Oh, your baby won't sleep?
Although well-meaning, sleep advice offered by other parents is rarely helpful. Lucy Wolfe explains what not to utter to the parent of a child who struggles with slumber...
Show me one parent with a sleeping problem and I will show you 20 more who have a suggestion that they think might help. It's always well-intentioned, but very often this unsolicited advice is unhelpful and demoralising. Don't get me wrong, we all need to support each other, but with so many force factors affecting your child's sleep, it can be very challenging to tolerate the well-meaning suggestions; that may not make any difference and could even make things worse.
Having a child that doesn't sleep well is possibly one of the hardest parenting challenges in the first few years of your parenting career, specifically when your child is otherwise healthy and typically developing.
It is helpful to have a better understanding for ourselves in terms of what sleep issues would benefit from intervention and what is typical, biologically appropriate sleep for your child and not a problem per se.
If under six months of age, whilst some children are capable of going to sleep and staying asleep for long periods, others are not and in the early months that is often the journey - beyond six months, this can generally be improved. But many parents can expect their child to require feeds and support at various stages of the night. Again, this is considered normal and doesn't necessarily require intervention.
Waking that exceeds the typically defined parameters may include waking hourly, staying awake overnight for up to three hours or even, as I experienced recently in my practise, waking every 15 minutes all night long… now, these are sleep challenges that can be improved once health issued are ruled out; but not all the suggestions that other parents will make will help.
A parent with a sleepless child is incredibly vulnerable and will potentially feel that despite their best efforts to promote better, more consolidated and less interrupted sleep tendencies, the waking continues.
Here are four things that you should never say to a parent with a child who doesn't sleep…
1 My child slept from the start!
It's never good to add to the potential feeling of failure for another parent to hear about how successful you have been. Remember that every child is entirely unique and different and the speed with which you helped your child to sleep isn't a reflection of someone doing something better than you or that you have done something wrong.
Sleep at the start is very tricky and some babies will sleep better than others and some of course will respond better than others too. For me, I feel that there is no such thing as right or wrong ways to do something, but I do feel that there is opportunity for you to begin to make small changes that can make a big difference to what you are experiencing.
Smaller wake periods between naps, earlier bedtimes and a regular wake time may be considered the first positive steps towards a child that sleeps longer and deeper. Try not to worry; with conscientious adjustments you can nudge your child into a more growth-full sleep space.
2 Maybe they are hungry!
The great hunger debate nearly always plays a part around whether your child is sleeping well or not. It can straddle between the suggestion that if they were fed formula then they might sleep better and /or maybe introducing or increasing solids will help. There is no evidence in either case to support that the introduction of formula over breast milk or indeed solid food, will help your baby sleep more.
Of course your child may start to wake if they are ready for solids or not getting enough to eat and drink and night feeds are still required, but very often the introduction of either does not mean better sleep.
Caroline O Connor, registered dietician with solidstart.ie, says: "This is one of the most common questions I'm asked by parents at our baby weaning classes. Unfortunately, this is a myth. Research shows that starting solids or increasing the amount of solids doesn't improve sleep and there are also some risks in trying to fill your baby up before bed."
Many parents are truly stuck on the concept of hunger and sleep and attempt to fill their child up. Often the closeness of the last milk feed before sleep actually undermines your child's ability to cycle through sleep without waking when they could be sleeping. Sometimes re-positioning the final feed so that there is an hour clearance between finishing the feed and beginning to sleep ensures that a sleepy state is not enabled and thus disabling the ability to cycle through sleep. It is the brain that sleeps; the stomach will follow thereafter.
3 You will just have to let him cry it out!
Although this is often put to parents who report that their child is not sleeping well, using a cry-intensive technique to improve sleep is firstly not necessary and secondly, will not always help the situation. As there are so many force factors affecting your child's sleep, a behavioural approach in isolation will likely just cause more stress for all involved. Helping your child to sleep better, deeper and longer should really only begin in earnest beyond six months of age.
Before this age, I suggest gentle sleep shaping on the understanding that under six months many children are just not developmentally, biologically or emotionally ready to sleep as well as you might like. We concentrate instead on laying a foundation for positive sleep practices and then beyond six months and up to six years of age, gentle sleep learning can be observed. This can all be done in stages - creating the right environment for sleep (adequately dark), ensuring that your child is warm and secure enough in the space that you have selected for them.
Create bedtime routines that help to signal to your child that it is time to sleep. Then you can begin to honour the science of sleep by implementing my age-relevant feeding and sleep balances to the day - allowing your feeding rhythm and your sleeping rhythm to run in sync with each other - and finally, if required you can use my stay-and-support approach to reduce the level of parental input required at bedtime and overnight.
This way instead of "training" your baby to sleep, you are teaching them in a gentle, emotionally considerate and parent-attended way. Even if you don't use a behavioural strategy; sometimes just creating the right timing balance to the day and a sleep-inducing space is enough to help encourage some longer sleep tendencies.
4 Oh, some children just don't sleep!
Whilst every child is different, and whilst their sleep tendencies will also be different, they probably are not wildly different; with only a small variation between the individual need for sleep amounts from six months onwards.
Notwithstanding reports of some children never sleeping until they turned two, four or six, it is fair to suggest that all children can be helped to sleep better, despite the fact that maybe their dad never slept or mum comes from a family who don't need to sleep as much as the average person. In spite of differences, there is plenty of scope to encourage your child's sleep ability and to help them to achieve their sleep optimum. Even if you feel your starting point is worse than anyone else's, true opportunity exists to help to programme the body for better sleep.
The largest contributory factor to most sleep challenges is simply a bedtime that happens too late. Even 7.30pm can be too late for child who does not routinely sleep well. This slightly-later-than-nature-intended onset of sleep serves to stop the body going into a deep consolidated sleep state and it also acts as a barrier to day-time sleep.
Bringing bedtime forward and aiming to be asleep initially at 7pm in any age group from four months to six years of age can help to unlock the sleep ability and encourage the brain to achieve a deeper and less interrupted sleep overnight. Day-time sleep is also easier to achieve and may also result in longer, deeper naps.
As parents on a quest for better sleep for your child, it can be a lonely and vulnerable place. Understanding that this can be the journey, finding an approach that feels instinctively right for you and making changes that seems to suit your child's body will take you time.
Ignoring the unhelpful advice, relying on your instincts and strong internal authority will help you move forward into a more growth-full sleep space for your family. It does take time, patience and a level of predictability. But with confidence in your method and yourself, I am sure that you will start to see gradual improvements and a sense of what your child can do in terms of their sleep.
Improving sleep should not feel like it goes against your parenting philosophy, or deprives your child of something.
We observe enhanced mood and behaviours of all involved, deeper emotional connectivity, improved appetites and better rest for the whole family unit, which means that you can parent mindfully and respond rather than react, spending time with your child and allowing yourself to be separate with increased opportunity for self-loving and self-care.
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 valuable support to families across the country. See sleepmatters.ie, call 087 2683584 or email firstname.lastname@example.org