If there was ever a hot topic in terms of parenting this has got to be it! Everyone warns you it will happen when your pregnant – but you don’t listen! Crowd of dramatics you think to yourself…..they’re exaggerating you say in your head as a new mum tells you they had two broken hours sleep in the last 48 hours. How on earth can anyone survive on that little sleep you think – it must be a lie…and you grab your ‘L’ shaped pillow, push yourself onto your left side, and doze off back to sleep. To be fair pregnancy is hard on rest, there’s no denying that! You literally have to sleep with a 3kg wriggling ball on your stomach…which in my case routinely got the hiccups at about 2 am for a few hours! In fact a ball would be fine – this wriggler has arms and legs to stick in awkward places! I was pregnant for 30 out of 42 months during the period of having my three children so honestly I am not belittling pregnancy insomnia…its cruel..but there’s one thing harder than having a baby inside of your tummy when trying to sleep….and that’s having a baby outside of your tummy when trying to sleep! When a baby is in your tummy you have no nappies to change or feeding to do. When a baby has arrived to the outside world they still want to be on top of you all day long but also have a whole other host of new demands you need to figure out too! I’m actually smiling here to myself writing this because even when I think back the short 10 months since my little man was a newborn it seems like such a long time ago. When I think about the tiredness, the pains and the aches after coming home from hospital my mind immediately travels to thoughts of the cute little size he was, the way he fitted curled up in my own two hands and the gorgeous little baby noises he used to make! Don’t even start me on that ‘new baby smell’! Babies have an amazing superpower… they are in cahoots with mother nature and they black out all of the hard stuff so that it is only the cuddles and smells that you actually remember! That is why I have decided to write this blog now…mother nature may soon make me forget! So here it is…sleep the battle…my story uncovered!!
I am not a sleep expert. I haven’t studied an accredited course or actually any course at all in relation to sleep consultancy. I feel its important to put that out there!! Writing this blog feels funny for me because I am a Pharmacist by trade as most of you know, and it is my job and passion to provide evidence based medical opinion to parents of young children. I don’t ‘guess’ anything….I research everything! My advice is based on fact and best practice. That is what pharmacists do. We are organised and cautious by nature, everything originates from fact. I feel its very important for me to highlight that for this article I am stepping outside of my comfort zone…I am writing as a mum. My training has been delivered by a highly strung and extremely intelligent 4 year old, a three year old who is so chilled out that she operates out of a different time zone and a ten month old who I’m still trying to figure out! I like to think that this experience qualifies me to share what I’ve learnt so far..but I must highlight that this article is full of opinion and what works for me. It might not work for you and your baby at all so if you are still at the end of your tether please do speak to a sleep consultant, your public health nurse, or GP who may be able to provide you with the assistance that you need. I’ve written this blog as a request of my ‘first baby’ friends, and it contains everything I wish I was told when I was pregnant, although I wouldn’t have listened… My babies were all going to be angelic from their first breath you see! HA! Lesson one – this was obvious before I left the hospital -babies don’t do what you want them to, when you want them to, or how you want them to! Save yourself time – give up trying to get them to cooperate in the early days! My friends with older kids tell me they never cooperate….I don’t believe it though…my children will be angelic teenagers.
The WonderBaba Sleep Guide
Ok, here is what worked for me. We only had this worked out in time for number three but it works for us!
- Remember just how much babies sleep in the early days and months. Don’t try to keep them awake if they show any signs of needing sleep – not even if a friend or family member has popped by to visit. Let your baby nap if and when they need it. You will pay for missed naps later. People will tell you sleep begets sleep, which in essence for babies means – the more they sleep the more they sleep! I have always found this to be true. A proper and appropriate sleep pattern encourages sleep.
- Sleep signs for us started with eye rubbing, ear pulling, crying, and fussiness.
- Breast feeding mums will find babies often fall asleep mid feed. Take it as a compliment – They are relaxed and loving your work! No harm in doing a little foot rub or cheek tickle to see if you can encourage them to take a full feed before dozing off but if they won’t wake with some gentle stimulation then use that as your cue to have a snooze yourself (ideal world) or pop them down in the moses basket, co-sleeper or cot and use the time to have a shower or even just change your clothes (real world) before they wake up and decide its time to start again!
- Lower your expectations – babies are not born with routines – it takes time for them to evolve. Be kind to yourself and your baby by removing the pressure to ‘conform’ with the sleep patterns of babies of your friends, neighbours or online groups!
