Newborn Sleep Research: A look at what works and how it got me here
You guys have been there… First time mum of a newborn and feeling like you’ve got no idea what you’re meant to be doing.
And if you haven’t been there, I commend you (and would be keen to hear your secret!)
For me, it was 2007.
I was living in Whanganui and my first wee girl had entered the world.
I thought I was prepared; my mum was a midwife, and I’d read the book ( ‘The Contented Baby’, ). I could appreciate the merits of a routine, but – at three weeks old when my little love reached her due date and really ‘woke up to the world’ –
I found myself crying at the book in my hands, “Alright a nap is due, but hooooowwww?!” I had no idea how to get my baby to go to sleep.
That’s not entirely true –
I was pretty good at getting her to nod off at the breast.
This was back in the days before anyone warned against the ‘feed to sleep’ association, however my ability to do that was soon removed. When my daughter was just six weeks old I was hospitalised for a breast abscess and was unable to breastfeed her beyond that point. I had to find other ways to settle her – and I didn’t know any other ways.
So I started researching…
First, I went down to my local bookshop and bought every book that was available on the topic of babies and sleep; that still wasn’t enough. Next, I jumped on PubMed to delve into the scientific and medical journals, poring over their pages related to infant sleep (this was back in the pain-staking days of dial-up internet too, can you imagine?)
It was here that my learning began. And it was probably here too that the seeds of the business that I’ve now grown were planted – not that I knew it at the time. I was just looking to save my sanity and help my small human get the sleep I knew she must need.
It was in this research that I discovered what works – for her and my other children when they came along. These things form the foundation of the approach that all of our consultants take now when working with newborns.
So what were the things that worked – the ‘how’ to getting my wee girl (and thousands of others since her) to sleep?
Shush/pat – My first discovery was the comfort that our infants find in being settled with shushing and gentle patting. 2007 may not seem that long ago, but this was before the invention of things like white noise machines or apps that parents have use of now.
Instead, there I was continually making a loud “ssshhhhh” with my mouth, dribbling over the side of the cot and my baby in the process!
But she loved the noise and the constant shushing sound gave her something to focus on, she soon stopped crying, and gave in to my patting.
Swaddling – This was one of the things I was already doing; thanks to my mum for teaching me that one! My daughter loved it, but I know not all babies appreciate a tight wrap and there were different techniques for doing it, all of which I explored. Check them out here.
Side settling – Like they are today, warnings about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) were rife; in fact, the safe sleep guidelines were even stricter in those days than now!
The idea of settling your baby on their side in the cot was relatively new, so I tried this with my daughter – rolling her onto her back once settled to have her sleep.
It took a little experimentation as I found it too hard to pat her for any length of time while she was rolled away from me, so I turned her towards me or perpendicular in her cot and still got it to work – presumably because of this next point…
Darkened room – I still giggle when I recall my husband’s reaction on his return home after I’d discovered this little gem.
I had used every blanket or tool at my disposal to block any hint of light from entering my daughter’s bedroom; I was a mum on a mission! My husband wondered what on earth I had done! Luckily, he came along and found a much better solution, but the principle worked, so it stuck.
Awake times and routines – I knew enough basic biology to know that my daughter needed good sleep for development, but my research in those days was the first understanding that I had of there being optimum awake times that related to an infant’s age.
It was like a light flicked on for me when I related this to what I already understood about routines – it was clear that some structure was for the benefit of all of us. That was something I could definitely get behind.
Get your hands on my nap routines and never second guess your babies awake time again. Click here.
Pre-sleep rituals – I learned the hard way that going out to visit all our friends at coffee group didn’t set the stage for settling my daughter to sleep immediately on our return; she would get way too over-stimulated.
At that point I learned the value of allowing some extra time, taking her into her darkened room on our return and singing, chatting, or looking at books quietly before I settled her to sleep.
Among other things, I went out and bought my daughter a pacifier and discovered the value of settling her in her cot to avoid the scenario where she would wake up and wonder where on earth she was.
I had to adopt as much patience as I could muster to take in all the information I was learning and see what would work for my unique child. I was still in survival mode too.
I quickly discovered the efficiency of walking my daughter to sleep and many afternoons I would swaddle her, put in her dummy, cover the pram to darken it, and set off out of the house for a walk while she had a good, long nap.
This gave us all a sanity break. Exercise is a gift for your mental health, and one stress free nap a day in the fresh air is the perfect balance for new parents.
It wasn’t all peachy
Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t create the perfect little sleeper out of my firstborn and then produce two other children who followed suit (wouldn’t that have been a dream!) My children still hit many of the “normal” challenges, but we were able to overcome them.
My research when my daughter was around the 12 week mark led me to an understanding of the length (around 45 minutes) of sleep cycles – bingo! That explained why she was waking after just that long.
I still had to resettle her at this point, but I had the techniques to couple with this newfound understanding.
People would often say (by about the six month mark) that my children seemed “easy”, however it had taken a lot of really hard work to get to that point. And that point was still not perfection, I can tell you. It did get easier though.
You see, from even the early days, I made sleep a priority.
Not only for my husband and I and our wellness, but also for our new little beings. I understood that they needed quality and sufficient sleep in order to grow and thrive, so I put in the work to help them with that right from the start.
Sleep in the first 3 months is 50% genetic and 50% nurture, that means 50% of how our newborns sleep we can influence with things like settling strategies, routines, understanding awake windows, good nutrition, and sleep associations.
The other 50% is genetic, nothing you can change, which can be re-assuring when you feel you are doing everything "right" but still find the newborn months tough.
They are tough, but it gets easier, this I promise. Hang in there, your efforts now, will make a difference in the months to come.
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I’m a midwife and I thought I understood newborn sleep, but your program has been life changing! Thank you so much for all you do.
I’m working through the newborn program now, I love it! Thanks for such a comprehensive guide. I emailed the help desk and they even gave me a personal routine to follow that works with my toddlers daycare drop off and my older daughters school drop off. Amazing service, keep it up guys!