Sleep Strategies Based on Science, Attachment, and Development
In part 2 of this series on infant sleep, I am going to explore sleep strategies that are based on attachment and developmental science. Firstly, there are a wide variety of strategies families can use to teach their baby to sleep. It is important to know that ideas about sleep in American culture spread across the whole spectrum from “extinction” cry it out methods to safe bed sharing and attachment parenting. Not every strategy is right for every family. The most important thing to remember is…
The best sleep strategy for your family is whatever helps your family sleep best.
As a postpartum doula, I am frequently asked about how to help baby sleep better. It is the most common concern many new parents have. I never bring any sleep training agenda to a family in my work. It concerns me to see that many postpartum doulas are presenting themselves as “sleep trainers.” Also, if the role of the postpartum doula is to foster maximum self-determination for families, it seems out of our scope to present any kind of sleep training agenda. If a family is interested in learning about sleep strategies, I simply listen to their concerns about sleep. Then, I offer a variety of tips and strategies that can help the family choose what is right based on their own intuition.
Basic Sleep Strategies: Ideas to Think On
Be realistic. In part 1, I discussed the science behind infant sleep. It is totally normal and should be expected that a baby, especially a very young one, will take frequently throughout the night. Firstly, it’s important to accept that this is normal and NOT a sleep problem. If you continue to tell yourself that it is a problem, you will drive yourself crazy trying to “fix” what is a natural and evolutionary instinct. Secondly, remember that good nights will follow harder nights and your baby will have an ebb and flow relationship with sleep throughout the first year as they go through massive brain development.
Challenge Means Growth. The Wonder Weeks is a great resource for parents that tracks your baby’s developmental periods throughout the first 18 months of your baby’s life. When you are struggling with your baby waking at night, consider whether they are in a fussy developmental period. These are common in periods of brain and physical growth. Has your baby learned a new skill? Sometimes babies have what I like to call “unfinished business” in the evenings. They like to practice the new skills they are trying to master.
Rhythm vs. Schedule
Be Consistent. Consider how and where you would like your baby to sleep. I often recommend that families create a “sleepy space” for their baby. This is simply the place in your home where your baby sleeps most often. Your baby will begin to associate their “sleepy space” with calm and restful feelings. Make this a nurturing, relaxing, and restful space for your baby. It is their safe space. Your baby doesn’t have to sleep in their space 100% of the time, but for the majority of their sleep time if you can. As you become consistent and your baby learns pattern association, they will come to relax and sleep easier in their space. This could be a bassinet, crib, or the parent’s bed for example.
Find a Rhythm. It is unrealistic to impose an adult-led schedule onto your baby. If you take some time to follow your baby’s natural rhythms, you can gently build your daily family rhythm together. For example, after family dinner time you can gently guide baby into a soothing evening routine (infant massage, diaper, jammies, story/songs, feeding). They may not fall asleep right away after. Even so, you can prepare the environment to foster relaxation, peace, and sleep.
Some more challenging food for thought…
Give Up Control. Sleep is so important for families. Especially when parents begin to go back to work, lack of sleep can be incredibly debilitating. However, it is important to realize that your baby’s sleep habits are not a measure of your parenting abilities. Your baby is simply living their best life, according to their instincts, and you are meeting their needs overnight through night time parenting. You will find that even the best sleeping babies will defy your schedules and routines at times. All of this is normal and part of your baby’s normal instincts. Normalize night waking. Avoid using your baby’s sleep habits as a measure of your parenting ability.
Plan for Success. Plan periods of rest into your day. Take naps when your baby sleeps if you can. Even a 20 minute cat nap where you rest your eyes and practice relaxation can be incredibly restorative. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a postpartum doula, I often care for babies while the mother rests after a rough night. We aren’t meant to parent alone. Try to be flexible with your outings and reschedule what you can. Consider your own energy flow. For me, I know that my lowest energy time is the afternoon. I am a morning person by nature. Regardless of how much sleep I get at night, I can usually manage to wake up early and get through some things. Plan activities, appointments, or to-do lists for your maximum energy time of the day.
In A World With Little Support, Innovate
If you have an older baby and you are REALLY sleep deprived and find yourself without support, consider this. Create a safe space for baby to play on the floor with some very safe toys. You can rest on the floor while baby plays beside you. If you happen to fall asleep accidentally, your baby is in a very safe space.
If you find yourself falling asleep while nursing your baby in a chair or sitting up in bed, consider learning about safe bed sharing. According to the La Leche League, 44% of mothers report falling asleep at least once in a chair or sitting up with baby in bed. Although few families start out planning to bed share, studies show that 60-75% of families end up bed sharing at some point. My argument is that if we know many mothers are falling asleep with baby in unsafe conditions anyways, let’s create the safest space possible. The Safe Sleep Seven outlines how to create a bed sharing environment that is as safe as possible for your baby.
Lastly, remember that the best sleep strategies for your family help maximize rest for everyone. Do what feels right in your gut, rather than what a friend, doctor, or book recommends.