Seeking Baby Sleep Advice – Follow your Instincts!

When sleep becomes a point of difficulty, frustration and fatigue, more and more families reach for assistance and advice from beyond the family and local health providers.

As a mother, midwife and maternal and child health nurse who has focused on infant and toddler sleep and settling for almost 20 years it is easy to see where confusion comes from.  The changes in understanding of the inner workings of babies over that time has been enormous. Our practice is now informed by studies, for example technological advances now allow us to monitor the activity in the babies brain (without  hurting them!) while they are looking into their parents eyes, while they examine a new face, or while they are experiencing distress. These studies allow us to track the internal working world of brains of babies. Research and studies have shown us that babies need to have particular experiences especially within that first year of life, to help them develop into happy healthy adults.

The volumes of data obtained from research shows us that seemingly simple acts; a  cuddle, a touch or a word, can all mean so very much to the highly receptive developing baby. The way a baby is responded to influences their understanding of more than just the workings of the world around them; it ultimately is the basis for developing an understanding of who they are.

So what does all this mean in terms of baby sleep?

Everybody is an expert, everyone seems to need to impart wisdom, and sadly everyone wants to convince the parent that the outsider is the expert of this baby, and that is NOT the case at all.  Outsiders to that internal world, can coach, but no one provides better care than the parents. That is all that matters to the baby, the parents. So when an expert says you SHOULD do this or that to reach a different baby sleep space, just take a moment to check your gut response. Parents can become overwhelmed but instinct is never lost, just a little less robust with all the advice from others. Nobody really knows their baby better that the parent so if something you are told to do gives you that deep down uneasy feeling … trust your gut response.

Over the years of working in this field I have heard the most elaborate vocabulary to justify interventions, unkind interventions, all in the name of baby sleep. Desperate parents can be forgiven for believing these often very convincing explanations for sleep training methods such as leaving your baby alone to cry. It is believable because we are desperate for an outcome, but at what cost?

One study found that modified controlled crying does no harm however, the measure for that was 6 years after the event. One could question that the many variables that can come into play over that time had no influence on the findings. Another study showed that babies can sleep through the night from 5 months of age, but the study didn’t consider the baby’s experiences or what made them quiet for those long periods overnight. Keep you critical eye and gut responses alert when you read about baby sleep.

Another study showed that around a 1/3 of babies naturally wake overnight well into their first year of life, but the wakings become less and less frequent.

Important fact; the range of normal is vast and the information and advice may not always be a good fit for your family. Sleep information is conflicting to say the least.

This is not about making parents question what they have done, and what they choose to do in the future, it is more a plea to think about the information that is provided, and just check with your internal radar to see if it sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Baby sleep and care advice is an unregulated industry, so anyone who has had a baby or even those who have not, can become an ‘expert’.

So how do you decipher who is providing you with sensible advice?

Internet advice is sometimes well informed, contemporary and evidence based however, there are many instances where factual information has become intertwined with opinion and then it becomes less clear. Don’t get me wrong; the world of infant sleep it is an extraordinarily complex place in which there is a vast array of information, but

HOW does a parent know what is right and wrong? If your gut response is a bit tired and worn out at the moment, ask someone who has a global picture. Your health care nurse sees literally thousands of families and hears more ‘sleep solutions’ than you can dream possible, but also has access to ongoing information and education. Ask your nurse to direct you to a credible resource, if the recommendations are not a good fit for your family, good on you for seeing that. Just because something is well marketed, it doesn’t mean it is always right.

Here are some things to consider when you are seeking help:

  • What is the theory behind the approach?
  • What techniques are offered?  Get them to describe what is involved.
  • Be aware that many providers have now re-named their controlled crying to “progressive learning”, “modified controlled comforting” and a range of timed methods where the baby or child is still left to cry, unattended for prescribed times. Families cannot identify the method by the name alone. (I wonder about the need to modify the name?).
  • Look at all interventions through your filter as your baby’s welfare advocate.
  • If it is a home visiting service find out what their global experience is. For example a midwife is qualified to care wonderfully in the prenatal and post natal period, but not beyond that time.
  • Ask a home visitor about their infant and childhood assessment qualifications.
  • Ask how many years of experience working unsupervised they have.
  • Always ask for professional references (name and contact number so you can call and check and be sure one of those is a credible professional and not just a friend).
  • You can even check their qualifications with their professional registration authority to confirm authenticity.
  • Ask yourself why they can ‘visit tomorrow’ … why aren’t they busy? We all want solutions today but avoid being blinded by your own urgency.
  • You are entitled to ask to speak to someone who knows about what is being offering.

Sometimes the urgency for a ‘fix’ may blind you to the reality. Simple questions can avoid significant distress to your family, don’t be afraid to ask, you have the right to know.

Be alerted by the words “tough love” “winning the battle” “training” and ‘it’s hard, but it’s for the best”. The experience of the infant/child DOES matter; this is about the process – not just the outcome.

Always do some research around who you are taking advice from because your baby is far more important than your car, and most people seek references before they go to a mechanic!

Author Helen Stevens. Manager of Clinical Services, Educations and Research SAFE SLEEP SPACE. Author; ‘Safe Sleep Space’ (2012), ‘Foundations and Fundamentals: The first four months of life: a parent’s handbook’ (2015) and contributing author “The Science of Mother-Infant Sleep’ (2014).

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