Most members who have discovered The Beyond Sleep Training Project are looking, often desperately, for creative solutions to better sleep. Sleep is so highly sought after by new parents that the search phrase “How can I help my baby sleep?” returns almost 1.5 billion (yes billion) results on Google’s search engine.

Thankfully, our biological rhythms adapt after having a baby (even co-regulating or synchronizing with our babies’ biological rhythms and sleep cycles [1-2]). But many parents are still consumed by the loss of uninterrupted sleep, and can even feel helpless or resentful toward their baby. If this is you, you’re not alone!

What if we COULD have more control over our sleep? What if we could feel just a little more rested, even when it seems our baby is waking 83 times a night? Many people aren’t aware of the little things they can do to improve their own sleep quality without needing to change their baby’s sleep or simply “wait it out.” If you suspect your baby’s night waking might not be normal, you can read more or you can take a brief screener[3].

What is sleep hygiene? 

Sleep hygiene means working with our bodies’ natural rhythms to help us sleep better, and concerns the habits and practices that people undertake before going to sleep.

It’s well worth taking stock of your own sleep hygiene if you feel you are struggling. 

In short, a number of our bodies’ biological processes, including our sleep-wake cycle, are regulated by a 24-hour repeating process known as the circadian rhythm[4]. While the circadian rhythm is heavily influenced by environmental cues (like the colour and intensity of light), our sleep-wake homeostat is the calculator of our internal “sleep debt”[5].

The circadian rhythm and the sleep-wake homeostat are separate but powerful biological systems that work together to produce the sleep-wake patterns we see[5]. When they are in sync, our bodies can find sleep with relative ease. If our habits are working against them, they become dysregulated, or out of sync, and sleep is harder to find and maintain.

Thankfully, making some small lifestyle changes can improve your own sleep quality[6], and in turn, enhance how you feel about parenting and life in general[7]. The list below provides a number of ideas.

Keep in mind that every family is unique! Parents and babies are individuals too.

Research has found a large genetic component to sleep[8-9] (just look into night owls and morning larks), and cultures around the world approach sleep in many different ways[10]. What works for one family or individual may not work for another. You know your family best!

Try making one or two small changes at a time, over at least a couple of weeks and see how everyone feels and sleeps. There’s no right or wrong answer here. You’ll get out of it what you put into it!

Tips to try:

Consistent wake times

Our circadian rhythm dictates the time of day that our bodies produce sleep-related hormones like cortisol and melatonin. Having a relatively consistent wake time (within 20-30 minutes either way) can help the body’s natural circadian rhythm feel ready to wake when it’s time to wake and induce sleepiness when it’s time to sleep[11].

Early morning sunshine 

Early morning light signals to your brain that it’s time to start the day. Try taking your coffee to go, and going for an early morning stroll with your baby. If that’s not possible, at least raise the shades and let that sunlight filter in first thing in the morning to set help your body clock[11-12].

Regular, vigorous exercise

Are you getting your body up and moving? It doesn’t have to be a daily Cross-Fit workout (unless that’s your thing), but even light exercise such as a vigorous walk can greatly improve your body’s readiness and ability to rest more easily[6]. What exercise habit could you work into the flow of your family life?

A nutritious diet

Healthy eating habits fuel a healthy body, mind, and healthy sleep[13]. Is your diet needing some closer attention to ensure that you are properly fuelled for the full-on life you lead with young children? Are you eating a nourishing, varied diet? Is your caffeine and sugar intake under control?

If you’re feeling particularly tired or foggy-brained, suffering from restless legs, or experiencing frequent night waking or insomnia, consider consulting a doctor. There are a number of vitamins and minerals related to sleep quality, including iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamins B and D, and Omega 3 fatty acids[13-17]. Thyroid function and gut health may also impact sleep[18-19].

Minimising caffeine & alcohol. Saying “no” to sleeping pills

Are alcohol, sleeping pills or other drugs stealing your sleep? Contrary to popular belief, NONE of these things is actually relaxing or sleep-enhancing. They act either as stimulants or depressants and result in poorer sleep quality[20-21]. They also make caring for a child unsafe.

Screen-free evenings

There is increasing evidence that screen time affects sleep quality and quantity[5, 22]. This is partly due to increased alertness, and partly due to the blockage of melatonin due to blue light. A reasonable goal might be to have all screens off at least 2 hours before bedtime.

Family “wind-down” time

Do your children seem to get MORE energy after dinnertime? Having a clear way that the house switches from busy daytime life to “rest and relaxation mode” can help the whole family prepare for sleep. Perhaps after dinner, you start turning all the lights in the house low and choose calmer activities.

A predictable bedtime routine

Routines aren’t just for children! A predictable bedtime routine helps signal to the body that rest and sleep are coming. Do you have a bedtime ritual? Maybe set a few things out for the next morning, a favourite pair of cosy PJs, a decaffeinated tea, some relaxing music, or reading a few pages of a novel?

