Sleep issues

Time and time again the subject that new Mums bring to me is that of night-times and baby’s sleep.  Often it is a couple or more months down the line, when the novelty of the newborn has worn off and life is settling in to a more predictable pattern.  That is when we have emptied the sleep bank of anything that we stored during pregnancy, and when we are desperately searching for answers/solutions to sleep-problems.

Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No Cry Sleep Solution says that women believe that they have one of two options – to cry it out, or to live with it.  And for most those are bleak choices.  We are biologically programmed to respond to our babies when they cry, in fact the majority of mothers will wake a few minutes before their babies do at night – it’s like we have an inbuilt alarm clock.  It therefore goes against the grain to let our babies cry for any length of time – it causes us distress, let alone our babies.  And, there are more and more studies coming out about the psychological damage being done to babies by controlled crying, with emotive words like abandonment being used.  However, living with a nocturnal waker can be a real challenge – we need sleep – in fact sleep-deprivation is a form of torture.  So, what can we do.  Do we have any alternative choices?

For me, as with most things, education is key.  If we understand a baby’s sleep patterns then we can act accordingly.  Babies sleep differently from adults, and it takes at least a couple of months for circadian rhythms to kick in.  It is likely, with a newborn, that they will only achieve one significant deep sleep in 24 hours, and if that falls during the day, then there is likely to be more light sleep/waking during the night.  Pantley says that the deep sleep often falls in early evening – that time when we put our baby down and then rush to achieve all the things we set out to do during the day – tidy up, eat a meal, watch a box-set, and crucially spend time with our partners.  We fall into bed later on, perhaps after the dream feed, absolutely knackered, but our baby doesn’t need the same quality of sleep as us at that point.  So, first things first – let’s understand a baby’s rhythms and react accordingly.

Perhaps the most important thing is to achieve good sleep associations.  Many of us get in to bad habits of feeding babies, or rocking them until they are deeply asleep.  It is important, and often the first question asked by any sleep consultant, that a baby goes in to their bed awake, maybe drowsy, but not deeply asleep.  It follows that if the baby wakes up in a different setting to the one they fell asleep in that they might feel confused and disorientated.  It is difficult to change habits, but a gradual withdrawal of the breast or bottle from the sleepy baby’s mouth can encourage the baby to learn to self-settle.  If they become very wakeful and upset then you can feed again, looking for another opportunity to withdraw the food before they completely give in to sleep.

Many people believe in a bedtime routine, whether they are routine-based parents, or going down a more attachment route.  Familiarity can be really useful – if a baby knows that a bath is followed by stories/lullabies/massage and food in a calm, dimly-lit bedroom then he is more likely to settle in to that rhythm.  Daytime sleep associations can be different and don’t need to be limited to the same place – Mums need to be able to have a life, so babies need to be adaptable, coping with sling or carrier/car seat/buggy/travel cot etc.  However, it might be useful to have cues for sleep, as well as recognising a baby’s cue for tiredness.  Some recent clients have reported that they use particular phrases when they are settling their babies down, “It’s sleepy-time Jack”, or similar.  What is key to me is that everything is kept very calm – babies pick up on our anxieties and emotions.

Some parents I know have made use of what Pantley calls a Lovey.  Be it a muslin (Clothie was still going strong for my daughter when she was 7), blanket, a cuddly toy, or another familiar item this can be very useful in settling a child.  If you wear/carry it during the day it will smell very familiar and reassuringly of you.

I could write several pieces about feeding, particularly breastfeeding, but it is worth noting that a new baby feeds 8-12 times in 24 hours.  If the majority of feeding is happening at night then things need to be shifted a little.  Daytime naps are really important, but if your baby is doing huge chunks of sleep during the day and not at night, then it might be worth looking in to that.  If your baby is waking often at night, but has fed a great deal in the day then food might not be the prime need at that point.  Remember a baby doesn’t have the ability to tell us that he is too hot/cold, uncomfortable in a particular position, needs a wee, has had a dream etc other than crying.  A reassuring pat/familiar words/quick cuddle/nappy change might be all he needs.

Ultimately for me though I think there are two things to say.  The first is to have realistic expectations of how much a baby will sleep.  I have asked nearly every baby massage group I have ever taught what “sleeping through the night” means to them and I have had answers ranging from 7pm – 7am, via 11pm – 6am to 12am – 4am.  The majority say they would be happy with a stint from when they go to bed at 11ish all the way through to light hours, so 6 or 7am.  It comes down to what WE need to be capable adults, rather than exhausted zombies.  It is very easy for me to say and I know harder for some than others to achieve, but do try to get some sleep during the day.  If your baby goes down for a nap then put your feet up – if you aren’t someone who finds daytime sleeping easy then you might want to listen to a meditation or some gentle music, but nurture yourself.  After all it is you who will remember the sleep deprivation, not your baby!