Understanding sleep

When you’re in the early months of your new baby, you’re tired, your energy levels are low and it feels like your ability to respond to even the smallest of challenges is compromised. In almost all the conversations I have with parents at this stage, they feel utterly disempowered; like their baby is taking them for a rollercoaster ride and they have no say in anything.

I have found that understanding how sleep works and being able to do some practical things that give a baby its best chance of meeting its highly individual sleep needs gives parents their power back.

So let’s talk about both these things now.

The Science of Sleep

The first important thing to know about sleep is that it’s not under our conscious control. We cannot tell ourselves, ‘It’s time to sleep now,’ and then simply go to sleep. Nor can our babies do this when we tell them the same. Additionally, the more we try to consciously go to sleep, the more stressed and anxious we feel, and the less likely we are to fall asleep.

So, if sleep is not under our conscious control, what regulates sleep for humans? There are two main things:

1. The sleep-wake homeostat

The sleep-wake homeostat is driven by a build-up of sleep-inducing hormones. These hormones build over time to create what is called ‘felt sleep pressure’. The more they build, the greater your sleepiness. This is why if you stay awake for long enough, you’ll eventually fall asleep even if you’re trying hard not to.

2. The circadian clock

This is our inner biological clock that responds to light and dark. While our tendency to fall asleep, to stay awake or to feel alert, naturally ebbs and flows throughout a 24-hour day, our circadian clock dictates it is easier to fall asleep at night. The circadian clock relies on environmental cues, such as sunlight and activity, to keep the correct time.

In addition to the above, it’s important to know and acknowledge that every human (whether they’re adults or newborn babies) has highly individual needs with regard to sleep. Being in tune with what’s normal for us as individuals and our babies as individuals allow us to set up our lives to work with our sleep-wake homeostats and circadian clocks to best facilitate healthy sleep patterns.

Things that hinder our baby’s ability to meet their individual sleep needs

1. Stimulated sympathetic nervous system

We all know if our hearts are beating fast and our breathing is rapid and cortisol and adrenaline (the stress hormones) are being released into our bodies, then it’s very difficult to fall asleep. Similarly, if a baby is stressed (and communicating this stress with a distressed cry) they too will struggle to fall asleep, or settle themselves if they wake in the night.

2. Hunger for milk

If a baby is hungry, they will cry and fuss and their sympathetic nervous system will fire up and, again, they will find it difficult to fall asleep. It’s important to remember that every baby’s need for milk is different. One patient of mine had a baby who needed to feed on waking, but had no problems falling asleep two hours later without another feed. The same patient’s second baby needed to feed both on waking, and again just before a sleep. This patient was able to meet the individual needs of both babies by paying attention to what they were telling her.

3. Hunger for sensory input

You may not realise it, but your baby craves diverse sensations. This is why they might be fussy sitting on the couch in your arms inside your home, but settle immediately upon you taking them outside. Sometimes, if your baby is sleepy, but struggling to fall asleep, it’s because they’ve not experienced a diverse enough range of sensory input.

Practical things you can do to facilitate better sleep for both yourself and your baby

1. Align your circadian clock with your baby’s

You do not have to do all of the below – just what is practical for you. But the following things can help your baby’s circadian clock align with yours.

  1. Rise/start your day at the same time each morning
  2. Try and get outside each day, especially in the morning
  3. When the baby is sleeping during the day, ensure they are sleeping in a room with normal daylight. This will ensure they will take only the sleep they need, but not so much that it will impact their ability to sleep for longer stretches at night.
  4. Align the baby’s bedtime with yours
    (Please note, we only suggest doing this as it aligns the baby’s best and most consolidated sleep with your own and this gives you the best chance of achieving three hours of unbroken sleep each night. BUT! If putting your baby down at 7pm gives you 2-3 hours to yourself in the evening, and those hours are crucial to your mental health and wellbeing, continue to do that. It just means that your baby will likely do their first night feed when you go to bed, and you might only get two hours of sleep before they wake for their next feed.)
  5. When your baby wakes in the night, keep any lights dimmed right down and your responses relaxed. The goal at night is to keep your baby’s sympathetic nervous system ‘turned down’ so they are able to feed, and then settle back to sleep quickly.

2. Manage your expectations around sleep

Remember, 3 is the new 8 because 3 hours of unbroken sleep at night is something you can realistically expect when you’re the parent of a newborn. And when that expectation is met, it should be celebrated. In celebrating the ‘achievement’ of 3 unbroken hours of sleep plus another 3-4 hours broken sleep, your energy levels will elevate and you’ll be amazed by how different you feel.

3. Practice mindfulness during the day

Yes, I can hear you rolling your eyes from here, but hear me out. Mindfulness is not about finding 30 minutes in a day to meditate. It’s about bringing your thoughts and feelings back to the present moment. Mindfulness helps your sleep by turning down the effect of stressful thoughts and frustrations you feel over the course of a day. It also calms your response to challenging situations with your baby during the day, helps keep their parasympathetic nervous system from revving up, and allows them to sleep more soundly.

4. Get physical activity every day

Many of my patients go for a walk with their baby in their pram each afternoon and this has several benefits. Walking is a gentle physical activity most women can do within a week or two of their baby’s birth. Daily physical activity promotes sleep at night (for the woman). And the baby will generally do their afternoon nap during this walk. Wins all around.

5. Have an afternoon/evening routine that allows your baby to wind down

As mentioned earlier, a stimulated sympathetic nervous system will affect your baby’s ability to fall asleep. Given you want them to have their longest stint of sleep in the evening, it’s good to develop and evening ‘wind down’ routine involving a bath, a feed and even reading to them before bed.

Let’s work with our babies

As mentioned here, as a society we have created unrealistic expectations for parents around the idea that ‘good’ babies are good sleepers and ‘bad’ babies don’t sleep. When the reality is, every baby’s sleep needs are vastly different and there really is no ‘normal’.

Adjusting our expectations to match reality and embracing ‘3 is the new 8’ gives us the energy and confidence to dial into our baby’s individual needs and meet them where they are.

There are times, however, where an underlying issue can be disrupting a baby’s sleep. I’m going to talk about how to identify that you need help with an underlying issue, along with the One for Women policy for managing sleep issues here.

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