7 newborn sleep strategies
Sleep expert Lucy Wolfe offers practical tips for those intensive first few months
Understanding that newborn sleep is tricky is possibly one of the best things a new parent can do. The more we normalise 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 overriding tendencies is that many young children benefit from being held a lot, and they also are designed to sleep in bursts rather than long stretches.
I always encourage families to think of their children's sleep in two parts - before six months, and then six months and beyond. Although this is a disproportionate set of halves, it is helpful nonetheless to acknowledge that sleep within the first six months is largely immature and many of the challenges experienced - despite being 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 at that point we feel that intervention is more appropriate than during the first six months.
Within the first six 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.
1One 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 than 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 don't 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 discuss 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 night-time duties - be kind to yourself and to each other.
Although it feels never-ending, this period of intensity will diminish and, even if it doesn't feel that way, as your baby gets older, we can work more intensely on the sleep at six months-plus anyway.
2Hold 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 nine 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 lay them down, just commit to holding them 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, 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 or a stroller, for example, and also attempt to allow the other parent 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 on to the next stage of semi-independence - with greater ease.
3Being 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 this is too late and they are 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 overtired signs, then just prepare for sleep about 10 minutes before you have noted these signals.
4Without 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 night-time sleep. Starting the day at a regular time, with a feed, and then having a sense of synchronicity between feeds and sleeps as your day unfolds can be helpful.
Your young baby, for the first eight weeks or so, will desire a late adult-orientated bedtime, and then the next two months see an earlier sleep tendency emerging so that bedtime by four months of age is between 6pm 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.
5Establish 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 create a dim lamp-light environment.
This does not need to be a long, drawn-out process, just a sequence of events: your actions, songs and phrases that can help baby to understand that it is time to sleep.
6At 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 practise what I describe as my 'Percentage of Wakefulness' approach. If you can allow your baby to be even 5pc 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, don't worry: work on the other aspects, as my 'Stay-and-Support' method replaces this approach after six months of age.
7Don't compare your baby's sleep, feeding or behaviour with another. Every baby is so different and comparisons rarely help our mood; they serve only to undermine our individual relationship with our infants.
Plough your own furrow. Learn more about expectations: have low expectations for sleep ability, 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 by then, it won't be necessary anyway).
Their sleep matures - not always at the rate we would like - and sometimes we need to make adjustments to keep encouraging more sleep growth. This is all much easier if you have consciously enabled an attuned, loving, responsive relationship with baby from early on.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, H. Dip RM, is a paediatric sleep consultant, author of the bestselling book 'The Baby Sleep Solution'; creator of Sleep Through, a natural bed and body sleep spray and relaxing rub, and mum of four. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and support to families across the country. See sleepmatters.ie, tel: 087 268 3584 or email firstname.lastname@example.org