How do I get my baby to sleep?

Getting baby to sleep with Babybrains®' L-O-V-E approach: Learn through Observation, Validate through Experience. For most of us parents, there comes a time when our wellbeing and that of the child seem to be incompatible. We seem to only have a choice between to vicious cycles:

Vicious cycle 1: I respond to my child and suffer from severe sleep deprivation which will have negative effects on the rest of the family.

Vicious cycle 2: I do not respond to my child and deprive her of necessary comfort, undermining her trust in me and negatively affecting the entire family.

When we are faced with these suboptimal options, we tend to look for the experts that teach us The Way so we can get out of this parenting dead end. We find them, and we find many of them. We actually find so many experts describing The Way that we don’t know which one to pick. The choice goes from vicious cycles to “parenting parties.” We start asking ourselves questions like, “Am I a Gina-Ford Adept, an Attachment-Parent or a Baby-Whisperer?” The amount of stress, frustration and conflict this generates might be reflected in the number of results Google gives back when we type in “baby sleep,” 171 million!

The way out of this painful madness is simple: let us forget about rules that work for everybody. If they existed, everything would be solved. Let us stop looking for The Way, and instead, let us figure out our way.

To be able to do this, we need to make sure we know the relevant facts. We need to be ready to use our own experience to figure out our own solutions.

Sleep: Some Science

There are two aspects of brain functioning and development that can be useful for informing our sleep habits. 1) What do babies remember? 2) How do humans learn to sleep? We will try to give a brief summary of these two aspects below.

Babies’ Memories

Although the first three years of life are not explicitly remembered, they are not simply forgotten either. Starting at birth, repeated experiences become habits. Habits are the basis of expectations. If someone responds, acknowledges, and addresses baby’s needs every time she cries, she will start to find this normal. She will expect a response to follow every expression of distress.

In other words, your repeated interactions with your baby shape your relationship with her. They begin to form the adult person that this little creature will become. These habits are the beginning of a sort of inner “User Manual for Life” she will forever use. You can imagine the chapters of this user manual:

  • What to do when you are scared

  • What to do when you are tired

  • What to expect from people

  • How to express your love to people

  • How to get what you want

…and it goes on, with all strategies we use every day to get about life.

We are largely unaware of it, but we have been using the same manual since the day we were born. If you wonder why you can’t ask for help or why you find it so difficult to trust people you love, the answer is probably in that manual (aka, implicit procedural memory).

In summary, although no conscious memory of the first year of life will be retained, repeated actions will consolidate into implicit habits and expectations. These will influence the child’s behaviour throughout life.

Sleep-pattern learning.

We tend to think of “sleeping through the night” as an important natural milestone. Maybe we need to think again.

Natural milestones are achieved when the child acquires skills such as smiling, rolling over or walking. These are things every healthy human on the planet learns to do. Our brains are hard-wired to acquire the ability to smile, roll and walk. If we only let our baby get on with her life and do her little experiments, she will naturally figure out how to perform all of these actions. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy baby, there is nothing we need to do for her to start displaying these behaviours.

Sleeping through the night, however, does not fit anywhere on that list of innate predispositions. In fact, sleeping through the night is a cultural skill, similar to reading, writing and driving cars. It is only in our culture that we tend to sleep in separate rooms, for a very long stretch of time at night, and be active and productive for a very long stretch of time during the day. This does not mean that sleeping through the night is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a very useful skill to acquire. However, this skill needs to be learned with patience and effort.

In fact, as humans we all wake up at the end of each sleep cycle, which lasts approximately 90 minutes (more on this here). What a baby needs to learn is how to fall back to sleep at the end of every cycle. The way a baby learns to do this depends on the circumstances she is brought up in. If the child’s usual setting at night is a cave with a log fire at the entrance and the presence of the rest of the family around her, these will be the conditions that allow for a new sleep cycle to begin. If the child sleeps alone in her own room, in complete darkness, in a cot with a teddy bear, these will be the cues that allow her to relax and fall back asleep.

Co-sleeping is the answer for more and more parents. It works. For some. For some time.

It is important to remember that the baby’s priority is survival. She will do whatever she has to do to get the amount of nutrition and contact she needs to feel safe and secure. She needs to establish safety before she can spend energy on learning something new or enjoying independence. Just as a pre-school child needs to be able to sit up and hold a pen before she can start practicing to write, a baby needs to feel secure before she can start working on her sleep patterns.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a newborn, being alone in a dark room does not provide the feelings of safety and security she needs to fall asleep. Hence, the transition between baby’s experience of constant parental response to independence and autonomy can likely be rocky when you sleep in different rooms.