- Whilst on the topic….join an online group of mums with babies the same age as yours – its so nice to see other people are also awake and being driven demented at the same antisocial times – something comforting about shared suffering!! #LOTP
- Choose flexibility. By choosing to have a flexible routine you are allowing yourself to succeed! I am a control freak….well I was, and in many ways I still am – but not when it comes to children – they’ve taught me better! Instead I choose to be flexible, I learnt this after baby number one, and I must say the weight that was lifted off me was just unreal. The reason they say second babies are easier is not because they actually are…it’s just because you let them sleep when they want to, you feed them when they are hungry and you dress them on days that you can – you don’t watch the clock to know when your baby will be hungry…you watch your baby. This is the biggest secret I wish someone had told me….
- The best ‘routine’ I came across and used for all three of my children was ‘The Baby Whisperer’ EASY routine. She talks about three and four hour routines and to be honest I didn’t bother considering any of the times on my second and third children but I did keep the structure of their care the same. I believe keeping the structure the same meant that we evolved into appropriate and regular routines as time went by and the babies needs for sleep changed. It goes:
- Eat – The cycle starts when your baby feeds (remember we are watching the baby here not the clock!). Let them feed for as long as needed! Burp regularly during the early days. If your baby starts to doze during the day try to stimulate them a little. If they fall asleep after a feed from 7pm onwards call it night time and consider it a victory.
- Activity – During the day after a feed I lifted my babies up and changed their nappy. Sometimes that was all that ‘activity’ time entailed as when they are newborns they really aren’t up for much craic! Sometimes after the nappy change I would use that time to stare like a mad woman into their eyes and wonder how on earth we created something so perfect and beautiful! Sometimes they would puke (or posset if you are using the polite word) and all of our ‘activity time’ would be spent changing their outfit! Sometimes I would hand them over to daddy or a visitor and tell them to bond with each other while I ran away and had a shower! It varies every time – but in the early days the activity time lasted minutes and as they got older that time eventually got longer and by four or five months there was time to have a lovely walk in the carrier or to play with toys or to watch me cleaning or cooking etc!
- Sleep – The hot topic! In the early days I think you should just give up on any notions that the baby will sleep in the cot or moses basket etc for every (or for some babies any) nap time. They were in your tummy for 9 months (pregnancy myth its totally ten months….) they love your warmth, your sounds, your movement and your smell. Saying that my babies were quite happy to fall asleep in anyone’s arms but i’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that I was their favourite… I’ll give a few more of my sleep tips in a minute once I’ve finished describing ‘the Easy Routine’. I would aim to get them to sleep for an hour or two before their next feed. Young babies may fall into a two to three hour routine, older babies may stretch to a three to four hour routine. Again listen to your baby – don’t watch the clock. Well you can watch the clock but in my experience you just end up irritated because your baby doesn’t agree with the clock. Your newborn won’t understand the clock, care about the clock or even see the clock! Sometimes I feel people felt I was a slave to my baby’s routines in the early days and they were right…I was – but I wasn’t bound by a routine – I was bound by my babies needs – and I was delighted to be! If you’ve had a baby I think its important to give up on old expectations and adapt to new ones – it makes the journey easier, your baby happier, and ultimately you enjoy the whole experience more. I worked hard on identifying sleep cues after the ‘eat’ and ‘activity’ part of the ‘EASY Routine’ so that I was able to help my child drift off before they became over tired or overstimulated.
- You Time – The baby is asleep…Use your time well – if you have older kids try to play with them, or catch up on the laundry or housework, or eat…but consider even just once a day doing something just for you…whether it be have a bath, put on some make up, read a book, or have a snooze. Just something – you don’t have to manage much in the early days but remember – a happy mummy makes a happy baby. Your needs are just as important as theirs because they need you and you can’t provide for them without also providing for yourself too!
At night time you adjust the EASY routine slightly. We kept it the same up until about 11-11.30pm then we would alter the routine by removing the activity stage. This means that when the baby wakes, you keep the lights dim, you avoid playing or overstimulation (some people say don’t make eye contact, that’s a bit extreme for me, I’m ok with eye contact – but I do advise not to smile…smiling leads to playing… playing leads to giggling which leads to tiredness! Smiling is dangerous 😉 So where were we, oh yes, keep the lights dim and unless their nappy feels heavy or is dirty don’t change it. Just feed the baby, wind them and lull them back to sleep – for me this often involved holding them for a good half hour after a feed whilst I played on my phone or added €100’s of euros of shopping into online baskets that I never actually bought because it was the night time talking! Night feeds can feel like a lonely place so just remember – they are normal – your baby has the tummy the size of a marble – they are not doing it to torment you.