A dose of connection

Adding connection - a bedtime story, a gentle massage, a playful recounting of the day - and making bedtime calm and nurturing can help meet the children’s needs for mum & dad time and meet your need to begin to wind down so you’re ready for sleep shortly after they are.

A sleep-friendly bedroom

Is your sleep environment sleep-friendly? Is it used only for rest and relaxation? Is your sleep surface comfortable and supportive? Is there enough room for everyone? Is it dark enough without unnecessary artificial light (including screens and clocks)? You may need to use an eye mask and pink noise machine to be able to nap during the day.

Is it a comfortable temperature? While recommendations for healthy room temperature vary, there is agreement that cooler temperatures promote sleep[23-24]. If a nightlight is needed, then a red nightlight is best, as it won’t affect the circadian rhythm. Eliminate blue light wherever possible.

Ditching the clock

A calm mind = peaceful rest. Is your mind a whir of daily stresses, worries and plans? Are you anxious about the night shift with your babe(s)? When we’re stressed, our bodies are in a heightened state of alertness. Racing thoughts can delay sleep. In a vicious cycle, the poor sleep then leads to further stress.

It’s important to explore the source of your midnight worries and work to reduce this load so you can work with the flow of your life, not against it. If you clock watch, count wake-ups or calculate how much sleep, it’s okay to stop doing this … these behaviours usually only lead to further mental, physical and emotional exhaustion[25].

Can’t sleep? Get out of bed

There is evidence that throughout history, some humans slept in a pattern called “bi-phasic sleep,”[26with either a midday nap or a wake-time in the middle of the night of about an hour. People used this time to pray and reflect, interpret dreams, write, visit neighbours, or have sex.

If you’ve just taken care of a night wake for your child and find yourself lying in bed awake, don’t panic or ruminate. Get out of bed and do a quiet activity like reading or listening to music, returning to bed only when you feel sleepy again. This also prevents you from associating bed with wakefulness.

Breastfeeding

Not all mums can or want to breastfeed, but if you do, you should know that nighttime breastfeeding has a number of benefits. These include more sleep overall for mothers compared with formula feeding[27] and better physical health, more energy, and lower rates of depression in exclusively breastfeeding mothers[28]. Nighttime breastmilk also contains sleep-inducing substances like melatonin and tryptophan that help your baby develop a circadian rhythm and sleep better overall[29], as well as prolactin which, when produced, makes the mother feel relaxed and sleepy[30].

Co-sleeping

Are you fighting against nature to stay awake while you tend to your baby’s nighttime needs in another room? Keeping baby close at night can reduce the amount of time you’re awake tending to them, and keeps you in a sleepier state so you can fall back asleep faster. Roomsharing also been associated with a large reduction in the risk of Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI). To achieve this, many parents use solutions like a large family floor bed, a sidecar cot, or a toddler mattress for tired preschoolers to climb into. When considering sleeping arrangements for your family, we always recommend investigating the risks and benefits of any arrangement and evaluating them against your unique family circumstances before making a decision. 

Positive psychology and mindfulness

Knowing the deep connection between stress, thoughts, and sleep, researchers and physicians have been using positive psychology and mindfulness to help improve sleep problems in their patients[31]. One study[32] found that that people with sleep deprivation were unable to recall the positive words they studied in the days before but had no problem recalling the negative words[32]. This means that parents of young children (for whom it’s normal to have disrupted sleep) are more likely to dwell on what’s going WRONG and forget about what’s going RIGHT. Does this sound familiar?

Depression and anxiety can also cause sleep disturbance[33]. The more we focus on our lost sleep and direct our resentful feelings towards our babies for this, the less sleep we’ll get and the worse we’ll feel. Our babies also feel our stress and negative emotions. Learning about positive psychology and mindfulness, or working through our negative thoughts and emotions with a therapist, can help us feel safe and relaxed enough for sleep along with our babies.

Often studies on sleep and maternal depression are used as justification that we need to MAKE our babies sleep by whatever means necessary. At Little Sparklers, we believe that our own physical and mental health is not at odds with that of our babies.’  If we know what normal sleep looks like, and how sleep is influenced by our patterns and habits, sleep hygiene can be ONE tool in our toolbox to survive and thrive during this intense stage of parenting.

Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some tips to help you cope

Your work right now responding to your baby is meaningful, and enriching their healthy mental and emotional development. There IS a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel, and it shines on you and your baby.

“To achieve lofty results, weeding is not enough. You also must plant flowers to grow a beautiful garden.”

 – Emerson Wickwire, PhD, director of the Insomnia Program and associate profession of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Contributed by: Jessica De Feyter, PhD, Applied Developmental Psychologist, Certified Infant Sleep Educator, Little Sparklers volunteer

Image credit: Baby Sleep Info Source safe co-sleeping image archive

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