I have a 3 month old and have been advised to make sure that I put baby to sleep in the same place for every sleep e.g. their bassinet, otherwise it will create bad habits and baby won’t settle in his bassinet properly.
I always find it amazing how some people are of the mind-set that babies are born with an innate drive to avoid sleep. That even though we need sleep to survive and we have survived as a species for a long time, that our babies still ‘do not want to sleep’.
With this is mind it really does seem crazy to think that something as fickle as where your baby lays their head is going to stop them sleeping when they need sleep.
This kind of advice requires a response that really brings things back to basics.
Little babies will sleep when they are tired, anywhere. Whether you put them in their bassinet every time or you rotate through baby sleeping on you, the pram and their bassinet. It does not matter.
When young babies will not sleep when they are tired, it is usually due to one or more of the following reasons:
The problem with this kind of advice is that if you believe it, it can send you down a path that will make your life with baby even more difficult.
Let me explain.
You believe that the reason your baby is not sleeping is because baby needs to ‘learn how to sleep in his bassinet’. To teach your baby how to sleep in his bassinet you begin a routine of specific feeding, sleeping and waking times so that you ‘know’ that your baby is tired when you decide it’s time for him to sleep. You then begin a self-settling strategy once you put baby down that involves teaching baby to sleep without a feed or physical contact. You end up at home a lot, in a dark room, patting and shushing your unsettled baby to sleep - for too long – you feel socially isolated.
This can cause stress for your baby and most likely you too. Furthermore, this type of misdiagnosis and treatment of sleep challenges can lead to unintended negative outcomes for baby and you.
Let me reassure you, you don’t need to worry about teaching your baby to sleep, or self-settle. You will not be setting up bad habits now or in the future – quite the opposite! If you build a trusting relationship with your baby it will give you a greater opportunity to let them regularly sleep in their bassinet when they are ready.
Our clients often receive advice to let their baby self settle, allowing 1 minute of time to enter the room for every week of age e.g. 8 minutes wait to enter for an 8 week old baby.
As a mother, I find it heart wrenching listening to my babies cry, every inch of my being wants to go and soothe them, it’s completely instinctive. I’ve yet to meet a mother that does not feel like this when her baby cries.
So why are we so often advised to go against our basic instincts when our babies cry at night? Surely we can trust that instinctively we know how to care for our babies?
Yes, we can.
Deliberately delaying your response to your baby’s cries to be picked up or fed, or responding in a way that is different to what you know your baby is asking of you, will not significantly help your baby sleep longer at night. Neither will it gradually reduce the amount of crying out behaviour at night, as is often claimed. This is because they have an immature and sensitive Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that acts like a switch for them (one minute ‘gooing’ and ‘gaaing’ the next minute crying at full volume without stopping to breathe!). There are many strategies that you can use to dial down the SNS such as feeding, rocking and singing. However, an intention to respond is the best way to prevent your baby becoming distressed in the first place because often even feeding can be difficult once your baby is that worked up.
The belief that delaying responses to your baby’s cues will improve their sleep in the first 6 months is not supported by evidence. In fact, the evidence confirms that delaying responses results in more crying and fussing in babies overall and risks a serious communication breakdown between baby and you. The Baby Sleep Practitioners’ advice is to aim to keep your baby as calm as possible in the first 16 weeks of life. Work on building trust with your baby and learning his or her patterns of behaviour through a lot of trial and error.
Anyone that has experienced night waking of the baby kind would agree that it’s not actually the number of times that you are woken but the period of time that you are awake for (either due to baby or your own difficulty returning to sleep – or both) that makes you feel like rubbish. We also know that a modest increase in uninterrupted night sleep does not help a mothers’ mental health.
Self-settling is a developmental milestone and as with sleeping, is not something that needs to be taught to babies.
Once any underlying problems have been resolved in terms of your babies feeding, sleeping and sensory needs, responding sensibly to their cues will make life easier for baby and you both now and later.
Dr. Harvey Karp is famous for his insights of the 5 S’s explained in his book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Many parents use or have used this method to soothe their baby in those difficult first weeks or even months. The 5 S’s have become so ingrained In the baby sleep world that it’s fair to say it will be around for a while.
The 5 S’s if you don’t know are Swaddle, Side or stomach position, Shush, Swing and Suck. I agree that they do work as long as there is not an underlying health, feeding or sleeping problem. Let’s give parents a bit of credit here. When you hear your baby crying your motherly instinct kicks in, you immediately pick your baby up and attempt to soothe him or her by shushing, patting and rocking? I believe following your motherly instinct should really be the focus of solving most baby sleep problems. Mothers loose this ability when they follow rules. For example, when the 5 S’s are not working they lose their confidence and creative problem solving skills. Start questioning themselves, it must be something I am doing wrong? Am I not swaddling tight enough?
So let’s break this down: Where can the 5 S’s fall short?Swaddle:Swaddling is important in the first 3 months to prevent the moro or startle reflex. However, there is no evidence that swaddling reduces unsettled behaviour in babies and we need to be careful not to swaddle to tightly as this can increase the risk for hip dysplasia.
Side or Stomach Position:Side or stomach position aids digestion so can beneficial when there are tummy troubles. When a baby is not receiving enough cream from the breast the milk travels through the intestine so quickly it causes your baby to feel bloated with explosive stools, excessive wind and crying. Creamy milk helps babies turn on the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system so that they become relaxed and settle to sleep easily. Putting your baby to sleep on its side or tummy is not recommended by health professionals nor the World Health Organisation as it is associated with Sudden Unexpected Death of and Infant (SUDI). Not worth the risk!
Shush:Shushing is more commonly achieved by playing white noise. Large doses of white noise can be an unhealthy sensory stimulation for your baby: especially if played too loudly it can damage your babies hearing. Healthy sensory stimulation includes a lot of physical contact with loved ones.
Swing:Swinging or rocking won’t work if the barriers to sleep have not been removed such as if your baby is generally still hungry or if it is not tired enough (you will be rocking for a long time!)
Suck:Some babies love to suck and as long as feeding had been established and mothers are feeding on demand then dummies are fine. If you are ignoring cues that your baby is hungry then this can lead to unintended outcomes such as inadequate milk supply and weight loss.
If the 5 S‘s are not working for you and your baby contact The Baby Sleep Practitioners for advice.
Amy and Elspeth