Tips to get your baby to sleep
- In the early days I advise holding them and letting them drift away when they need to. It’s certainly no harm to try and put them down once they are asleep and we always used the ‘floppy hand test’. When your baby is in a deep sleep they will go a little limp – enough so that when you pick up their tiny little hand or arm it will flop down if you let go – at this point they are truly relaxed and asleep and more likely to stay settled after you put them down. If you try to rush the process and put them down before this they will be onto you like a flash and you have to start the whole process again!
- Sometimes you just don’t have the time to sit around holding the baby to sleep. This is where the voice of experience comes in….give up trying and go and get yourself a sling!! I never imagined I would be wandering around wearing the child in a sling whilst they napped but honestly it’s a case of needs must! Slings allow you the use of two hands – this is something you will really really learn to appreciate with time! You can do the dishes, clean the counters, walk the dog, go to the toilet, put the toddler to bed, cut up your dinner, and so many more wonderful wonderful things once you have the use of two hands! I believe some people manage to breast feed their babies in slings – these women are multi tasking ninjas – I was never that accomplished! Slings are very handy for babies with reflux as they keep them upright and gravity will help your baby digest their food and keep acid down.
- If all else fails…bounce! Hold the baby or pop them in a sling and walk up and down with a bounce in your step. I advise this for young babies, I have tips for helping older babies fall asleep themselves later.
- When getting your baby to sleep in your arms always always put them lying in a blanket before you start…this means when you go to do the transfer the blanket is under them and already nice and warm so they don’t wake with the shock of the cold mattress.
- Swaddling…Controversial topic. If you choose to swaddle your baby – swaddle them tight enough so that the blankets don’t become loose as loose blankets increase the risk of SIDS, but don’t have it too tight so that it restricts breathing. Ensure your baby is appropriately dressed for the swaddle to prevent overheating. Don’t swaddle your baby if they are older than about three months as swaddling older babies who can roll increases the chances of SIDS. I swaddled my babies. They slept better that way – if I didn’t swaddle them they jerked their amrs and startled themselves. Swaddling worked for us, they were comforted by it. You have to research it and make your own choice on this one.
- Take turns… This is more a sleep tip for mum rather than the baby! Let your partner, family member or friend help out and do a feed if possible. If breastfeeding have your partner sleep with the baby – bring them up to you to feed – and then let them take the baby off to settle them back to sleep. This allows you to get a few hours of sleep which is needed to cope every now and again. Work out a rota or a plan which works for your family, sleep in separate rooms if you can or anything that makes life easier during an exhausting and demanding time.
Tips for older Babies
As babies get older developing a proper sleep routine is important to me. I had a rule until the babies were five or six months old – there were no rules (other than a loose version of the EASY Routine as described above). At this stage I had to go back to work and regardless, I like structure so for me this is important. I don’t advocate crying it out, I don’t think its nice or helpful to anyone. I think its very important to ease a baby into a new routine – after all just because you have decided you have a new routine doesn’t mean your baby will have gotten the memo! You have to teach them. The only way to teach a baby is to practice and to use familiarity. So for us this involved repeating the same behaviours over and over until we were all comfortable with what we needed to do without anyone getting too upset! Here is what we did but you can use any version of this that suits your lifestyle or personal tastes!
- Bring your baby upstairs and turn off the main light. Use a night light or dimmed lighting.
- Speak in a quiet relaxing tone of voice – setting the scene is important.
- Change your babies nappy and put them into a fresh sleepsuit – or vest depending on the weather and temperature.
- Place your baby in a grobag or similar.
- Turn on music or white noise. We used two different products at different stages but both were the same concept – The Prince Lionheart Slumber Bear ( Available by clicking here!) or The Prince Lionheart Slumber Bunny (available by clicking here!) The bunny is more cuddly and better value as is much more usable as a long term cuddly toy once they get older but the slumber bear is more affordable and if its just the sound you need then this is the one I would go for. We used this every time we were trying to get them to sleep from when they were little newborns asleep in the co-sleeper beside us and I feel that having the consistency of that made it easier when we moved them into their own rooms at six months of age. The noise went with them and so they had comfort and familiarity from that in their new and different environment.
- Breast feed or bottle feed your baby while cradled in your arms.
- Sit them in a slightly upright position to wind gently once during the feed and again after.
