Gentle parenting verses sleep! Can we achieve both as parents?

What do you think of these days when you hear the term gentle parenting? Is it synonymous with or distinct from attachment parenting? In my understanding (and I may be wrong!) attachment parenting is a set of ideals and a way of ‘being’ whereas gentle parenting tends to be an ethos of understanding and connecting with your child to help them learn about life and themselves.

Let me point out – both parenting styles are very positive and an effective loving way of raising a child. There are many other positive parenting styles too and as long as there are some gentle but consistent boundaries in place for the child, a parent will do a great job!

Parents can find zillions of blogs, articles, websites, Facebook groups that will give advice and support with behaviour, parenting style and sleep. There are umpteen free resources out there!

Many parents identify with a gentle parenting style – after all love, comfort, reassurance and joy are the cornerstones of parenting and no-one would describe themselves as not gentle!

So, can we marry sleep coaching, training, improvement, strategies etc (call it what you will) with a loving and gentle parenting approach?

We are bombarded with concerns regarding attachment, emotional literacy, infant mental health, and long-term emotional damage to our children if they experience distress. It makes it hard to see the wood for the trees. No parent would allow their child to do something harmful to themselves and yet denial of the dangerous object or activity causes distress and frustration to that child. It’s called the ‘greater good’ – therefore is there a place for ‘greater good’ in the world of sleep?

The answer to that will depend on where your parenting ethos lies – some will say definitely ‘yes, I need my sleep to function as a parent’ – some will say absolutely ‘no, waking and feeding frequently at night is ‘normal’ into a baby’s second year’. To clarify on this point – yes, it is normal for a lot of babies – but not all of us can function that way.

Is there a middle ground?

In my journey as a sleep coach and small business owner I have watched, downloaded, and googled more marketing hacks than I care to mention! A reoccurring theme is that to be noticed in the ‘online space’ your content has to be divisive – one way or the other – there does not appear to be a market for the middle ground opinion anymore! BTW this does not only appear to be applying to the world of sleep!

And yet the majority of humans do appreciate the middle ground – we are, by nature, a kind, adaptable and compassionate species who thrive on human relationships and companionship – compromise is therefore natural for us.

So, who in the dyad (triad?) of parent and child and sleep issues does the compromising?

Again, this goes back to your parenting ethos – old style methods would ask the baby/child to compromise! Attachment/gentle methods would expect the parent to compromise! Why can’t both parent and baby learn some flexibility and new skills?

We expect our children to learn to walk, talk and share – why can’t we expect them to learn to sleep? By staying with our children as they learn a new way of sleeping, we can support them through the distress and frustration of not knowing how to fall asleep without their old ‘prop’. By gently withdrawing and introducing new methods we build up their confidence in themselves and their environment. Thus, going to bed at bedtime and sleeping an appropriate length of time for their age and development becomes a pleasure rewarded by more enjoyment with their parent the next day. I cannot promise there won’t be tears, frustration and upset and any change to sleep makes it worse before it gets better. However, you may find the compromise is worth it!

Points to consider when looking at your child’s sleep.

  • Consistent boundaries – does your child have some consistent boundaries during the day? Are they having some learning opportunities to tolerate uncomfortable feelings? By this I mean the distress caused by saying ‘no’ to a biscuit just before lunchtime for example!!
  • How do we put gentle boundaries around our child’s sleep? Decide in your family what is acceptable and what isn’t. For example; where do you want your child to sleep, what is an acceptable wake-up time for your family, do you have several bedtimes to manage close together on your own? All these factors determine our evenings and our boundaries.
  • Should we put boundaries on sleep? How old is your child? Do they have any health or development problems? Do you or other carers have any health problems? Are they particularly anxious around bedtime? Place the boundaries in gently at a time which you feel is right for your family.
  • How does putting boundaries in place make you feel? Consider how you feel about being consistent and saying no – does it worry you, frustrate you, or do you see it as a healthy but challenging part of parenting?
  • How does your child’s frustration, tiredness and (dare I say it – distress) make you feel? Our emotions, reactions and subsequent behaviours stem from our past experiences – consider what you can tolerate and gently push yourself in all areas (and not just parenting).
  • Can you help your child tolerate an upsetting situation or do you need to alleviate it at all costs? Linked to the point above – if you find your child’s distress intolerable it may be time for some deep thinking or chatting through with a loved one or trusted friend or professional. Often what we wish for our children stems from our own childhood and upbringing.
  • Is your child’s sleep pattern common?  Read here for more information on naps and sleep needs. I use the term ‘common’ rather than normal as ‘normal’ implies a parent must accept this behaviour indefinitely – some can, and some can’t –there is no shame in this. If your child’s sleep is appropriate for what they can reasonably manage for their age and development then consider strategies to help your own sleep, relaxation and enjoyment of your days. If not, then consider making some changes.

