One of the most challenging obstacles of parenthood is getting your baby into a bedtime routine. For the most part, it’s trial and error, but establishing good sleep hygiene early on will make you and your little one’s life a lot easier (and happier). It really is a lottery as to whether you get a ‘good sleeper’. Some babies can sleep for 12-hour stretches, while others can wake up every hour. Speaking as a first-time mum, my little boy Sonny took about eight months to get into a routine. As a newborn, Sonny was a very noisy sleeper. He was also a colicky baby and used to writhe around his cot, body popping. He fed every two-three hours. As someone who loves their sleep, and would regularly be in bed for 10.30pm before having a baby, this was a major shock to my system. Still, I coped with coffee, napping during the day when Sonny slept and just knowing this phase would pass, although it didn’t feel like that at the time. However, if you already have a toddler or older children in the house, I know naps will be nigh impossible. But, you cope. We’re superhuman like that.
Like any new mum, I hovered over my little bundle, listening for his gentle breathing, placing my quivering hand on his chest, watching it rise and fall. You imagine every worst case type scenario there is. I was hyper-sensitive, worrying about SIDS, questioning every sound. “Is he too warm? Too cold? Is that a rash?” Still, babies survived before guidelines even existed so you do your very best and if you’re not sure, always ask for help. Although those days with my eyes on stalks are a blurry memory, I got through it and could maybe even do it again.
Recently, I brought Sonny to a Settled Petals sleep workshop. It was somewhat fitting, that he dragged his bedtime bunny. Now, a plucky one-year-old, he is sleeping 12 hours at night. Yes, I’m very lucky (for now) but his daytime naps are irregular and some days he doesn’t nap at all. While he goes down anytime between 6pm and 8pm, I would like his bedtime to about 7pm. In our house, Sonny’s bedtime routine begins with drawing the blinds, a warm bottle, a bath (not every night), a book, and then popping Sonny in his sleeping bag and putting on Ewan the Dream Sheep, which we’ve used since the first night he came home. It also has a red light, which is supposed to remind baby of being inside the womb. Sonny also can’t sleep without his beloved Jellycat grey bunny. It’s recommended you don’t put any toys in your baby’s cot before they are six-months-old though.
Certified Sleep Consultant Susan Wallace is incredibly knowledgeable and the workshop was full of mums, a dad, beautiful babies, and curious crawlers – Sonny being the worst offender. Tea, coffee, and buns are offered at the start, the latter was snatched from my hand by Sonny and promptly disintegrated into a thousand crumbs on the yoga mat we were sat on. He spent the rest of the class, being a little nuisance, wrestling me for my notepad and pen. I still picked up on some of Susan’s many excellent points. Susan set up her business just six months ago and has since worked with 231 families who have booked into the service for either sleep, baby yoga or massage.
Susan began the class explaining how are our modern sleeping patterns mirror how our ancestors slept. When we slept in groups, individuals would wake up at 1.5 hourly intervals to check for danger and tend to the fire. Susan says we enter light sleep frequently throughout the night and do a full body ‘scan’, this is to check if we are too hot, too cold or if we need the toilet. If all is well, we’ll just drift back to sleep. Little babes, of course, will scream the house down until their needs are met.
Susan says that we, as adults, use ‘sleep props’, the most obvious being our duvet. It would seem very strange to us to lie down in bed without pulling something over us. Babies need props too. Strategies that we employ include feeding and rocking to sleep. It can be very difficult for a baby to self-settle if they are used to either of these, nonetheless effective strategies. Self-settling is the holy grail. It’s worth pointing out that babies don’t make melatonin for six to eight weeks. And when they do, breastfeeding mums will want to avoid feeding their baby milk containing cortisol at night and milk containing melatonin during the day. Another thing to be aware of is ‘sleep pressure’. And I’m not talking about the pressure we feel to get our babies to sleep! Sleep pressure is an unconscious biological process that makes us want to sleep. without enough sleep pressure built up, we (and babies) won’t be able to settle or sleep for long. This is were nap time comes in. The first nap of the day is the easiest as there is enough sleep pressure built up from the night before. However, if a baby has a really long morning nap, there won’t be enough sleep pressure for an afternoon nap, resulting in your baby getting overtired, making them even more awake come bedtime. It really is a quandary. With that in mind, a shorter morning nap is to be encouraged so baby has enough sleep pressure for an afternoon nap. Susan says the last nap of the day predicts when a baby will wake up.
As well as understanding the science, there are practical things you can do to help boost your baby’s melatonin. Susan says that night lights aren’t the best idea, especially the ones that emit a white or blue glow. A red glow, she says, is “less detrimental” to sleep so choose lights and light up toys with care. Buy blackout blinds for the nursery and your own bedroom if necessary, play continuous white noise and remove stimulating toys. If you breastfeed, you can buy a Meemoobaby Meelight that attaches to you for night feeds.
If you have a colicky baby, add the bedtime bottle to the start of the routine and keep baby upright for at least half an hour. If you use formula, stir the milk, don’t shake it. This might sound obvious but I always shook the bottle, thinking I needed to do that to mix the formula. You don’t. Susan says to hold your baby over your right shoulder to get gas up.
For the first three to four weeks, Susan says to hold and touch your baby as much as possible – and keep it up. She says that slings are brilliant for keeping small babies close to you. Swaddling is also beneficial for the newborn days – although getting the technique right is very important. A fascinating article by Green Child Magazine highlights a 2017 study published in Development and Psychopathology. It found that infant touch “can affect babies at a molecular level, and the positive results can last for years.” The article also states that babies who do not receive adequate human interaction and especially the loving touch, can become depressed or anxious and are prone to anti-social behaviour in later life.
Creating an environment that is similar to being in the womb is key – which for an adult is like being in a hammock (nice). For the first six months, nothing should in the crib or Moses basket other than a sheet over the mattress, to reduce the risk of SIDS. If you choose to co-sleep, ensure there are no pets in the bedroom and do not drink or smoke. Also, never fall asleep with your baby on a sofa. After six months, you can place a comforter, toy or just a t-shirt you have worn for a few days and tie it up in a knot. Your baby will be immensely comforted by your scent.
You can also look out for sleeping cues like rubbing eyes and looking away, which babies tend to do when they are feeling overwhelmed. Also, Susan says, batting your baby’s bum is a good way to comfort them as it reminds them of bobbing about in the womb.
From nine to 12 months, your baby may experience separation anxiety. You can help combat this with sleep training using ‘The Chair in the Room’ and ‘The Kissing Game’. There is also the ‘Wake to Sleep’ method, which encourages infants to self-settle if they are early morning larks – of which 10% of babies are.
I hope this blog is helpful to new mums or mums who are experiencing sleep issues with their little ones. Susan offers a wealth of information in her workshops and I’d highly recommend them. Susan works closely with families who need a little extra help too. She also offers baby massage, baby yoga, and children’s yoga classes, all of which are known to increase sleep quality in children.
I learned an awful lot from the workshop, it was absolutely fascinating. Yes, all babies are different and unpredictable but having knowledge is very empowering and it’s also comforting to know that you aren’t the only mum or dad going through a rough time.
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