotion, and then a quiet activity before bedtime. The bath should not be more than 30 minutes before you put your child to bed, according to Mindell.

She says parents should massage their baby for at least three minutes, and that the wind-down activity can include reading, rocking or cuddling your baby (but shouldn't include television).

Her advice backs up a recent clinical study on infant sleep patterns, conducted by sleep experts, which found that infant sleep is improved by using a specific before-bed routine. The study found that if parents followed the routine, almost a third of babies fell asleep faster and the number of times they woke during the night was reduced by half. As well as that, according to Mindell, the period of infant unbroken sleep increased from seven to nine hours.

Although the study involved infants aged from seven to 18 months old, Mindell says the routine may be used for children as young as two or three months, and up to three or four years of age, cutting out the massage part for older children if they're not receptive to it.

Teresa Boardman has been a maternity nanny for the past 18 years and specialises in, among other things, sleep training, where she will go into a family's home and help them establish a good sleep routine if their child is having difficulties. Her experience ties in with the findings of the study and with Mindell's advice.

"Routine is hugely important when trying to get a child into good sleep habits," she says. For Boardman this means following the ' three Bs': Bathtime, Bottletime and Bedtime.

"Once the child has been bathed, you can then feed him or her in the nursery. Have the lights dim, so that the child is aware it's a wind-down time," she says.

Boardman is also a big fan of baby massage; for slightly older children, she says a short bedtime story can be a great way of getting them off to the land of nod. However, as all but the most fortunate of parents know, most babies and young children will not sleep through the night, and will wake up at some stage for any number of reasons.

If hunger is not the issue, and medical reasons have been ruled out, such as an ear infection or colic, you must examine your baby's routine, says Boardman. " Watch how much they sleep during the day. If an infant is sleeping for five hours in the afternoon, it follows that the baby will wake up in the middle of the night. It's no harm at all to wake children up during the day to prevent this happening."

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But what of older children who are still not sleeping properly after months and months of coaxing? "Again, it's about looking at their routine. Waking up in the middle of the night can simply be a habit," she explains.

"Sometimes you may have to allow a little bit of 'controlled crying'. This doesn't mean letting your child wail for 45 minutes while you ignore them. It means allowing them cry for maybe two to three minutes, then going into the bedroom, and maybe rubbing the baby on the head or across the tummy. Eye contact is also key – just reassuring them you're there, connecting with them."

Boardman says it's important to use short words to reinforce the fact that they need to sleep, such as 'No, nighttime'. "Don't get into conversation, don't stimulate them. Also use a tone that conveys authority. As soon as they start settling, you come out of the room. The first night of this will be the hardest, and will take patience. But by the second and third nights, things should have got better."

Boardman advises against putting a child to bed already asleep. "Put your child into bed awake. That's the whole trick. They learn to fall asleep themselves, rather than associating falling asleep with being rocked or being fed or even, as some parents do, being put in the car and brought for a drive."

This point is backed up by Mindell who says in her book that "babies who are put to bed already asleep are twice as likely to wake during the night and sleep on average one hour less per night".

And Boardman also says co-sleeping, ie allowing your child to sleep in your bed, should be discouraged, by and large. "I think children, and obviously parents, sleep much better in their own bed. Obviously it's an easy solution, but it can be a hard habit to break. I'd try to avoid it."

But whatever about children's sleeping patterns, what does she endorse for exhausted parents?

" When the baby is having her afternoon nap, then mum should do the same. Go and have a siesta for an hour. Forget the housework. Remember that you need your rest to function properly – to produce milk and to keep your energy up."

Boardman emphasises the need to ask for help and rely on whatever support is being offered to you. "A lot of parents feel embarrassed asking for help, but they shouldn't. If the support is out there, take advantage of it." To book Teresa Boardman's services, you should contact Nanny Solutions on 01 8734364 or see www.nannysolutions.com.