As a new parent, one of the very first things to go out the window is a good night’s sleep. Many times this can start as early as the first trimester of pregnancy. One of my first pregnancy symptoms was difficulty sleeping, and I felt restless, had vivid wild dreams and was up with frequent urination right from the start. What if I told you that you could be an incredible parent and still get a solid night’s sleep? I know it sounds like a stretch in those early days, even years, but I promise there are tools to help.
As parents, it’s almost like we wear exhaustion as a badge of honour, as though being exhausted is a reward for being an amazing parent. Setting up your baby with good sleep habits can help you get more sleep and be the best parent you can be. Below are a few steps to improve your family’s sleep.
1. Optimize the sleep environment
Infants start producing their melatonin by about 12 weeks of age. Melatonin is our sleep hormone; it helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. Naturally, this hormone increases around 7 p.m. and continues to rise until about midnight, remaining high for the remainder of the night and decreasing again toward morning. Darkness helps our bodies know it’s time to make melatonin. Keeping the lights dim in the evening before bedtime and making the room as dark as possible can improve sleep for everyone.
The ideal temperatures for sleep are 18-20 degrees Celsius. White noise can be helpful to provide a constant sound, so abrupt loud noises do not wake up your baby. Keep the noise machine a few feet away from the baby’s head, at no more than 50 decibels, to protect their hearing.
2. Follow age-appropriate awake times
Awake times are the amount of time a baby is awake between each period of sleep throughout the day. For example, the amount of time a newborn should be awake is about 45 minutes. This means when that newborn wakes up in the morning. They need to be fed, burped, diaper changed and back to sleep 45 minutes later. This time increases as babies get older. It’s a misconception that keeping a baby awake will help them sleep longer.
Another scheduling tip we like to use is the MAMAS method. Below is an example of what you would do during an awake period.
M = Milk (feed your baby)
A = Activity (burp, change the diaper, floor play)
M = Milk (for babies on solids, this would be where you’d feed solids)
A = Activity
S = Sleep
The MAMAS method helps keep milk (bottle or breastfeeding) away from sleep. In younger babies, their awake period may be too short for two feeding sessions, which is OK! You would do one feed, then an activity and then sleep.
One big misconception is that offering a huge feed right before bed will help your baby sleep longer. Babies have caloric needs like adults that must be met within 24 hours. Providing plenty of feeds throughout the day allows babies to fill this need throughout the daytime, helping to decrease the number of feeds they need overnight.
3. The golden ticket to better sleep is routine
Being consistent with a bedtime routine, learning the right timing for your babe, avoiding making the baby drowsy throughout feeds and eliminating sleep props can all result in better sleep. Sleep props are anything that helps a baby or child fall asleep that is outside of them. Examples include: feeding to sleep, rocking, and soothers. Whatever a baby needs at the start of the night to fall asleep is what they will need when they rouse throughout the night to get back to sleep.
4. Build independent sleep skills
Did you know infants and children rouse four to six times throughout the night? This happens as they transition from one sleep cycle into the next. They can put themselves back to sleep if they have independent solid sleep skills. If something is preventing independent sleep skills, they will most likely wake up and tell you they are awake and need help getting back to sleep.
5. Get comfortable with sleep disturbances
You’ll often hear about various sleep regressions, but they’re really progressions! As babies hit different developmental milestones, it is very normal for them to experience sleep disturbances and start waking more frequently overnight. I like to encourage families to practice new skills frequently throughout awake time during the day to help master new skills, tire out a kiddo and discourage them from practicing new skills when they should be sleeping. Most babies will move through a developmental milestone within 7-10 days, some may take as long as three weeks.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to parent. If your baby has sleep props and it’s working—you can absolutely keep them. If your baby has shorter awake times or doesn’t like white noise—no big deal! It’s only a problem if it’s a problem for you. If it continues to be a concern, there are many resources and approaches you can take to improve your family’s sleep.