I have been working with infants for 25 years. I love babies! With four of my own, let me tell you–none of them have been the same. Not a single baby has been exactly the same! However, I have gained some insights into sleep that I am more than happy to pass along to my fellow moms who may find themselves desperate to help their child sleep.
First of all, you can not make your child sleep.
Let’s just clarify those expectations. We will all begin to feel a lot better about ourselves and our babies if we let it go. Sleep is a natural physical development. Each person has her own rhythm and clock. There are milestones through the days, months, and years, as with all of the other physical development that occurs as we age. The first two years have the most learning phases, and then after that we have mostly learned how to sleep for our best.
In addition, sleep is a cycle of waking and sleeping, with REM and non-REM in the sleep portions, and those vary in length for each person. It is normal for babies to wake during their sleep cycle, but this does not always mean they are ready to “be awake.” I have been fooled by a few babies in my day after 20-40 minutes, thinking they were awake. I would get them up and we’d go on with our play or food, and they were miserable. In my well-intended care, I had disrupted their sleep cycle.
You’ll need to really learn your own child to discover their tendencies. My advice: let them figure it out and you will all get more and better sleep once they have mastered this learning.
If we cannot make them sleep, what can we do? We control the environment. That includes the routines, the physical space, and our own energy.
3 Things Adults Can Control About Infant Sleep
I know that our culture likes us to be busy and to stay active. However, babies actually do not need as much stimulation as marketers would have you believe. Every single thing in the world is stimulating to their fresh, new eyes and brains. That means you do not need to be on-the-go and do every activity available to you. Slowing down and being present to observe their cues is much more effective (and brings more happiness) than fighting with an overtired toddler. Keeping your days as predictable and consistent as possible actually makes sleep much easier.
The Physical Space
The more consistent you can be in your space, the better your baby will begin to learn the cues for sleep. Be prepared to have the *exact same things* ready and waiting for every single time your child needs to go to sleep. Favorite book or story, same order for the way things are done, favorite song. I am pretty sure I sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” 2920 times, if not more.
If you want to spend your entire evening devoted to relaxing and slowing things down, go for it. If you know you need to say goodnight and do other things, be with other people, make your routine short and sweet. Whatever it is you begin, just be ready to keep doing it. Every single day. Any change will impact how well your little love is able to relax. Why? Because human brains crave habit and not having to think. Change creates the need for thinking, and that is not relaxing and comforting. (Maybe I’ll write another post on how to make those changes.)
Our Own Energy
The more I spend time with infants, the more I become aware of how much my energy impacts theirs. The more rested and calm I am, the better able they are to relax and rest their bodies. When I approach the upcoming time for sleep as a regular part of our routine–nothing really important, just the way things are–the more willingly they accept it into their lives. Being matter-of-fact allows them to trust me, to trust the routine, and to learn to trust their bodies. When they sense any higher energy, they can begin to react and keep themselves awake. We want to avoid this at all costs. There is nothing quite like trying to help a baby relax when we ourselves are not relaxed.
Two additional tips for sleep:
1. Sleep is a bad word.
It is almost like they hear it and it wakes them right up. When I switched to saying, “Let’s go relax. Listen to your body. Is it telling you it needs a rest? Let’s let it rest,” it has been so much better for us all! And, the above applies to all of my children, not only babies. It is just in their infancy when they learned. Observing and respecting our infants allows them to grow into their own self-advocacy. One of my favorite things is when I find my children asleep in their beds, earlier than I expected, because they listened to their bodies and took care of themselves.
2. Make sure you are getting rest.
This brings me to my brief advice for you, Mama: We have to take care of ourselves in order to best care for others. As I said above, the first two years are the hardest, and that is often when we add another baby to the family. I get it. It feels impossible some days. How do we keep up with it all? Grace and letting go. Call on friends, family, partners for support and help. Listen to your own body, and do what it tells you. The better able you are to do that, the better able your children will learn to listen to theirs.