In summary, sleeping through the night is a cultural skill that needs to be acquired with patience and effort. In our culture, we learn the skill of sleeping in circumstances that are not ideal to facilitate the gradual acquisition of night-time autonomy. Hence all disappointment and frustration.

But what can we do about it?

Sleep: Some Fun

Once you have considered the facts of your baby’s memory and how sleep functions, we can start using the Babybrains' L-O-V-E (Learn through Observation Validate through Experience) approach (more on this here). The L-O-V-E approach helps to establish a new sleep routine that is more compatible with everybody’s needs. Just as a children and scientists do, we can start by observing reality as it is and try to be as objective as possible.

Once we have established our starting point on the basis of what we know and what we have observed, we can define our achievable target. Then we can identify the arrangement that meets our baby’s needs and our own.

Finally, we can devise a strategy that will allow us to achieve our goals. Crucially, we need to be willing to commit to our strategy and try it out for a little while. We may need to fine-tune, modify, or even abandon our strategy (you can get help for this! More on this here).

Below is an example of how you could proceed. The exact actions might not apply to your particular case, but the approach and procedure can apply to anyone’s unique case.

Learn through Observation:

For four to six days, keep a diary of your baby’s sleep pattern (get in touch to receive Babybrains® sleep-pattern observation tool). Things that you can note on your diary are:

  • Time she falls asleep.

  • Time she wakes up.

  • Way she falls asleep (on the breast, in your arms, in her cot, in the pram, in the sling).

  • Way she gets up (with a smile, screaming, calling you, fine on her own).

  • How you feel when she falls asleep.

  • How you feel when she gets up.

Keeping a diary helps you observe.

Once you have managed to step back and observe for a while, it is very likely that you will see a pattern emerge. Your baby might tend to fall asleep easily and peacefully most of the time, except for at 7pm, when you feel exhausted and would like to prepare dinner for yourself and your partner. At 7pm, when she is supposed to go to sleep, she will not let go of the breast. If you unlatch her, she will scream until your partner comes home and rocks her to sleep.

Knowing about sleep-pattern learning, you might now realise that it is only understandable that she feels less safe and secure in the evening. You are less ready to give her milk, contact and cuddles because you are exhausted and focused on preparing dinner.

Knowing about babies’ memory, you might feel particularly motivated to establish a routine that does not require daily crying before bedtime.

Combining this knowledge with your unique family requirements (if you are Italian or French, as it is the case for my husband and me, a quiet adult dinner might be all the way up there in the list of your priorities), you can define your goal. You could come up with goals such as:

  1. More peaceful evenings.

  2. Baby asleep before our dinner.

  3. No screaming.

Let us imagine that your goal is to enjoy more peaceful evenings. You can now think about what you could modify and come up with a few strategies:

Strategy A: Put baby in the sling and have her fall asleep on me while I prepare dinner

Strategy B: Focus away from dinner and pre-set sleep times. Enjoy cuddles and feeds with baby until partner comes home. Take turns with partner in rocking baby to sleep vs. preparing dinner.

Your regular observation has allowed to you notice things you might previously have neglected in the fuzz of your busy daily routine. Your informed reflection has allowed you to define some achievable goals and to come up with two valid strategies that might allow both your baby’s and your own needs being met.

Validate Through Experience:

Once you have your strategies, it is time to see if they work. At this stage, it is particularly important to keep an open mind and approach your experiments without being so fixated on the outcome that you cannot learn from what you are experiencing.

You could start by trying out Strategy A: After a good feed, you put your baby in the sling while you start preparing dinner. With a bit of luck, your strategy works and the baby quickly falls asleep, enjoying your contact while you are busy mixing ingredients and setting the table. By the time your partner comes home, Baby is fast asleep and you can easily transfer her into her cot. The two of you can have a relaxing adult dinner.

Success! L-O-V-E has worked. Both of your goals have been met. Baby gets loads of contact. She feels safe and secure enough to fall peacefully asleep. At the same time, you and your partner have some quiet adult time.

You not only have your peaceful evening now, but you also feel a strong sense of competence and achievement. Using science, adopting a problem-solving attitude and being ready to experiment, you have managed to transform a challenging situation in a happy and peaceful one.

There is only one more thing you need to do now: don’t get more attached to your strategy than to your family’s wellbeing. By all means, enjoy your quiet dinners and carry on with your strategy as long as it works for you. However, if your back starts hurting, if baby starts waking up when you transfer her to her cot, or if your partner misses their bonding time with baby, make sure you remain ready to reconsider the situation, applying the L-O-V-E approach again.

This applies to us as well as to our babies.

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