Author: Rachel Greaves, Goodnight Solutions 2020

 

Rachel Greaves is a registered midwife and public health nurse, a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants, World Sleep Society and British Sleep Society. She has completed extensive training in paediatric sleep and has worked with hundreds of families over her NHS career. She works privately at Goodnight Solutions and specialises in gentle family sleep support. Rachel now offers online sleep coaching providing individual support over a 4-week period. Visit www.goodnightsolutions.co.uk for more information.

Naps and daytime structure!

Let’s chat about naps! When our babies are tiny, they feed and sleep and feed and sleep! Then they wake up around 4-5 weeks old and suddenly naps become a ‘thing’!

Some babies are great at dropping off and naturally regulating their day sleep regardless of where and how. Other babies are more stimulated, interested, distracted etc and really do struggle to fall asleep. Others drop off easily but do not stay asleep for more than 15 minutes, and others wake when they are moved from one place to another. If your baby is getting enough sleep in the day and bedtime and night-time do not cause a problem, then leave well alone!

Young babies move between light sleep and deep sleep during both naps and night sleep. They are not capable of staying awake for long periods of time and will easily drift into light sleep. If there is a feeding problem such as reflux or milk allergy, we often see them wake easily due to pain. Therefore, if your tiny baby is not settling then it is worth reviewing their feeding.

Past 4-5 weeks often babies struggle to fall asleep as they are not easily able to avoid stimulation and start to need more parental help to fall asleep, be that rocking, cuddling or feeding to sleep. This is not a problem on its own and does not necessarily lead to later problems.

Overtiredness

When babies and children are overtired, they release cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones). These hormones help them to keep going, but they also can make our babies and children appear ‘not tired’ and even hyperactive. This overtiredness can build throughout the day, so that one late nap can cause the next nap to be delayed, and then a late bedtime and so on. Children also move in and out of the mood and mindset to fall asleep. If you miss this critical window of time, it can take a long time and a lot of effort to get another window of opportunity. This applies to bedtime as well as naps!

Average naps lengths and gaps;

These times are an average based on guidelines published by the National Sleep Foundation(2019), however it is argued that these charts were determined by small sample sizes, thus reducing their validity (Marticciana et al, 2013). As a sleep coach, I only see parents who are concerned about their children’s sleep. It may be that if a parent and child function well on a smaller or greater amount of sleep then this is optimal for them.

Age Day sleep Night sleep No of Naps Nap interval
1 week 8 hours 8.5 Often awake only to feed
4 weeks 6-7 hours 8-9 hours Able to stay awake up to 1 hour – varies!
6-12 weeks 4-5 hours 10-11 hours Numerous 1-1.25 hours awake
4-5 months 4 hours 11 hours 4 1.5-2.25 hours awake
6 months 3 hours 11 hours 3-4 2-2.75 hours awake
7-8 months 2.5-3 hours 11 hours 2-3 2.25-3 hours awake
9 months 2.5 hours 11 hours 2 2.5-3.5 hours awake
12 months 2.5 hours 11 hours 2 3.5-4.5 hours awake
2 years 1.5 hours 11.5 hours 1 4-6   hours awake
3 years 0-45 minutes 11.5-12 hours 1 5-7 hours awake

 

How does this work in practice?

Babies under 6 months generally need 4-5 naps of around 30-60 minutes. Babies of 6-9 months would commonly have a 45-60 minute morning nap, a midday nap of 1.5-2 hours and a short afternoon nap of 30-45 minutes. As they get older naps space out, a baby of 9-16 months for example may have a short morning nap of 45 minutes and a long afternoon nap of 1.5-2 hours. An earlier bedtime might be needed as the 3rd nap is dropped. Toddlers generally need a midday nap of about 2 hours – usually up to the age of 3 and possibly older.

Why are naps important?

Naps are important to ensure that a baby/child is not overtired at bedtime. An overtired (or under tired!) child will resist bedtime and often we see a long-prolonged settling which is distressing and frustrating for both parent and child. Day sleep refreshes babies and children and allows them to eat better and play and learn more easily. When a child is overtired, they can fall asleep very quickly at bedtime but may then wake frequently at night. This is because they have not learnt to move slowly through the sleep stages and may then wake each time their brain experiences a change. Taking 10-15 minutes to fall asleep is normal and beneficial for children and adults. It allows us to fall asleep calmly meaning that when we rouse overnight (which is normal – we all do it) we are in a calm state and can easily fall asleep again without any other help.

Overtiredness will also cause frequent evening waking. The deepest portion of sleep is usually between 7pm-12pm. But if children are overtired what happens is that they skip the deep portion of sleep and concentrate on catching up on the light phase of sleep which is important for brain development. This can result in frequent waking in the evening–often every 30-45 minutes until your child has caught up. Ironically this is reversed in adults – our brains prioritise deep healing sleep when we are over-tired.

As a caveat to the above, if your child is content at bedtime and sleeps well at night then there is no need to alter day sleep and naps unless it is a concern for you.

Timing of naps

Nap length and timing are determined by sleep pressure rather than circadian rhythm; therefore, the environment does not have to be dark as there is very little melatonin involved. It is the length of awake time in-between sleeps that determines this sleep pressure – each nap decreases the amount of sleep pressure hormone and allows the child to wake refreshed.

