Some tips for supporting parents to work with the natural biology of baby sleep
Dr Hannah Guzinska, Clinical Psychologist and Cattanach Associate
In my first blog, I talked about normalising infant sleep and helping to validate a baby’s needs alongside parents. It is evolutionarily normal for babies to need comfort, support, and co-regulation from their parents through the night.
Of course, for some parents, simply riding out the sleep deprivation until their baby is naturally able to sleep by themselves, through the night, (which could be several years) may simply not be an option. Parents who are returning to work, or for whom the sleep deprivation is having a major impact on their functioning, may need something to change faster than natural development will allow. We do not have the luxury of long and supported parental leave, with a village surrounding the family to help. But before jumping to methods of sleep training that use crying and limit parental responsiveness, parents may like to try things that work with a baby’s biological rhythms and the natural physiology of sleep.
Encourage parents to really watch their baby, and see if they can identify “cues” that the baby shows when they are starting to get tired and then try to create the conditions for sleep. It is no problem to get on with day-to-day life and let naps happen “on the go”. For babies with low sleep needs, this can be enough to take the edge off sleep pressure during the day and lead to better sleep at night. The Possums sleep approach uses this idea. This is counter to the myth that “sleep breeds sleep” which is not supported by evidence. Encourage parents to get lots of sunlight (for themselves and their baby) during the day and keep the room dark at night, and avoid screens as much as possible close to bedtime. Doing this from birth helps baby begin to establish a day-night circadian rhythm.
If a baby is not asleep within 15-20 minutes of trying, parents might consider doing something gently relaxing with them and trying again in half an hour (this prevents them associating bedtime with being wide awake!) If baby is routinely wide awake at bedtime, parents could consider delaying bedtime until the time their baby is naturally sleepy, linking it to a bedtime ritual, and then gradually moving it forward over time.
Develop a calming bedtime ritual that helps baby know what to expect. This doesn’t have to be timed or rigid but should follow the same order. It might include a bath, massage, stories, lullabies, and cuddles. It’s also a lovely way to connect and can include dads, non-birthing parents, and extended family. There are many ways to “nudge” sleep habits by making incremental changes over time, layering new habits over the ones a baby is used to, and then gradually removing the old habit. This is much less distressing to both babies and parents than putting limits on how much a parent responds to the baby’s distress.
Be aware that there are different approaches to infant sleep, which range from being completely child-led to putting baby into a strict routine and limiting parental responsiveness. If parents are ever feeling uncertain about an approach, encourage them to ask questions and follow their instincts. They know their child and their family situation best.