Sleep training is a hot topic. You might feel that in order to get a good night’s sleep, you need to train your baby to sleep better.
But what if you could train yourself to become a better sleeper instead, thus avoiding the stressful process of trying to force your baby to adopt adult sleeping patterns, which are highly unnatural for them at a biological level.
I’m talking about improving your sleep efficiency - something that will help you to wake up in the morning feeling more rested, regardless of how often your baby wakes.
So, where do you start?
The most logical first step is to set up your sleep environment to make attending to baby through the night as easy as possible. For some people, this is achieved through bed-sharing. For others, it’s having baby on a separate sleep-surface in the same room.
Remember: this set-up might not represent where you would ideally like your child to sleep in the future and that’s OK. For now, if it makes life easier for everyone, then you may need to adjust your expectations.
Beyond the practical aspect of where everyone sleeps, here are 6 tips to get you started towards a better night’s sleep:
1) Check your mental health. Even if you have managed to dodge a diagnosis of post-natal depression or anxiety, generalised anxiety can still effect how you sleep. More specifically, it can effect how easily you fall asleep and resettle yourself after waking. If you have a history of anxiety and feel that intrusive thoughts, or the stress of the day is creeping up on you at night, then it would be worth seeking professional help.
2) Bedtime routine for mum. It’s funny how parents can be so fixated on how important their baby’s bedtime routine is, yet they completely dismiss the idea of having one for themselves. So give it a try and incorporate the following:
No screens or work for a least an hour before bed. Ideally, 2 hours.
Do something enjoyable that helps to quiet your mind - read a book, or have a bath and reflect.
Enjoy a warm drink, devoid of sugar or caffeine.
Go to bed at a reasonable hour - preferably before 10 / 11pm. (Now, yes, I hear you. The evenings are the ONLY time you get to yourself, so I know it’s tempting to stay up until 2am watching Netflix, or working. But you’re not doing yourself any favours by delaying bedtime. It might help to divide your evening up. Schedule a set amount of time for work, and a set amount of time for pleasure. And don’t feel guilty about assigning a few nights a week to just relaxing).
3) If you’re prone to worrying overnight about things that are happening in your life, then before bed, sit down and write them out. You don’t need to go into detail - just a list will do. Ponder each one briefly and then cross them out and tell yourself: “this can be dealt with in the morning”.
4) Remove clocks from your bedroom. This includes putting your phone out of reach if you just can’t help yourself. This is really important because more often than not, checking your clock when your baby starts to stir, will activate your brain. If you’re counting wake-ups and timing feeds during the night, you’re just adding to your anxiety, which in turn will initiate the fight or flight response. Once this is activated, you’re going to find it far more difficult to go back to sleep. Remember this: you don’t earn points depending on how many hours it has been between your baby’s wake-ups. No one is keeping score, except for you.
5) Calm your mind when you wake up. Do whatever you have to do to resettle baby, and while you’re at it, eliminate negative self-talk. This can take practice. If you’re feeding baby for the 5th time since you came to bed, it’s very easy to let the nasty chatter start:
“why is he feeding again? This baby will NEVER sleep through! I can’t stand it any longer!”
If these thoughts enter your head, simply acknowledge them and then let them pass. They’re not helpful, in fact, many of them can be harmful. Label them as such.
If you were dreaming before waking, try to stay in your dream. Let your mind drift there.
If you weren’t dreaming, or can’t remember, try block breathing - in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts. This helps to relax your body and enter a mediative state, ideal for drifting back into slumber.
If your mind is already alert, try to send it to a place free from anxiety and stress. I find a memory slide-show to be useful - think back to an overseas holiday you took before you had children. Run the random details through your mind - the breakfast buffet, the smell of the hotel lobby, what you wore out to dinner…
6) Practice acceptance. It sounds so simple, but it is such a powerful tool. We tend to have this bizarre idea that because we made the baby, we should be able to control him. But we can’t. At all. Our baby is a human being, unique and individual. And, although he is fairly basic and helpless, he still has his own drives that are his alone. When your baby wakes at night, rather than feeling angry or frustrated, just accept it and move forward. He’s already awake, it has already happened. So face it, deal with it and go beyond it. When we fight things that are out of our control, it is a losing battle.
Again, this takes practice. And patience. And grace. If you have spent months, or even weeks, fighting against your baby’s sleep, then it is hard to suddenly just shrug it off and feel accepting. But as they say, practice makes perfect. Just try it for a day. Pander to your baby’s needs. If you need a break, take one, it’s okay. If you feel yourself getting mad, or frustrated, then allow those emotions to rush through you and then pass. It’s not helpful to pretend you’re okay with a situation, when you aren’t, but feeling those feelings is the first step towards overcoming them.
Finally, keep in mind that this will come easier to some people than it will to others. And that there will be times where, despite having fabulous sleep efficiency, your baby will go through an unsettled period and you will wake up in the morning feeling less than refreshed.
But when it comes down to it, it’s worth considering that the secret to better sleep can lie with you, rather than your baby. As parents we always say we will do anything for our little ones, so taking a few steps to try and improve our own habits, so that we don’t have to interfere with theirs, seems like a small investment.
So give it a try - make a conscious effort to implement all, or even just some, of the above steps. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much more rested you will feel.
Georgina Dowden is a mother, midwife and lactation consultant (IBCLC).
In her day to day life, she looks after her two beautiful children and also supports other families on their parenting journey.
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