parenting · sleep

Sleep: what helped us

This post is partially about our experience of sleep training with the Baby Sleep Consultant, and partially about other things we did that supported good sleep habits. It follows on from my recent post in praise of sleep training (and I am pro sleep training, and disinterested in judging other parents’ choices about their children’s sleep – so, if the mere mention of sleep training brings about an urge to lecture me about how wrong my choices were, please be a grownup and control your impulses!)

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Baby Sleep Consultants

I know that some people really dislike the entire concept of baby sleep consultants, perceiving them as ‘only in it for the money’ (unlike the rest of us, selflessly living on air and never charging for our knowledge, expertise, and effort); and regarding them as predators who hunt down exhausted parents in order to force their services on them.

We paid for help from Emma, the original Baby Sleep Consultant, but she is not the only person providing these services (and she has a team of consultants working with her). To my knowledge, she and her colleagues have never stormed into anybody’s house and tied them to a chair, forcing them to sleep train their babies. They provide a service, which people are free to seek out and pay for as they see fit. Emma and her team also offer Facebook groups that are a goldmine of free advice, and I know that the twin mums who are Baby Sleep Consultants frequently offer free advice to fellow mums at places like Multiples NZ. When I was editing my local multiple birth club’s newsletter for a couple of years, Emma would write columns free of charge, and answer readers’ queries.

And yes, providing free advice is obviously great publicity for the business, but here’s the thing: I’m pretty comfortable with the basic concept of capitalism – that people exchange money for goods and services – so I don’t find the idea of Emma and her colleagues being paid for their work as anything controversial. Also, plenty of people manage to sleep train their children simply by reading about how to do it, and then getting stuck in. It’s therefore disingenuous to imply that sleep training is something only available to parents who choose to pay for it. But parents like me do choose to pay for it because we just want to get it sorted quickly, without mucking around.

I credit Emma with helping me to actually enjoy being a mother. Before we turned to her in late 2013, I was finding parenthood occasionally enjoyable, but mostly exhausting. The impact of her help was invaluable. She didn’t just coach us through the mechanics of sleep training: she offered a truly holistic approach that took into account what Hattie and Joe were eating, when they were napping and for how long, and at what times of the day they were getting fresh air and sunshine. She understood, and taught us, that developing good sleep habits requires looking at your children’s life as a whole: it isn’t just about what you do at night time.

Getting support and guidance around nap times and duration made a big difference to our quality of life overall because it enabled us to establish a good routine. Suddenly our days had structure, and we learned that sticking to regular nap times, for example, had great benefits. Following Emma’s advice meant that I’d wake the kids up from their morning nap, so they wouldn’t sleep for too long, not be tired enough for an afternoon nap, and then be crazy with tiredness by bedtime. Thanks to this advice, Hattie and Joe continued having two naps a day until well after they turned two, and only dropped their afternoon sleep when they were three and a half (even continuing it for six months after shifting into beds, which is fairly unusual from what I gather).

The main thing Emma taught us was that picking and choosing from advice about good sleep tended to be far less effective: every element worked together to support the outcomes we wanted. And I received extra support from Emma regarding sleep-related issues like dropping naps, and transitioning from cots to beds. Her advice was always realistic for our situation, and it worked.

I know that some people have paid for the services of a baby sleep consultant, but still deal with ongoing sleep issues. Let me return to my fussy eating analogy from my last post: I paid for help from a child nutritionist when we became concerned about Hattie’s eating habits, but she’s still a fussy eater. She’s very strong willed when it comes to food (and very hesitant to try new things), and I lost heart and didn’t necessarily try all of the nutritionist’s suggestions. The fact that her help didn’t solve all of our food-related problems is not a criticism of her knowledge and expertise. Sometimes things don’t work, because there are people-shaped variables in the mix.

The final thing I’d like to say about Emma and other baby sleep consultants is this: they are almost always mothers themselves, who’ve learned how to deal with sleep issues from their own parenting experiences, and have supplemented that with research and education in order to then offer a service to other parents. When you bitch about them and rubbish them, you’re bitching about mothers who are trying to make a living to support their families.

Other things that helped

I think Hattie and Joe were fairly receptive sleep trainees because we avoided a lot of the common issues that are thought to work against establishing good sleep habits. Because we already had these habits and practices in place, there weren’t many ‘bad’ sleep habits that Emma needed to work around. Obviously, these practices alone weren’t enough for us without also getting Emma’s help (and I’m sure that plenty of parents have a totally different approach to us, and end up with great sleepers as well), but from what I read and learned these factors do tend to be a sensible approach in most cases.

Never knowingly feeding the babies to sleep

There were definitely some occasions when Hattie and Joe would fall asleep at the end of a feed, but I didn’t feed them with the intention of them falling asleep. Typically, we’d do burping and nappies after the feed, so while short post-feed naps weren’t uncommon in milk-drunk newborns, as per these photos, ‘going to sleep’ wasn’t the reason for the feed.

