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Sleep Strategies : Rebecca Scott-pillai

Sleep Strategies

The path of least resistance

Before you look at changing how sleep happens, I think it’s really important that you ask yourself a few questions. Are you making changes because:

  • You are worried about what might happen in the future?
  • You’re feeling pressure from others?
  • What’s happening right now isn’t sustainable?

Going with the flow is often the easiest thing to do, and if you’re following your baby’s cues and not trying to make them follow a routine, then often trying to change how your baby sleeps is often really hard. However, there are a few situations when it is necessary, so I’ve given you a few ideas in this module. Remember that not all babies are capable of changing how they fall asleep, so the information in this module isn’t a guarantee that you can change it, either! Babies at this age are still very immature, and rely on a lot of contact with an adult to regulate their nervous system. It’s only when they are regulated and calm, that sleep can happen easily. 

Respond lazily at night time

I think I need to start off by reassuring you that I’m not advocating a non-response to your baby, merely a response that is is appropriate to their needs.  I work a lot with very responsive parents who really want to meet their babies needs immediately. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I always advocate responding to your baby but there are few times, when I would say it’s worth just thinking about what you’re doing, before jumping in straight away.

So it’s not a case that you let your baby cry themselves to sleep or you don’t respond, it’s that you work with them and work just how much support they need. Babies are really noisy at night time, they grunt, squirm, and move around a lot when they are in light sleep (which is around half of their sleep cycle). Some babies will need a lot of support at night time, and WILL wake up if you don’t lift them when they are in the grunty, squirmy stage. However, some babies may be able to settle themselves down again, so don’t feel you need to jump in straight away. It’s ok to leave them for a minute or two to see if they are building up to crying, or whether they are just transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next. If you’re lucky, they may just link that sleep cycle on their own! 

Sleep associations

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe in bad habits when it comes to helping babies sleep. Most babies do need some support. If you want to, you can add in a few sleep associations as your baby falls asleep. That way they don’t become reliant on just one way of falling asleep eg feeding, or rocking. Sleep associations you may wish to try include:

  • Shushing, humming, a lullaby
  • Stroking, patting 
  • White noise 

Sleep associations have three functions: they calm a baby, they provide a sense of connection with you, and they signal that it’s time to sleep. 

Co-sleeping

This may not have occurred to you as a sleep strategy, but the reality is that most babies sleep better at night if they are in contact with an adult. Obviously, it’s important that you co-sleep safely, and I’ve included a section on co-sleeping in the Safe Sleep module (in the bonuses). However, if you can co-sleep safely, then this may be a very useful sleep strategy! 

Moving away from contact sleep

It may seem strange that I’ve added this in right after a section on co-sleeping. However, safe co-sleeping involves the baby lying on their back next to you. What I’m describing here, as contact sleep, is where a baby sleeps on their chest, on you. Obviously, this is fine if you are awake (lots of babies sleep safely and soundly in a sling during the day). However, this can become very difficult at night, especially if there aren’t two adults who can take turns sitting up with a baby on their chest. Additionally, it can become unsafe if one parent sits on a sofa and accidentally falls asleep. It can be really difficult to balance the need a baby has for connection and co-regulation, and the need for a safe sleep environment. Therefore, I have included a section at the end of the Safe Sleep module on how you move away from contact sleep. 

Moving away from rocking/motion

If you have found yourself rocking your baby a lot, and it is unsustainable, then you may want to gently start to move away from rocking. Bear in mind that rocking is very soothing and helps to regulate a baby’s nervous system very well. Therefore, if you find that it’s very hard to move away from rocking, you may want to wait a few weeks and try again. Often as a baby gets older, it becomes easier to move away from rocking, as their nervous system starts to mature. You may want to try:

  • Adding in some other sleep associations first, so you have other ways to help your baby sleep.
  • Using sleep pressure works well for some babies. Sometimes when a baby is very tired it’s easier to make a change. However, you may find that they are even more dysregulated when very tired, so may actually need to be rocked more!
  • Gradually reduce the intensity of the rocking, from a vigorous rock to just holding.
  • Try a “stop and start” technique, where you rock for a few minutes, then pause for a few seconds, then rock for a few seconds, then stop. Gradually increase the time when you don’t use motion and reduce the time when you are rocking! 

To sum up

Please don’t feel you have to make changes to sleep, if what you’re doing is working for you. Furthermore, don’t forget that babies need a lot of co-regulation, especially babies under the age of three months, so you may need to leave some of these strategies until they are a bit older. 

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.