Sleep is critical for our survival and mental wellbeing. As a parent we dream of being the best Mum or Dad that we can possibly can be, but unfortunately when we are not getting the sleep that we so desperately need, it becomes difficult to function at our best.
As a holistic sleep coach, I often meet parents at their wits end who are struggling due to lack of sleep. In this article, I am delighted to share some areas that you might like to look at before going down the route of age appropriate and gentle sleep training. It may be that some simple changes can be made which will help put the right sleep foundations in place for your baby which will have a positive impact on the whole family.
Healthy Sleep Foundations – What are they?
It is never too early to put healthy sleep foundations into place allowing your baby and yourselves to benefit from more restful sleep. Often by getting the foundations in place it helps to address not only your child’s physical needs but also their physiological, emotional and relational needs.
As well as helping babies to consolidate newly learned skills and experiences, sleep gives them the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate. Human growth hormone is also in released in the 4th stage of NREM sleep which ensures that babies are able to develop both physically and mentally.
When we focus on a baby’s sleep it is really important to be aware of what is developmentally normal for their age and also to develop an environment and bedtime routine that creates positive sleep associations as well as focusing on their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Ensuring that the space where your baby sleeps is peaceful and serene is really important when it comes to promoting better sleep. Ideally it should be calming free of clutter and lots of unnecessary toys and objects.
A couple of points whose roots are based in Feng Shui are the following:
Place your baby’s cot at the far end of the room away from the door but not in line with the door – it is also does not want to be next to the wall allowing for space either side and for the flow of positive Qi energy
Avoid any stimulating and aggressive images such as fast cars and wild animals as these will not enable your baby to calm – instead use photos of you and your family
For the walls decorate with pale pastel colours as opposed to bright primary colours.
It is really important when addressing your baby’s sleep to ensure that they do not have any health issues that may be preventing them from falling asleep and staying asleep.
It is key to make sure that they are not suffering from reflux, silent reflux, allergies or intolerances. If they are it is helpful to find a professional who can help you identify the cause of the symptoms.
If your baby is suffering from an inflammatory skin condition such as eczema it is worth remembering this often worsens at night when your baby’s cortisol levels drop. Keeping your baby at the right temperature and not allowing them to overheat is one way of dealing with this uncomfortable and painful condition.
Optimal sleep is as much about your baby’s physical wellbeing as it is about their emotional wellbeing. If your baby is fearful it goes without saying that they will struggle to fall asleep peacefully and then to be able to stay asleep.
As your baby grows, their emotional needs change and develop, the more opportunity you have to connect and reconnect with your baby during the day, the better they will feel from an emotional perspective. If your baby for whatever reason is not able to communicate with you on an emotional level during the day, then it is likely they will wake more at night in search of reassurance and comfort.
Don’t forget the night time is a long time to be apart from your baby and therefore it is absolutely key that we take the time to emotionally communicate and connect with them during the waking hours of day as well as in the run up to bedtime.
Light and Dark Cycles
Use light to help set your baby’s biological body clock. Light helps the brain to communicate with your baby’s pineal gland. It tells it to stop producing melatonin, which as a result let’s your baby know it is time to wake up.
Getting your baby up within the same half an hour window every day and exposing them to natural light in the morning can do wanders in helping to reset your baby’s body clock. In the same way, I recommend turning down lights and creating a dusk like setting in your home. This can help send messages to the brain to begin the production of melatonin – the hormone needed to help your baby to fall and stay asleep.
Block out Light and Noise during the night
Just like adults when baby’s cycle through lighter stages of sleep particularly in the early hours of the morning external factors such as light and domestic noise can disturb your little one’s sleep.
Try using black out blinds and roll up towels to block out light from the doorway. You may also like to invest in a pink noise machine that will help mask external noise. Pink noise that is played continuously is great because it is soothing and can help mimic the sounds of the womb which in turn can help your baby fall asleep more easily and then stay asleep.
Watch the Awake Windows
Keeping an eye on your babies awake windows is critical for preventing them from becoming overtired. When your baby becomes overtired, their body goes into a state of hyper vigilance and starts producing adrenaline and cortisol. Although these hormones are critical for our survival, they do not aid sleep. In fact, cortisol is more powerful than caffeine when it comes to sleep making it harder for our little ones to calm and fall asleep and then to subsequently stay asleep. As a result, it often leads to frequent night waking’s and early morning risings.
Equally if you put your baby down to sleep soon after waking, they may not have sufficient sleep pressure to stay asleep and then fall asleep.
