Need help getting some shut-eye?
Sleep guru Chireal Shallow knows a thing or two about helping babies to sleep
Ahhhhh, sleep. Remember that? With a baby in the house you’ve probably long since forgotten those weekend lie-ins, or even just a straight couple of hours without interruption. But the serious side of sleep deprivation is that it can make it much more difficult to cope with looking after a tiny newborn who is so utterly dependent on you.
Advice on getting your little one to sleep soundly has always been a mixed bag (how many times have you been told ‘just let them cry it out’?) but the fact is that there’s no one-size-fits-all quick fix. So, with an abundance of advice out there, how to know which is best to take?
As a sleep consultant, psychologist, CBT psychotherapist and mum of four, it’s probably fair to say Chireal Shallow knows her stuff. Here, we bust a few myths about baby kip thanks to Chireal’s new book, The Gentle Sleep Solution. Thankfully, it’s out with ‘controlled crying’ and in with her more compassionate advice for both baby and you.
Myth 1: Props and cues get in the way of good-quality sleep
We all need a little help to get us off to sleep – whether it’s as simple as sleeping with the window open or having a plump pillow, these props and cues all help us get in the mood to catch some Zs. And babies are no different. What’s important to understand here is that there’s nothing wrong with your baby needing a little extra help, as long as it’s independent from you.
So, for example, teaching your ten-month-old to put her dummy back in by herself is an effective use of a prop. Props can also include comfort blankets and music, for instance. However, when a prop becomes a dependency, then we have a problem.
Having a dependency is when your child requires you to move her to the next phase of the sleep cycle, rather than doing so herself. So our job as parents is to tackle the dependencies our babies may have on us and to help them to self-soothe.
Myth 2: Babies can’t self-soothe
Babies are born with reflexes to soothe themselves, such as the sucking reflex and the hand-to-mouth reflex, as well as moving position, and paying attention to sounds and faces. The hand-to-mouth reflex in your newborn can be triggered just by stroking her cheek. This causes her to begin ‘rooting’; this will involve her bringing her hand to her mouth and she will automatically begin to suck.
Sometimes parents confuse this action from their newborn as a sign of hunger, when in fact your baby is engaging in self-soothing. Your baby sucking on her fingers provides her with huge amounts of comfort.
This reflex will fade at around three months, but by this time your baby will have skillfully managed to gain control over her own movement, so her sucking and/or self-soothing will be more intentional.
Myth 3: All babies become attached to dummies
Dummies, pacifiers, soothers... no matter what you call them, the mere mention of their name can strike fear in some people and positive elation in others. We know that tots like to suck, so for some babies and parents a dummy may be a suitable option to help soothe and limit distress. Here are my tips on using a dummy as part of your bedtime routine and to establish a natural sleep pattern:
- Give the dummy to your child at the right moment – that is, after you have placed her to lie down in the cot/bed space.
- If you do choose to use a dummy, wait until breastfeeding is well established (at up to about four weeks old). This is because we know that the overuse of a dummy reduces the number of feeds a baby has.
- At around six to 12 months, try to reduce the use of a dummy with a view to permanent removal.
- Teach your child to ‘root’, and to put the dummy back independently.
- Avoid dummy neck cords as there is a risk of strangulation.
- If your baby simply doesn’t want the dummy, then leave it out.
- Keep the associations clear by using a dummy for bedtime sleeps only.
- Only use one dummy at a time. Avoid the use of a rainbow of dummies over your baby’s sleeping head.
- It’s best to use an orthodontic dummy as it will adapt to your baby’s mouth shape.
Myth 4: Blackout blinds will help your child to sleep better
It’s true that our body rhythm is regulated by exposure to light and dark, and yes, when we have an established sleeping pattern we tend to sleep better and for longer in darker rooms.
However, babies have to be taught how to self-soothe, and as night-time is the longest that they are away from us, bedtime can be a period when they become anxious. So if you have a fretful baby, a room being too dark could actually work against you. In fact, research has shown that red and blue lights can help to provide good sleep.
Myth 5: You have to stop breastfeeding to get your child to sleep through the night
Breastfeeding can, in fact, help your child to sleep, as your night-time breast milk contains the sleep hormone melatonin. In those crucial first few months, when baby is not producing her own melatonin, breastfeeding is a bonus.
But you can avoid creating a dependency by split-feeding – where you divide the feed into two, and introduce an activity in between. For example, you could feed your baby for ten to 15 minutes before a bath and then again for ten to 15 minutes afterwards. This will ensure she does not fall asleep on the boob.
Another little tip is to take your baby off the boob just before she falls asleep. Feed her for at least ten minutes, then as she begins to slow down on her sucking, ease your nipple from her mouth while she’s still awake.
You can drop the night feeds when your child shows she no longer requires them. This may be determined by her age, how well she feeds during the day and/or rejection of the feed. If you’re unsure, test this by dropping the feed over three nights. If she settles well, you can be sure she no longer needs it; if she’s harder to settle or becomes distressed, this indicates that the feed is still required.
Myth 6: Putting your child to bed later will make her sleep later
I’ve always been confused by this myth! The body rhythm is like a clock set at particular times, so if your child is used to waking up at 5am, putting her to bed at 9pm will mean that she will become sleep-deprived.
The less sleep we have, the fewer sleep hormones we produce, which means we’re likely to sleep less. So, the more sleep your baby has, the more sleep she will want. That means putting your baby to bed earlier. Putting her to bed later may cause her to become overtired, harder to settle and make your situation a lot worse for a while, with potential tears and tantrums.
These are edited extracts from The Gentle Sleep Solution: The Naturally Nurturing Way to Help Your Baby Sleep by Chireal Shallow (£10.99, Vermilion).