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Tuesday Tips: Raising Happy Sleepers

three sleeping babes

As I’ve written before, it always surprises me how much pressure our society puts on baby sleep. It seems that from the moment babies are born, the questions inevitably roll in from friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers in the supermarket: ‘how is he sleeping?’, ‘how long is he sleeping between feeds?’ and even ‘is he sleeping through the night?’. I remember fielding these many questions after the birth of all of my babies and consequently feeling guilty that I couldn’t astound them with stories of my amazing sleeping baby. My babies never slept through the night until they were around one year old — they usually slept in bed with me and nursed on demand, which is something that always felt natural to me and worked for our family. Apart from the pressure from others, I never really minded that my babies weren’t ‘perfect sleepers’.

Sometimes I wonder if all of this pressure for babies to sleep through the night has a knock-on effect on whether they eventually do. I wonder if these societal expectations encourage parents to turn to techniques that might not necessarily feel natural and that in turn interfere with our children’s natural sleep development. In her new book, The Happy Sleeper , Heather Turgeon aims to teach parents that babies have an innate capacity to self-soothe, as well as the brain machinery to sleep well, and that by being more mindful and open we can encourage children to do exactly that.

We’ve asked Heather Turgeon to share some tips for raising happy sleepers. I love that these tips are more about creating a positive association with sleep and less about following strict methods that might not feel instinctive. Here are her tips below:

1. Build a good relationship to sleep. Schedules, feedings, nap issues…it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of sleep, but think about your children’s relationship to sleep (they have a one, just like they have a relationship to food). We influence our kids’ feelings about sleep in our subtle choices of language and tone. If we approach sleep as a “must do” or even a negative consequence, by saying things like, “You have to go to bed!” or “You’re cranky, do you need a nap!” with an anxious tone, or give kids a time out in their beds, it grows into a negative association. Instead, talk about sleep as the fascinating subject and welcome treat that it is. Sleep is something we get to do, not something we have to do. The more we convey that to our kids in small moments, the healthier their relationship to sleep for the rest of their lives.

2. Know that sleep is not learned, but habits are. Sleep is a natural, biological human activity—it doesn’t require “training,” because it’s programmed deep in our children’s brains. But even though sleep itself isn’t learned, the habits and associations around sleep are. Those habits include where your child sleeps, her specific routine, her blankets and loveys, and the sounds, sights, and feels of her room as she falls asleep. Our little ones are creatures of habit and their brains are primed to follow and latch on to patterns. That means (for good or ill), that what you do one night, your child usually expects you to do the next! The best sleep patterns stay the same from bedtime through the rest of the night—bedtime sets the stage for everything.

3. Do a “last call for stuff”. If you have little kids, you know the amazing and random statements they make after bedtime: “My bunny jumped out of the bed,” “I need the water filled exactly to here”… Last week my son called me in and said, “My toenails are pointing inward!” One really helpful idea is to make a “last call for stuff”—in which everyone knows it’s time to gather the right animals, fill glasses, blow noses and ask questions. Once the lights go out, remind your kids that they’ve already had their last call, and now they’re in charge of their own “stuff.”

4. Work with your child’s biology. There are certain facts about our kids’ biology—use these to your advantage. For example, little babies are ready to sleep after about 90 minutes of awake time because they have a very strong “sleep drive” (the amount of time before the pressure of sleep builds to warrant a nap or bedtime). The internal clock is very powerful after the age of 6 months, and it likes consistency. Having a regular bedtime and routine harnesses this power.

5. Run sleep patterns by two criteria. When my partner and I do sleep consultations, we get asked whether certain sleep patterns are okay (like baby coming into bed for the last half of the night, child only napping in the stroller, or baby only sleeping in the parent’s arms). There’s no “right” way to sleep (look at how differently people sleep all over the world!), but a good sleep pattern meets two criteria: 1. People are sleeping enough (except in the case of having a young baby), and 2. The pattern works for everyone involved. If your child starts the night in her own room and joins you at 2:00 a.m., everyone still meets their sleep needs and feels happy with it—no need to change a thing. If one or more of you isn’t sleep well this way, time to change. The good news is that sleep patterns are adaptable regardless of age (remember, they are learned!).

 

I don’t know about you, but her first tip particularly resonated with me. I definitely need to be more mindful about the way I talk about sleep. I’m sure I’ve said things like ‘if you do that one more time, you can go straight to bed’ (making bed be a punishment). Ooops! It makes so much sense why this is exactly what you shouldn’t do!

The Happy Sleeper is available from Amazon (both in the UK and US ).

Courtney x

p.s. The image above is one of my very favourite photos found on Pinterest. Isn’t it the sweetest?


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Comments (13)

Lulu
February 17, 2015

Great post. Thanks! I am certainly going to instigate the “last call” (tip 3) in our home. It made me laugh. We have a 2, 4 and 6 year old in our family and I’m sure that they ALL wait until their particular bedtime to begin the ‘amazing and random statements’ and requests. It does wear my patience (especially if I’m waiting for ‘Daddy’ to come home so we can eat our dinner together)and this would be a good way of ensuring the kids know that they need to be settled for the night.I also like the idea of giving the kids the responsibility for their own things after lights out. A good reminder to speak about bed and sleep in a more positive tone. Sweet dreams!


