When American entrepreneur E Joseph Cossman called sleep the ‘bridge between despair and hope’, he wasn’t kidding. From the Salem witch trials to the Spanish Inquisition, forced sleep deprivation has been used as a means of torture for centuries and for good reason.
At its worst, sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations, paranoia, and disorientation, but even moderate loss of sleep can feel like torment. Most parents know the symptoms of sleep deficiency or interrupted sleep – problems with learning, memory, and clarity of thought are just a few.
It’s no wonder, then, that parents who have problems getting their kids to go to sleep and stay asleep often feel a profound sense of hopelessness. The good news is that the solutions to many sleep problems are not nearly as daunting as you may think. Here are some practical tips for solving some of your child’s worst sleep offences right away.
Pediatrician Harvey Karp, a former fellow in child development at the UCLA School of Medicine, recalled the frustration, shock and alarm he felt when, ‘as a member of the Child Abuse Team, I consulted on several severely injured babies whose screams drove their stressed-out parents to acts of abuse.’
His subsequent research led him to draw the conclusion that human babies are born three months too early, so the secret to calming babies in the first 12 weeks is to recreate the conditions of the womb. Using cross-cultural techniques combined with his own research, Dr Karp developed the five S’s system. Some babies will need all five, others just a few to help induce what he calls the calming reflex.
For more about the philosophy and all the finer details of Dr Karp’s plan, read his book, The Happiest Baby On The Block. But if you need your new baby to stop crying and go to sleep right now, try these five steps:
Swaddle: According to Dr Karp, there’s no such thing as colic; in fact, it doesn’t exist in any culture other than ours. One reason is that mothers in other cultures know that tight swaddling provides the continuous touching and support your foetus experienced while still in the mother’s womb. This technique will only work in the first month of your baby’s life, but it can save you hours of misery. If you’re not sure how to swaddle a baby, check out the step-by-step pictorial instructions at www.pregnancy.about.com, or ask your midwife.
Side/stomach position: Once your baby is swaddled (if she needs it), hold her and place her either on her left side to assist in digestion, or on her stomach to provide reassuring support. As soon as your baby is asleep, you can put her in her crib, on her back.
Shushing sounds: In the uterus, the continual whooshing sound made by the blood flowing through arteries near the womb was only inches away for over nine months, and it created a volume equivalent to that of a vacuum cleaner. Recreate this white noise with an appliance like your vacuum cleaner, hair dryer or fan, or get a white noise CD. No electricity on hand? Hold your baby with your mouth right up to her ear and make a loud shushing noise.
Swinging: Though it seems only logical to handle newborn babies with care, your tiny baby is used to rocking and rolling. In fact, she felt every step her mother took before she was born, and she may miss the motion. Rocking, car rides, and other swinging movements can help. Even better, strap her into a sling and carry on about your business – she’ll love the closeness and movement, and you’ll love having both hands free.
Sucking: ‘Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system,’ notes Karp, ‘and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain.’ Get your baby to suck with a bottle, or even a finger.
The combination of some or all of these techniques has been effective in calming babies around the world, and the best part is that anyone can do it, not just Mum.
3-6 months old
Once your baby is out of the newborn phase – starting from three to six months old – you can start what famed pediatrician Richard Ferber calls controlled crying (also called controlled comforting) in his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. According to Dr Ferber, the ability to fall asleep on one’s own is a learned skill, and children may need to practise before they master this vital talent.
To try this technique, establish a consistent bedtime routine. When it’s time for bed, put your baby in her cot and tuck her in. Either talk to and/or pat her until she is quiet, or for one minute. As soon as your baby is settled, say goodnight and leave the room. Leave before your baby is asleep, even if she cries.
