sleep training

Sleep Training: The Science of Infant Sleep - part 3

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In my two previous entries I offered a (perhaps) different approach to sleep training and a discussion surrounding expectations versus reality that new parents often experience. My goal has been to invite parents to think about infant sleep in a new way; mainly reflecting on their own relationship to sleep and the adult expectations we often place on infants introduced into the family unit. I want to expand this into a conversation about the science of infant sleep.

Let's look at sleep in general. There are many ways that we can approach the ‘problem’ of sleep in our society today, but I offer this basic introduction: the world requires more of us in a day and has gotten BRIGHTER and LOUDER during the dark hours when our minds used to rest.

The 20th century saw many of the inventions that embedded these nocturnal disruptions in our society and culture. Electricity, radio, TV … massive amounts of stimuli that require more time to recover from to achieve the optimal amount of rest. What has remained the same through these technological developments? The evolutionary embedded sleep needs of the infant.

Baby sleep cycles are different from adult sleep cycles. Period.

There is nothing to ‘teach’ an infant about sleep, nothing to impart about how to be a ‘good’ sleeper at 4 months of age. Barring any diagnosed condition (colic, acid reflux, etc.) humans are hardwired with the evolutionary know how to sleep and for how long. In fact, interfering with these cycles to prolong your infant’s sleep could affect their development. Babies from 0-9 months old need 17 to 14 hours of required sleep per day (decreasing with age) in intervals ranging from 3-7 hour stretches mixed with varying nap lengths. What becomes frustrating after the fourth trimester for new parents is the marked difference in the infant’s relationship to sleep as compared to their own.

Adults typically move through sleep in 90-minute sleep cycles, which include a period of light sleep moving into deep and R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) sleep. It is during these times that we will get up to go to the bathroom or toss and turn. Infants have much shorter sleep cycles - an hour or less - and this is a good thing! Frequent periods of light sleep regulate breathing, allow the infant brain to process the events of the day to consolidate information and aids in cognitive development. Forcing a baby to sleep deeply early on can have a limiting effect on the baby’s cognitive development.

“Why does my baby keep waking up!? I fed my baby until both breasts were emptied, put them to bed with a new diaper, beside me, in a pitch-dark bedroom. Why did they wake up an hour later?

They were too cold, too hot, needed a cuddle, were lonely, scared, need a new diaper change, or are thirsty … again! Breast milk is digested much easier than formula so will result in more frequent feedings. Infants know that their immediate environment (the chest of the birth parent or primary caregiver) represents their survival. The heart beat, body warmth, breathing, and feeding regulation that the adult provides to a new infant is necessary for development. Regardless of which sleep personality an infant is blessed with, it is up to the adult to determine the most stress-free accommodation of it in the initial years of growth for optimal cognitive development and psychological well-being. Certain sleep training methods have been shown to produce anxiety in children, and require multiple attempts at re-training after each illness, travel, or teething episode.

A sleep educator can help a family plan for and work through these stages in a way that won’t disrupt the infant’s development but meets as many needs of the family unit as possible. As always it is useful to remember that these stages are temporary and providing a healthy relationship to sleep early on will result in a positive association to it later in life.

Babies possess ‘arousal skills’ as a protective measure against pulmonary or cardiac crisis. They cannot yet change position in their sleep if they are uncomfortable and they cannot problem solve to achieve their own immediate needs (feeding or changing or calming themselves if they’ve woken up alone and afraid). At birth, babies have a fully developed amygdala. As such, they are immediately wired for fight or flight responses, i.e. crying. However, they require another person to resolve their needs for them. Infants are not born with hippocampal development. This is why they can’t talk themselves out of irrational fears like being put down or left alone for periods of time. They do not process cause and effect and cannot reasonably understand that their caregiver will return if they leave. As they age, this changes. 

Our society’s focus on individualism over community has created an isolating experience of parenthood. Humans aren’t meant to go through life alone. Infants are a constant reminder of this fact. They need help to meet their needs, and so do adults. Find your village and put it to good use. A postpartum doula can act as a first responder and provide referrals to new families in this area. The more we work to normalise infant sleep and the temporary sleep disruption in a family unit as necessary and productive to achieve long term cognitive benefits, the less we will question our infants sleep patterns. We are social beings from birth to death, let’s not allow the individualistic structure of our society deter us from fulfilling our needs. Our babies prove every day that they aren’t letting it deter them.


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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 Peace building, she believes that building healthy happy communities begins with empowered parents making informed decisions that are best for themselves and their infants. 

 

 

 

Sleep Training: Expectations vs Reality - Part 2

sleep training

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.


sleep training

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. 

Sleep Training (Parents) - Part 1

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Let’s talk about sleep. More specifically, sleep training parents: a shift from focusing on whether a baby is ‘fussy’ or ‘good’ when it comes to sleep, to focusing instead on the parent’s relationship to sleep. 

I know what you may be thinking: how can this help a parent who is desperate for sleep? After all, it’s not them but this crying, red in the face, up all night baby who doesn’t know how to sleep. It is up to us adults to teach them… right? 

Not quite - the conversations I have most of the time as a perinatal worker and nanny are about the parent’s sleep and their own attitudes and routines surrounding it. This always comes back to parents and balancing expectations vs. reality when it comes to their baby’s sleep. After all, we can only ask so much of a baby.

I suggest that babies do not need to be taught to sleep…or self-soothe, or regulate their emotions! They innately know how to do these things and developmentally cannot regulate their emotions until older. The challenges of sleep (and lack there of) rests on the shoulders of new parents to evaluate their own sleep anxieties, habits, rituals, and then...

LET THEM GO. At least temporarily, Let. Them. Go…and at the very least be flexible enough with their schedules to create a new environment more fitting to the needs of the baby. What I encounter most is families attempting to add a new infant into their ‘regular’ life as quickly as possible so things can get back to ‘normal’. Problems arise, anxieties develop, and eventually frustration and exhaustion show up to the party. That is why it is very important to confront expectations vs. reality head on and early in the process.

My hope for this blog series is to offer a blue-print for unpacking a parent’s relationship to sleep
and create a safe space to add an infant who has their own unique sleep needs. The first steps into parenthood can be beautiful but trying and my goal is to instil confidence in future sleep decisions through research based evidence and frank pep talks.

So let’s get started: BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. It is a great place to start.

If you are an expecting parent and have anxieties about sleep (your own, or your baby's) my first advice is simple: ASK FOR HELP.

Birth Doulas are an immeasurable support for all things informational, emotional, and physical
leading up to, and during, birth. They are the foundational support for a stable, empowered beginning for your journey into parenthood and this includes prerequisite conversations about sleep expectations.

Postpartum Doulas are hands-on help through the fourth trimester. This help can include configuring or re-arranging sleep schedules to ensure as many of the primary needs in the family unit are being met. All in effort to help nurture an infant’s important brain development during this time.

One last thing - Infant Sleep Educators (ISE’s) are available to help guide parents through sleep
stages from 0 -24 months of age. We go more in depth with education surrounding sleep and offer customised solutions for your infant or toddler. ISE’s services range from phone consults, email exchanges to in-home appointments and customised sleep strategy packages for your unique family.

Every new parent has concerns for their new baby and everyone’s rest is vital to health and
development. An Infant Sleep Educator, Birth Doula or Postpartum Doula will validate those concerns and instil the notion that being gentle with yourself is a great way to approach sleep training… the parent. 


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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.