In today’s world, expecting parents are bombarded with a myriad of information about how to care for their new bundle of joy. Still, for various reasons, quality information about how to promote healthy baby sleep patterns is often not absorbed by families who are preparing to nurture the little one. Heidi Holvoet, PhD, specializes in supporting parents to find the best information about getting the best sleep, not only for baby, but for mom and dad too. She shares her wisdom here!
New parents, when well informed, get a head start when it comes to helping their baby sleep well. Knowing a few simple facts and applying the basics correctly can help them prevent – rather than tackle – many sleep troubles most babies experience in their first year.
However, decent sleep info rarely reaches parents during pregnancy, in spite of the vast amounts of publicity leaflets, test products and lectures they are bombarded with. This is a pity because on estimate, about 80% of sleep issues in the first year could be prevented if parents knew, pre-birth, about basic sleep facts, sleep hygiene and what to expect.
Let’s explore the possible reasons and consequences for this poor information supply, discuss a few of examples of how prior knowledge helps prevent sleep troubles, and investigate how parent-education can be addressed.
How quality baby sleep information slips expecting parents’ attention
We all know how precious sleep is for newborns and their parents. It is not only to avoid sleepless nights for mama, but to attain optimal health and development for baby. After all, both short and long-term health depends largely on sufficient and quality sleep.(1)
The worries, frustrations and lack of sleep many parents experience, depletes their energy, severely impacting their social and work life.
Given the immensely adverse effects of troubled sleep, it is surprising how ill-prepared most parents are.
Fortunately, safety guidelines such as “lie baby on the back to sleep” are well emphasized, along with the expectation of less sleep with a new baby. But even after the being told this, the reality still comes as a shock for most.
Why would that be? A few reasons:
- Expecting parents are bombarded with information about vitamins, diapers, nursery decoration, strollers, etc. …This is often commercially sponsored information. Even if included, sleep info is often sparse and usually doesn’t go beyond clichés. These clichés create unrealistic expectations (“baby should sleep through the night at 3 months old”) and unhelpful knowledge (“a baby must be put down awake in order to sleep”).
- New parents are often not particularly interested in reading about sleep and/or are not aware of the importance.
- It is generally accepted that there is little a parent can do. Baby will either be a good sleeper or a poor sleeper and that will take its natural course …
Being well-informed though does make a difference. It ensures that parents can act preventative and proactively, giving them the confidence important to guiding a baby well.
Reading up before birth is ideal because the positive impact will be larger. And of course, getting informed after birth is still better than not reading at all. Parents can still learn to deal with existing problems and prevent any further issues.
Tips to prepare families to help baby sleep well
Encourage parents to instill a good day/night rhythm
A baby is not born with a set day/night rhythm as the one we are used to as an adult. Baby is simply on a continuous wake/feed/sleep cycle, regardless of day, night, light or dark. Developing that sense of difference between day and night is one of the first steps toward sleeping well for a new baby.
It cannot be forced, but it is important that parents provide the right cues, demonstrating the natural difference between daytime and nighttime. That is in fact extremely easy to do without much effort, but parents who are not aware of its importance may easily overlook it. As a consequence they may find their baby having their day/night rhythm mixed up – sleepy all day, awake all night.
That is a difficult situation to cope with for parents already. Moreover the reversed rhythm often entails more sleep issues, reinforcing a cycle of troubled sleep. A cycle that could have been avoided by simply tuning in to the day/night rhythm correctly from the start.
Discuss the realities of switching to formula
Typically around the age of 3-4 months, parents whose babies do not sleep for 6-8 hours in a row start to become nervous. Will she ever sleep through the night? Well-meaning friends, relatives and even pediatricians often suggest that switching from breastfeeding to formula could help. Many assume that going to bed with a fuller stomach and not waking up hungry “ought to guarantee perfect nights” …
The problem is that while switching can work for some it doesn’t for most, and switching to formula has other negative side effects.
The switch to formula at this age upset the baby’s digestive system and can have strong emotional effects for both baby and mother. Additionally, stuffing before bed generally leads to poorer nights, not better ones. Further, if it does not work out, parents are left with the extra chore of preparing bottles in the middle of the night.
Knowing that risk, and learning how milk production can actually be increased if mom continues breastfeeding, can again improve sleep and avoid unnecessary further issues.
Make yourself available for support
Offering more quality information about sleep that goes beyond the clichés to new and expecting parents will help us to help prevent a lot of sleep problems for a new baby. When parents come to a sleep consultant with an issue, we find that true inability to sleep well is rarely the cause. It is often a grown-into situation, where several light sleep disturbances have accumulated into more seriously disrupted sleep. While this does not mean that parents have caused the problem, it means that they can tweak small things to fix it.
Sleep matures immensely in the first year and it takes time, patience and guidance to develop optimal sleeping skills. This maturation process inevitably comes with troubled naps and nights. Equipping new families knowledge has the power to prevent many of these sleep troubles.
To help inform expecting parents about sleep, caregivers and anyone involved with parents during pregnancy can:
- Explain to parents the importance of being knowledgeable about sleep right from the start
- Reassure parents that – although they cannot avoid sleep developing dramatically in the first year – they can take action to help prevent many sleep issues
- Provide links to quality resources both offline and online (books, websites, etc.)
- Baby sleep advice by Heidi Holvoet
- Offer a simple leaflet with basic must-know information
These simple steps to optimize sleep can make a huge difference for baby and parents in those precious first years and long beyond.
- Sleep and physical growth in infants during the first 6 months Tikotzky L, De Marcas G, Har-Toov J. et al. – Journal of Sleep Research, 2009. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2009.00772.x).
Heidi Holvoet, PhD is a passionate baby sleep consultant who combines in her work over 10 years of personal research with her daily counseling practice and personal experience as a mother of two. She has written several award-winning baby sleep books and has founded Baby-Sleep-Advice.com, the informative website about sleep for babies and toddlers.
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