I’ve had a lot of clients lately who I helped with their first child, and have recently emailed me with the happy news that they’re expecting again – every single one of them has asked about sleep tips for expectant parents. They are so wise! The best way to deal with sleep is proactively. This is not a post about early scheduling, strict sleep training or controlled crying by the way! If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know that’s not what I’m about. Here are my favourite proactive sleep tips. Oh, and congratulations!
Bond before birth
Time and time again, research supports the theory that parents who spend a lot of time getting to know their baby before they are born feel more connected to their baby, and find it easier to bond with their newborn. Make sure that both parents are involved in talking and singing to the baby. Visualising your unborn baby, rubbing your pregnant tummy, and imagining what they will be like are great ways for expectant parents to feel connected.
Read a story or sing a song frequently
A few years ago there was a lovely research study that I teach all my students about. Mothers were instructed to read the same story every night to their unborn baby from about 24 weeks of pregnancy (most babies can hear from this time). After birth, the baby was non-invasively monitored while the mother read that same story. The babies had a big spike in their heart rate variability and showed obvious signs of excitement compared with a new story they had not heard their mother reading. This tells us that babies have a memory before they are born. The second part of the experiment was to ask a different adult to read the familiar story. The babies did not have the same excited response. This tells us that babies prefer highly familiar voices. So, if babies have a memory and express preferences that early, we can use this to our advantage! We know that successful routines are those that are simple, predictable, consistent and repetitive. So, read your baby a story or sing the same song during pregnancy, and continue this after birth before bedtime – it will help your baby to know what’s coming next. Watch this beautiful video of a dad playing twinkle twinkle to his baby. Remember the reason this works so fast is because it’s predictable and habitual! You don’t get results like that overnight! Expectant parents should therefore plan to do something that can help transition their baby from womb to world.
Plan in relaxation and stress management
You’d roll your eyes at me if I told you to avoid all stress. Impossible right?! Life is stressful! But actually, that’s not even sound advice. Sure, toxic levels of stress are not particularly helpful for babies to be exposed to, such as those experienced during war, domestic abuse or natural disaster. However, most of us are lucky enough to not be subjected to those levels of stress. What we know is that the placenta contains neural (brain) tissue, and is able to respond to maternal stress. What seems to be helpful is brief exposure to stress, and then resolution from that stress. So, don’t be stressed about being stressed! Just accept that stress is normal, and for the most part, not toxic to babies as long as it is resolved. Babies in this way learn that stress is not permanent, and that is a good thing. Try keeping a thought journal, planning in relaxing routines at the end of your day, and try some oxytocin pressure points:
This acupressure point, right at the base of the joint between your thumb and forefinger, is an oxytocin pressure point, and can help expectant parents and others relax!
Take an omega 3 and 6 supplement, and eat foods high in omega 3/6
Omega 3 is particularly essential as an anti-inflammatory, and has been shown to reduce the risk of certain inflammatory problems in pregnancy as well as non-pregnant people. In a recent study, omega 3 was also found to improve the sleep of the infants of mothers who consumed it in pregnancy. Omega 3 enriched eggs, all nuts, grass fed meat, wild rice, edamame beans, flaxseed, rapeseed oil and fish such as salmon and bluefin tuna are all excellent sources. Given that omega 3’s are good for everyone, this is a no-brainer! Whether you are expectant parents or your baby has arrived, healthy eating is probably the best thing you can do for your health without going to the gym!
Prioritise early establishment of feeding
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the single best things you can do in the early weeks is prioritise early, frequent, effective feeding. This is the most important job in the early days. There is no evidence whatsoever that frequent feeding will lead to your baby being more demanding or difficult. This is normal infant behaviour, and sets you up for long term success if you are planning to breastfeed. For bottle fed babies, make sure you’re bottle feeding in a way that supports your baby’s ability to manage their appetite, stay in control of milk flow, and minimise wind, colic and spitting up. See my earlier blog post for more.
