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Sleep is a massive, multi-dimensional topic which evokes all sorts of emotions in parents….often despair, overwhelm, anxiety and depression.
The lack of sleep as we all know can have a huge impact on our mood, relationships and our physical and mental well-being. When we are totally exhausted, often nothing seems to make sense and we find it hard to function, let alone try to understand these adorable little beings that have completely turned our world upside down and turned our brains to mush!
Becoming a parent is wonderful for most but the truth is, that for many of us, it’s a struggle….a real struggle. It’s exhausting, relentless, challenging and unnerving and especially so if your baby doesn’t sleep well.
If we struggle to understand these little people how on earth can we understand such a complex subject as their sleep?
Well let me explain……!
Sleep is very subjective and many parents feel their babies are poor sleepers. Often though, how they’re sleeping is developmentally normal and is only a problem if parents feel totally exhausted and finding the situation unsustainable. Sometimes parents find it difficult to accept that their waking baby at 6/7/8 months is still quite normal and my work as a sleep consultant is to unpick every factor which may contribute to this and I help normalise infant sleep through education.
In a research study of over 50,000 babies, it was noted that nearly 70% of babies between 6-18 months woke at least once in the night, and nearly 20% woke up to 3 times.
So in short, it’s perfectly normal for babies to wake at night but the problems for parents arise when their little one can’t go back to sleep without feeding, cuddling. shushing, rocking or patting and this can happen several times during the night.
No matter how severe you think your baby’s sleep issues are or how fragile you are feeling as a parent, there’s always a way to improve the situation and there’s always a reason/s why your baby isn’t sleeping or resettling.
Understanding your little human and their sleep cycles is particularly important in helping to adjust through the different stages of their development and helps you to understand and manage the changes and challenges along the way.
Did you know that babies under 3 months spend around 50% of their sleep time in active sleep (REM) and 50% in quiet/slow wave sleep (NREM3) with short cycles of approximately 45 minutes?
Lots of factors influence children’s sleep and when babies reach around 3-4 months old, their circadian rhythm comes into play and biological mechanisms, environment and habits govern sleep regulation.
By understanding the internal stressors we can optimise sleep for our children and ourselves whilst still focusing on attachment, the prioritisation of feeding and doing exactly what is best for our little ones.
Despite popular belief and the advice given by many experts, babies and toddlers are unable to self-soothe. Some may be able to self-settle but this is very different to self-soothing.
We can teach them to self-settle by creating healthy habits and associations but the soothing is impossible…..if we leave them to cry they may fall asleep from total exhaustion which I feel is totally wrong and unnecessary.
Of course babies cry, it’s how they communicate their distress, tiredness, hunger, needing a cuddle but they need their parents or carer to soothe them and calm them down.
So what can we do……?
We know that sleep is a complex topic but there are many things we can do to help our little ones sleep better at night.
Optimising naps
All babies are different and so are their sleep needs but optimising daytime naps to ensure your baby/toddler isn’t overtired at bedtime is important for creating more consolidated nighttime sleep.
In order to establish a pattern of napping, it’s important that you watch for tired cues from your baby and follow her lead whilst considering age-appropriate timings. A sleep debt can occur during the day when naps are not optimised and this can lead to fragmented nighttime sleep.
Consistent and predictable bedtime routine
Introducing a good bedtime routine is one of the most important things you can do to help your baby sleep well at night as it helps protect and organise the circadian rhythm, aswell as creating a soothing end to the day that is familiar and reassuring. The evening routine should contain 3-4 elements and be uncomplicated…..bath, massage, story and milk and should take no longer than 30-40 minutes for a baby over 6 months.
If the routine is too long, children lose focus and can get a second burst of energy which delays sleep time. If it’s too short, they don’t have time to wind down sufficiently in preparation for bed.
It’s important to keep the evening calm and quiet…..dimmed lighting and pink noise playing are important factors in creating the correct environment.
Broad spectrum daylight and environmental influences
There are many different factors which influence circadian rhythm and these include light, noise, temperature and habits and behaviours.
Giving your child the opportunity for broad-spectrum daylight is important as it helps to regulate circadian rhythm. Blue light, from tvs, screens, some night lights etc should be avoided at least an hour before bed, as they suppress melatonin production. Melatonin is needed by the body to induce a feeling of drowsiness and readiness for bed.
Keeping the bedtime routine calm and quiet to allow children to zone out and fall asleep is especially important. The use of a sound machine that plays pink noise, induces slow wave sleep and is beneficial for babies over 6 months.
Considering the temperature of the room and your child’s body temperature will contribute to influencing the circadian rhythm.
Body temperature is higher in the evening and lower in the early hours, so dressing babies in cotton layers and not exposing them to an environment that is too warm in the evenings will allow your child’s body temperature to remain regulated.
Parenting styles are always important to consider when implementing changes and introducing strategies. Most parents are looking for unbroken or more consistent sleep when they contact me and it’s important that I address the issues from a family-centered angle and provide support for all concerned. Acknowledging the family’s goals and respecting their culture, religion and ethnicity is vitally important in helping me create a program that plays to their strengths, builds their confidence and supports them on the journey to achieve their desired outcome.

Dawn Grey

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