In the last blog I offered a potentially unpopular view about looking at sleep training adults as opposed to our common cultural practice of sleep training our babies. Of course, I don’t suggest that parents sleep train themselves literally, but evaluate their relationship to sleep and recognise that perhaps it is those schedules, routines, and expectations that could change. After all, newborns cannot regulate emotions, understand action and consequence, or understand that change is temporary, so why is the sleep burden put on their tiny shoulders?
Infants are in a constant state of learning, processing, and growing in their first few months. This lasts into the first three years and we now know that it culminates in the most formative cognitive development period of our lives. Each day offers new challenges and new opportunities for skills to be learned and processed, and as a result I offer this suggestion: There should be no ‘schedules’, only ‘routines’.
A schedule suggests set expectations that are to be met. A routine suggests opportunities for creating healthy habits. If society started looking at infant sleep cycles like this, maybe parents could let themselves and their babies off the hook for a missed (or a too short) nap. Maybe they could let themselves off the hook for having a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad month’. Maybe we could stop using phrases like “I wish my baby was a good sleeper”. Instead, we could look at each transition in and out of routines as an opportunity for growth and necessary change to meet new needs.
Let’s look at some scenarios where new parents might have certain expectations that might not meet the reality of a new baby.
Expectation: Baby sleeps in crib
Reality: Baby never wants to be put down
The reality here is that infants are hardwired to wake themselves for a variety of physical reasons, but also for safety through proximity to their caregiver. Some babies may be fine hearing their parent’s voice in the same room, but others may need constant touch to achieve the same level of comfort.
If you find yourself with one of these little humans who need your touch constantly, I feel for you. The amount of yourself you give to your new infant in its first few months is tremendous. The birthparent/baby dyad is an incredibly powerful and necessary bond. A common complaint is that errands, chores, and meals fall by the wayside because the baby always needs to be held. Baby wearing often and early can be a fantastic way to meet your infant’s needs and still have hands free (mostly) to accomplish necessary tasks.
There are many options available for baby wearing, so I won’t get into them all here. The advice I will offer is to try them with baby, after reading how to safely position your infant within the wrap. Even better would be to receive hands-on help and instruction from a store clerk or Doula (birth or postpartum) to help you with positioning. Hip dysplasia and neck placement are the most important concerns, and care should be taken each time your infant is placed in the carrier.
The benefits of baby wearing are amazing. Close, constant contact with a caregiver or birth parent regulates baby’s heart rate and breathing, lowers cortisol (stress hormone) which facilitates easier and more beneficial sleep cycles, and ultimately reinforces a foundation where the infant knows it is safe and cared for in this world.
Expectation: Evenings Alone (mat leave specifically)
Reality: Feeling too drained or exhausted to go out, clean, cook
When a newborn is fussy we ask ourselves: Are they hungry? Do they need a new diaper? Are they tired? I pose these same questions to parents when they are exhausted or feeling drained… okay, not the diaper change one!
A good place to start is looking at your nutrition and hydration. Keeping on top of a balanced, healthy diet and a high intake of water in these first few months of parenthood is so important. Breastfeeding parents should intake 2100 calories a day at least, as well as 12 8-ounce glasses of water. Once those needs have been met, we can ask other questions. Have you exhausted yourself trying to keep up the house and cook ‘Martha Steward’ worthy meals? Let that go. Get a CrockPot and prepare meals in the evening or morning then walk away. Keep easy one-handed snacks accessible in heavily used areas of the home in containers so you can grab a handful of nuts, seeds, veggie sticks etc. on the go, or alternatively, if you’re stuck with a sleeping baby in your arms.
Re-asses previous expectations about how you thought your house would look, what you’d have time for, WHO you’d have time for, and let. them. go. The best analogy for this is the safety instructions given on an airplane: Before securing an oxygen mask on children or dependants, make sure you secure your OWN mask first. Take time for yourself so that you can take care of others. Make a list of non-negotiable self-care routines and get creative with your village to see how you could fit these into your new lifestyle.
It is an uncomfortable time in a new parent’s life when schedules and routines that used to bring cohesion and joy are disrupted. Feelings of not being good enough or that something is wrong with their baby are also very common. It is those feelings that lead some parents to choose sleep training as a last resort once they have reached a point of desperation. If expectations around what we needed to achieve during this sensitive time in a newborn’s development changed then maybe so would the frustrations with the reality when it doesn’t live up to the social media or TV/movie standards. My final advice remains the same: Be gentle with yourself. It is a great place to start.
Jenna Inglis is a Toronto based Nanny, Birth Doula, Postpartum Doula, and Infant Sleep Educator. She is passionate about empowering new families on their journey into parenthood; providing compassionate care before, during, and after birth. With a background in Community Healing and Peacebuilding, she believes that building healthy happy communities begins with empowered parents making informed decisions that are best for themselves and their infants.