How can I get my five-month-old son to sleep better in the daytime?
My son feeds well and sleeps at night time, but during the day he has great difficulty sleeping. Some days he won’t sleep at all, other days he will, but not at the times recommended. He gets very irritable from 5.30pm until bedtime, but then settles fine and will usually sleep until 7am. He also seems to want a lot of attention during the day and won’t play for long on his own. I would be grateful for advice on how to improve his daytime sleep and how to stop him being unsettled before bed. At present he may sleep at 9.30-10.30am and 12.30-2.30pm and settles at 7pm.
The reason for your son’s irritable behaviour at 5.30pm is probably due to overtiredness. If he has hardly slept in the day and has been up since 7am he will be exhausted. Getting him more used to regular naps may take time to establish, and you will need to be consistent in the way you go about it; but it will help him be more content and able to amuse himself for short spells, as well as less cranky before his bath and bedtime.
A baby may not always show signs of being tired. Using the guideline that a baby of 3-6 months needs about three hours sleep during the day, you will realise that at five months, your son will only manage to stay awake for about two hours before needing a nap. If he does sleep for over two hours in the middle of the day, he may be able to get to bedtime without the need for a further nap. But many babies of your son’s age require a catnap of 15-20 minutes sometime between 4-5pm to help them get to bedtime without becoming completely exhausted.
Begin to watch your son for signs of tiredness, as well as being aware how long he has been awake. You may think that he needs attention during the day, when in reality he is becoming tired. A baby who is tired will cry and fuss. He will not be able to play with anything or amuse himself for any length of time. At your son’s age a tired baby may pull at his ears or rub his eyes, both signs of tiredness, as well as the more obvious one of yawning.
Try to have a routine in the way you prepare for nap times. Giving him a wind down time of 15- 20 minutes before he becomes very tired will help him go into his cot relaxed and ready to sleep. Be aware of the time he has been awake and begin to put his wind down into place before overtiredness prevents him from settling. There is a question and answer on page86 of The Contented Little Baby Book, which may help you see why a baby needs to be calm and settled before sleep.
As your baby is now five months, you may like to devise a little routine which will help him realise it is time for sleep. Always do the same things in the same order so he gets to know what to expect. Take him to his room, change him and then spend a quiet time talking and cuddling. Looking out of the window and talking about what you can see prior to drawing the curtains will help him begin to relax. You may like to spend 5-10minutes looking at a simple picture book together; choose one with just pictures rather than feely pages and sounds, as you want your son to associate this time with relaxing into sleep. Continue your routine as you settle him in his cot and say the same words every day before leaving. As your son is not used to regular naps, he may have to settle himself with some crying. A lot of babies may cry on and off for 10 minutes or more before settling themselves to sleep. While it is inadvisable to leave a baby of this age for any length of time crying, give him 5-10 minutes to see if his crying is decreasing before going back in to reassure him. If possible, reassure him with your voice and maybe a stroke on his head to let him know you are there, rather than picking him up. Continue to go in every 10 minutes if the crying continues, but listen to see if he begins to “cry down”. This is when a baby’s crying begins to subside and the time between the cries lengthens. This signals he is settling down and may fall asleep soon. For further information on crying down see p66 in Contented Baby to Confident Child or p 39 in The Complete Sleep Guide. There is also a small section about settling your child on p98 of The Contented Little Baby Book.
Once you have established a more regular nap schedule, you may find he is more willing to play for short spells by himself during the day. At this age it is realistic to expect a baby to be able to play on his own contentedly for 15-20 minutes at a stretch. As he is not used to doing this, you may need to build up to this time. Encourage him to play by sitting next to him and talking about what he is doing. Don’t always show him how a toy works, but encourage him to find out for himself. If he begins to fuss, try not to pick him up straight away. Encourage him with your voice, “Hi there. I can see you. Where’s your blue teddy?” and when you do go over, sit next to him and show him something new to see if he is able to engage with something again for a short spell. It can take time for a baby to learn how to play alone, especially if they are used to a lot of interaction, but with gentle encouragement you will be able to get him to play for short spells alone, and these will become longer as he gets older.