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Ask Geneva: Everything I've Learnt About Babies and their Sleep

Motherhood May 28, 2019

The one thing that can make or break a new parent is sleep, or lack of it!

A baby that sleeps through the night really is the holy grail… And during those first few months when uninterrupted sleep is completely non-existent, you honestly feel like you’re going insane. Over on stories I often share little snippets of Frankie going to bed, or getting ready for her day time naps, and get so many questions from you guys about her sleeping habits. So I thought I would share our experience.

Before I get started I wanted to underline that babies and their sleep is a deeply personal issue and at the end of the day all you can do is follow your gut… There’s no wrong answer! I’m sharing a few things that worked for us, but what works for us might not work for others, and that’s totally fine.

Over the first few months of having Frankie I researched, talked to friends and asked pretty much everyone about what worked for them, from which I tried things and worked out which ones we wanted to use. It was haphazard but it was useful. For the first month there was no rhyme or reason to Frankie’s sleep, and she would usually wake 2 or three times during the night and I would feed her and settle her to sleep. Once we started encouraging her to self soothe at a few months, she got down to one feed a night (around 4am), and by around 3 months that had pushed out to 6am. At which point we didn’t mention it, we just tip toed around as if by acknowledging it we might jinx ourselves. And I admit, I’m a bit scared of even talking about it now, lest we throw out the cosmic balance and she decides never to sleep again. But here I go!

I’m going to sound like such a broken record when I say this, but Dr Michel Cohen’s book The New Basics has been the foundation of my (somewhat) smooth experience of new motherhood. Honestly. His relaxed approach, without all the drama,  rigidness and pressure of so many other experts has meant Frankie has generally been happy, and thus so have we. The whole book is actually available free here so you can read his sleep advice right now if you need it, but having the book on hand is useful to keep you away from google. See other books I like for parents here.

On ‘Sleeping through the night’

As I found out from the book, sleeping through the night is a bit of a misnomer, and the idea can cause confusion and added stress when your baby wakes up every few hours. A quote from the book:  ‘Sleep is not a continuous process. Try to remember how you slept last night. At the end of each of your nocturnal cycles, you woke up (at least five or six times per night), made yourself cozy, rolled onto your other side, and fell back asleep. The same thing happens for Lucy, except that for her, getting cozy means sucking. This starts right after birth. When Lucy is a newborn, every time she rises from slumber, you either feed her or rock her, which puts her to sleep again. After the first ten times, she begins to expect you to soothe her every time she wakes up at the end of her sleep cycle. When do people make the transition from being soothed to sleep by mom to being able to soothe themselves? That’s the ten-thousand-dollar question. But when it does happen, that’s when Lucy will “sleep through the night.”  It was so useful to be told that a baby waking up isn’t the end of the world, in fact it’s normal! It’s how they get back to sleep that’s key.

The most important thing for us? Frankie learning to self soothe.

I guess looking back, the most important thing that Frankie learnt early on (thanks to Dr Cohen’s advice) was how to self soothe. For the first month or two, I would feed her to sleep, and once she was asleep I would move her to the bassinet, completely terrified that a sudden noise or movement would wake her up. And it often did! Because who wouldn’t want to sleep on a warm breast rather than in a bassinet? After a while I was so incredibly exhausted, that sobbing-at-10am sort of exhaustion, and I knew something had to give. Dr Cohen talked about teaching a baby to self soothe, so we focused on that. This meant putting Frankie down awake (fed, changed happy etc), letting her wriggle, suck and sometimes grizzle and finally fall asleep on her own.

It didn’t take long for her to get used to this, and yes there were a few nights when she was more grizzly, but within a few days she had gotten used to falling asleep on her own. Dr Cohen says:  ‘In the first couple of months, I suggest that you not jump up at her slightest peep and that you ignore her minor whining so she can soothe herself back to sleep. That means letting her wiggle, fuss, or suck on her fist for a while. If she manages to fall back to sleep without your help even once, she’s learned the basis of self-soothing, and it will happen more naturally the second time’. This was a totally game changer for us, as after a while Frankie could put herself to sleep when she naturally woke up form a sleep cycle at night, and would also have no trouble falling asleep in the day. Of course if she really woke up and started sobbing I would feed her, but not simply as a way of getting her back to sleep (which is something that’s very easy to do when it’s the middle of the night and I just wanted her to go back to sleep!).

A few other things that helped…

Finding a Routine

Most of the time we’re pretty casual and relaxed. But what surprised me was how important routine was for Frankie. She thrived on regular naps and not having her sleep interrupted. One thing I will say is that whilst we have a general routine, we try to match her mood and what she wants. I read ‘Save Our Sleep’ by Tizzie Hall which has the most INTENSE routines, including lots of waking the baby if they sleep too long and delaying feeding so it falls at exactly the right time etc. For me, that just didn’t feel natural at all. So whilst I am all for routine and generally follow one, I don’t stress if her nap goes over or her feed is at the wrong time. Life is stressful enough without that!

Understanding Frankie’s cry

The hardest part about the first month is that you have zero idea about what your baby’s cry means. You jump up at every peep and are even really worried about any noise. But over time I noticed that you get to know your baby’s cry, and you can get better at understanding whether it’s a real cry or just your baby waking up from a sleep cycle. Over time (and I think this happens to most people) the crying becomes a second language and you work out when to worry and when not to.

The dream feed

I used the dream feed with Frankie until she was around 6 months, meaning you do bath time and bed, and then you do another feed around 10pm where you feed them without waking them up. This hopefully extends their sleep time and stops them waking up too early in the morning. I found this useful, although I found that when I dropped it she was ready and slept even better through the night without the dream feed.

Minimising burping and changing

I noticed that at around three months Frankie didn’t need to be changed as much in the night time, and as soon as we could we gave it up all together. By minimising burping and changing during the night I found we were much more likely to get a full night’s sleep.

Bath time routine

A wind down before bed is useful for everyone, particularly babies. Early on we adopted bath time, stories and a general relaxing routine which I think helped Frankie to know it was time to sleep for longer.

The right set up

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before in my Newborn Essentials post, we loved the Gro Bag, which we used with the sleepyhead for the first few months. Now Frankie’s in a Stokke Crib. In those first few months a really cosy set up with a swaddle or gro bag is perfect for them.

I hope this has been useful guys. At the end of the day, there’s no single answer and I think you just have work out what suits you and your family. Good luck!

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