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Sleep Shaping : Rebecca Scott-pillai

Sleep Shaping


Keep it simple

Realistically, I wouldn’t start doing any kind of sleep shaping until around 6-8 weeks at the earliest. Up until that point, I’d focus on the Simple Sleep Solutions and try to maximize everyone’s sleep with those changes. As you can see from my chart above, there is still a wide range of variability in terms of averages, so there really is no magic formula that is going to help you “fix” your baby’s sleep! It’s about tuning in to your baby, and experimenting, but keeping it fairly low key at this stage too. The Sleep Shaping module I have for older babies in my next course up (Simple Sleep Solutions 4-18 months) is a little bit more structured. 

What we’re trying to achieve with sleep shaping at this stage is to help our babies fall asleep easily (so getting the timing of naps and bedtime right) and trying to push sleep towards night time, so that we can get more sleep! 

Using sleep pressure appropriately

There are two mechanisms by which we sleep: 

Circadian rhythm – this is your body clock that helps you consolidate sleep at night time. Sleep hygiene measures (as outlined in the previous module) are designed to strengthen your circadian rhythm. 

Homeostatic sleep pressure – this mechanism ensures that you sleep when you’re tired! With babies, the sleep pressure rises quickly and therefore they have to nap during the day. As they get older, their sleep pressure takes longer to rise and therefore they need less naps. 

If your baby isn’t tired, they just won’t sleep. So, in order to get them to sleep easily, we need to make sure that the sleep pressure is high enough. If you’ve already been working on the simple sleep solutions, then you know I recommend watching your baby and learning to read their cues for sleep. It’s not the end of the world if you miss a sleep cue, you may just need to calm your baby a bit more more before they will sleep. Below I’ve listed some common sleep cues, if you’re struggling to read your baby. 

EARLY SLEEP CUES

Yawning

Fussing

Losing interest in toys or people

Turning face away

Glazed expression

Waving arms and legs (becoming more active)

Looking pale

Going quiet

 

LATE SLEEPY CUES

Grimacing

Back arching

Needing to be comforted more than usual (lots of feeds or cuddles)

Rubbing eyes

Pulling up knees and vigorous wriggling

Crying or being  inconsolable

Pulling ears 

Rubbing face on parent’s chest or shoulder

Taken from Holistic Sleep Coaching (Hookway, 2019)

Getting the timing right

Most babies don’t need a lot of support to fall asleep if they are genuinely tired.  Usually, they’ll fall asleep really easily if they are feeding to sleep and have a comfortably full tummy.  Often, we end up rocking them to sleep because they aren’t actually that tired to begin with, but we think they need to sleep. Then we spend half an hour rocking, by which point they ARE ready to fall asleep.  If you rock them to sleep every time, they get used to the rocking. Then at some point down the line, you’re going to end up with a baby that is very dependent on being rocked to sleep and that isn’t so much fun when they are 10 months old and weigh 15 pounds! By learning to read your baby’s cues for sleep, and also identify when they are cueing for something else, we facilitate sleep more easily. It takes most babies around 10-20 minutes to fall asleep, so if you find that your baby is falling asleep in that range, then you’re timing it well. 

Overtiredness

Parents worry a lot about a their baby getting overtired. I’m going to say something, as a sleep coach, that might perhaps shock you.

OVERTIREDNESS DOESN’T MATTER

We all have a maximum amount of sleep that we can achieve in 24 hours, that includes babies. There is a wide range of averages when it comes to sleep (see my chart above). However, especially where newborns are concerned, if they are: tired, comfortable, calm and feel safe, they will sleep. If your baby gets a bit grouchy and fussy, I’d always double check that they aren’t hungry, that they have a clean nappy, and then I’d work on calming them in the easiest way possible. If you’re breastfeeding, that’s usually the easiest way to calm them. Plus, feeding to sleep is completely normal! If you’re bottlefeeding, you may want to try a cuddle, going for a walk in the sling, or a dummy, if they have just fed, but bottle feeding to sleep is also completely normal. 

The bottom line is that your baby can’t sleep until they are calm. So, it doesn’t really matter if they are grouchy because they are overtired, or grouchy because they are a bit dysregulated. (Their nervous systems dysregulate VERY easily!) If your main focus is on getting them to sleep every time they get grouchy, you could be missing a cue that something else is going on. Plus, they won’t sleep until they are calm anyway, so you may as well calm them first. If they ARE tired, most babies fall asleep easily within 10-20 minutes of being calm. That’s true at ANY age. 

