When I was pregnant with Élodie I read, I watched and I learnt. Despite originally training as a Children’s nurse, my anxieties about having a little one rely on me for everything and what to expect when she arrived were sometimes overwhelming. I think I lost track of how many different articles I read about what I should pack in a hospital bag (and still managed to forget the cotton wool). I attended a lovely NCT class and met a great bunch of people, we discussed all sorts relating to the ‘big’ day and immediate aftermath of labour. We had input from a breastfeeding consultant and talked briefly about nappies, swaddling and safe sleep. On reflection, it was all geared to supporting us through a 12-36 hour period that would later be masked by a fuzzy hormonal haze.
I’m so pleased we covered safe sleep. Tick. We also spent time laughing and musing over the inevitable ‘no-sleep, sleep-deprivation-horror-show’ we’d somehow signed ourselves up to. We didn’t talk about when this may end. We didn’t discuss what to do when it gets too much. We didn’t talk about what is realistic for a newborn to achieve. We didn’t talk about how to make it better. You just blindly walk through a bleary, foggy wilderness of 1-2 hourly stints, with a vague American sitcom and canned laughter in the background at 3am to keep you company.
A newborn will only manage to stay awake for 60 to 90 minutes at a time. 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep is pretty good going in the early days. Hands on settling strategies are great in these newborn weeks, babies love comfort and closeness. Compared to our animal counterparts we’re born far too soon, too underdeveloped and too needy. The first 12 weeks have also been referred to as the fourth trimester. Closeness, touch, smells, motion and voice soothes a little one into a slumber reminding them of the comfort they had in the womb. Parents are tired though. Really tired. It’s also the time I hear so many clients say ‘but we’ve tried EVERYTHING!’, they don’t give themself enough credit for how much influence they have over their little ones ability to sleep. Somehow it’s become an expectation that it will all be ok in the early weeks, you’ll pop them down and they’ll magically drift off (with all the associated sleep props you’ve spent huge amounts of money on – of course).
By about 12 weeks the little one will start producing their own melatonin, the sleepy hormone. This is often a turning point for most families as their days and nights become a bit more regulated. Night sleep starts to improve and sleep cycles become more regular with spaced wakes for feeds. The 12-16 week period sees huge developmental leaps occur and the baby becomes more aware of their outside world. Their ability to stay awake has doubled in time and some lucky parents will start to see the little one sleep for up to 8 hours at night (although typically it’s anywhere between 4-8). Their reliance on you is decreasing and it’s a great time to instil wonderful lasting bedtime routines, sleepy cues and enable them to practice their skills as an independent sleeper. Whilst intervention may still be needed to get them off to sleep, the time spent in their cot learning to self-soothe at this age will always be worth it in the end.
I’ve said it before, sleep science and consultancy isn’t akin to sending man to the moon. Biology, physiology and psychology are core principles, but we’ve been putting babies to sleep forever. It’s just what we do as parents. There’s a huge amount to be said for expectation management in the early days. Yes it’s tough, it’s frustrating and at times it’s incredibly lonely, but it makes such a difference when you know what is normal, and when it will begin to improve. If we don’t talk about sleep positively as a subject in the prenatal period we hide the reality and parental expectations become unrealistic. It’s not the end of sleep forever, it will get better. The more we talk about sleep, the more we will ask for help when it doesn’t start to improve and the more we will support each other when it gets tough.
I offer both a prenatal package and a first steps (up to 12 weeks) package, taking you through sleep science, age-appropriate settling strategies, awake times, routines and more. You can check them out here: www.childsleepspecialist.co.uk/services.