by Jeanne Negrelli
feature photo: Casie Zalud Photography
Infant sleep is often one of the biggest concerns for new parents. And it often lingers as baby’s sleep patterns continue to shape and shift through his or her early life. In addition, parents are also sometimes managing conflicting advice and recommendations from their extended family, physicians, the Internet, and “training methods” about the “shoulds” of infant sleep. It’s stressful and leaves parents confused about what they can expect and how to successfully navigate sleep changes for the entire family.
As postpartum doulas, we invite parents to recognize and respond to their baby’s cues in the moment. A daily sleep rhythm may emerge in the first weeks, and darn it, then it changes again! If parents roll with the changes with flexibility without worrying about tomorrow or next week or month, we witness more successful sleep adaptation for the whole family. Supporting and surrendering to nature’s rhythms, parents can also help everyone’s rest by keeping nighttime dark and quiet without a lot of conversation or bustle with baby. If and when a baby wakes in night, roll with it by checking the baby’s cues and quietly responding. If there are no feeding cues from a healthy term baby waking during the night, we suggest comforting, rocking, and humming to soothe baby back to sleep. This is not spoiling a baby!
Several factors influence how and where baby sleeps…
- how parents choose to feed their baby – breast and/or bottle
- preference for skin to skin contact
- family of origin habits & cultural influences
We encourage families to learn about infant sleep norms and have open conversations about ways to make healthy sleep adjustments with a new baby or babies, as well as basic infant sleep safety.
Basics on infant sleep safety include…
- infants should be placed to sleep on their backs
- infants should be placed on clean, firm surfaces, without the presence of extra blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals
- infants should be kept from exposure to second hand smoke
- infants should not be placed to sleep next to anyone who is not aware the baby is near them
One of our favorite resources is Dr. James McKenna’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory studies to learn how sleeping environments reflect and respond to family needs—in particular how they affect mothers, breastfeeding, and infants’ physiological and psychological well-being and development.
His research cuts through the myths and controversies to provide parents with accurate scientific information on a variety of sleeping arrangements, including safe co-sleeping practices and discussions of normal, healthy infant sleep. McKenna’s work offers a significant corrective to more traditional infant sleep models promulgated in our societies. “I do not recommend to any parents any particular type of sleeping since I do not know the circumstances within which particular parents live. What I do recommend is to consider all of the possible choices and to become as informed as is possible matching what you learn with what you think can work best for you and your family.” says McKenna.
When we talk about infant sleep, we are also talking about family and parent sleep too. When baby sleeps, parents can be sleeping too. Napping during the day when baby sleeps is often one of the most successful way to adapt to infant sleep patterns. We invite parents to shed the stigma of napping during the day. In fact, you will be more focused and productive with regular day naps in the postpartum time! If you have trouble falling asleep during daylight hours, resting in a dark room is still beneficial.
Remember that four is a “magic number” when it comes to sleep. When adults have a continuous four hour sleep stretch, the brain recovers and reboots! A 2009 study shows that mothers who received fragmented sleep of less than four hours a night and less than a one hour nap during the day were at an increased risk for depression three months postpartum. Assuring at least a four hour stretch of sleep was more of a factor than baby’s temperament in decreasing the likelihood of postpartum depression. At Sanctuary Doulas, we designed our postpartum doula services around this “magic number” with a 4 Hour Day Home Visits or 8 Hour Overnight Home Visits. Doula care is intended to provide new families with adequate space and time to rest during our visits.
As postpartum doulas, we listen carefully to the family’s needs and help them create a sustainable family sleep rhythm that works for them. Considerations include mom’s infant feeding goals, her possible future return to work outside the home and her partner’s leave and return to work plans. No matter how much preparing, planning, and surrendering parents do, caring for a baby while experiencing inadequate sleep is difficult. If you are experiencing anxiety around sleep or parenthood that feels overwhelming to you, please reach out to friends, family, a doula, or another health care professional for help and support.
Check back for our upcoming blog on sleep feeding!
Q. Why are you called to serve as a postpartum doula?
It just feels right to be able to support other people. It doesn’t matter how educated they are or how far they’ve travelled, they’ve got this little human being in their charge. As a doula, I am able to walk in and just meet them right where they are, just be there to listen, not judge or fix anything, just being present with the family to learn more about their new baby and parenthood with compassion and a helping hand.
Q. What has your experience working with families taught you?
It has really taught me to be more accepting of my own family. I know what I know about my family all these years, but you go into someone else’s house, and there is a different way of looking at something, something you missed somehow, and you learn.
It has also taught me that everyday is different, and no family is the same when I arrive. There is a whole new picture every time I walk in, so you just go in ready to listen, to say “let’s work through it,” and ask “How can I be of service today?”
Q. What do you enjoy most about being a postpartum doula?
My favorite moments are where I’m just sitting with mom and baby, and there’s discussion, real open discussion, and it’s just about being able to connect at that moment and listen. I appreciate the times where maybe it is a stressful moment, but I can just stop and say, do you need a hug right now? There is so much pressure for mothers to perform in an exact perfect way, sometimes mothers just need to say everything out loud without someone gasping at what they have to say.
Q. Why do you choose to work with Sanctuary Doulas?
Working with Sanctuary Doulas is probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s fabulous to work in community with like minded women who want to support other families. If any of us has a question, we rely on the vast expertise of our group to help. It’s a great support system for both the families and doulas.