And what if they have been awake a little bit longer than you’d expect and they get a bit grouchy? Well, calm them first, and help them sleep. Almost all babies get enough sleep to meet their needs. In fact, I’d go as far to say that ALL babies get enough sleep to meet their needs, provided there is nothing medically/physically wrong with them. Sleep is a biological necessity, just like eating and peeing. It’s not something we have to work hard at as parents, because babies will sleep, given the right conditions. So those wake windows are a guide, not a hard and fast rule. 

REMEMBER: Calm them first, and if they are tired, sleep will follow easily. 

What about wake windows?

“Wake windows” is a concept that has become very popular in the last few years. To be honest, there is very little scientific basis for them. They are based on the concept of sleep pressure, but they can be very prescriptive by suggesting that your baby HAS to sleep after a certain time awake. There is also a perception that sticking to wake windows improves sleep. 

All babies are individuals, and while we have some rough estimates for how long babies can stay awake at different ages (see my chart, above), the truth is that there is no one schedule that all babies fit into. If a baby has a short nap (say, they woke after 20 minutes because the Amazon delivery driver was bringing all those parcels you ordered at 3 am), then you may find that the sleep pressure hasn’t completely fallen and your baby may be ready for their next nap a little bit sooner. Alternatively, they may have spent 3 blissful hours snoozing on your chest while you caught up with the latest Netflix series, and then go for quite a while before needing their next nap, because that sleep pressure has completely reset to zero during that long nap. If you try to get your baby to sleep just because the wake window dictates it, you could end up with a frustrated baby who just isn’t ready to sleep. 

Remember: if they fall asleep easily within 10-20 minutes, then you’ve timed the nap well, never mind how long they’ve been awake. 

Do you need to reduce the daytime sleep?

Sleep myth: sleep doesn’t beget sleep

Babies have a maximum amount of sleep that they can achieve in 24 hours. If they sleep lots during the day, they just won’t sleep as much during the night. Often parents put a lot of effort into extending the naps as long as possible (by doing contact naps, or resettling a baby if they wake within an hour). However, this may mean that our babies get a lot of day sleep and this can have an impact on night sleep. It’s a balancing act making sure that our babies get enough sleep during the day, but not getting too much either! 

If you have been trying to get your baby to sleep lots during the day, it might be worth experimenting with one nap initially, and then you can gradually work on reducing the day sleep across all naps to see if it improves the night sleep. If your baby wakes up within an hour of falling asleep, rather than trying to resettle them, just get them up and go about your day. Or perhaps transfer them to a crib after 20/30 minutes of a contact nap. They may wake up within 10 minutes of being transferred, but perhaps take that as a sign that sleep pressure has dropped enough that they don’t need any more sleep. It’s also ok to make some noise around your baby, or to lift them from a nap if you need to go somewhere. 

Facilitating a routine

At this stage, it isn’t about a rigid routine. In fact, the only thing I’d really recommend at this stage is to start your baby’s day at the same time, every morning. This can be at any time that suits you, but realistically, somewhere between 6 am and 8 am usually gives you a chance to get outdoors for some sunlight before 10 am. That can be really tough if you’ve had a difficult night and you’re exhausted. However, picking a time and working within a 15 minute window on either side of that time can be really beneficial. It strengthens your baby’s circadian rhythm, and you’ll also start to see naps happen at roughly the same time every day. Remember: you aren’t scheduling naps, but just facilitating them when your baby is tired. However, if your baby is waking at the same time every morning, then that first nap is going to start to happen at a predictable time every day. As your baby gets older, you’ll start to recognize a pattern with naps. So it’s not about getting your baby to fit into a routine, but it’s about facilitating your baby’s natural routine. 

If you are struggling with waking up early every morning, then you can perhaps get someone else to take your baby and then get a lie in, or perhaps take a nap after lunch with your baby to catch up on your sleep. 

To sum up

What we’re trying to achieve with time (by 3 months) is that by bedtime, sleep pressure is high, and your baby has a strong circadian rhythm and then sleep happens easily. This usually means that your baby will sleep well giving you a few blocks of sleep overnight. This can take some experimenting! 

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.