Sleep training can make life much harder for both mother and baby, according to Adjunct Associate Professor Pamela Douglas who is using the latest neuroscience findings to re-educate families on baby’s sleep.
She believes the current methods of sleep training, which include techniques such as delayed response to infant’s cues, feed-play-sleep cycles and avoiding overtiredness and overstimulation, grounded in ideas from the 1950s and 1960s are broken and an alternative paradigm, in which infant night-waking is normalised, needs to be adopted.
“The Possums Sleep Program focuses on two biological sleep regulators – the circadian clock and the sleep/wake homeostat. It is the only program in the world which doesn’t rely on the traditional behaviourism methods.
“We don’t talk about overtiredness and overstimulation. We want to ensure the baby gets enough rich sensory input. Families are being told the minute a baby gets grizzly to get them to sleep, but what they are really needing is a change of environment.
“When there is plenty of activity and social engagement sleep looks after itself. Sleep can happen flexibly and on the go in a satisfying way for the parent,” Associate Professor Douglas said.
LISTEN: We speak to ‘sleep whisperer’ Elizabeth Sloane about how to train your baby to sleep through the night, on our podcast for new parents (post continues after audio…)
She said often excessive night waking is caused by a disruption to the circadian clock from big blocks of daytime sleep or in the first few months of life from underlying breastfeeding problems.
Associate Professor Douglas recommends setting a wake-up time rather than focusing on a bedtime. Then getting up and getting into the day with lots of fulfilling sensory stimulation. When the sleep pressure kicks in and becomes very high the baby will naturally drop off.
Once it’s bedtime she advises parents to wait until the sleep pressure is extremely high and even pushing bedtime back to avoid the excessive night waking and better align it with the family’s sleep patterns.
“Internationally baby’s bedtime is more like 8:30pm in the first year of life but in Australia we are putting them down at around 6-7pm. Don’t worry about overstimulation, a feed of milk can dial them down, allow them to settle and allow sleep to be a really relaxed and enjoyable time,” she said.
Associate Professor Douglas said the same principles applied to toddlers, however their sleep needs shrink and by 12 months a lot have dropped daytime naps completely.
“Big daytime naps at day-care for two-year-olds is worsening their night times,” she warned.
Associate Professor Douglas said it will take one to two weeks to reset the circadian clock.
Brisbane mum, 37-year-old Jillian Nogueira, has had enormous success using the Possums Sleep Program after her baby, Elle, started waking hourly through the night.
She said a lot of her friends had used sleep training methods, but it didn’t feel right for her.
“Everyone says it [sleep training] is the hardest thing they’d ever done. I didn’t really want to inflict ‘the hardest thing I’ve ever done’ onto my baby. My actual job is to love her, and I don’t ever want her to think I’m not coming for her,” Jillian said.
She said she bought the Little Ones online sleep training guide, Save Our Sleep by Tizzy Hall and the No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, but they all felt incongruent with her mothering instinct and the relationship she wanted to create with her baby.
One night out of desperation her husband suggested they give Tizzy Hall’s method a try. They set the timer and left Elle to cry for 36 seconds. Then again for slightly over a minute, but when she went in Elle’s face was red and full of tears.
“It obviously wasn’t working for her and it wasn’t working for me. The Possums framework makes much more sense. It’s evidence-based and practices that don’t feel harming to my relationship with my baby."
"There is no real set bedtime, but as we’re a family we should all be sleeping at the same times, that is, we sleep big blocks of time at night together. They say, ‘the day is for living, the night is for sleeping’,” Jillian said.
She said the first signs of tiredness are treated as boredom and they nudge Elle to stay awake longer by engaging her in different activities and different environments such as a walk outside.
“It’s worked a treat, I felt supported and the approach made perfect sense to me,” Jillian said.
The Possums Sleep film is available online at: education.possumsonline.com/sleep-film