Written by Hannah Clark, Sleep Specialist (Kin.Postpartum)
One thing the sleep industry isn’t very upfront about is that babies are different. And not just a little bit different, but very different. Temperament, sensory preferences, total sleep needs and your family’s cultural practices are going to vary so wildly, which means one sleep strategy or piece of generic advice around wake windows is not going to work for everyone.
Tips and advice can be useful, but it’s important to remember that any advice generally comes from someone else’s belief system, their values, or what has worked for their baby. While we have some fantastic health professionals who are up to date with the latest research and developmentally supportive recommendations around normal infant sleep, there is still a lot of archaic advice out there.
Instead of downloading schedules, how to’s on nailing drowsy but awake or wondering if your baby is normal, I want you to put that energy into eating another FYC cookie, putting your feet up and reading what I wish every parent knew about their new baby’s sleep. Straight from an infant sleep specialist to your tired & beautiful self, navigating new parenthood.
Top Five Things You Need to Know about Infant Sleep
1. You cannot hold, rock, or support your baby too much. There’s no age that picking your baby up when they look to you for reassurance is not ok or starts to create bad habits. Humans are carrying mammals, and infants are designed to live within the habitat of their caregiver. Your baby’s brain is developing, and neural networks are forming at an explosive rate. The patterns you form now are going to inform how your baby views and experiences the world and if that world is a predictable, respectful, responsive one that’s filled with joy, that cannot possibly be a negative.
Babies also don’t like sleeping alone, so while popping a baby into the bassinet for some snooze time may work for some, it can be a bit like swimming against the current. They may be perfectly asleep in your arms but every time you try to place them down and creep away, they wake. It can be incredibly frustrating but try to remember their brains are designed to keep them safe and safety means they are with you. Try to surrender to the cuddles, get help where you can, invest in a good carrier, ask a friend to organise a meal train, and try to have the perspective that sitting with your sleeping baby (and resting!) is one of the most productive things you can be doing.
2. Babies can get their nights and days mixed up. It’s super common, and not for a lack of anything on your part. Circadian rhythm is the main body clock and typically isn’t fully developed until around 12 weeks of age. Without a body clock, babies cannot differentiate night from day so for the first few months it’s very normal for your baby to have inconsistent and unpredictable sleep patterns, or to sleep for big chunks during the day and wake frequently overnight. Night time also sees a rise in the milk making hormone prolactin, which is another reason your baby may like to feed frequently overnight to increase and maintain milk supply. The best way to help your little one’s body clock develop is to expose them to lots of natural sunlight and noise during the day (including naps), spend time outside, then keep their environment calm and dim of an evening with limited artificial lighting or red hued lights. This is personal choice, but you can also gently wake your baby if they have slept longer than 2.5-3 hours during the day to give them a feed and some awake time.
3. Feeding to sleep is a superpower. Whether it be bottle or breast, sucking is incredibly regulating for little people and releases sleep inducing hormones which activate the parasympathetic nervous system (read: rest and digest). If you’re a breastfeeding parent, you also get the added benefit of feel-good sleepy hormones which are perfect for getting you back to sleep in the middle of the night. It’s perfect biology baby!
There can also be a lot of emphasis on the eat-play-sleep routine as it is seen to disassociate sleep with feeding which fits in with sleep training culture’s belief that feeding to sleep is a negative sleep association. Eat play sleep also promotes self-settling (falling asleep without assistance from a place of calm) as the gold standard. We know that self-settling is a term taken out of context that is tied to temperament and not a learned skill, and self-soothing (a baby calming themselves down from a heightened state) is not achievable due to the immature nature of the infant brain. Eat play sleep also directly contradicts the WHO recommendations of feeding on demand and is associated with lower breastfeeding rates. If your baby naturally falls into an eat play sleep pattern it means you are following their cues which is wonderful, but I do not recommend waking a baby who has fallen asleep at the breast just to get them back to sleep another way.
4. It’s possible to safely bedshare, and abstinence only messaging around bedsharing is not effective. We know that ~70% of parents will bedshare at a point in time and sitting on a couch to feed and falling asleep or accidentally falling asleep in bed propped up with pillows and blankets is exponentially more dangerous than intentionally setting up a safe sleep space. A 2022 report* out of the UK of over 6,000 infant and child deaths has found that of the 711 SUID (Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths) occurrences, 60% of those specifically on a shared sleep surface involved unplanned co sleeping, and of those, 92% had unsafe factors present. The Safe Sleep 7** are a widely shared resource to help mitigate any risks with bedsharing, and the countries that advocate and educate for safe bedsharing have some of the lowest SIDS rates in the world.
5. Colic is a symptom, not a diagnosis.One of the most overwhelming things newborn life can throw at you, and one of the most unhelpful diagnoses to receive. Previously defined as a period of crying for 3 + hours a day, at least 3 days a week for at least 3 weeks, colic is a bit of an ‘oh well’ used by providers when the root cause is unknown and further investigation hasn’t been undertaken. Oftentimes parents are asked to take a wait and see approach, but ‘common’ does not equal ‘normal’ and waiting it out can have detrimental effects on everyone involved. If you believe your baby is crying more than they should, here are some things to consider.
+ allergies and intolerances for mum and baby. Amongst others, dairy and gluten are common culprits. Be mindful that a lot of formulas are dairy based and seek support from your trusted health professional to investigate this as a cause.
+ gut imbalances. Many studies have shown probiotic supplementation with Lactobacillus reuterito reduce daily median crying times in babies with colic, compared to placebo.
+ excessive swallowing of air (aerophagia). Check for tongue ties, lip ties, poor latch if breastfeeding. Consult with practitioners trained in oral ties and an IBCLC to assist with any feeding challenges.
+ body tightness/pain/injury & birth trauma. A fast birth, assisted delivery, extended amounts of compression in the birth canal. Body work with an osteopath, chiropractor or craniosacral therapist can be hugely beneficial.
If you’re navigating an unsettled newborn, try to find a practitioner who is willing to dive deep in the trenches with you and find a way forward. And most importantly, know you are doing so well. Take some time for yourself because no one can pour from an empty cup.