Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Helping your baby become a better sleeper

Imagine starting a new job. In the middle of the night after several weeks of broken sleep. After going through a physical challenge that is what you imagine being hit like a bus feels like. A job for which you have no qualifications. When your hormones are riding a big dipper rollercoaster. Where you know that a slip-up could put someone’s life in jeopardy. For a lot of women, I think this sums up what it feels like to become a Mum for the first time. Those few days with a newborn are likely to be the most difficult/stressful/tiring/amazing/frustrating/challenging/wonderful that you’ve ever had to deal with before.

Before Bobble arrived, I read books, signed up to and read most of the baby related email newsletters, spoke to other friends with children, I’d even done a spell of looking after my baby niece when she was 10 months old. It was information overload. And that is what I think makes looking after a new baby so hard. While their needs are simple – milk, filling nappies, sleep and feeling loved are their simple desires – trying to work out what they want feels like a game of roulette. Your head is full of all of the information that you absorbed before they arrived, but your brain feels as if you know nothing. Rolling a dice labelled with food/nappy change/sleep/cuddles would probably be just as successful as a sleep deprived new Mum trying to find her feet! The learning curve of those first few days is almost vertically steep, but one of the benefits of being awake virtually day and night is that you’re learning all the time. It’s amazing how quickly you become an expert. Your baby might be less only 4 days old but you will find yourself saying “Oh, he really likes being held like this” or “Sing this song, it always helps to calm him down”. I loved becoming that expert on my baby as we got to know one another.

One thing that I struggled to learn, and which I really wanted to share is about a baby’s sleep patterns. In my pre-baby swotting, I must have read tonnes about this, but for some reason when it came to the practical exam, I failed. Babies like sleep. They may not like to go to sleep, in fact, chances are they will fight it to the very end, but they need to sleep.

In those early 2 or 3 weeks after birth, babies can barely stay awake. Once this passes, and they see how exciting the world is, they want to keep looking at it, in case they miss out on something. The problem is that for new parents, it’s also exciting when their new bundle of joy actually starts to open their eyes and interact with them a bit more. I think I fell into this trap. How exciting it was for Bobble to be awake and sitting in his chair, or just looking up at us as he lay in our arms! While it’s true that as they get older, they are capable of staying away for longer spells, all babies, whether newborn or approaching toddler-hood, need regular sleep.

A baby that isn’t well rested becomes over tired. And that is where your troubles begin. An over tired baby as well as being very noisy doesn’t feed well, doesn’t enjoy interaction and struggles to fall asleep. The more tired they are, the harder sleep becomes – not logical is it?! Until he was 9 weeks old, it used to take me 2 hours to put Bobble down for the night. It was a marathon of crying, on and off feeding, rocking, despair and stress that usually only ended with a 20 minute blast from an app that played a shushing sound at a high volume!

Then I happened to read an article which described how (for some babies) sleep breeds sleep. The more sleep a baby has during the day, the better he sleeps at night. For adults, this doesn’t make sense. If I nap for too long or too late in the day, I always struggle to drop off at bedtime. But for a lot of babies, the opposite happens. So I gave it a try. I put Bobble down for regular naps and made sure he went to sleep. It wasn’t easy, as he was a sleep fighter, but a push in the pram usually worked (and the fresh air always did more the world of good), as did feeding him to sleep or just wearing him in the sling. The results were instant. Bedtimes were transformed and within 2 weeks he was sleeping through from 10pm to 5 or 6am, which I count as ‘going through the night’. That wasn’t actually my intention, but the new routine obviously worked for him as much as it did for me. It was so simple. All I had to do was keep an eye on the clock and not let him stay awake for more than the recommended number of hours for his age. I still do it now, and he remains a good sleeper at night time, but daytime naps are still a bit of a battle! Can’t win ‘em all!

My top tips for making your baby a better sleeper
  • Make sure they have regular naps.
  • The window from tired, to over tired is short - don't miss it!  
  • Clock watch and keep track of how much your baby has slept that day.
  • Get them in a good routine for going to bed - babies love the familiarity of a pattern of behaviour.
  • Some days you will need to help your baby nap - go for a walk.
  • If it's raining, rock them to sleep in your pram in the house.
More help...
I recently came across this sleep chart, it’s the ‘wake time’ line that I think is most important. And remember to look at your baby’s pattern over 24 hours – keep a sleep diary if you struggle to remember all of their awake and sleeping times.

As ever, I’m not making any big promises that this will work for you and your baby, but this worked for mine.

Update - September 2016
I'm adding what I hope you will find to be a very useful link. Jenny and Marten Areskoug have set up a website called sleepybud.com On here they share the knowledge that Jenny has gained throughout her career as a GP. Running a weekly children's clinic Dr Areskoug has seen her fair share of common problems, sleep being one of the most popular! On their website, they have developed an interactive sleep chart, based on scientific research. You simply select the age of your child, and it shows you how much total sleep (night time and naps) your baby should have based on their age.


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