Examples of age appropriate awake windows may be:
0-12 weeks – 45 mins – 1-hour max
12-16 weeks – 1.15 mins – 1.30 mins max
17 – 25 weeks – 1.30 mins – 2 hours max
6-7 months – 2 hours max
7-8 months – 2-3 hours max
9-12 months – 3-4 hours max
Watching for your baby’s-tired signs although not always easy is really important to prevent your baby from becoming overtired and then struggling to fall asleep.
Each baby is different in what they do when they become tired and also how quickly they go from being ok to overtired. A few useful signs to look out for are the following:
Early Tired Signs: Yawning, rubbing eyes, fussing, glazed expression, waving arms and legs, quietening, going pale, red eyebrows, loss of coordination, loss of interest in what they are doing.
Late Tired Signs: Grimacing, back arching or stiffening of body when you pick them up, constant crying or screaming.
Ideally when your spot these early tired signs, you should try to reduce stimulation and start putting them down for a nap. If they become overtired it often means that it could take another 30 to 90 minutes before they are able to fall asleep again.
For those babies who do not display definitive tired cues, it can help to follow the age appropriate awake windows as detailed above.
It is also worth pointing out that often babies who are diagnosed with colic are often overtired and over stimulated as the symptoms are very similar.
Hunger and sleep don’t always go hand but particularly in the first three months if your baby is having trouble feeding it will inevitably affect their sleep. If you feel that your baby is feeding a lot or struggles to feed every time you put them to the breast then it is really important to seek the advice of a qualified IBCLC. They will be able to asses in detail what is going on and help with you your babies feeding technique which more than often will improve sleep at the same time.
Helping your baby to go to sleep with a full tummy might mean that they are able to sleep for longer. During the day it can often help to feed your baby after they wake from their naps as they will be more alert and able to feed better but at night it is perfectly normal and biologically appropriate to feed your baby close to putting them down to sleep.
If you are breastfeeding, evening breastmilk is high in tryptophan, an amino acid which is the pre-cursor to melatonin which will inevitably help your baby to feel sleepy and then to stay asleep.
Studies show that human breastmilk is a powerful form of “chrono nutrition” formulated to communicate the time of day information to babies which is why breastmilk plays a valuable role in the development of your baby’s biological body clock which does not fully develop until they are around 6 months old.
Ensure your baby is comfortable for sleep times and it is important to dress them appropriately for the temperature of their sleep space remembering that the ideal temperature for sleep is 18-20 degrees. If your baby is too hot it can prohibit the production of melatonin causing them to wake more easily. On the other hand, being too cold especially in the early hours of the morning can also cause your baby to wake more often.
Ensuring you introduce your baby to positive sleep associations which are used at the same time as your baby’s primary sleep cue feeling sleepy are also helpful at helping your baby to build an association between a particular song or action and the feeling of feeling drowsy and falling asleep. It is amazing how over time if you use a particular song of lullaby at the same time your baby normally feels sleepy then your baby will come to associate the song with feeling calm.
As well as having a number of sleep associations you use in the lead up to bedtime it is also helpful to have a few that you can use before naptime too to help sign post the way to sleep. These will also help your baby to transition from the activities of day to be able to wind down and fall asleep.
Sleep is not linear and even with the best will in the world there will be times when even the most relaxed and chilled out of babies struggles with sleep as a result of a development leap forward. During the first years of their life, babies go through numerous developmental changes all of which are positive as far as their progression is concerned but sometimes the collateral damage can be sleep. This is due to the fact that your baby’s brain is working overtime which often means they wake up more easily during the night and also because they are very keen to practice their newly learned skills as opposed to going to sleep.
Focus on your own wellbeing
How we are and how we feel when helping our little one to relax and be able to fall and stay asleep is also really important. Imagine how your baby feels when you are holding her and she can feel tension and stress in your body. Essentially, we are like a mirror for our children and our feelings and tension become their feelings and anxieties as well.
To help yourself relax try a couple of the following ideas:
Watch a film that evokes laugher – laughter is the best antidote to fear.
Run yourself a bath and allow someone else to look after your baby even if only for 30 minutes – otherwise if there is no one else around taking a warm shower with your baby can do wanders for helping you to calm.
Try journaling in the evening just before going to bed. Often the very notion of writing down your worries and fears can help remove them from our minds.
Good luck laying those all-important sleep foundations
As you can see there are many different elements to consider when you want to help your baby to sleep better. Often it can be a case of making a few tweaks for a positive impact, but it can be overwhelming. I hope that this article has given you some manageable steps that you can implement at home. If you would like to find about more about how I can help you and your family then please contact me here to book one of my sleep packages tailored to meet the needs of your whole family