Maximizing and promoting rest for baby – written by Ines T. Clark
We have all probably heard the phrase “sleep like a baby” – conjuring up images of peacefully sleeping babies, surrounded by fluffy clouds with harps playing in the background and the well-rested mother looking over her baby that has presumably been sleeping for 9+ hours straight.
Reality check – that is NOT at all what sleeping like a baby looks, feels or sounds like. For most families, the reality is quite different, with a baby that wakes every 1.5-3 hours to feed, might be fussy/crying and is quite “awake” for several hours when the rest of the world is quietly sleeping. The first couple of weeks with a newborn can be quite the blur, peppered with joy, anxiety, exhaustion, and little sleep and a lot of parents find themselves wondering where the sleep fairy has gone with her bag of sleepy dust.
To help alleviate some of the frustration that comes with a baby that might wake frequently, I always encourage my clients to familiarize themselves with infant sleeping habits and sleep cycles. This helps set realistic expectations and parents can at least know what is and isn’t normal, and how to best maximize rest and sleep. The Ask Dr. Sears website is a favorite tool of mine to forward to parents, which has some valuable insight and advice on infant sleep habits. For a deeper understanding of baby’s sleep cycles, Parenting Science has a thorough breakdown, as well as links to various other studies and sites that surround this vast subject.
As a postpartum doula that primarily works overnight shifts, I have spent time with my fair share of babies with various sleeping and waking habits. While every baby is different and nothing is guaranteed or predictable expect for a shortage of sleep, there are a few tricks that I have used to help babies get to sleep and sleep longer.
- Babies are born with the innate Moro reflex, which is also known as the “startle” reflex, in which the baby will respond by startling itself in response to a loud noise or if it feels like they might be falling. While it can be cute to watch, it often wakes babies up. To prevent this from happening until the reflex goes away on its own (between 6-12 weeks), try swaddling your baby so that the arms are in the swaddle blanket and they are snug as a bug in a blanket rug. Swaddling babies also provides a layer of warmth so that there’s no need for loose blankets around the area where baby is sleeping. For tips on how to swaddle your baby, you can follow this simple slideshow from the Mayo Clinic. They also make a myriad of swaddle blankets that include Velcro and zippers, for those parents who have Houdini babies that seem to find their way out of every simple blanket.
Dimming the Lights
- We adults like sleeping in dark or mostly dark environments at night, so I like to carry this over to the babies that I work with. Unless it’s daytime napping, I make sure babies are sleeping in a very dim or as dark as possible environment to help them begin the distinction between night and day. Feedings, diaper changes, and any other tips and tricks I might be using to help the baby fall asleep (rocking, soothing or gently swaying), I do so with as little light as possible so that the baby is not disturbed or stimulated by the light in any way.
- Sometimes the timing is just perfect, and baby’s hunger kicks in right around the time you want to put the baby down for the night (or at least until the next feeding) and get yourself some much-needed rest! Babies (especially early on in their infant weeks) have an innate desire to suck – it’s comforting to them and it’s something rhythmic to focus on in a world of chaos, distractions and all sorts of noises. Feeding the baby - via breast or bottle feeding - is a good way to satisfy this desire, and many babies will doze off in the process. As an added bonus, their bellies are filling with all the goodness needed to help them grow, and keep the hunger pangs at bay, for a little while anyway! Extra tip: if needed, burp baby slowly and give it a minute or two of patting but if nothing comes out and baby is not showing any signs of distress from gas, let them sleep! J
Using a Sound Machine
- There is a myriad of sound machines on the market today, that utilize white noise (sounds that mask other sounds that are around the baby’s environment). They may sound like a babbling brook, the rain, ocean waves or even a heartbeat. A lot of parents use these specific sounds to help encourage sleep in their babies and to help mask other noises that might be happening in the house (such as siblings, creaky wooden floors or a grandma that’s busy in the kitchen, cooking up a storm). There are lots of good pros and cons to using white noise machines, and it’s good to consider all of them and how they fit into your family and your current sleep situation. As a doula, I honor the wishes of the family and always consider safety first when using sound machines: never close to or above the baby (falling hazard), using a low volume setting and I only try to use a sound machine if I’m going to be busy doing something else that might disturb the baby.
- Adults are not the only ones that benefit from a massage and some soothing rubs. Research has shown that gentle touch can benefit babies as well, from aiding in tummy and teething aches, boosting muscle development, and helping to calm down a fussy baby. You can also incorporate safe (and edible!) essential oils, to help facilitate smooth touching and it can be something to consider after baby’s bath, to help set the stage for a calm evening conducive to sleepiness. Infant massage also helps promote bonding and it’s a wonderful activity that the other partner can partake in. There are many wonderful videos online that show the proper technique for the massage, and chances are your doula has some training in this technique as well – just ask!
In addition to all of these tips, keeping baby as active as you can or that he/she will allow during the day, can also potentially help baby sleep sounder and longer at night. It doesn’t mean you have to plan a grandiose day, full of activities – it can be as simple as being mindful of when baby seems alert and bright-eyed and taking advantage of the time by talking to them, playing peek-a-boo, going outside for a walk and letting them take in the sights, sounds and smells of the outside world. As babies get older and out of the infant stage, I encourage parents to develop a bit of a routine in the evenings, to help set the stage and offer their baby some consistency when it comes to getting ready for nighttime sleep. A sequence that includes a warm bath, soothing massage, fresh clothes, a meal, some soothing lullabies, a story or a sound machine can help wind baby down (and hopefully mom too if baby is cooperating!) and will be useful as the baby gets older and starts associating the routine with going to sleep.
If baby is just not cooperating and no tricks are working to help the baby sleep for long(er) stretches of sleep and you’re feeling exhausted and depleted, focus on sleeping whenever the baby is sleeping and consider hiring a doula to take over at least one or two nights a week so that you can catch up on some much-needed rest!