All new parents have been there: those days (or weeks or months) where you feel as though your body is surviving on the bare minimum of sleep. Some of us (yes, me) become unhealthily fixated on how much (or, rather, how little) we're getting; I was known to write down in my phone the precise amount of minutes that I'd managed to get a little shut-eye, ready to use as fuel to batter my other half with the next morning. I'm not proud of it, but that's what sleep deprivation does to you!
Luckily, there is help available. We virtually sat down with Emily, the sleep consultant behind The Sleep Chief brand, to ask for her best advice for any struggling parents out there.
Hi Emily! What one piece of advice would you give to all new parents?
I think it’s really helpful to be on the same page as your partner with regards to how you want to deal with the sleep deprivation before the baby comes along. It really helps if you are aligned and working as a team because the first few months are TOUGH! You could decide to totally go with the flow for the first few weeks and months, or you could decide to gently nudge your baby into a routine after a few weeks if that feels more natural for your family.
What would you say is the most common misconception or mistake about newborn sleep?
That you have to just “deal” with bad sleep for the first few months (and years!), it really isn’t true and there are lots of things you can do to help sleep.
And your best three tips for improving newborn sleep?
1. Swaddling; I also love the swaddle sleeping bags too, such as these from Love to Dream. Swaddling helps with babies who don’t like being put down at the beginning too.
2. You can always add white noise - to resemble the noisy womb they are used to! This is a great white noise machine from Sleepezy.
3. Try to get onto a feeding schedule when your baby is ready. That means waking your baby to feed them if they are sleeping longer periods, for example, and encouraging them to feed well. Doing this also helps your baby to start understanding the difference between day and night so that they are not sleeping all day (and not feeding much) and then up all night! If they are needing to feed more regularly than the feeding schedule though that is absolutely OK.
What about toddlers? How can we improve an older child's disrupted sleep?
With toddlers, the issues that parents usually come to me with are around boundaries. So that could mean lots of friction at bedtime or always wanting to sleep in their parents’ bed in the middle of the night. As soon as parents are given the tools they need, the boundaries are firmly put in place and they start to respond really consistently to their child, sleep is usually improved significantly within a week.
So to avoid getting into a situation with blurry boundaries, when is a good time to introduce a sleep routine and what might this include?
It’s totally up to the parents and their wants and needs. Often when there are siblings, the new baby has to naturally slot into an existing routine with school and nursery runs etc. With our little one (who was a lockdown baby) we started putting a gentle routine in place from three weeks old and he started sleeping 12 hours through the night from 4.5 months old.
When introducing a routine the first thing I advise my clients to do is to start and finish their day at the same time each day. So that could be 7am – 7pm, or 6am – 6pm which really helps with getting some structure into the day, particularly around feeds and naps. A bedtime routine is also a great place to start with a bath, story, cuddles and a milk feed in a dark room.
When should a baby sleep through the night?
This is totally different for every baby. There are some “unicorn” babies who sleep through the night from a few weeks’ old and then I have some parents come to me with much older toddlers that are still struggling with it. Some parents are also totally fine with doing night feeds/wakes for longer than others. Some parents have to go back to work earlier and decent sleep becomes much more of a need. I always come back to the saying, “if it’s not a problem for you, then it’s not a problem”.
Any coping mechanisms for sleep deprived parents?
1. Take all of the help offered to you!
2. If you can nap during the day when your baby is, then do (although a lot of parents I know really struggle with this). 3. If you can do “shifts” with your partner so that you can both get a “block” of sleep during the night then that can be helpful. 4. We actually just brought everything we needed into our bedroom at night when our son was a newborn too. So, changing mat, nappies, three changes of sleepsuits, bottles, steriliser, the Tommee Tippee machine – it was battle stations! But, it did mean we stayed within our dark, cosy bedroom for the many night wakes and sleep was less disturbed overall.
How can a sleep consultant help new parents?
There are two ways that I work; parents can either get in touch for a one-to-one consultation where we discuss their baby’s current routine, their sleep environment and how to teach their little one to fall asleep independently. Often, it’s about overcoming something that the baby has become used to in order to fall asleep. Being rocked, fed or held to sleep are really common and normal ways to get your baby to fall asleep but can become barriers to them being able to sleep longer stretches. Some of my clients go away and implement independently after the consultation and others opt for follow-up support for the first few days when they are making changes.
The other option available is downloadable sleep programmes which are DIY guides to improving your little one’s sleep for babies over 6 months. My sleep programmes cover the same topics that I talk through in my one-to-one consultations and can be implemented at a pace that feels right for the parents.