Why does my baby refuse to go back into the cot in the night?

baby upset and refusing to sleep in cot part way through the night

Does this scenario sound familiar?

Your baby falls asleep at bedtime, and you manage to gingerly lower them into their cot crossing your fingers that they stay asleep. You also sometimes have some success at settling them when they first wake in the night and back into the cot but as midnight strikes, your baby starts to refuse to go back into the cot and there is absolutely no chance that they will be sleeping in there. Every time you try to put them in, they wake up and cry or scream. So, you stop trying as you are exhausted and opt to bring them into your bed as it’s the only way you are going to get any sleep. You keep trying the following the night and the same thing happens and this pattern then repeats itself over and over again.

 

Why is this happening?

Firstly, it’s helpful to understand how sleep works. The easiest time to fall asleep is at bedtime as you have melatonin being released which makes you feel sleepy as well as high sleep pressure as it’s the end of the day. Your circadian rhythm is telling you that it’s time to fall asleep.

The first part of the night is when your deepest sleep happens meaning babies will often sleep for a longer stetch at this time. If they do stir, this is usually the easiest time to support them back to sleep. The second part of the night consists of more REM or dreaming sleep and other lighter stages of sleep. This switch in the type of sleep experienced is circadian linked but often happens around 11pm-12am.

Melatonin levels are also starting to drop and sleep pressure is rapidly decreasing meaning that it’s a lot harder for your baby to get back to sleep at this time as well. This means that it is much more likely for your baby to wake in the second half of the night during this lighter sleep. This is also why babies often require a lot more support to stay sleep in the second part of the night and refuse to go back into the cot at this point in the night. They may well start to have a strong preference over where this lighter sleep is happening.

 

Is this all my fault?

No! But what happens when we repeat something over and over is that is becomes a habit and an expectation. When it comes to babies, the word “habit” often carries a negative connotation, as it is commonly associated with challenging infant behaviours. However, these ‘habits’ are often very normal patterns of behaviour and habits are not a problem unless they become a problem or become unsustainable.

 

How can I change these habits?

Many parents are wondering where to begin with changing habits as whenever they try anything different, their baby just gets upset and cross and cries.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that change is not easy for anyone. Your baby will have a preferred method of settling and an expectation of what is happens when they wake in the night. When this response or way of settling is continuously repeated, neural pathways start to form in the brain.

It takes times and a lot of patience for these pathways to change and for new pathways to become the norm. When you are consistent with the change, your baby’s expectations will start to change, and they will begin to accept this different way of settling. When you are always chopping and changing what you are doing, your baby ends up getting confused and frustrated and it’s harder for everyone. While you can expect resistance and frustration from your baby initially, maintaining a calm and supportive environment is essential for them to express their emotions and adapt to the change. Keeping this perspective in mind can help you remain consistent and patient, especially on those challenging nights.

The best way to change a habit is always with a clear and consistent boundary. Addressing night time cot refusal involves a gradual process of gently guiding your baby back to their cot and supporting them to sleep there.

 

Here are four tips to go from cot refusal to baby sleeping in the cot all night:

1.Break it down into smaller steps: Doing a massive leap in one go is rarely successful and will involve lots of tears. If your baby has become accustomed to sleeping in your bed, transitioning them back to their cot will likely take time. Start by gradually reducing the amount of time they spend in your bed each night until they become comfortable sleeping in their own space again.

2. Set a clear and consistent boundary and stick to it: Your first boundary might be that you will settle you baby in their cot until 1am and then you have a floor bed set up in their room where you can sleep with them after that. Your boundary is that your baby remains in their own room all night and you will sleep with them there instead of bringing them into your bed.

3. Support them to fall asleep in the cot at bedtime: It is not realistic (especially true for signaller babies) to expect your baby to fall back to sleep in the cot during the night if they are not doing this at bedtime. Instead of getting your child to sleep and then transferring them into the cot at bedtime, start putting them into the cot when they are tired and ready to fall asleep and support them to settle there.

This means that you are no longer doing all the work to fall asleep for them, you are asking them to so some of the work. They will be much more aware of their surroundings and what’s happening when they fall sleep and likely to need less support to get back to sleep when they wake in the night without a need. If this sounds completely unachievable, this is my area of expertise and I have lots of gentle strategies to break this down to make it manageable and achievable depending on your child’s temperament.

4. Stay Calm and Patient: It’s natural for babies to resist change, especially when it comes to sleep habits. Stay calm and patient throughout the process, offering reassurance and comfort as needed. It’s okay for them to refuse to go back into the cot, this is there way of communicating to us how they are feeling but we will stay, offer comfort and support them at all times. Co-regulation is a great tool to use and it will be much easier to support your baby to settle when you are feeling calm, confident and positive.

Remember, every baby is different, so it’s essential to find an approach that works best for your family. With consistency, patience, and understanding, you can help your baby accept sleeping in their cot for the whole night.

If you need more personalised support to help your child sleep more independently without sleep training, check out my 1-1 packages or my all-inclusive group sleep coaching program for exhausted Mums who are going back to work (or already there).