All babies are capable of sleeping through the night from the age of 12 weeks, says baby sleep guru Alison Scott-Wright. She tells Lisa Salmon how despairing parents can tackle their children's sleep problems.
A baby sleeping through the night is the holy grail of new parenthood, yet many parents fear it's something their own child won't achieve for a very long time.
Indeed, new research from Swansea University has found that more than three quarters of babies aged between six and 12 months still regularly wake at least once in the night, with six out of 10 of them having one or more night-time milk feeds.
But it doesn't have to be that way, insists Alison Scott-Wright, dubbed the Magic Sleep Fairy by her clients.
The former maternity nurse, author of The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan (Bantam Press, £12.99), insists all babies can sleep 12 hours through the night - 7pm to 7am - from the age of 12 weeks, and explains that when they don't, tackling the root cause will solve the problem.
"It's become the accepted norm that babies don't sleep, and you get these studies saying it's natural for babies to wake up once or twice a night. But I really don't know on what basis they can state that, because babies are designed to sleep," she says.
"Babies pretty much should be sleeping 12 hours through the night by three months - not by leaving them to scream or putting them at the end of the garden, but by understanding their natural patterns."
Scott-Wright points out that most modern parents try too many methods to get their baby to drop off, using dummies, rocking cradles, and even short car journeys in a desperate bid to win some precious shut-eye.
"People do too much to try and get their baby to sleep, and when the baby's a bit older, it's about removing those negative sleep crutches and replacing them with sleep training and teaching them the art of independent sleep," she explains.
A baby's natural pattern is to feed more frequently during the day, and less at night, she says. So if babies are crying for feeds at night after about four months of age, parents need to look for the reason - although Scott-Wright points out that removing night-time feeds should only be considered if babies are older, healthy and putting on weight.
"There are very few babies of four months and older that genuinely need food through the night. They might look for it, but you have to ask why."
It could be because they're not eating properly during the day - Scott-Wright says that from three months plus, she would expect a baby to only have four daytime feeds and be sleeping through the night.
"If they're having five or six daytime feeds, the digestive system is in overdrive, so it doesn't switch off properly throughout the night," she explains.
If a baby seems to be getting the right amount of food during the day, but is still waking at night, it may have colic, or acid reflux and look for food to wash away the pain.
"But they're not hungry, and are looking for a feed for the wrong reason," says Scott-Wright.
"It's comfort eating. I've had parents say they've tried to reduce night feeds and the baby just screams, and when we unravel it all, 99 out of 100 times there's some degree of acid reflux."
Another reason for night-time waking could be that baby isn't sleeping properly or enough during the day.
"This will negatively impact their night-time sleep and cause them to wake, and they don't know what else to do but to look for food, and mum doesn't know what else to do except feed them," she says.
A baby may also wake during the night because it wants its dummy. If everything else is OK, the dummy should be removed to improve sleep, says Scott-Wright.
She says a good way to deal with these issues is by using the 'reassurance sleep training technique' to replace crutches like feeding and dummies.
To get rid of a dummy, for example, a parent takes it away - not gradually, as Scott-Wright says it has to be all or nothing, otherwise it's confusing for the child.
After baby's normal bedtime routine, the parent puts them in their cot without their dummy, and leaves the room. When baby cries the parent goes back in, simply says that's enough and it's sleepy time, and leaves.
"You keep going in and out - there's no time between these visits, and when you go in you say exactly the same thing in the same monotone voice to give him the reassurance that you're there. You don't get angry or frustrated, but you're not going to give in.
"It might take an hour and you might go in the room 20 times, but it's not about staying in the room until they calm down and go to sleep. It's short visits.
"Eventually they'll fall asleep, and when they wake in the night looking for their dummy, you do exactly the same thing."
She says the technique usually works within two or three nights, and can often work on the first night.
The sleep guru says being a little more structured in the first few weeks or months of a baby's life means parents can achieve great sleep for everyone, although she stresses her advice isn't rigid and points out: "Of course you're never going to leave a baby crying and evidently hungry just because it's not a feed time."
She adds: "If parents don't want to be slightly more structured and want to pick it up a bit later on, that's fine - it doesn't mean you can't turn it around. The older a baby gets the more habits they learn, and the more challenging it gets.
"But sleep problems can be solved whatever the age of the child."
For more on Alison Scott-Wright's sleep techniques, visit www.alisonscott-wright.com
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