Infant Sleep - Top Tips for New Mums
I am finding that there is a common concern for new mums… they are all so worried they are not doing to right things, that they are creating bad habits, that they don’t want their babies to be dependent on them to go to sleep, that they will never be able to sleep on their own if they let them sleep in bed with them, that they are failing their child in some way. I really cannot tell you how much this breaks my heart. Some of these women have babies with reflux, some have colicky babies, some have amazing little sleepers but they don’t know it because another mom told them that their baby slept through the night at two months. This blog is for all of the incredible women I have talked to who are doing the best job, tending to their baby’s needs, and for some – surviving hours and hours of crying and are too worried to give a soother because someone told them that it was a ‘negative sleep association’ to go to sleep while sucking.
So for all of those amazing women out there who are somewhere within these first crazy six months, this post is for you… Here are my top ten tips for the first 6 months.
1. Know that you are the only one who will every make the best decisions for your baby because you are their mother.
Do not listen to what anyone tells you about sleep (or anything else for that matter). Please believe that trusting your gut is always going to lead you to make the right decisions. You are not failing them… if you are feeding them, changing them, loving them and getting them at least a basic amount of sleep then you are doing great! The more you stress about ‘not doing the right thing’ because you are reading articles about baby sleep on the internet or listing to other moms on a Facebook group, the more you are taking the joy out of the time that you do have with your baby. I absolutely love this quote by co-sleeping expert, James McKenna:
“Do what works for your family and trust yourself to know your baby better than any external authority. You are spending the most time with your baby, and every baby is different. Infants, children, and their parents intersect in all kinds of diverse ways. Indeed, there is no template for any relationship we develop. When it comes to sleeping arrangements, many families develop and exhibit very fluid notions of where their baby “should” sleep. Parents with less rigid ideas about how and where their babies should sleep are generally much happier and far less likely to be disappointed when their children cannot perform the way they are “supposed to” — i.e. sleep through the night.”
Your number one job as a mother, when it comes time to your baby’s sleep is to teach them that sleep is a pleasant place to go and a safe place to remain. If you are trying to force them to sleep (because you read in a book that their wake window was meant to be 45 minutes) and they are not tired, you are teaching them that sleep is stressful. Your baby mirrors back all of your emotions. If you are frustrated, they are frustrated. Follow your instincts, trust your gut and you will always know what to do.
2. Do whatever you have to do to get them to sleep…
It is really important to not get caught up in too many ‘sleep do’s and don'ts’ for the first few months. For the first three months especially, you really only need to be feeding, changing and back down to sleep. For those of you with fussy/extremely alert/high needs/reflux babies, you know so well that sleep is a challenge – do whatever you have to do! And along those same lines…
3. There are no negative sleep associations. Nothing is wrong with co-sleeping, breastfeeding to sleep, using a pacifier, etc.
Please breastfeed to sleep, please use a pacifier (once breastfeeding has been established) if that helps, please rock your 4-month-old to sleep if it helps them to relax, please use the carrier or the stroller and walk your baby to sleep. Yes… I am a sleep coach and I am telling you to do all the things you heard were ‘bad’ or ‘negative’. This is how babies want to go to sleep. Eventually they will learn to do it on their own but for now, help them… they are sooooo little.
I always hear this term, ‘negative sleep association’ and it frustrates me. We all have associations with going to sleep. We may use white noise, we may read a book first, we may have a specific set of sheets that we like, some people look at their phones before bed (this one is really not great for your melatonin production). There is nothing negative about needing something to help us relax into sleep. If you aren’t planning on staying in their room, and they don’t know that you leave and come back (mentioned how stressful this is for a baby in my blog post on self-soothing), it is more than fair that they have an association with going to sleep. If they have a particular association that you are not enjoying, remember that you are the one that built that association into the routine.
When rocking them to sleep is no longer something you want to do because it is taking an hour, then change it (if it is taking that long then it likely is not working for them either). Yes, this will be met with some resistance but if you are gentle about the transition and give your little one time to adjust, then the resistance will be minimal. If your child loves sleeping on you during the day and it is no longer working for you because you have things that you would like to do (like take a shower – a luxury no first time mother thought she would go days without), then maybe let them fall asleep on you and work on the transfer. Wait until they are in a deep sleep (their body will eventually go limp and they will stop twitching and moving), and try putting them in the bassinet feet first and slowly lay them down. This will remove the feeling of falling that can sometimes wake them up. In our comprehensive online sleep and breastfeeding course, we give lots of strategies for helping with this.
See the Ordinary Mother page on Bedsharing safely.
