Teaching Healthy Sleep Habits, Part 1

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"Let's face it, you knew when you had a baby you would not sleep for the next few years"... 

iStock 000011694478XSmallHow many times have I heard that phrase uttered by a frazzled mother? Each time I can't help but wonder why new moms resign themselves to the idea that part of being a mother means not sleeping? And even more-so, why they think that babies "just don't sleep"?  

Sleep is vital for healthy growth of a young brain. During sleep is when your baby's brain grows and develops, processes new information, and files and stores that information into memory. During sleep is when your baby's body and brain restores itself from the activity of the previous day. During sleep is when YOUR body and brain restore themselves, as well as process, sort and file information. What happens when we don't get enough sleep? You accumulate all that lost sleep in what we call a sleep debt or sleep deficit.

 Adults need approximately 8 hours of sleep each night. If you are getting 5 hours of sleep at night, it would take a mere 8 days for you to bank a 24 hour sleep debt. That's a whole day's worth of sleep lost! Multiply that by two or three years.....I cringe thinking about it! So what's a new parent to do?

What if I told you that it was possible to teach your baby healthy sleep habits right from birth?

What if I told you that your baby doesn't need to fall asleep sucking, bouncing, rocking, driving in the car, or secured in a baby wrap while you swing from the chandelier while singing his favourite song?

"She's Crazy"! You are all saying . . . I can hear it now, I am going to let you in on a secret . . . okay so it's not really a secret to the dozens of families I have spent many nights with as a postpartum doula . . . but you can give your newborn baby all of the cuddling, bonding, loving, singing, snuggly attention they need, and still help them learn to fall asleep on their own and sleep well for longer than 30 minutes!

If you really want to, you can teach your baby how to do this calmly and naturally, without even considering sleep training . . . there I finally said it! Those two dirty words! I prefer to use the term sleep learning, because last time I checked human babies and puppies are not closely related! Let's avoid that altogether, and start by nurturing and shaping healthy sleep habits from birth.

I know, those of you still reading are thinking "this is gonna be good", but please continue reading. There are many things you can do to help your baby get off to the right start with sleep. Just to be clear, I am not going to tell you to deprive your child of necessary nutrition or let them cry until they fall asleep, so please, keep reading.

Where to begin?

First, I want to mention co-sleeping and bed-sharing briefly, because I see this answer so often when a mom has posted asking for advice for their sleepless 6 month old. Co-sleeping is a lifestyle choice. You should enter into the lifestyle with the intention of continuing it indefinitely, and with the knowledge of safe co-sleeping and bed-sharing guidelines. Dr. Sears and Dr. James McKenna are huge advocates of the practice. Read their books. Research, and practice safe sleeping. Chances are good that if you find yourself 'accidentally' co-sleeping you may not be doing it safely enough. Okay, so what about those families who have determined that co-sleeping is not for them?

The first few weeks after your baby is born are a blur of feeding and cuddling, and that is perfectly perfect . . . that is what your newborn needs. While you cuddle, start introducing sleep cues to your baby.

 Be careful, there are good sleep cues and bad ones. Sometimes the less desirable sleep cues are called crutches, or negative associations. These are the kinds of things that require you to physically put your child to sleep - rocking, bouncing, even nursing, although that last one is nearly impossible to avoid in the first couple of months. Babies naturally fall asleep after a good meal.

Give some thought to the other ways your baby falls asleep. Change it up once in awhile so she doesn't become dependent on one thing. Definitely for the first 4-6 weeks help baby out as much as necessary, but at the same time you can start to introduce some good sleep cues.

Good sleep cues are things that can and will be present in baby's sleep environment whenever he wakes up. These are things that will tell him that everything is the same as it was when he fell asleep and that it is okay to sleep some more. My favourites are things that mimic the last nine months of baby's life in the womb.

  • White noise (machine, fan, air purifier) is great. It was very loud and whooshy sounding in your uterus, so re-creating that will help calm and soothe your little one. Turn it on when it is time for baby to sleep at night, and this will help start differentiating day from night.
  • Swaddling is another. Yes, I said swaddling. When done correctly it is a wonderful tool. Please find a tutorial on safe swaddling so that you can be confident that you are doing it correctly. Swaddling should not be used all the time, and never when feeding. It is handy to soothe a fussy baby and to help them fall asleep and stay asleep. You can loosen the blanket when they fall asleep, or use one of the swaddle sacs that are available now. It makes them feel cozy and safe.
  • You can also achieve the safe cozy feeling by wearing your baby, but do make sure you give them some time to lay in their bed/basinette/cradle on their own. Your newborn will be perfectly happy spending some time solo if you let them practice  right from the start. Feed them, cuddle them, swaddle or put on a sleep sack, and lay them down drowsy but awake. Wait and see what happens.

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About

I am a certified Sleep Consultant and doula, trained breastfeeding counselor, and passionate about all things birth and baby. Fourteen years of being a mom to three children, and a postpartum doula for many years, I have plenty of experience helping children develop healthy sleep habits. I firmly believe that with education and guidance, women can be empowered in birth and confident as new parents, and I strive to help couples find that balance between the ideal and the reality.

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