Where to get help to help your baby sleep

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There is so much pressure about having a baby who sleeps 'all night' , it's no wonder you worry about your baby if she wakes in the night.

You worry:

When will she sleep all night?

By the way, 'all night' is defined as five consecutive hours in baby sleep studies, not eight hours or 12 hours, as some people would have you believe.

How do I teach her to 'self settle'?

Most babies under four months need a lot of help to fall asleep. Newborns enter sleep through an active sleep phase, and they have a strong startle reflex that's likely to jerk them awake just as they are dozing off. Besides, what's the big deal about having some extra cuddles to help your baby relax and go into a lovely sound sleep? Consider what environment helps you sleep best – do you simply hop into bed, lie down and fall asleep? Or do you have a nice warm drink, read a book or cuddle your partner before drifting off? Do you have nights after a busy day, when you find it more difficult to switch off and fall asleep? Do you doze off all snuggled up to your partner, then, just as you're almost asleep, do they poke you and say, 'you need to self-settle – move over to your own side of the bed or we'll create bad habits'?  

And the big one: am I creating 'bad habits'?

Since when did needing cuddles become a bad habit? Your baby needs touch and movement to help her brain develop healthy connections and structures for later learning and appropriate emotional responses; she needs reassurance and responsiveness to help her develop trust and a strong connection with you – and that will last a lifetime.

There's a lot of noise out there creating fears about a lot of perfectly normal baby behaviour. However, when you're exhausted, knowing what's normal doesn't give you a sudden burst of energy. Sometimes you need help so you can get some much needed rest. But how do you find help?

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There are a few options to help sleepless families. Firstly, and free, are family members: can you call your mum, sister or friend to come and stay for a few days, or can you go and stay with a family member who will support you as you catch up on some much needed rest? Don't worry about feeling judged because you aren't 'coping'; most people are only too glad to be involved with a family baby, and, if they've had babies themselves, they will understand. You may even be giving them an opportunity to speak about how hard it was for them in their own early days.

Secondly, if you can afford hired help, a postnatal doula can be the next best thing to having your mum to help. And because you're paying her, you can say what you need done without feeling you're imposing. A doula can come in for a few hours to 'pack you together' and watch your baby while you catch up on some uninterrupted sleep; she can cook a meal, hang out washing and make you a cuppa – just like your own mum or a trusted friend.

Thirdly, if you want to make some changes to the way your baby is sleeping, you may want to ask your GP or baby health nurse for a referral to a mother baby unit or 'sleep school'. Just like any sort of help, you'll need to do your homework: do this by asking questions about anything that's concerning you. For instance, what do they do? Will sleep training involve leaving your baby to cry? Will you and your baby be checked for any health issues? Will you and your baby sleep in the same room, or will you be separated?  

Some mother baby units take a very gentle approach and encourage you to respond to your baby at all times, while others will implement a fairly rigid 'one size fits all' controlled crying regime. Remember, this is your baby: you don't have to do anything that doesn't feel right for you. You can negotiate with staff and expect to have explanations for anything they advise. And, if it's not for you, you are free to leave.

Lastly, you can hire a baby sleep consultant who will come to your home.  This is where you need to really take care, as there is a plethora of online courses in baby sleep training that give their 'graduates' certificates. This means there are baby sleep trainers with no qualifications in early childhood or infant health.

Consider that this person is coming into your home, meeting your child, advising you on your baby's wellbeing. You need to be very clear about what you need and what you're prepared to allow before you hire this person. There are a few important questions you want to ask, too:

  • Ask "what qualifications do you have?" Check what these actually mean and what the scope of the training is. For instance, if you have a breastfed baby, can this person assess your baby's feeding to see whether this is impacting your baby's sleep?
  • Will this person do a history that includes any health issues for you and your baby, or does she see sleep solely as a behavioural problem? If she suspects an issue that requires help from another professional, such as infant reflux, possible allergies, feeding problems or developmental issues, will she refer you to an appropriate resource?  
  • Will she support and respect you and your beliefs? If she gives you explanations that sound reasonable but have you doubting yourself, try the filter: is it safe? Is it respectful? Does it feel right?

If anything feels stressful for you or your baby, ditch it. Remember, you are the expert about your child.

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling babycare author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart. See Pinky' s books, blogs and baby massage DVD at her website, pinkymckay.com.

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