Recently a customer, Michelle, bought one of our belly bands and belly bloomers and posted a raving review on Instagram. It caught my attention and little did I know that she is not just a mama of a gassy little newborn but she is also a certified sleep consultant. And those that know me well, know that I am obsessed with my kids getting just the right amount of sleep and that I get my full 8 hours at night!
So, obviously I reached out to her and asked if she'd be willing to answer a few questions for myself and for our community. She was so gracious and has taken time out to answer a few questions that I think will be helpful for all parents of children young and old.
Michelle Leon-Gibson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant (Family Sleep Institute) and a Registered Social Worker in Toronto, Ontario. She consults with parents on child sleep training and so much more. You can find more information about her and her consulting services on her website here.
ME: Can you briefly describe what sleep training is?
MLG: Sleep training is what we do to help teach our babies the skill of falling asleep on their own - that’s right, it’s a SKILL! It’s quite shocking to first-time parents to learn that babies actually don’t know how to put themselves to sleep and require assistance in their early weeks to help them sleep.
However, once baby gets to be 16 weeks (adjusted age for their due date), we can begin to help them learn the skill of falling asleep on their own. Prior to 16 weeks of age, we can experiment with some self-soothing or skill building by putting them in their crib drowsy, but awake, and see how it goes. However, real effective teaching will take some time to develop.
There are MANY different training methods - sleep training does not have to mean letting your baby cry it out if that’s not a good fit for your family. A good sleep consultant should have several training methods for you and your family to choose from so that you can decide on what is a good fit for you and your lifestyle.
The most important factor when it comes to choosing a method is that if there are 2 parents in the home that BOTH are on the same page. Every method works with consistency and commitment from both parents and NO method works without consistency or commitment from both parents. The biggest difference between the methods is the amount of time it will take to get results.
ME: What do you recommend to parents of a newborn on how to put their baby to sleep so that he/she sleeps well? Should parents start sleep training their newborns right away?
MLG: I recommend doing whatever needs to be done in the early weeks. I call this “survival mode”. Whatever everyone needs to do to get rest should be done, so long as it is safe! Safety is the only rule in these early days. I do suggest experimenting with teaching your baby some self-soothing from day 1.
This involves soothing your baby until they are very drowsy, but not yet asleep, and put baby down into crib at that point and see what happens. I would never suggest leaving a baby under 12 weeks to “cry it out”. Babies are looking for comfort from their parent(s) at this stage as they adjust to their new life outside of the womb.
It’s very important to comfort your baby and develop trust with them in these first months. The nervous system is very much underdeveloped at this stage and coming from the warmth and tight comfort of being with mom 24/7 to this cold world full of stimuli - what an adjustment! While many worry that using the glider or swings will develop bad habits, it is still early enough that it won’t create dependency quite yet (but they will become a problem if we use them past 3-4 months!).
Some rocking, pacing, singing, patting, those are good soothing techniques. We want to soothe baby to drowsy, not put them to sleep. BUT, like I said, we also want to get rest. So if baby is not soothing self to the final drift off to sleep, then we can intervene in these first weeks and keep trying later until baby is fully ready for a more concrete method around that 4 month mark.
Since babies are not born with natural circadian rhythms (we’ve all heard of babies who have their days and nights “mixed up” - that is because they do not have a biological clock developed yet) and they do not yet produce their own melatonin (the hormone that drives sleep), so we spend the early weeks creating optimal environment for those 2 key sleep components to develop. Here are some of the things that we can do to get baby on our clock and help facilitate the development of their circadian rhythm and around the 3 month mark, their melatonin production:
The key to newborn baby sleep is ensuring that they are not awake for too long before we put them to sleep. Newborn babies should only be awake for 45 minutes before it’s time for a nap again. This increases almost weekly, as the first 4 months have an incredible amount of growth and development. By the time baby is 4 months the awake times are around 1.5-2.25 hours before they’re ready for a nap.
Exposing your baby to lots of natural light during the day and keeping room as dark as possible in the night will help with the development of circadian rhythms and melatonin production also. Go for walks!
ME: I know I bed-shared with my babies with either a snuggle nest or side crib next to the bed. What are your thoughts on bed sharing and what’s the safest thing for parents to do?
MLG: This is one of those “touchy” subjects that people seem to get really emotional about on social media. I do not recommend bed-sharing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for safe sleep that bed sharing does not occur, however, they do recommend room sharing up to 1 year to reduce (AAP) the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Babies should be sleeping in their own space, free from blankets, stuffed toys, bumpers, and any other objects in their bassinet/crib. In the crib should be baby only, on a firm mattress. Baby should be placed on their back to sleep.