4. If your baby is waking every three hours at night – they are normal!
I wrote about this in another blog post so I will add it here: “Newborns have two sleep states, active sleep (which is similar to adults’ REM sleep) and quiet sleep (similar to our non-REM sleep). We now know that active sleep is necessary in order to keep babies from dying of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Babies spend more time in active sleep from 2-6 A.M. During this time, they are much more likely to wake if they are hungry, cold, wet or not breathing (which again, is so important). Their sleep cycles are actually shorter than ours (lasting only 50-60 minutes) and therefore they can experience a partial arousal every hour or so. There is a biological reason for the waking, it is for survival – in order for children to grow, they need to eat and therefore need to wake to eat. If a child is too cold or too hot, they need to wake to let mom know. If a child isn’t breathing, they need to wake. Anything that forces a child to sleep too deeply, too soon is dangerous. Active sleep also has other benefits, it is thought to be smart sleep because the brain isn’t resting, it increases the blood flow to the brain and is thought to be responsible for more rapid brain growth. The point of the little rant is that children should be waking at night – in order for them to survive.”
5. Keep your baby close
This is true both at night and during the day. There really is such a push to have your baby in his/her own sleep space. It is important to note that the Canadian Pediatric Association recommends room sharing for the first 6 months in order to reduce the risk of SIDS. There is absolutely no need to rush baby into their own crib in their own room. If they are still waking several times at night and you are exhausted – co-sleep (I always have to say that I am not allowed to promote bedsharing so by co-sleeping, I mean room sharing). You will get the extra sleep you need and your baby will get the closeness they love. As I mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with this. I promise that if you co-sleep, your child will still be able to go to school on their own and will grow up to be a strong independent person.
Keeping baby close during the day is also important. If they want to nap on you… go for it! They are babies – they want to be close. I cannot tell you how many women I work with who don’t hold their babies for more than an hour a day because they are worried that they are ‘spoiling’ them. You cannot spoil a baby by snuggling them. Really look at the amount of time you are holding them… Often times it is easy to get caught up in the daily tasks (diaper changes, tummy time, swing, toys, etc.) and when you really look at the total amount of time you spent holding them, it is very little. They need this closeness and even better… If you can keep them skin-to-skin you will be satisfying their need for closeness.
Remember that in order for a child to become independent, they must first be securely attached. Babies need physical proximity, sensing the person they are attached to through smell, sight, and sound. Their needs can be summarised as proximity, protection, predictability, and play. They also need a parent to respond sensitively and consistently when they signal. The biggest predictor of how well a child turns out is that they have a secure relationship with at least one primary caregiver.
I do think that the biggest frustration around keeping babies close is the fact that:
a) Our expectations don’t meet reality. If someone prepared us prenatally for what life would look like after having a baby, I think we would be a lot more open to accepting the first year. If you knew that you would be up all night parenting, and that your baby would spend all day sleeping on you or near you, and that you were not going to have time to clean the house or do laundry and that it would be really hard, then we wouldn’t be so frustrated when this became our reality. No one tells you how isolating it feels to be home all day with a baby glued to your chest.
b) That our culture no longer supports the new mother. We don’t have the village and the tribe that once helped a mother raise her baby. More and more women are expected to do it all without any help. Some families I have met have the mother working part-time in the first year and still trying to meet the needs of her baby and keep a clean home and put a meal on the table. Some of my clients in the United States are going back to work at 3 months and trying to find a way to pump enough milk for their baby, find childcare for their baby and then manage all of the emotion that comes along with being separated from a brand new baby.
Social media is also not friendly to new moms. We see pictures of perfectly put together moms just hours after having a baby. This is not the norm. I highly recommend staying away from social media and dr. Google in the first year. It is important for a mother to find her own way without feeling pressure from others to do something that doesn’t feel right. It is hard enough to get through the first year (it actually doesn’t get any easier as they get older but that is a whole other blog post) but to be constantly comparing your baby to others or your life to the picture-perfect Instagram mom is enough to take all the joy out of being a mother to a new baby.
I run a really great Facebook group called, ‘Baby-Led Sleep’ where you can vent and share your sleep challenges amongst an amazing and supportive group of families.
As a side note, if you want a really great book about attachment, I would highly recommend Hold On To Your Kids by Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld.
6. Connect with an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant)
It is really so important to make sure that if you plan to breastfeed, you find someone who can support your breastfeeding goals. Make sure that they are listening and you are clear about how you are feeling throughout the process. If you are exhausted, and it is no longer working for you, let them help… If you feel like you can’t do it anymore… tell them to support you while you stop. Make sure that you are working with them as it relates to sleep as well. Within the first three months of breastfeeding, your supply is hormonally driven. After three months, it is based on how many times your breasts are being emptied. If your baby gives you longer stretches at night and you are missing those feeds, this impacts your supply. If you are feeding on a schedule, this impacts your supply. If your baby is distracted during the day and not eating as much, this impacts your supply. If your baby is waking up several times at night and eating, they might be doing their job – keeping up your supply. On a similar note, your body produces more milk at night because your prolactin levels are higher and therefore if baby is distracted during the day, or if you have started solids early and are using them as a meal (please do ask your LC about this), then they will eat more at night because it is dark, the snuggles are nice, and the milk comes more easily.