Prepare the sleep environment
For the first 6 months, your baby should be in the same room as you. This keeps them safer, and makes night feeds easier. So, given that your little one is going to be with you for a while, focus on your bedroom, rather than the nursery. Lots of expectant parents put a lot of time, energy and money into their baby’s nursery, only to wish they hadn’t as the nursery remains a place to dump the clean laundry and change dirty nappies for several months! Instead, focus on ensuring you have enough space in your bedroom for the baby. If you’re planning on getting a co-sleeper crib, check this website for more information. Also invest in decent black outs, and a good quality white noise machine. There are free apps, but many of them sound quite harsh – shop around!
Breastfeed if you can
You know what I said about omega 3’s? Breastmilk is naturally high in them! Plus it’s also high in tryptophan, the precursor to melatonin, which your baby will not produce on their own for several weeks after they are born. If you’re finding breastfeeding hard, please get help either from your local breastfeeding clinic, or an IBCLC lactation consultant. You could also try watching some of my videos on YouTube, where you’ll find several videos that are all free to view. Expectant parents could also watch this video which is specifically written to prepare parents antenatally.
Plan to spend a lot of time outdoors
Ok, I don’t mean the first few days after birth! But seriously, as soon as you can, plan to get outside in natural daylight in the morning and again in the afternoon. This goes for expectant parents too – get into the habit early and it will be easier. It won’t have dramatic results, but will slowly get your baby exposed to broad spectrum daylight, which is incredibly important to regulate their circadian rhythm (body clock).
Regulate your baby’s body clock
This is nowhere near as hard as it sounds! All of us have a body clock that runs on about a 24 hour rhythm. It’s helpful to be exposed to light for 12 hours of the day, and darkness for the other 12 hours. This will help your baby to organise their days and nights. I’m not saying you have to wake your newborn from their sleep at 7am on the dot, but certainly, don’t minimise household noise, or keep the house dark after 7am (or whenever you decide you want your 12 hours of light to start). Allow your baby to wake up naturally and then keep the environment light for the rest of the 12 hour ‘day’ period. Then keep it quiet, dark and lower the stimulation. This can be logistically difficult when you’re trying to wait for your partner to return home from work, eat supper and have some down time. Many parents opt to just have their baby up on their shoulder while all this is going on. But in my experience, this is when you run into problem with overstimulation and a fractious, hard-to-settle baby. Try if you can to plan ahead and eat earlier, then keep your baby in a quiet, less stimulating environment, so they can calm down. This is just a season! Maybe rather than eating pizza on the sofa whilst catching up on Game of Thrones with your other half, passing the baby between each other in between mouthfuls of food, try a quieter evening! Maybe a meal earlier, by candlelight, so the baby isn’t exposed to bright light, and rediscover your love of scrabble, or cards. The time to binge-watch Netflix will come again once your baby begins to settle a bit earlier in the evening, but for now, just try to prioritise setting their body clock. You’ll thank me later!
Learn about over-tiredness and sleep cues
For anyone who has ever hired me, they’ll probably tell you that the thing they learned most about was how toxic over-tiredness is to sleep, and how it can screw up the entire sleep cycle. It actually has an effect on how deeply you sleep, as well as how you transition into sleep. Learn to watch out for early tired cues, such as losing interest in faces and toys, gaze aversion, and quietening down, rather than reacting to late tired cues such as yawning, fussing, back arching and eye rubbing. Newborns can really only tolerate being awake for up to about an hour. If your baby has been awake for 45 minutes, then just try an experiment for me – take them somewhere quiet and start to shush and gently rock your baby. If they start to look sleepy, attempt to put them down for a nap. This will be high-maintenance at first! Books often paint the picture that you put your baby down awake and they simply drift off. Nope, not always! You’ll probably need to be there, shushing, and patting them, whispering in their ear, or stroking their face, but it’s worth a try. Don’t persist if your baby is going nuts – pick them up and comfort them, and try again when they’re almost asleep. Keep trying. It will eventually work if you’re consistent and persistent.
So, expectant parents – you have some homework! If your baby is already here, all is not lost! Try the above tips and I wish you luck!
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC and gentle and holistic sleep and behaviour coach. She works privately at www.feedsleepbond.com as well as for the NHS and as an independent lecturer and trainer. She offers webinars and bespoke training for health professionals, childcare, sleep and maternity carers and parents.
Her first book: Gentle and Holistic Sleep Coaching, published by Praeclarus Press is due for publication late in 2017.