Understanding that newborn sleep is tricky is possibly one of the best things a new parent can do. The more we normalize the fact that young children are not designed to sleep without a parent very close by and then wake quite frequently, the less it will be perceived as a problem leaving parents feeling like they are doing something wrong.
There are huge variations in infant sleep, but one of the over-riding tendencies is that many young children benefit from being held a lot and they also are designed to sleep in bursts rather that long stretches.
I always encourage families to think of their children’s sleep in 2 parts= before 6 months and then 6 months and beyond. Although this is a disproportionate set of halves, it is helpful nonetheless to acknowledge that sleep within the first 6 months is largely immature and many of the challenges experienced, despite difficult and tiring, are not really a problem per se, but typical of the first half of the first year. That said, many challenges remain well into the second half of the first year, but then we feel that intervention is more appropriate than in the first 6 months.
Within the first 6 months, I encourage families to “work behind the scenes” in an effort to lay a positive foundation for sleep, but within that effort there are no great expectations-as a new family unit we can expect to feel exhausted and at times overwhelmed, frustrated and vulnerable. Here are some suggestions that may help relieve those emotions.
- One of the most important measures we can take is to find support and friendship to help share the load. New mothers, in this modern world, are more disadvantaged that any parenting generation before them. Many of us are living far away from a family support network, leaving the new mum alone, with her new job, in charge of a new baby. Although I appreciate it is easier said than done to build up support; please do not be afraid of asking for help from your network. It is a show of strength to share the load.
The first few months with a new baby, is what I describe as being an intensive care period and we need to keep everyone alive. If you are feeling low and unsupported, please discus with your GP or health nurse and take further moments of self-care whenever possible. Make the effort to get out of the house. Reach out to others for a coffee, ask the other parent to share the nighttime duties-be kind to yourself and to each other. Although it feels never ending, this period of intensity will diminish and even if it does not feel that way, as your baby gets older, we can work more intensely on the sleep once 6 months plus anyway.
- Hold your baby, rock your baby, cuddle your baby-there are no such things as “bad habits”. Many parents report that the only place their child will sleep is in their arms. That is entirely normal. Your baby has been held in-utero for 9 months and when they emerge into the world they can typically crave to continue to be held and that becomes one of your tasks. Try not to resist this dynamic, it really is just a season, and it will pass. I know that when you are living this season, it does sometimes feel that it will never end, but genuinely very few older children want to spend all day in your arms, and believe me, at some stage you will miss it. Lean into their need to be close to you. Teach your baby to feel loved, safe, and secure. If they are open to being put down once asleep then perfect, but if they are inclined to immediately startle when you attempt to lie them down-just commit to holding so that the trust is built between you in such a way that in time, being put down is not a big deal for them.
Initially babies crave motion, rocking, swinging, rolling, and similar to activities in the womb. Ideally foster a number of ways to support your baby so that you are not just doing one approach to help them. Use a sling, a swing, a stroller for example and also, attempt to allow the other parents and any other willing adult to participate in this required activity so that Mum can extract herself to also have moments baby free. Accepting this dynamic actually goes a long way to shortening this period. Your baby will trust and believe that you are meeting their needs with no delays and will ultimately feel ready to move to the next stage of semi- independence with greater ease.
- Being attuned to your baby’s needs also helps to fuse the desired connectivity that further builds the secure bond between you. Meeting their requests for food, sleep, comfort and play without delay is key-no need to try to “stretch” their feeds or have them on a rigid timetable; just being responsive and able to service their needs, further strengthens the early relationship and lays that path to better sleep. Within this, if you can learn to read their early signals for sleep then you can also avoid an overtired cycle. When babies become overtired, they tend to resist sleep and sleep fitfully. If you can identify their “sweet spot” for sleep then they may be more inclined to receive sleep with ease and stay asleep for a longer duration. If you notice intense eye rubbing, yawning or agitation, then that is too late and potentially overtired.
Attempt to work on brief eye rubs, yawns, and moments of quiet and prepare for a nap or bedtime when you observe these indications, as a deeper more restful sleep is more possible on this basis. If you only ever see over-tired signs, then just prepare for sleep about 10 minutes before you have noted these signals.
- Without being too prescriptive, develop a rhythm to your day that is balanced between feeding, leisure, and sleep time. Use light and dark to further initiate nighttime sleep. Starting the day at a regular time, with a feed, and then have a sense of synchronicity between feeds and sleeps as your day unfolds can be helpful. Your young baby for the first 8 weeks or so will desire a late-adult orientated bedtime and then the next 2 months see an earlier sleep tendency emerging so that bedtime by 4 months of age, is between 6 and 8pm. Responding to this timing can also help encourage a sleeping pattern, especially if you overlap this with reading their language for sleep too. Sleep that occurs before your baby becomes overtired will nearly always be more restful.
- Establish a pre-sleep ritual when you anticipate your baby will sleep at bedtime and for daytime too. At bedtime, do this in the bedroom that you all sleep in and have dim lamp light environment. This does not need to be a long-drawn-out process, just a sequence of events; your actions, songs, phrases that can help baby to understand that it is time to sleep.
- At bedtime specifically, try to allow your baby to be slightly aware that they have been put down into their sleep space-be it cot, co-sleeper, Moses’ basket or wherever you have earmarked your baby to sleep. This is the best time of the day to practice what I describe as My Percentage of Wakefulness approach. If you can allow baby to be even 5% wakeful on bedtime, put down, then when mature sleep cycles emerge around 16 weeks, they will have more ability to cycle through the phases and not wake each time they transition. Some babies are not open to this approach and if your baby is one of those, do not worry, work on the other aspects as my Stay- and- Support method replaces this approach after 6 months of age.
- Do not compare your baby’s sleep, feeding or behavior with another. Every baby is so different, and comparisons rarely help our mood and feelings and serve only to undermine our individual relationship with our infants. Plough your own furrow. Learn more about expectations-have low expectations- for sleep ability and work on the elements that can be worked on and leave behind any interventions that are not suitable until your baby is older and maybe then when your baby is older, it will not be necessary any way. Their sleep matures, not always at the rate we would like, and sometimes we need to adjust keep encouraging more sleep growth to emerge, and this is all much easier if you have consciously enabled an attuned, loving, responsive relationship with baby from early on.