There were a lot of post-feed snoozes in the early days:

And in the early days it wasn’t uncommon for the babies to flake out while still on the feeding pillow, which was always adorable:

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Putting the babies to bed ‘drowsy, but awake’

I didn’t go in for the whole ‘rock them to sleep and then put them in their cots’ approach, largely because I always thought it would be seriously weird to fall asleep in one place and then wake up somewhere else (it would certainly freak me out). Also, I wanted them to learn how to fall asleep in their cots. And I didn’t want to start something with little babies that I wouldn’t be keen to do with toddlers. Plus, there were logistical problems with the prospect of trying to rock two babies to sleep singlehandedly.

Avoiding dummies

I was fortunate because Joe never really liked a dummy, and Hattie only had limited interest in her dummy before she found her thumb at 12 weeks. Babies who become accustomed to sucking a dummy to sleep often seem to wake up and then cry because the dummy fall out and they can’t find it (whereas babies tend to be able to find their thumbs, given that they’re handily located at the end of their arms). Older babies and toddlers can use dummies attached to special toys, which helps to find them again, but in many cases it seems that ditching the dummy can result in better sleep. (Of course, with a thumb-sucker we potentially have a lot of dental bills in our future, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it – and, so far, Hattie’s teeth are straight).

Using sleeping bags

Hattie and Joe graduated from swaddles to baby sleeping bags – we used Merino Kids ones for the first year or so (which I bought secondhand, because they are seriously expensive), and then used Woolbabes sleeping bags. We kept using them right through to the transition to beds. Sleeping bags are great for two reasons: 1. They ensure that babies stay warm in bed (they can’t kick them off, and you can add a blanket or two on top if the night temperatures have plummeted); and 2. Putting on a sleeping bag gives your baby a clear cue that sleep time is rapidly approaching. We’d even use them if we were driving somewhere and wanted the kids to have their nap in the car (and sleeping bags have handy slits built-in precisely for this purpose). Apparently it’s very common for babies to get cold at night, which obviously increases wakefulness, so sleeping bags are such an easy way to avoid this. We used sleeping bags for every single nap and sleep, year-round (we had lovely muslin ones from Baby Factory for the warm months, and if necessary the babies would wear just a nappy and a sleeping bag to bed during the day).

Using white noise

We did this from the start, initially because white noise is thought to replicate the sounds from within a mother’s body and remind newborns of those happy days when they just floated around without a care. However, we continued with white noise (and still use it every night) because we realised that it both provides a sleep cue, and drowns out background noise. Our garden backs onto a public park, but even the noise of fireworks fails to wake Hattie and Joe. The two of them can sleep perfectly well without white noise, but in the interests of consistency and good sleep we tend to take our white noise machine with us when we travel.

Settling in the cot/bed

Obviously there were times when a crying baby needed to be picked up and given a big cuddle, but for the most part we tried to settle them in their cots. We used Sharlene Poole’s ‘shush and pat’ technique, which was particularly effective with Joe. Joe actually woke me up at four this morning with a blocked nose, and – as always – when I offered to shush and pat him back to sleep, he was keen. I dutifully shushed and patted for a couple of minutes, and then he drowsily told me “Mummy, you can stop shushing now”, so I went back to bed and he and I slept for another two hours. One day I suspect I’ll need to tell his future life partner about this sleep life hack. Incidentally, shushing and patting never worked for Hattie, but we were lucky because her thumb-sucking helped to send her to sleep. And with both kids, if a bad dream wakes them up we will keep them in their own beds and give them cuddles there wherever possible (which can be tricky when there’s a sleeping child a metre away).

Having an ‘everybody in their own beds’ rule

We knew from the start that we didn’t want to co-sleep in the longer term, so we didn’t let that habit form. I’d even do the night feeds in the living room, rather than in bed, because I didn’t want to succumb to the temptation of dozing off there and not putting the babies back in their cots (this was partially because of recurring nightmares in which I’d lost the babies in the bed).

Having a special bedtime toy

As previously discussed, we introduced Larry and Betty early on, and although Hattie has never really depended on Betty to get to sleep (again, because she has her thumb to suck), Larry has been an important part of Joe’s bed routine.

Having a bedtime routine

When they were babies, every day would end with Hattie and Joe having dinner/a feed, having a bath, having stories, having another feed, and then being put to bed. When they were toddlers and had dropped their evening feed, there was more time for stories. As they’ve got older the routine has changed (they have a bath every second day at the moment, and also get to have some post-dinner TV before stories), but consistency always rules. And these days each night ends with tooth-brushing, a last wee, and then a swift trip back to the living room to choose their final reward chart sticker and ‘win’ their jewel for the day.

… and then they go to sleep!

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