Navigating the six-month minefield
It’s no surprise to me that the most common age that we start working with babies is when they hit the six month mark. There’s so much going on at six months old that can affect a little one’s sleep.
As a baby’s sleep cycle matures, they’ve likely started catnapping. You might be starting to introduce solids and move around their milk feeds, and there is (in some cases) the arrival of those first few teeth.
Some mums and dads may have been holding onto the belief that six months is somehow a magical age when the challenging sleep deprivation of having a newborn in the house will resolve. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case! Others may fall prey to one (or many) of the misconceptions about this age and stage… So, let’s take a look at the hurdles you might expect to encounter around the six month mark, and some advice to get you through them.
A DIFFERENT AGE CALLS FOR DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES
One of the initial sources of frustration for parents as their children reach the six month mark is that the techniques that had worked to get your newborn to sleep – whether rocking, patting, swaddling, or similar – stop working. Put simply, children outgrow them, and they start fighting your efforts.
Often, this is their way of telling you that they’re ready to self-settle. By this I don’t mean just put them down and walk away; that’s not necessarily going to work either. But it does tend to mean that you can start backing off a bit and supporting them to find sleep themselves, as opposed to relying on you getting them there.
ADEQUATE AWAKE WINDOWS
I’ve mentioned that six months is a time of vast changes – there’s been a lot of progression to get to this point. Your child will have moved from 45 minute windows of time spent awake as a newborn, to 2.5 hours in a stretch by six months old, or at least nearing that sort of window. If your child hasn’t progressed and lengthened their awake times along those lines, they might now not be having enough time awake in a stretch, which can mean they won’t sleep well during the day.
FIGHTING THE THIRD NAP AND THE NEED TO CONSOLIDATE
Speaking of day sleep, most six month olds are still having three naps a day (the majority are ready to drop to two around seven or eight months of age). However, by six months old, it’s likely that your littlie will be starting to fight their third day sleep. At this age, this nap is often an assisted one – in the pram while you’re out for a walk, or in the car. It’s a short (sometimes just 10-15 minute) power nap to help them make it until bedtime, because if they go to bed overtired, they’ll wake more overnight.
I tend to find that children will refuse or drop their third nap when they are ready, whether they are doing a long lunchtime sleep or not. That’s why it’s so important to cure catnapping and help them to consolidate their sleep. Bedtime is a long way away for a child who sleeps just 45 minutes, as opposed to a couple of hours, at lunchtime. Similarly, helping them to consolidate their sleep overnight has a flow-on effect to longer, more consolidated naps too. By this age, your child is biologically able to do anywhere between a four to eight hour stretch of sleep overnight.
DROPPING THE DREAM FEED
Just because your child is biologically capable, doesn’t mean they will suddenly start sleeping all night. If you’ve been doing a ‘dream feed’ until this point, now is the time to drop it. By six months, you (and your baby) are better served by feeding them when, or if, they wake up hungry. As they are now going into a deeper sleep, the dream feed starts to disturb their consolidated stretches, which can contribute to more subsequent wake-ups overnight.
Further to that, feeding triggers both hormonal responses and the digestive process, which makes the baby wake up further. Overall, we know as adults that eating doesn’t encourage sleep, so forcing a feed into them here starts having the counter-effect to what you may be intending.
LOTS TO THINK ABOUT WITH SOLIDS
So often we hear from parents who were holding firmly to the belief that once they start solids their child will sleep through the night. These parents go all in with the introduction of solids – sometimes too quickly – which can cause a milk/solids imbalance. It’s common when we start working with people to drop one of the solid meals in the short-term, enabling us to increase their daytime milk feeds again while we decrease their overnight milk feeds.
The other thing that happens at ‘starting solids’ time is that your baby has to start producing different enzymes. Their gut microbes change and they just feel different as they start digesting actual food – all of which can affect their sleep. This is part of the reason that professionals recommend starting by introducing a solids meal at lunchtime, so that if it creates a disruption it is to their lunchtime nap, not their night sleep, which is – ultimately – more important.
Another consideration with the introduction of solids, and how they interact with sleep, comes down to timing. While you’re giving a milk feed first in those early days, some parents space the solids out so long after milk that it becomes very close to the next nap. It can also put them off their next milk feed. It’s a delicate balance but the scenario you want to avoid is going back to having as many frequent feedings (across milk and solids) as what they were having in the newborn days.
TRICKY TIMES AROUND TEETHING
I swear that if everything that parents attribute to teething was happening as a result of teething, all of their children would have 200 teeth! Jokes aside though, teething can cause pain and discomfort – however it’s unlikely to completely disrupt sleep if you have established good night-time sleeps and your child has some ability to settle.
It’s common, however, for parents to feel confused about whether teething is causing their child’s distress or wake ups. A couple of little tests that I like to employ:
- Are they happy during the day and then just upset during the night? If this is the case, it’s probably not teething. Tooth growing is not a strictly nocturnal activity. If the issues arise at bedtime, it’s more likely a sleep issue.
- Offer pain relief one evening, and see how they are in 20 minutes. Painkillers take 20 minutes to kick in and effectively dull pain, so if they are quietly settled to sleep in that window, it could very well have been pain disrupting them. If they are still upset and worked up beyond that point, it isn’t purely a pain problem.
Despite – or perhaps because of – all the myriad of things that are going on at this age, six months old is the best possible age to start proactively working on supporting your baby to sleep. They’re not crawling, pulling up to standing, or walking yet. They’re not hungry, as you’ve well established breast and/or bottle feeding by then. They’re no longer in their newborn stage. Unfortunately, past that ‘sweet spot’ of six month olds, sleep training gets exponentially harder. Even the most age-appropriate measures tend to meet more and more resistance – so start now and you’ll be setting your child – and yourself – up for great sleep.