Therefore, our aim is arrive at bedtime with a child who is not over or under tired. Naps are constantly evolving, and parents often feel on the back foot with them. Aim to prioitise the first nap of the day, so that the rest of the day is on track. Never try too long or hard to get a child to sleep in the day, move on and try later if appropriate. If you are making changes to your child’s overall sleep, then work on the timings of naps and not ‘where or how’ – these can be tweaked later if needed.

A child with a parent who is able to achieve what they need to in the day and get out and about as required, will ultimately benefit more from the calmer parent than the rigid nap schedule. Naps in the pushchair, car seat or when out socialising with friends are just as restful as a nap in the cot. Sleep is sleep – it all helps!

Where to nap?

As discussed above this does not really matter, however I see a lot of parents who are concerned their child will only nap on them, or on the boob or on the move for example. If you are making changes to improve night-time sleep then just work on timings. If you are wanting a bit of daytime back (not completely unreasonable!) and are aiming for a nap in the cot then gradually get your child used to that environment. In addition to this, add in some extra sleep cues (such as touch, smell, voice etc) and carry on as you are. Over a period of weeks gradually reduce the main sleep need- be that movement, body contact or feeding to sleep. Mix and match your nap locations so that you know that your baby/child will sleep if the jobs of the day dictate a change from the norm.

How to get babies and toddlers to fall asleep!

Babies under 6-9 months;

  • use a predictable schedule to the day and a ‘mini’ bedtime routine prior to naps
  • look at sensory input – too much or too little? Adjust this to your baby’s temperament
  • feeding before a nap is common and induces sleep – do not feel bad!
  • read your baby’s individual sleep cues or if they are very subtle work on trying a nap after an average awake time for their age
  • be aware of your emotional state and approach naps as an enjoyable activity for all – if the nap is not happening without sleeping on you then enjoy this, put your feet up and try a different way next time

Older babies and toddlers

  • by now their circadian rhythm is well established, therefore days are more predictable
  • aim for regular wake times, bedtimes and mealtimes
  • plenty of light exposure first thing and throughout the day
  • ensure plenty of outside time, exercise and fine motor activities
  • introduce a calm down period prior to naps and use your ‘mini’ bedtime routine
  • always think timing rather than location
  • ensure awake times, bedtime and length of naps are age-appropriate

Napping too early?

Causes; early rising, tiredness, badly timed care ride (often unavoidable!), over-stimulation in the late afternoon or evening, high sleep need, strict schedule or boredom.

Solutions; bright light on waking, delay nap by small amounts until at appropriate time, appropriate sensory input – avoid boredom and over-stimulation (read your child’s cues), ensure enough playtime both in and outdoors, avoid over-tiredness, earlier bedtime.

If early napping is not causing an impact on the rest of the day then do not change!

Napping too late?

Causes; busyness or other sibling needs, distractibility (big one at 4-5 months!), low sleep needs, ready to drop that nap, adhering to a strict schedule, lack of cues – either from baby or from environment, lack of stimulation or exercise.

Solutions; observe and learn individual tired cues (remember the effect of adrenaline), ensure that sleep is age-appropriate and review genuine sleep needs and balance with child’s behaviour, flexibility – some days a nap is needed and some days not, earlier nap, light exposure in the mornings, appropriate stimulation and sensory input.

Dropping naps!

Dropping naps can be a tricky one! Generally, naps reduce in frequency and increase in length at around 4-5 months, 7-9 months, 16-18 months and 2.5-3.5 years. Ironically it is common to think that if a child is resisting bedtime or awake more frequently at night then they need to reduce their day sleep – often the opposite is true.

Struggles with naps also occur around the times of big developmental progressions and readiness to drop a nap is often not straight forward, with a child needing it on some days and not others for example.

As a starting point try changing the timing of the nap or shortening the nap before dropping it and review how this impacts night sleep or bedtime. Ideally a sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep) of 10-15 minutes at bedtime is ideal.  If your child is falling asleep quickly in the buggy or car then it suggests they are not ready to drop that nap.

A good guideline is when having that nap leads to less overall sleep in 24 hours then it is time to drop it!

Author: Rachel Greaves, Goodnight Solutions 2020

 

Rachel Greaves is a registered midwife and public health nurse, a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants, World Sleep Society and British Sleep Society. She has completed extensive training in paediatric sleep and has worked with hundreds of families over her NHS career. She works privately at Goodnight Solutions and specialises in gentle family sleep support. Rachel now offers online sleep coaching providing individual support over a 4-week period. Visit www.goodnightsolutions.co.uk for more information.

References;

Matricciani. L, Blunden. S, Rigney. G, Williams. M and Olds. T (2013) Children’s Sleep Needs: Is There Sufficient Evidence to Recommend Optimal Sleep for Children? Sleep 36(4) Accessed at: https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/36/4/527/2595961

National Sleep Foundation (2019) How much sleep do we really need? Webpage. Accessed at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need