- If you use a soother offer that at this stage. We did – very successfully with all three babies. We use the sleepytot (available by clicking here!) to hold the soother so it cannot be thrown out of the cot and so that it is easier for them to find during the night if it falls out. Read my full sleepy tot review by clicking here!
- Don’t worry if your baby breastfeeds to sleep – enjoy the cuddles.
- Once your baby is sleepy and finished their feed then gently place them on their backs in the cot. Ideally place them down awake but a little drowsy and let them fall to sleep themselves with you in the room. To start off I think it is no harm to let them sleep in your arms and then place them down as soon as they fall asleep.
- Once they are used to staying settled in their cot but you have gotten into the habit of holding them to sleep you can start to put them down awake but drowsy. It will take practice. Soon you will be able just pop them down and leave the room whilst they fall asleep on their own – but its just important to get there gradually and gently!
- If your baby starts to cry after being put down place your hand gently on their chest for a minute or stroke the side of their face until they settle and then let them drift off.
- If your baby is very upset then pick them up until they are calm and then put them down again.
- Repeat this as many times as is necessary.
- Leave the room after you have put them down. Go back in if they become very upset. A little whinging is ok and can just be a baby soothing themselves to sleep. I would consider them to be very upset if they start to cry in a worked up manner.
- Repeat, repeat and repeat.
- It will feel ridiculous at first…in and out and in and out but that is because you are all learning a new process. They are not sure what is happening and are unfamiliar with this new routine. You need to teach it to them – gently.
- Perseverence and persistence will pay off. Keeping to the exact routine will help.
- For day time naps I would advise stripping your baby to their vest, drawing the curtains and doing the same thing exactly as the night time.
- Once your baby is used to sleeping at their new nap times then you will have more flexibility to go out etc. If you use the same props (we bring the slumber bunny and the sleeptot out and about with us or in the car) they will start to understand your signals that it is now time to sleep and will feel confident and comfortable enough to relax and drift off.
- Children five or six months to one year who wake at 7 to 8am probably need a nap at about 9 to 9.30 am for one to two hours, then another one at about 1pm. Some babies will still need a cat nap at about 5 pm for about half an hour.
- Children drop to one nap in the afternoon roughly around the 12 month mark. Your baby may need it for a little longer so you will have to work around each child individually.
- Once your baby is about 7 months I would avoid letting them sleep past 4.30 pm if you are hoping for a 6.30 start to the bedtime routine with the hope they are down by 7pm.
- Many babies will need a dream feed at about 10.30pm until they are about 8-10 months of age. A dream feed involves going into your babies room when they are still asleep at the same time roughly every night, lifting them for a sleepy feed and popping them back in the cot with the hope the don’t wake too much. This means that they are more likely to let you have a few hours straight sleep which was critical for me when returning to full time work when they were 6 months or younger. I did this with my first child who I was bottle feeding at six months and with my other two who I breastfed for up to ten and a half months. I must say it is more likely that breast fed babies will rise for another feed or two during the night. Bottlefed babies sometimes are happy to sleep through – but there is no actual reality to these sweeping generalisations because as we have said before – babies are all different.
- I advise feeding breast fed babies any time they want it and hope for the best… by 8 or 9 months many will be happily do one long stretch at night allowing you to get consistent sleep.
- Bottle fed babies probably don’t need a bottle between 10.30 pm and 7 am…so I would be more inclined to see if they can be comforted without an automatic reach for a bottle. Teaching your babies other ways so sooth themselves to sleep by using the above techniques may be more beneficial.
I can’t say that using these approaches will work for you. I can’t say if they are right or wrong. I believe consistency is the most important thing and everyone knowing the ‘plan’ is really important – even if the plan is that there is no plan! I think babies get confused when they cannot follow patterns and signals and they don’t have the confidence to relax. I believe that building a strong environment of signals allows your baby to learn when is sleep time, when to expect to be fed and when to have a bit of learning and sensory time. I think that creating a ‘routine’ is not always a bad thing but I strongly believe it needs to be flexible to respond to the needs of your baby which should always come first.
As I have said, I am no sleep expert. My teachers are children… I think they have taught me well! They have changed me for the better from a ‘control freak’ to someone who understands that there is an appropriate time for a routine and that a routine can be used well and loosely around the needs of a tiny baby who doesn’t understand a watch, clock or schedules.
I hope you have found this article helpful and if you have any questions at all please don’t hesitate to contact me by sending a private message to the WonderBaba facebook page (www.facebook.com/wonderbabacare) or by calling me (Sheena) at Milltown totalhealth Pharmacy in Dublin 6 on 012600262. I’m always happy to help