Can you teach a baby to sleep?

The butcher glanced at my belly then across at my pram and asked politely, “You won’t have much of an age gap, will you?”

“Not quite 15 months between them.”

“We would have loved two children … but we can’t imagine it now,” he sighed.

“Our two-year-old daughter still wakes up twice a night for a feed. My wife and I both work full-time. We’re so exhausted we could never dream of having another baby.”

I hoped the subtle drop of my jaw and eyes widening didn’t come across as too rude. I couldn’t fathom suffering so much sleep deprivation and not seeking help; sleep was as important to me as breathing.

“I know, I know,” he said. “We need a sleep specialist, but my wife’s having none of it.

“I’ve tried to convince her, but she just won’t do it.”

Introducing Elaine Harvey, Paediatric Sleep Specialist

That was a conversation I had with my local butcher six years ago, and since then the concept of ‘baby sleep consultants’ has gradually become as familiar as the smell of Sudocrem. One of the industry pioneers, Elaine Harvey, has helped more than ten thousand families over the past 20 years.

She said teaching babies how to sleep was as essential as giving them love and food — but there was a big difference between ‘sleep training’ and ‘sleep teaching’.

“I hate the term ‘sleep training’; sleep training is the controlled crying / cry-it-out methods — these kinds of standardised methods that were created in the 80s and 90s or even earlier, and it’s an umbrella for these methods that we used to teach a baby to sleep … I don’t sleep train,” she said.

“‘Sleep teaching’ is understanding how you can create a positive association around routine and repetitive behaviour, that shows your baby something is coming next.”

Are you really letting me walk out? Is nobody going to supervise me from here on in?

Ms Harvey said that awareness of sleep teaching was improving, but more needed to be done to prepare parents for the possibility their child may have difficulty sleeping and that mother and child might both benefit from professional assistance.

“You prepare for nine months. And you do, like six antenatal classes to prepare for the birth. And then you’re walking out of the hospital with this tiny, little fragile baby and I think most parents look behind and go, ‘Are you really letting me walk out? Is nobody going to supervise me from here on in? And you go home with this new baby and go, ‘What the Hell do I do now?’

“You’ve spent so much time preparing for the delivery, that you do get thrown in the deep end with the parenting side of it.”

The Australian Sleep Health Foundation recommends newborns sleep for 14 – 17 hours per day, lessening to 12 – 15 hours per day once the baby is aged four to eleven months.

But Ms Harvey said the recommended sleep hours aren’t always easy to accomplish because up until babies are around six months old, they’re still establishing their circadian rhythm.

If her client’s baby is waking frequently or not getting enough sleep, Ms Harvey implements her ‘Body Clock Set & Reset’ program.

The importance of routine

While Ms Harvey’s program varies between clients depending on what suits their lifestyles, an example of a bedtime routine might be:

  • The baby is fed half his/her milk feed in the loungeroom

  • The baby is given a warm bath

  • The baby is dressed in sleeping clothes

  • The baby is fed the other half of his/her milk feed in the nursery

  • Once the baby is full, clean and ready for bed, he/she is swaddled or put in a sleeping bag, given a big cuddle and placed into the cot

  • Curtains are closed, lights are turned off, white noise is played in the background, and the same song is sung to the baby every night.

Ms Harvey said repetition was key.

“What parents will find is that the more they do that, the more their baby will start to recognise ‘OK it’s time to sleep.’”

Ms Harvey said her processes helped teach babies to self-regulate by not rocking or feeding them to sleep, but instead patting and comforting them in the cot if need be.

“Your baby needs your help to regulate themselves, but that doesn’t mean doing it for them,” she said.

Don’t suffer in silence

Ms Harvey said some parents delayed seeking help and had suffered as a result.

“I get parents all the time say, ‘I was told it would get better at four months, or six months or when they started crawling, but it’s still not getting better.’

“Then in 18 months’ time they’re saying ‘my workload has suffered, my home life has suffered, my mental health has suffered, my emotions have suffered, my relationships have suffered.’

“I would much prefer parents to have more confidence and knowledge early on, than suffer and just ride through.”

While many parents will never need a sleep consultant, for those who do, Ms Harvey said it was important to stamp out any stigma associated with seeking guidance.

“I’ve worked with over ten thousand families so I’ve seen everything — and it can be really, really hard to try and work out what’s right for your baby and work out what settling plan might be right for your baby,” she said.

“It shouldn’t be taboo to ask for help … I think one of the biggest things is that there’s so much information on the web, you just have to google ‘baby sleeping’ and you’ll be hit with millions of options within less than a second.

“It’s very difficult to figure out, through all of that information, how to tweak it to your baby and your family …  so by contacting just one specialist you’re able to focus and funnel all that information into one thing, that makes a big difference for your confidence, your parenting, and what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.”

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