Did you know that Amazon.com currently lists 22,004 sleep related titles in their Parenting & Families book category? That is insane and clearly a cleverly orchestrated response by book publishers to our current obsession with our children’s sleep.
I believe there is no magic formula for sleep, no miraculous routine that will solve every sleep issue, no captivating spell that can be woven around a baby (or toddler) to ensure they will sleep all night, every night. The idea that a ‘one size fits all’ approach exists is simply an illusion sold to nervous parents embarking on their maiden journey into parenthood by clever marketing executives whose primary motivation is to sell more books.
Sometimes they sleep well, sometimes they don’t. Just when you think you have it sorted out, they change their sleep habits again. Maybe babies and toddlers and kids just sleep differently than we (adults) like or expect and it is not they with the ‘sleep problem’ but it is we, the adults, who have a ‘problem’ with their sleep.
I know that at 4am, when it is dark and cold and I have just spent one and a half hours trying to resettle Immy who does not have dirty nappy, is not cold or hot, is not hungry or thirsty, does not have a temperature or any symptoms of being ill, but just wont drop off to sleep, it is mostly me with the problem. I am tired and I want to be in bed, where it is warm and comfy. I know that I have umpteen million things to do the next day and it will all be easily de-railed if I do not get back to sleep very soon (I have unfortunately always been one of those people who needs sleep – deep, uninterrupted, and at least 8 hours a night).
I wonder if our grandparents were as preoccupied with their baby’s sleep patterns as we are? I wonder if the financial need today for so many mothers to return to paid employment has catapulted the issue of a baby’s sleep (or moreover, the lack of it) and these magic ‘sleep solutions’ to the forefront of every baby magazine, parenting website and morning show? I mean, how can we jump out of bed in the morning, full of energy and fully focus for the day at work ahead of us if we have been awake for three hours in the middle of the night or if we have been up to resettle our baby multiple times? Maybe our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had the luxury of accepting that in most cases a baby will not sleep well by adult standards as they didn’t have the burden of ‘having it all’ hanging over their heads.
Don’t get me wrong, I have come to these conclusions the hard way. When Immy was a baby I bought or borrowed at least seven sleep-related parenting titles myself (as well as reading a mountain of parenting magazines). I struggled with many of the ideas that were presented but eventually found two books that resonated with my experiences of motherhood with Immy as my baby. They were a help. They both contained some useful information. They were not however a step-by-step plan telling me what to do with my baby to ensure she slept all night, every night.
For the most part, Immy sleeps well. We do have stages where her sleeping patterns change due to her developmental changes or health, or due to changes in our environment or routine but that is just life with children (why didn’t someone tell me that earlier?)
Over the past 18 months as a Mum and many years beforehand as an early childhood educator, these are the things I have learnt about baby and toddler sleep;
- Routine: A consistent, getting ready for bed routine provides cues for the baby, toddler or child that prepares them for the idea that it is nearly time for bed and sleep. Immy has always had a bedtime routine that involves a bath, story with her Dad, breastfeed and then into bed. I also think that sleeping in a consistent place (whether it be their own cot or bed or your family bed) the majority of the time is important to growing a good sleeper. Immy has never slept particularly well in the portacot or in the pram. I also believe a consistent time to sleep is an essential part of the daily rouine
- Fed: I have read many articles highlighting the links between food and sleep. This involves both the types of foods being eaten and the amount of food given. When Immy was exclusively breastfed I used to cluster feed before bed (from about 4.30pm to 7pm, she would have one side each half hour). This was actually my way of dealing with that difficult part of the day when a baby is often grizzly and fractious due to them being understandably tired and overstimulated but it also meant that she was nice and full when she went off to bed, and she then slept well. Once we were onto solids I considered the GI content of Immy’s evening meal and often (especially when I don’t think she has eaten enough) she will have a Weetbix for dessert as this is a great low GI food (porridge is also good).
- Exercised: Immy sleeps best when she has been physically active throughout the day. Lots of physical activity provides her the opportunity to use her energy productively and to practise her developing physical skills (whether it be learning to roll, crawl, walk, jump, run, skip, swim, whatever). In fact, if Dad 101 and I need Immy to sleep well for any particular reason we take her to the indoor pool for a swim, she loves it and it wears her out very nicely.
- Comfortable: I like to be warm and cosy to sleep but it took me a long time to get the combination of sleepwear, blankets and heating right for Immy, mainly because of my concern for overheating and its relationship to SIDS. I have, however found that Grobags work well for us at the moment and I roughly follow their guide for temperature:sleepwear:tog ratios.
- Relaxed: The bedtime, naptime routine needs to be both consistent and quiet and relaxed. No wrestling or noisy play for us prior to bed. I read in Elizabeth Pantley’s The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers that children who were interviewed about going to sleep did not actually know how to fall asleep. Their responses to the question ‘Have you tried any ideas to fall asleep?’ included, “Counting. Singing. Talking. Asking. Thinking. Wondering.Juggling. It all makes me awake” (Atticus, 5 years old) and, “Sometimes lying still and keeping my eyes shut works – mostly it doesn’t” (Emily Rose, 6 years old), and “Dad says that when you count sheep you can fall asleep. One time I tried it, but it didn’t work” (Sinead, 5 years old). Pantley’s point is that children need to be taught how to relax and fall asleep. This makes sense to me and I actually hope our children learn to relax and to balance their lives much more effectively than we have, less stress=better sleep. I have recently started to practise deep breathing with Immy. When she is laying still and quiet in her bed I tell her to take a deep breath, then I demonstrate with an audible deep breath and then whisper, “Your turn.” Her breaths are more like very loud exhales at the moment as she mimics me but I am hoping she will get the idea over time.I also count slowly from 10-1 with Immy whilst deep breathing, “10, 9, lie nice and still, 8, 7, being very quiet, 6, 5, eyes are closed…(and so on).”
- Emotionally secure: Do you sleep well when you are upset? Afraid? Tense? Angry? I don’t and so it feels alien to me to expect my child to go to sleep when she is experiencing extreme emotions. That is not to say that I don’t let her grizzle or complain but I personally prefer not to take the ‘cry it out’ approach. We choose to spend (usually) 10-20 minutes settling Immy in her cot, helping her to relax with quiet singing or visualisation and gentle hand holding until she is almost asleep. Yes, that is 10-20 minutes of my evening or day but she then sleeps through the night or for a good 1 1/2-2 hours in the daytime.
I think above all else you need to do what feels right to you. Trust your own instinct. Trust that you know your child best. Try some different strategies and see what works for you. And know, it is constantly going to change anyway!