This being said, we also know that many families DO bed share despite the recommendations. The most important factor here to consider is safety. The fact is that the AAP researches SIDS because it does happen. While most families are fortunate to have never had to encounter the most unimaginable tragedy of losing a child to SIDS, it does happen, I have seen it in my work in child welfare, and we cannot ignore the fact that there are some practices that are more unsafe than others.
We want to make sure that if we are bed sharing, that it is not ‘reactive’. This means that we are not doing it randomly in the night because baby won’t sleep and so we bring them into bed sometimes and pass out with them beside us. It should be a conscious practice that is done with care, if it is going to happen at all. The bed sharing practices for utmost safety include: no bed sharing until a child is over 12 months; the mattress should be placed on the floor; firm mattress; no blankets or pillows; the breastfeeding parent should be in the bed; no alcohol or prescription or non-prescription drugs should be consumed; the home must be smoke-free, and there should be no side rails.
I will also mention here that it is often found that parents are not getting the quality restorative sleep they need when they bed share, as they’re usually conscious of the child beside them OR the child is making a lot of noises and movements in their sleep, which disrupts parents.
So while parents may think that co-sleeping is going to get the family great sleep, if the baby is the only one sleeping, then it ends up being the same difference! It also makes for a more challenging future situation when parents are ready to put baby in their own bed and room. Again, lots to think about.
The side cribs that attach to the bed appear to be safe, but this should be discussed with your pediatrician. However, the “dock-a-tot” type of mattresses and other similar products (lots of them on social media!) are unsafe and not recommended for practicing bed sharing.
The only other thing I will say about bed sharing is that if you are in a relationship and have a partner, bed sharing should be discussed. This is a value-based practice and it can greatly impact a couple’s relationship if the value is not shared and/or a discussion is not had about it.
Does your partner agree with this practice? How long do you plan on committing to this practice? Are you all remaining in the bed at the same time? Will your sex life be impacted by this practice and if so, how can you ensure you do not lose out on your intimate life? Take the time to have a discussion about what you’re committing to and respect your partner’s position on the subject. Your baby will learn to sleep wherever you put them if you take the time. No reason to lose your relationship over a sleeping arrangement.
ME: Can you offer some tips for new mamas who need to get sleep? Or even mamas with more than one kid, like myself, who feels exhausted most of my day because I feel like I don’t sleep enough.
MLG: ROUTINE. ROUTINE. ROUTINE. Did I mention routine?! Establishing a routine and a structure to your day will ensure that you can plan around nap times and have a well-rested child and thus be well-rested yourself. I’ll tell you that it’s not easy to establish sleep and routines (depending on your child) but the short-term pain is for very long-term gain - I promise you that!
As I said before, in the first 4 months, you are in survival mode - sleep when you can! I know that it’s hard, especially when you have more than one child and maybe the older one(s) doesn’t nap so “nap when the baby naps” is not realistic for you! This is why the night sleep is super important to get sorted as soon as your baby is capable of accepting some of the teaching methods that we have. I recommend taking any help that is offered and don’t try to be Super Woman! It’s not a sign of weakness that you need sleep and rest!
We also know that getting enough sleep can significantly reduce “Baby Blues” and may also lower incidences of Post-Partum Depression - that’s how vital sleep is! If there is a partner in the home, I recommend taking night shifts, if possible: split the night in half - dad does the evening up until 1am(if baby wakes, he’s the one in charge) and mom does 1am onward (this gives dad some sleep before he goes to work).
Figure out what works for your family and your personal clocks. In my house, I’m an early-to-bed girl, and my husband is a night-owl, so the example I gave worked well for us. But, with my older children, I was a single mom, so there was no “tag off” partner and I did it all on my own - so when I work with families, I have quite a bit of experience working with the most and less than ideal situations to figure out how to get everyone sleeping!
In addition to the sleeping, make sure you are exercising, eating well, staying hydrated and limiting your dependency on caffeine which can actually cause major crashes in the late afternoon. You cannot put yourself at the bottom of priorities and expect to be able to care for your family the way you want to and need to.
We must take care of ourselves first before we can properly care for our families! Think of the oxygen mask on the plane example - they say to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then children and others. If you burn out or spiral into a dark place, how are you going to take care of your family? Make time for walks, the gym, yoga, whatever you need to do to fill your bucket so you have enough to share with your family.