****Lactation Consultants are also a must-see for any baby with colic or reflux. They will help you to figure out why your baby is ‘colicky’ or why baby has reflux. They will look at your latch, your let-down, help to look for food allergies, etc. Use this resource.
7. Avoid overstimulation
This really isn’t talked about much but I really think it is important to discuss it in this post. It is so easy to forget that babies are sooo little and that everything is so new to them. Moving to a new room is a crazy experience for a one-month-old. Looking out the window is very stimulating. Going on a walk is stimulating all of baby’s senses – new noises, new smells, new things to see, even the outside air tastes different. We, oftentimes, forget all of this and slip into the role of ‘director of amusement’ needing to stimulate babies with toys all day. For example, I see so many moms with bright plastic toys attached to their baby’s stroller – Why? Looking at a tree is new, listening to the birds is new, hearing a dog bark is new. A toy is too much. If baby cries and turns away from a toy on a play mat, we feel like they are bored of it and need something else – maybe, just maybe they are exhausted and overstimulated and need to just look at your face or move into a quiet dark place to wind down. I am talking about this because our daily activities impact sleep. A trip to the grocery store right before a nap might make for one very overstimulated baby – give them a longer wind down if you want them to nap.
8. Take a look at your sleep environment
This is a really big one for new babies. You want to make sure that the environment is perfect. If it is too hot, your baby will not want to sleep. If it smells like cleaning products or any other strong scent, baby’s sleep might be interrupted. If you are turning on a night light to change a diaper, baby may not want to go back to sleep. If your child is highly sensitive and their PJ’s are itchy or have tags or the detergent you are using is bothering their skin, then this could impact their sleep. If your house is noisy around bedtime, consider a white noise machine. Is the air dry? Environment is really key to a good sleep.
9. Use motion naps for sleep
Put your baby in a swing, use a carrier, go on a car ride (the car seat is not a safe place for a child to sleep so please transfer them when you get out of the car), get in the stroller. Babies loooovvveeee motion naps and they should be your go-to method if your baby just won’t sleep. Motion is actually really good for brain development.
Have a look at your lifestyle – do you like to get out of the house? Do you like to hike or walk as a family? If you do, you will want your baby to get used to sleeping in the stroller or in the carrier. Again, don’t worry that they will never sleep in their crib. Most babies that I work with before the age of 6 months need at least one motion nap a day and I will say that it is rare to see a baby at this age taking all of their naps in the crib. Some babies before 6 months want nothing to do with naps in the crib and this is also ok. Switch up your naps – maybe you snuggle a nap, use the carrier for a nap, get out in the stroller for another nap.
One of my clients was joking with me the other day about how she has lost all of her baby weight because she had a reflux baby and needed to walk him in the stroller to get him to sleep. Her and her husband have been laughing because it is the one and only good thing they could come up with about reflux.
As a somewhat related note – motion naps are amazing for getting the last nap of the day as it is often so hard to get. 30-minute naps for the first five months are completely normal and are enough. Motion naps will help you get these little catnaps. Your baby might take 8, 30-minute catnaps in the day and that is completely fine.
10. Look for the small successes.
It its really important not to focus so much on the bigger picture when it comes time to living with a newborn. Maybe you got them to sleep in the swing for twenty minutes so you could take a shower (HUGE). Maybe they took a pacifier and looked comfortable for a few minutes (HUGE). Maybe you found a great overnight diaper and they didn’t poo through their sleeper (again – huge!)
11. Here’s a bonus tip: Most importantly, take care of yourself
Please, please do things for you and ask for help. It is so important to take a walk or go get a coffee or enjoy a glass of wine. Ask your parents or your husband to help, even if it is only for an hour so you can shower and blow-dry your hair. Your baby may cry because you aren’t there but if your child is in the arms of someone who loves them, and you need an hour to yourself, they are absolutely fine to cry and be supported. It is really important that you are in a good headspace when you are with a newborn baby.
You cannot take care of your baby if you do not take care of yourself. We do self-care for our children and our family. We come back in a better headspace and are much more patient and understanding when we have taken care of ourselves. You also do not want to model self-sacrificing behaviour as this is not what you would want your child to do when they grow up. They need to know the importance of caring for themselves.
Don’t worry if your baby misses a nap in their crib because you want to get out of the house and meet a friend – just go and enjoy.
It is really important to know that lack of sleep and hours of crying almost certainly will trigger some form of Postpartum Depression in women. Please don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. Seek help.
Just one last thing to tell you. You are doing a wonderful job. You are the absolute best person to be caring for your baby. The first 6 months are so hard. Hang in there, don’t be afraid to ask for help and make sure that you take time for you.
Learn more about Lauren here.
Her site, Isla-Grace Sleep has lots of support for parents.