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"Sleep isn't a milestone." The advice baby sleep experts want exhausted parents to know.

The topic of babies and sleep is enough to wreak havoc in the minds of new parents.

Is my baby getting enough sleep?

Should I be worried that they aren’t sleeping through the night?

What does self-settling actually mean?

Is there something wrong with my baby’s sleep cycle?

Is this normal, and if not… what is?

Sam and Snezana Wood share their go-to ways to get a newborn baby to sleep:

Video by MMC

Parenting expert and author Patricia ‘Pinky’ McKay (Parenting By Heart, Sleeping Like a Baby and Toddler Tactics) and sleep consultant Veena Parry of Sleep Sweet Sleep Deep spoke to Mamamia about the often all-encompassing topic, and both experts agree parents put too much pressure on themselves when it comes to how and how much their babies are sleeping.

“Parents ares being told you just feed them and put them down and they fall asleep. And then parents get really anxious that they’re doing something really wrong,” says Pinky.

Veena, who was inspired to become a sleep consultant due to the “horrific” sleep routines of her own two children, agrees.

“Children do their own thing in their own time and sleep is just like feeding, it’s done on demand,” she says.

“As your child is doing all of their cerebral development in those initial first 17 weeks, the first thing that starts to get affected is sleep.”

Luckily, there are some tips and tricks all parents should be aware of.

What new parents should know about baby sleep cycles:

While ensuring your baby gets enough sleep can be a very emotional topic for parents, both Pinky and Veena emphasise that the needs and habits of each baby differs greatly.

“I think there’s some unrealistic expectations around what newborns in particular should be doing.” says Pinky.

Up until the four month mark, babies enter sleep through “active sleep,” which is comparable to an adult’s REM sleep. At this stage babies also have what’s called a “startle reflex” which causes them to wake easier and makes them very sensitive to loud noises and disturbances.

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“At this point most babies won’t go to sleep on their own,” says Pinky.

“Some babies can’t do it after that,” she adds.

“It’s perfectly alright to pick them up and with some babies you give them a feed, give them a cuddle, get them all nice and warm and relaxed and they will go to sleep.

“It really doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. It doesn’t mean there’ll be a huge problem later on.”

 

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Veena adds that it’s completely normal for your baby’s sleep routine to change as they develop.

“I get the most calls at the nine to 16 week mark from parents who are seeing a lot of cerebral skill development and want to manage their baby’s sleep in the most gentle way.”

She also says the much-touted sleep mantra of “two hours awake, two hours asleep,” won’t work for everyone. It didn’t for her.

“It’s really important to look at your own child and to not always go for the generalised opinion. Children do their own thing in their own time and sleep is just like feeding, it’s on demand.”

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How can you get your baby to sleep?

Don’t diss the boob.

While Pinky admits that people get “a lot of flack” for letting their baby go to sleep on the breast, breast milk also contains the all-important amino acid, tryptophan, which is used by the body to make melatonin to help regulate and encourage sleep.

“There’s actually good chemicals in breast milk that will help your baby settle, so that’s perfectly alright,” she says.

Identify your baby’s ‘tired signals’.

“Begin creating ‘sleeping cues’ to help your baby drift off,” says Veena.

“Every baby can have very different signals and it’s so important for parents know that.

“It could be vocalisation, they can sometimes also start getting irritable, but every baby does it differently. Others quietly go completely glassy eyed or lose interest in the face and stop engaging. They could also rub their eyes.”

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Breastfeeding can be a good way to get a baby to sleep.

Easy does it...

Another way parents can encourage their babies to go to sleep easier, is by creating a variety of sleep cues through music, feeding or gentle rocking which communicate to your child that it's time for bed. While most babies will be comforted by this "gentle process," it will still take "a week or two" for them to adapt to each cue, depending on your child.

"This could take a couple of weeks (maybe more, maybe less) but it's easier than saying 'sorry we're going to do this cold turkey, because I've done this with you for the past five to six months and I'm over it,'" says Pinky.

"You could play some gentle music, feed, cuddle or rock your baby to sleep. Then after that week, you'll gently introduce a new sleep cue. It's a gentle process.

