The first six months of a baby's life can be incredibly overwhelming, especially in the sleep department. Some have babies with reflux or colic, while others have amazing little sleepers but don't know it because another mom told them that their baby slept through the night at 2 months old.
Here are some of my top tips for mamas in those early stages.
1. Realize that you know your baby best.
While it may be tempting to listen to what others suggest about how to put the baby to sleep or how long they should be sleeping, try to trust your own instincts. The more you stress about 'not doing the right thing' because you are reading articles about baby sleep or listening to other moms on a Facebook group, the more you are taking the joy out of the time that you do have with your baby.
Co-sleeping expert, James McKenna says:
"Do what works for your family and trust yourself to know your baby better than any external authority. You are spending the most time with your baby, and every baby is different. Infants, children, and their parents intersect in all kinds of diverse ways. Indeed, there is no template for any relationship we develop. When it comes to sleeping arrangements, many families develop and exhibit very fluid notions of where their baby 'should' sleep. Parents with less rigid ideas about how and where their babies should sleep are generally much happier and far less likely to be disappointed when their children cannot perform the way they are 'supposed to' — i.e. sleep through the night."
2. Don’t worry about “do’s” and “don’ts”.
It is really important to not get caught up in too many 'sleep do's and don'ts' for the first few months. For the first three months especially, you really only need to be feeding, changing and putting them back down to sleep. For those with fussy or reflux babies, you know that sleep is a challenge so do whatever you have to do!
3. Remember there are no negative ways to go to sleep—breastfeeding to sleep, using a pacifier, co-sleeping, etc.
As a sleep coach, I tell clients to let their babies go to sleep how they want to, whether that's being rocked or pushed around in a stroller.
The term 'negative sleep association' frustrates me because even adults have associations with going to sleep—using white noise, reading a book, or having a specific set of sheets that we prefer, for example. There is nothing negative about needing something to help us relax into sleep.
When rocking them to sleep is no longer something you want to do because it is taking an hour, then change it (if it is taking that long then it likely is not working for them either). Although it might be met with some resistance, if you are gentle about the transition and give your little one time to adjust, the resistance will be minimal.
If your child loves sleeping on you during the day and it is no longer working for you because you have things that you would like to do, try letting them fall asleep on you and work on the transfer. Wait until they are in a deep sleep and try putting them in the bassinet feet first and slowly lay them down. This will remove the feeling of falling that can sometimes wake them up.
4. Know it’s okay if they wake up frequently through the night.
Newborns have two sleep states, active sleep (which is similar to adults' REM sleep) and quiet sleep (similar to our non-REM sleep). Studies have found that active sleep plays a necessary role in preventing SIDS. Fortunately, babies spend more time in active sleep from 2 to 6 am so during this time, they are much more likely to wake if they are hungry, cold, wet or startled by not breathing.
Their sleep cycles are actually shorter than ours (lasting only 50-60 minutes) and therefore they can experience a partial arousal every hour or so. There is a biological reason for the waking, it is for survival – in order for children to grow, they need to eat and therefore need to wake to eat.
If a child is too cold or too hot, they need to wake to let mom know. If a child isn't breathing, they need to wake. Anything that forces a child to sleep too deep too soon is dangerous. Active sleep also has other benefits, it is thought to be smart sleep because the brain isn't resting, it increases the blood flow to the brain and is thought to be responsible for more rapid brain growth.
5. Keep your baby close when you can.
This is true both at night and during the day. There really is such a push to have your baby in their own sleep space. It is important to note that a Harvard study found that room sharing for the first six months can play a role in lessening the risk of SIDS. There is absolutely no need to rush baby into their own crib in their own room.
If they are still waking several times at night and you are exhausted, try co-sleeping (I always have to say that I am not allowed to promote bedsharing so by co-sleeping, I mean room sharing). You will get the extra sleep you need and your baby will get the closeness they love.
Keeping baby close during the day is also important. If they want to nap on you… go for it. You cannot spoil a baby by snuggling them so look at the amount of time you are holding them. Oftentimes it is easy to get caught up in the daily tasks and the total amount of time you spent holding them is very little. But, remember, mama needs a break, too—call on your village so they can take the baby while you take some time for yourself.
In order for a child to become independent, they must first be securely attached. Babies need physical proximity, sensing the person they are attached to through smell, sight and sound. They also need a parent to respond sensitively and consistently when they signal.
6. Avoid overstimulation.
It is so easy to forget that babies are little and everything is new to them. Going on a walk is stimulating all of baby's senses—new noises, smells, things to see. We oftentimes forget all of this and slip into the role of 'director of amusement' needing to stimulate babies with toys all day.
Our daily activities impact sleep so try to wind the entire family down before bed. A trip to the grocery store right before a nap might make for one very overstimulated baby so give them a longer wind down if you want them to nap.
7. Take stock of their sleep environment.
New babies are sensitive to different factors. If it is too hot, they will not want to sleep. If it smells like cleaning products or any other strong scent, their sleep might be interrupted. If you are turning on a night light to change a diaper, baby may not want to go back to sleep.
If your child is highly sensitive and their pj's are itchy or have tags or the detergent you are using is bothering their skin, then this could impact their sleep, too. If your house is noisy around bedtime, consider a white noise machine. Or take a look at the temperature and air to get of sense of what may affect baby.
8. Try a motion nap.
Use a carrier or go on a car ride (the car seat is not a safe place for a child to sleep for a long time so remember to transfer them when you get out of the car), or get in the stroller. Many babies love motion naps so if you're having trouble with sleep, try it out.
Consider your lifestyle. Do you like to get out of the house? Do you enjoy hikes and walks as a family? If so, get baby used to sleeping in the stroller or in the carrier. Don't worry that they will never sleep in their crib.
Most babies that I work with before the age of 6 months need at least one motion nap a day and it's rare to see a baby at this age taking all of their naps in the crib. Switch up your naps, too—maybe you snuggle a nap, use the carrier for another, and get out in the stroller for another nap.
9. Celebrate the small successes.
Try not to focus so much on the bigger picture when it comes time to your newborn. Maybe you got them to sleep in the swing for 20 minutes so you could take a shower (congrats!). Perhaps they took a pacifier and looked comfortable for a few minutes (amazing!). Take time to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins when you're in the midst of sleep struggles.
10. Take care of yourself.
Please do things for you and ask for help. It is so important to take a walk or go get a coffee or spend a girls night out. Ask your parents, your partner or a close friend to help, even if it is only for an hour so you can shower and blow-dry your hair. Your baby may cry because you aren't there but if your child is in the arms of someone who loves them, and you need an hour to yourself, they are absolutely fine to cry and be supported. It is imperative that you are in a good headspace when you are with a newborn baby.
Remember that you are doing a wonderful job, mama. You are the absolute best person to be caring for your baby. The first six months are SO hard but hang in there. Don't be afraid to ask for help and make sure that you take time for you at the end of the day.