Wednesday 21 March 2018

Children can learn how to sleep

Is bedtime a constant battle in your house? You're not alone - many parents struggle with their children's sleeping habits. Claire O'Mahony speaks to 'sleep whisperer' Lucy Wolfe about how she offers slumber solutions

Paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe Photo: Rob Lamb
Paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe Photo: Rob Lamb
Lucy with her children Jesse (14), Ellen (12), Eden (9) and Harry (6) Burke

Claire O'Mahony

Every mother will at some point encounter another parent whose baby is a paragon of good sleep practices. These are the people who have never had to contend with bedtime-as-battleground nor have they known the debilitating fatigue caused by being woken on the hour by crying, 10 nights in a row where you feel you might start hallucinating. While we can envy them their night-time bliss, there is some comfort to be had in the fact that the experience of having a solid little sleeper is not the norm. Most parents will agree that the expression 'sleeping like a baby' is largely a misnomer and many mums and dads will struggle with their child's sleeping problems, from infants simply refusing to sleep to toddlers demanding to get into their parents' bed.

Paediatric sleep consultant, Lucy Wolfe, who heads up private sleep consultancy practice Sleep Matters, has heard it all. Ireland's leading sleep expert and a regular contributor to Mothers & Babies for the last six years, she has helped more than 4,000 families regulate their sleeping problems, either in her Cork office, or via Skype sessions. Working with babies aged six months old to six-year-old children, her gentle methods have been 98pc effective in resolving baby sleep problems and her first book, The Baby Sleep Solution, promises to teach frazzled parents how they can help their child sleep through the night.

The mother-of-four, who worked in property as a chartered surveyor and auctioneer, was a sleep-deprived parent herself and this is how her interest in the area of baby sleep was sparked.

"When I had my first child - who is nearly 15 now - she was a great sleeper. I thought I was brilliant but by the time she was about 10 months, she was a horrible sleeper," Wolfe says. "I didn't really know anything about sleep and neither did any of my friends because I was one of the youngest to have a family. I started reading books, and ones from the States suggested that you should go and see a sleep consultant. When I asked my GP, she told me there was no such thing here. The internet 15 years ago wasn't as sophisticated as it is now and I felt really vulnerable. In the end I sorted it out by reading various bits and pieces."

Her second daughter was a different kind of sleeper entirely, and this fuelled her interest even more. Wolfe was also discovering at this time, as her friends and relatives started to have children, that sleep was a very common issue for everybody. Looking for a career change, and feeling that this might be something she had a talent for - she had already become the go-to person for advice in the playground - she trained in the US and UK before beginning her sleep consultancy business.

"I just had a conviction that it would be needed and that it was a support that wasn't there," she says. "It was really busy from almost day one. I suppose I have perfected my craft - it might come from having lots of children of my own but I think I'm very instinctive when I'm working with a family and that I'm able to bring them to the place they need to be."

She has devised an approach called stay-and-support, which involves various elements including physically and verbally responding to your child, using distraction, with guidelines on when to pick up and within what time frame, but never leaving them alone to cry.

It allows the baby to feel loved, safe and secure and it also gives parents confidence.

Lucy with her children Jesse (14), Ellen (12), Eden (9) and Harry (6) Burke
Lucy with her children Jesse (14), Ellen (12), Eden (9) and Harry (6) Burke

The sleep expert says that extremes like crying it out are unnecessary. "I feel quite strongly about that and I actually wouldn't even use words like sleep training because I don't think that's what I do," she says. "I think I help a child learn to sleep and I like that my approach is gentle and considerate and that it's child-centred and parent-led. A lot of parents are still under the impression that in order to get better sleep, you've got to compromise your child's emotional well-being and you've got to be tough. But that's not the case at all. Sleep is a really natural process so all I do with a family is unlock that natural ability with an approach where I take everything into account. It's not just one piece of the puzzle but trying to encompass every piece of the child's development."

In her experience, the biggest mistake parents are making is that their children's bedtimes are too late.

"Generally speaking, young children's bedtimes are somewhere between six and eight. Bedtime is the time the child should be asleep by and not the time you start the process. Lots of children I see might not be even going up the stairs until half past eight and if you're coming from a weak background in terms of sleep, sometimes even 7.30pm is too late. If you've got someone who is not sleeping routinely through the night a much earlier onset of sleep is actually a requisite.

"It's not early bedtime for early bedtime's sake or for you to have time on your own. It's because it's the way that young children are programmed. If we embrace that and underpin it, then we can work through to better sleep practices."

The most common sleep problem she encounters is frequent nocturnal activity, where children are awake for hours at a time or waking every 40 minutes. However, Wolfe says that's it's rarely a case of one problem just existing in isolation and that the situation tends to be multi-layered.

"The next most common thing is that the parents are involved in the context of their child's sleep so they're doing something to make sleep happen - feeding them a bottle, rocking them, laying down with them," she explains. "Generally what we see is that those two common problems sit on top of each other. There's probably an irregularity where the schedule is concerned and then there is probably a dependency somewhere along the line as well."

Parents may sometimes worry that their child may prove to be the exception to the rule and that a good night's sleep will be unattainable. While Wolfe acknowledges that all children are different, and what works for one may not work for another, she is keen to stress one thing. "I think everybody can learn how to sleep better and I think it can all be improved on."

And as one might anticipate, she herself is an excellent sleeper. "I love it. I'm so disciplined; I'm like a little robot. If I don't get my sleep, I'm not the best version of myself and I hate feeling under par. I put a huge value on my sleep. My son has said to me that all you ever talk about is sleep and food!"

Irish Independent

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