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"If you're rocking, it's better to stop rocking before the baby is totally asleep and if they get grisly, just start rocking again. Then after each few days, pull back a bit and eventually you'll be able to put them in the cot, because they'll feel familiar with that."

What about the 'cry it out' method?

This is something both experts advice against. The 'cry it out' method is a type of self-settling technique, which advises parents to let their babies put themselves to sleep, even if they're crying.

"I find it really amazing we read a bedtime story to a three-year-old, but we would expect a three-month-old to be able to put themselves to bed when the whole world is new to them and they find it difficult to switch off," says Pinky.

Through her work, she's also found that older babies (from five to eight months) will exhibit 'clingier tendencies' when they're left to ‘cry it out’.

"They think 'she's going to leave me' and then they'll arc up if mum walks to the door," she says.

Pinky also references a 2011 study conducted by researcher Wendy Middlemiss at the University of North Texas’s College of Education, which studied 25 babies as they were learning to 'self-settle' through the ‘cry it out’ method in a five-day inpatient sleep training program.

Although the infants had learned to put themselves to sleep by day three, their cortisol levels – a hormone linked to stress – were still heightened.

"On the third day of the program, however, results showed that infants' physiological and behavioural responses were dissociated," wrote Middlemiss.

"They no longer expressed behavioural distress during the sleep transition but their cortisol levels were elevated."

Commenting on the trial, Pinky says the results commented on the fact that the idea of babies "learning" to self-settle through this way is false.

"Quite often people say they're 'learning' to self-settle, when really they're not learning anything,"

"They've just given up."

Can baby sleep consultants help and what do they do?

If parents want to seek extra support when it comes to putting their babies to sleep, in terms of advice, techniques or emotional support, a sleep consultant, like Veena, can help.

Through her business Sleep Sweet Sleep Deep, she offers consultations or 'night time' and overnight 'dusk till dawn' bundles which aims to help parents instil "independent sleep skills" in their babies. Veena says there's a lot of misrepresentation about sleep consultants, especially when it comes to practitioners using the "cry it out" or "self-settling techniques".

"I don't even use the term sleep training and I avoid the 'cry it out method' like the plague," she says.

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"Instead I try and foster 'gentle sleep skills'. Gradually babies that I do work with learn to self-settle but they aren't left to cry on their own, it's all hands on and loving."

 

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If you are thinking about choosing a sleep consultant, Veena says there are some things to look out for, beyond glowing recommendations.

"I know if it were my child, I'd want a consultant with certification, a working with children check, university accreditation in an area related to early childhood and first aid accreditation. Not that we're doing anything medical-based, but it's nice to have the peace of mind."

Pinky also advises potential parents to set and confirm their expectations with their consultants and reminds parents that their parental intuition comes first.

"You want to ensure both you and your baby are put in an environment that feels safe and respectful" she says.

Pinky also recommends seeking other avenues of help through GPs and health nurses.

"See who they recommend," she adds.

Other baby sleep tips to be aware of:

Pinky's tips:

  • Sleep isn't a milestone. As long as they're reaching all their other milestones and are bright, happy and thriving, you're probably doing a damn good job.
  • There's no such thing as 'junk sleep'. When you're living your life, your baby sleeps where you baby sleeps, as long as it's safe.
  • If any new thing you do makes either of you upset, pull back and say, 'do we need to do this right now, should we try again in a few weeks?'
  • Don't compare your baby to others.

Veena's tips:

  • You want your child to be getting as much sleep as they need but you don't need to be on a strict schedule immediately, it's not practical.
  • Despite this, it can be helpful to stick to the same wake up and bed time everyday, if you can. Not immediately, but after the first two months, just so you can give yourself a bearing of when your day starts and ends.
  • Don't be so hard on yourself. Being a mum is the hardest job in the world and nobody tells you how hard it is. It's a huge adjustment and you should ask for help when you need it, from both professionals and your friends and community.

Did you struggling with 'sleep training' your baby? What are your best tips? Tell us in a comment below.

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