It’s the first thing people say when you tell them you are pregnant. "Oh, how lovely! Enjoy your sleep now while you can." This foreboding quip, however, deftly delivered with a smile and a gush of congratulations, is in no way helpful in terms of preparing you for the brain-dehydrating experience of newborn-induced sleep deprivation.
Of course, parents have been surviving through this broken-sleep torture for thousands of years and doing just fine. And yet, when you are pacing the corridor for the one-hundreth time at 2am with your discontented little bundle of joy, and your soft, warm, cosy bed is calling to you from down the hall and your eyes are willing to shut, most parents would gladly give their money/right arm/husband, in order to be able to just crawl back under the covers and get a straight eight hours of sleep.
In that moment, you would gladly try anything at all. Will a newborn accept cash? Has anyone actually tried? "Listen up, baby. You don’t know what chocolate is yet, but you can definitely have some in the future if you will just go to sleep right now."
Enter the Gentle Mama. As a certified Infant Sleep Educator and mum of two daughters, aged five years and 13 months, Hayley Bukhamsin is well versed in the issues babies and their parents face on a daily – or rather nightly! – basis. Here she gives us her top tips for establishing good sleep habits and routines.
1) Follow a rhythm, not a schedule
Babies grow and change at an incredible pace. Consequently, their sleep is also changing and developing surprisingly quickly. Add to this the fact that every baby’s sleep personality is unique and it’s easy to see why trying to follow a schedule can be frustrating, limiting and incredibly confusing for both mama and baby. Schedules also do not take into account other factors, such as challenges with breastfeeding, or baby’s immune system being on overdrive to fight off a bug.
So, instead of trying to stick to preset timings, or strict schedules, mamas can have more success and feel more relaxed if they follow a daily rhythm. You may notice, for example, that your baby usually naps one or two hours after waking. This allows you to keep an eye out for their sleep cues during that window and respond when they need you to. There will be no battle for sleep if you’re helping them fall asleep when they’re actually in the right window for it! This will allow them to develop healthily (extra sleep when their bodies need it, less sleep when they don’t!). It also helps to minimise fussiness, as they know their needs will be met when THEY need them to be, not when some ‘expert’ (who doesn’t know your baby anywhere near as well as you) says they should.
2) Listen to your instincts
This is such an important point. Your intuition as a mother is so important to your little one’s sleep. No book or expert can replace your intuition. In fact, I believe they can actually hinder your ability to hear your intuitive thoughts and inner guidance. A lot of new mamas worry that they don’t have strong intuition, or they simply don’t trust themselves. But it is absolutely there. In reality, the challenge is to tap into it. We mamas are surrounded nowadays by so much information that it can easily overwhelm us and drown out our instinctive thoughts. It becomes so confusing that we forget how to listen to our own gut. My favourite phrase when it comes to maternal intuition is, ‘If it doesn’t feel right, it almost certainly isn’t right.’ When you need to make a decision about your little one’s sleep (or any other factor of parenting), try sitting quietly with the decision for a few minutes and see what thoughts come up. Your instincts are there, you just need to give them the space to speak up. And remember, if your instincts tell you differently from your friends or family, that is absolutely fine. You and your partner are the only ones who should make decisions for your children.
3) Share, don’t compare
When you become a parent, it’s the perfect time to reassess (or build) your tribe. It’s important to surround yourself with mamas who you can identify with, laugh with, feel comfortable being honest with. Mummy meet-ups and playdates are invaluable for meeting your tribe and can actually be a form of therapy. However, if we fall into the trap of comparing our baby’s sleep (or anything else about our baby) with others’ babies, these events can quickly become stressful and unsettling. Your family is unique. Your baby is unique. Their development is unique. While one baby may wake three times a night, another may wake six times – or more! Neither is necessarily sleeping better than the other… they just are sleeping differently. You may feel an inner grip of insecurity when you hear another mother boasting of being able to put their baby down ‘drowsy but awake’, while you know perfectly well that it takes you 20 minutes or more of settling in your arms for your baby to fall asleep. Both are perfectly normal and healthy, if that’s what your baby wants and needs. There is no need to ‘train’ your baby to fall asleep without you, just because your friend’s baby does. Their baby’s needs are different to your baby’s needs. Neither is right, neither is wrong. And comparing will only result in stress and pressure on both you and your baby.
4) Do what’s right for you and your baby
Everywhere mamas turn nowadays, there’s someone suggesting what they’re doing isn’t right. Feeding to sleep, rocking to sleep, holding your baby, responding when your baby cries – these things are all instinctive and natural, and have been for thousands of years… And for good reason!
Did you know that when you stand up holding your baby (rather than sitting down), their heartbeat is slower? Instinctively, we do what feels right for our babies – and they signal their needs and preferences to us through crying and cooing, showing us what works and what doesn’t, for their healthy development. When babies are developmentally ready, they won’t need you to cuddle them to sleep anymore, or to feed them to sleep, or to rock them. In the meantime, don’t feel guilty for holding your baby, or feeding them to sleep, or doing whatever else feels natural and right for you and your baby. They only need it for such a short time and, once they don’t, you may find you miss it!
5) Be honest with other mums
Sometimes, in order to ‘keep up’ with other mamas, we can hide how we’re really doing. We might claim our baby is sleeping well when they’re not. Or we might claim that we’ve got our sex life back to normal eight weeks after giving birth when really we haven’t even had a moment alone with our partner. Or we might pretend we’re happy and thriving, when actually we’re quietly crying the moment we get back in the car. By keeping up a pretence of a perfect new-mama life, we end up missing out on support, camaraderie and a wonderful opportunity to vent and empathise. And your pretence might cause other mamas to go home in a panic after hearing how much everyone else is (pretending to be) thriving when they themselves feel like they’re struggling. It results in a cycle of pretence, inadequacy and isolation. Instead, try opening up to other parents. Be honest about your successes and struggles, and try lifting others up through shared experience rather than competing.