Stay out of the bedroom and give your baby a chance to settle by herself. Ignore any fussing. If your baby starts to really cry, wait for a set amount of time – start with two minutes – before going back to settle her. Now leave your baby for a sequence of set time intervals. Essentially, you allow your baby more and more time to settle herself before stepping in to help. At first, allow her to cry for two minutes, then go in to settle her. When she cries again, leave her for four minutes before returning, then in the next interval wait six minutes. Continue until the intervals are up to 15 or 20 minutes. Use a clock (preferably digital) to time each interval – a few minutes can feel like an eternity at 4am and after a lot of crying. At the end of each interval, if your baby is still crying, go in to settle her. Talk to her or pat her for one minute, or continue talking/patting until she is quiet (depending on your preference). Try to soothe her without picking her up if you can – you want her to learn how to go to sleep with the least amount of help possible, so don’t give bottles or other sleep aids. If her nappy becomes soiled, change her under low light and with minimal fuss. As soon as she is quiet (or after one minute), but before she is asleep, leave the room again and wait for the next set time interval.
Continue this process until your baby falls asleep by herself. When your baby wakes overnight, follow the same routine.
It’s important to remember that Dr Ferber’s method takes between three and 14 days to work. The hardest part of this very effective technique is listening to your baby cry and not comforting her, even if you think you should. For this reason, turn off all baby monitors and don’t wait outside the baby’s bedroom. Try to distract yourself and absolutely don’t go back into your baby’s room until the set amount of time is up. It may seem hard, but you’re not abandoning her; you’re simply giving her the opportunity to learn how to fall asleep independently.
Before you start your baby’s sleep training, make sure you and your spouse are on the same page – you might want to take turns settling the baby throughout the night or alternate nights. Those first few nights, although rough, will most likely result in full nights of sleep, which is ultimately better for everyone involved.
When English novelist Virginia Woolf called sleep ‘that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life,’ she captured perfectly the sentiment many toddlers feel about going to bed. Once granted their freedom from the confinement of the cot, your little one may be tempted to exercise that freedom to the fullest. In the same way that you may need to train your infant to sleep through the night, you may also need to teach your toddler how to stay in bed. The trick lies in consistency as outlined by the experts at the Raising Children Network:
Establish a bedtime routine that may include taking a bath, having quiet time, and putting away toys to prepare the room as a place for sleeping rather than playing. Make sure your child has what she needs to feel comfortable – a warm blanket, a favourite toy, or perhaps a night-light.
If you can, encourage your child to get into her bed on her own. If you ask your child, ‘Do you want to go to bed?’, you’re likely to get the response, ‘No!’ Instead, try giving your child the choice between two options that both require going to bed, like, ‘Do you want to sleep on the fire engine pillow or the rainbow pillow?’ Say goodnight and make sure your child knows exactly what you expect – for her to stay in bed.
If your child comes out of her room, immediately help her back to bed. Remind her, ‘It’s time to go to bed; I’ll see you in the morning,’ and leave the room. Return her gently and calmly to bed, without talking, making eye contact, or reprimanding her (she’ll take negative attention over none at all). Do this as many times as it takes until she stays in bed.
If your child calls out, as hard as this may be, do not respond and ignore all further requests. For this technique to work you’ll have to stay firm and ignore the calling out – no extra drink of water, no extra bedtime story, no extra kiss, and no straightening blankets. Don’t go to her at all. If you respond because your child gets louder or more demanding, she’ll learn that protesting long enough and loudly enough will get your attention. In future, she’ll be more likely to keep protesting until you come.
Of course, when it comes to problems with children – both sleep and otherwise – nothing beats the advice of an expert in the flesh. Says midwife and childcare educator Cecile de Scally at Australian Family Care in Dubai Healthcare City, ‘What works best, more than reading literature, is having a professional with a sound knowledge base to talk from, who can offer support.’
So if you’re hanging on by a sleep deprived thread, take heart. It’s not all in your head, and there is a solution. Perhaps the old Irish proverb says it best – a good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.
The Happiest Baby On The Block by Dr Harvey Karp and Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr Richard Ferber are both available through Magrudy’s. For further advice, check out www.raisingchildren.net.au. For more personal help, make an appointment at Australian Family Care, Dubai Healthcare City (04 324 5555)