Is there any topic that sparks more passion in a new mother than sleep? It’s the topic that – literally – keeps us up at night.
From understanding routines, to figuring out settling, to determining where you sit on the ‘co-sleep vs cry-it-out’ battlefield, sleep is often where, as mothers, we become unhinged. I say this from years (yes, years) of experience. My firstborn didn’t sleep through the night until he was 15 months old (I thought I was going to die) and my youngest outdid his brother by two months when he finally decided to grace us with 10 hours of rest at 17 months of age. Now that I’m only a few months out of the deep trenches, I’m pregnant with my third!!! (Notice all those exclamation points? Can you feel my anxiety?) Of course, this child is going to be different. I’ve put in my order for a miracle sleeper (I’ve heard they exist), but I’m also going to go about this one a little differently. Because as all mothers know, there is nothing that compares to the brutality of sleep deprivation. Rather than leaving it to chance, I enlisted the advice of renowned sleep expert Jane Surgenor, who kindly shared her tips, wisdom and unmistakable level-headedness that left me feeling calm and in-control after just one half-hour conversation. Whether you’re reading this at 3am after another night of no sleep, are hoping to set up good habits for your unborn baby or are simply looking for permission to say, “I desperately yearn for sleep,” Jane has the answer. Here are some of Jane’s words of wisdom to help us all, with clear headings for even the most sleep deprived.
Take the pressure down
They say that God laughs in the face of a plan. If that’s the case, newborns must cackle hysterically. While we can drive our careers, organise our houses, micromanage our time and orchestrate our social lives, babies come into our lives completely unable to be controlled. Needless to say, this can leave us feeling slightly … Unhinged. Throw into the mix thousands of articles and hundreds of books on how to get this parenting gig “right,” and it’s no wonder many of us end up in pools of tears come Day 3 (and that’s without mention of the hormones). Jane says, “In this modern world, there is so much pressure on women. They’ve all been told they can achieve, achieve, achieve. There’s also pressure to maintain their financial position and hold down their job. So of course, they expect their babies will sleep through the night straight away, so they can resume their sense of normality.” But it doesn’t really work like that, does it? Jane continues, “We need to take a bit of the pressure off women, so they can spend the time enjoying their babies without sending them mad as they attempt to get them sleeping through the night. It is normal for babies to wake during the night. Many babies will still require an overnight feed at six months. Sometimes just understanding this helps to make women feel better about where their babies are at.” “There’s also so much information available to women, and a lot of it is fear mongering. Women are told that they should co-sleep, that they should never let their baby cry, and that they’ll do psychological damage to their children if they shed a tear. This is where things can really go awry.” In her consultations, Jane works hand-in-hand with families to determine their core beliefs, their parenting style, and how to encourage good sleep habits as a result. She says, “You do need to figure out what suits you as a family, but you also need to be empowered to make the right decisions without fear. I work with my mothers to give them the confidence to support their babies.”
Set realistic expectations
Of course, no one really expects their baby to sleep through the night from birth. But aren’t we led to believe that from six weeks, they should do that coveted 7pm – 7am stretch? Jane says, “It’s important to break down sleep needs into what’s appropriate for a baby’s age, and then you can teach your baby healthy sleep habits to support them.” Jane says the elusive “sleeping through the night” moment can come at around 12 weeks. Before that time, she says, “Mothers should be focused on getting to know their babies. Those first three months are about forming an attachment, establishing a good milk supply and enjoying the beautiful time.” After 12 weeks (as long as the baby is thriving with no underlying health issues), Jane says that parents can begin encouraging their baby to sleep through the night. This begins with a structured day that includes 3-4 hourly feeds, nap times that don’t exceed 3.5 hours, and solid feeding and play time. Then when it comes to sleep, mothers should try to put their baby down in their cot awake so they learn the important skill of sleep. That means not rocking or feeding the baby to sleep, but gently settling the baby in his or her cot if some help is required, whether it’s when they’re first going to sleep or in-between sleep cycles. Over time, this will start to form healthy sleep habits. And at night, the same process applies. Having the confidence to resettle – not to jump in to offer a feed – will teach your baby to start stretching through the night. Jane admits that there are, of course, times when things don’t go to plan. “Not every day is the same,” she says. “Babies are inconsistent and erratic. Sometimes they need a little more nurturing, and as a mother, you’ll know this when you hear that high pitched rolling cry. In those moments, we really need to support our babies, so we build their trust. This way, when they’re older we can let go a bit, because we know our baby is secure and has a good attachment, we’re attuned to his or her needs, and we’re realistic.” But this doesn’t mean that at the first sign of a cold or a teething pang, we jump in to start introducing feeds or go back to rocking our children to sleep. Because if it’s one thing we know about parenting, it’s that …
Consistency is key
As scary as it is, even the best routines can be thrown out with the garbage after one night of change. While as mothers, our instincts may be to offer additional feeds if our baby has a sniffle, or to lay by the cot if we’re a little too tired to bother with the settling, Jane knows all too well that this can undo good progress. Jane says, “When things get a little tiring or a little hard, mothers can fall back into old habits. They’ll introduce a new feed, they’ll lie down, they’ll rub the baby’s back … And all of a sudden, we’re back at the beginning again. Consistency and confidence are key.” This is perhaps never as prevalent as in the time of the much-feared sleep regression. Jane says, “In regressions, babies are going through change. So you may need to give them a little more comfort or spend a bit more time settling. But if you’re attuned to where you’re baby is at, then a regression isn’t a catastrophe. It’s just a phase, so there’s no need to fall apart at the seams. Be sensible, give the nurturing your baby needs, but don’t introduce changes that will impede their sleep. Stay calm and you will get through it!”
Remember the importance of sleep
Anyone who has experienced a lack of sleep will know the importance of it. But Jane stresses that it’s not just imperative for your own health and wellbeing, but also for your baby’s. “Children need long stretches of sleep for their growth and development,” she says. “When they don’t receive this, their adrenals are on high alert, they’re overstimulated, they’re irritable … And they can’t sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. With women also having such high maternal fatigue, it can be a recipe for disaster.” However, if you’re reading this with a three-year-old who still doesn’t sleep, Jane wants you to take comfort that it’s never too late. She says, “There is always a solution. The older a child is, the more entrenched their habits are, which means they’ll take longer and it will be harder to fix. But we can achieve the right outcome. It comes back down to consistency and confidence. There is always an outcome if you stick with it.”
Be kind to yourself
When I asked Jane what her top tip was for new or expecting mothers, she said what I feared most – “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” When endless laundry, shopping lists and emails are begging for our attention, it can seem like a near impossible task. But Jane says, “It’s so important. If you sleep at the same time, you and your baby will get into your rhythm. You’ll cope better. The fact is – if you’re fatigued, you don’t see the signs that will actually help your baby to sleep, settle and generally be a contented child. You’ll also find it much harder to enjoy motherhood. Motherhood really is the most wonderful journey a mother can experience, but when you’re not coping, it is the most difficult. So sleep, and get help.” Jane also advises that mothers find one expert or trusted friend who they can rely upon. With so much mixed advice and differing opinions, it pays to identify the one person or approach you’ll follow, so you can be clear-headed and realistic. She says, “I like to help my mothers from the very beginning with a realistic and sensible approach that will see them really enjoying motherhood, with the benefit of a happy baby too.” Jane’s final piece of advice? “Outsource! Order The Dinner Ladies. Arrange a cleaner. Get someone to do your washing. In my opinion – this is what your parenting payments should be spent on. So you can cope better and find enjoyment in the beauty of motherhood.” Here, here.