Health

Sleep easy

Light nights and early mornings often mean even less peace for sleep-deprived parents. Sleep expert and bestselling author Stephanie Modell* has some useful advice

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Try not to compare your baby to others as one parent’s definition of ‘sleeping through the night’ might be that their baby sleeps for a five-hour stretch and another’s definition may be a 10–12 hour stretch.

The term ‘sleep training’ can have negative connotations and is widely misunderstood. Sleep is an automatic behaviour triggered by build-up of sleep pressure. Foetuses sleep in utero with no learning involved. But importantly, falling asleep in response to external cues rather than internal biological cues is a learned behaviour which parents can influence.

Establishing positive sleep habits early on is the ideal. But what if you haven’t? Maybe your baby developed poor sleep habits due to reflux or feeding issues. Or maybe you just got too exhausted to think about it. What can you do further down the line?

Here are my top tips to help you on the road to a peaceful night.

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

When it comes to your baby’s sleep, it’s important to remember that waking at night is perfectly normal. A newborn baby’s circadian rhythm, or body clock, is not yet developed so the best thing you can do from the start is to help your baby differentiate between night and day. Give them plenty of exposure to natural light during the day, with lots of interaction and normal noise levels. At night, keep everything dark and quiet with minimum interaction.

As babies get older, parents can feel pressured by society and social media about how well their baby is sleeping. Try not to compare your baby to others as one parent’s definition of ‘sleeping through the night’ might be that their baby sleeps for a five-hour stretch and another’s definition may be a 10–12 hour stretch. Every baby is different and parenting styles vary so focus on what works for you.

WORK OUT WHY

If your baby is over six months old and still waking regularly at night you need to analyse why – before you can address the sleep issues. Often it’s a combination of things. Work out what they are, make a plan, write it down and give yourself small, realistic goals. Remember that two teachers are better than one: ensure that you, your partner and anyone else caring for your baby are doing exactly the same. Some reasons for sleep problems are:

• Hunger.

• A sleep association or dependence.

• The timing and length of naps – a very common reason for sleep problems.

• Inadvertently rewarding waking.

• Day/night confusion.

• Too hot or cold.

• Being uncomfortable – use soft, cotton nightwear with no buttons at the back and no logos which may be irritating to sensitive skin .

• Teething.

• Illness.

• A milk allergy or intolerance.

• Reflux.

• Obstructive sleep apnoea (enlarged tonsils).

• Nightmares.

• Night Terrors.

LOOK AT YOUR 24 HOUR ROUTINE

Daytime naps are so important. Some may say that if babies sleep in the day they won’t sleep at night – in fact, the opposite is true! Naps are a good teaching time and sleep encourages sleep. If babies are well rested they will find it easier to go to sleep at night, be more content and have a healthier appetite. If you restrict naps, your baby will be overtired and it may affect cortisol levels. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone and its effect is a bit like a dose of caffeine, making it harder for a baby to get to sleep. The timing of naps will affect your whole 24-hour cycle. If you’re trying to put babies down to sleep when they’re over-tired or under-tired, it will be a battle. It’s a balance which needs fine tuning for a good night’s sleep.

Ensure you have a regular rhythm to your day, if your baby naps at a similar time each day and goes to bed at the same time each night he should be ready for sleep at those times. Babies love routine.

HELP YOUR BABY TO SELF-SETTLE

When you put babies to bed, whether it’s for naps or night-time sleep, they need to feel safe, secure, loved and nurtured. Newborn babies may need lots of help to settle to sleep but, once they reach 12–16 weeks, teaching them to self-settle will give them some sleep independence – allowing them to resettle themselves at night in between sleep cycles. The earlier you start to encourage your baby to self-settle, the easier it is – however, it’s never too late.

There are many well-documented methods, but my favourite is gradual retreat which is a gentle technique in which you gradually give less and less intervention over a period of time to help your baby to settle to sleep. For example, if your baby is breastfeeding to sleep, you may start with cuddling to sleep, move on to shushing and patting in the cot, and over a period of days or weeks you give less and less input. All babies are different so you adapt the interventions and the speed at which you progress to suit your baby, always making sure they feel safe and reassured as they learn a little sleep independence.

Some may say that if babies sleep in the day they won’t sleep at night – in fact, the opposite is true!

BE CONSISTENT

If you’ve been trying multiple methods to get your baby to sleep with no success, it could be that you’re confusing him! Make a plan and stick with it. Sleep teaching can be time consuming, but persevere and see it through. It’s not always plain sailing as some babies can be quite determined. If you’re consistent you may be amazed how quickly you see results. Be positive! If you dread putting your baby down to sleep he will sense your anxiety. Put them down confidently and expect them to sleep.

GAIN SLEEP KNOWLEDGE

Understanding how babies sleep is half the battle. My tips are based on understanding this, as well as over 30 years of professional experience and my own experience as a mother of triplets. Once parents grasp the ‘mechanism’ behind their babies’ sleep process, they will find it easier to put into action practical ways to make it happen.

  • 100 Tips to Help Your Baby Sleep (£7.99, paperback) and The Baby Sleep Guide (£8.99, paperback) by Stephanie Modell are published by Summersdale. Available now on Amazon and at Waterstones.

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