Diana
February 17, 2015

Dear Courtney,
thank you for that post!
My kids ( 4,2 and 8 months) are horrible sleepers ( don’t sleep through the night untill at least 2 years) – very exhausting…. And it allways occured to me that it’s not very helpfull to use the bed as punishment. But my saying might be somehow different ( like: if you’re cranky you’d rather go to bed!) – oops !
It’s really strange that as a person who really LOVES (plenty of) sleep i’m somehow not able to evoke that feeling in my kids. Better mind my words in the future….
xxx Diana


February 17, 2015

Lovely post. ‘Build a good relationship to sleep’ Love this! I always want sleep and meal time to be happy and with positive associations, although it can be hard to achieve. It also echoes the advice my friend, who used a professional sleep trainer for her kids, passed on to me – to be calm, confident, happy and positive when instigating changes to sleep routines. That certainly worked for us teaching my daughter she could go to sleep by herself, not being cuddled by me. No threats, no bribes, just ‘this is how we do it, of course you can do it’ and it worked. A little bit of complaining but it very quickly became the ‘new’ habit she clung to, that mum leaves the room after a final kiss and cuddle (in turn after two stories, two songs, sip of water, chat about day (best and worst bits), Sylvanian camper van perched on cupboard within eye sight, teddy bear propped by door so door can’t close – all of which MUST be adhered to!)


February 17, 2015

I completely agree with the idea of “harnessing” the power of basic human biology and the importance of consistency. Along with encouraging a natural love of sleep, those principles have proven fundamental to our raising good sleepers.

Great piece, Courtney and Heather.


February 17, 2015

This was a welcome read after a rough night of not-so-much sleep from our 10 month old! So many great tips in this piece, and a refreshing new angle to come at sleep from (Last Call will be perfect for our 3 year old). I have fallen victim to the idea of ‘sleep training’, so I wake up feeling like I’ve failed if the baby has been up every 2 hours, or he joins us in bed at 3:00am because I’m desperate for some shut-eye … I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing as I read Tip 5 🙂

Thanks for another great post!


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Christine
February 17, 2015

Hi Courtney,

I love this series of posts, but I was a little surprised to see you endorse this book. Especially given that you co-slept and breast fed on demand until one year of age. This book advise no night time feeds from 5 months and advocates controlled crying under the guise of the sleep wave. This is advice which goes against the most up to date research regarding controlled crying methods and their effects on mental well being in the long term. Restricting night feeds could lead to an earlier weaning time than would have happened naturally and as I am sure you are aware the WHO advises feeding until 2 years and beyond.

I am a mum of 3 children, we were very lucky that our first just fell into an easy sleep routine early on and slept well from then on. Our second and third children took a little longer, even though we had consistent bed time rituals and associations. What really helped me was the realisation that this was NORMAL. Young babies are not biologically able to sleep all night and a lot of toddlers also. There is far too much pressure on parents to have babies sleeping. Babies that do sleep through are the exception rather then the norm.


February 18, 2015

Thanks for your feedback and for these lovely comments. Just to clarify, The Happy Sleeper definitely doesn’t advise not feeding at night – the book gives moms choices of how to approach night feedings based on their needs and their baby’s – it gives moms the option of weaning very gradually after the age of 5 months, while also clearly saying that night feeding is natural and you absolutely do not have to wean your baby to improve sleep. Parents vary widely in how they choose to approach night feedings, so the book gives support to each family’s choice. Thanks for reading! – Heather


February 17, 2015

Great post… really. I love number five… I absolutely agree that if everyone is getting enough sleep then your system is working. And don’t fix what isn’t broken, just so that it looks the same as all the baby books.


February 18, 2015

Nice post on sleep! I sleep trained my first….and it worked like a charm. But it was the completely wrong method for number 2…and it wasn’t until I put the two kids together in the same bed that number 2 slept well. I’ve co-slept with number 3 and 4…and love it. I may not sleep quite as well with little people in the bed with me, but I love having them near me more. I drink a lot of coffee and take monster naps on the weekends to fill in the gaps


February 18, 2015

Would you consider a Tuesday tips on how you all managed the tricky transition from 1 to 2 (or 3 or 4) kids? Because it’s really hard!! Any tips of what helped keep you sane? And helped keep you and your kids calm and happy?


Lauren
February 20, 2015

I totally agree about societal pressures! I had my first baby in May, and I feel like every friend, relative and stranger wanted to know how she slept. Honestly, she was a terrible sleeper until about a month ago. For 6 months, she woke up every 3 hours ALL night long. Everyone told me to let her “cry it out.” However, I never felt comfortable with that. Like you said, it didn’t feel natural to me. Finally, a stranger at a farmer’s market said something to me that felt like freedom. She commented on my baby and immediately asked how she slept. I was honest and admitted she was still waking every 3 hours to nurse. The lady in her 60s got a very dreamy look on her face, nodded her head like that made perfect sense and responded, “it’s a moment in time.” I will never forget it! To her, she remembered it as a sweet moment in her own life. It’s fleeting. It will come to an end. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to whisper sweet nothings and prayers in your little baby’s ears. You can smell the inside of their hands and kiss those cheeks while the rest of the world sleeps. I hope when I’m in my 60s, I get the opportunity to show a young new mom how fondly I look upon those memories. I don’t want to romanticize it. Going back to my job as a lawyer with little sleep was tough some days. There were plenty of times when the tunnel of no sleep seemed to stretch out beyond comprehension. However, that special time is also such a treasure, and as a whole, I look at it as a gift.

Thanks for the thoughtful post as always Courtney!


Courtney in London
February 22, 2015

Lauren,
I love this comment. Thank you!
It’s so true that it really is such a fleeting moment in time. I actually miss those days when my babies were waking throughout the night!


March 12, 2015

i love this. such a kind, no-nonsense approach. We are all so different and so are our babies! If I was planning to have more kids, I would definitely get her book.


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