Written by: Aileen Dunbar, Founder of Connected Slumber Baby/Toddler Sleep Support.
As a new parent, you are bombarded with lots of advice, particularly pertaining to your baby’s sleep. The mainstream narrative seems to be that if you want your baby to “sleep well”, you need to sleep train, otherwise, they will never learn to sleep on their own. In my next two blog posts, I will share with you ways that you can improve your baby’s sleep without any sleep training, as this is what I do as a Baby-Led Sleep and Well-Being Specialist.
1. Adjust sleep environment as needed
There is no right or wrong sleep environment as each baby is unique in terms of what suits their temperament. However, you could try tweaking things where your baby is sleeping to see if it could improve their sleep. Here are a few examples of things to examine:
a) Temperature: Try to keep room temperature between 20 to 22 degrees Celsius (68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit). If it is summer and you don’t have air conditioning, you could do other things to keep the room cool like using a fan but pointing it at the wall instead of at your baby and/or keep blinds shut and windows open during the day.
Dress baby comfortably for temperature. The rule of thumb is typically to put them in one more layer than you are wearing. Breathable fabrics such as organic cotton and bamboo are better than fleece. Also, there should be no blankets in the crib but a sleep sack is a safe alternative. Having your baby in the same room will allow you to better monitor their temperature throughout the night (it is also recommended by AAP to room share for at least 6 months, ideally a year).
b) Light: Try to expose baby to natural light during the day as much as possible by getting outside and opening the blinds when it’s morning, for example. For newborn babies, it is best to not have them nap in total darkness as exposure to light during the day helps them develop their circadian rhythm. When they get older, you could experiment with seeing if they nap better with blackout blinds. When it is evening time, try to reduce baby’s exposure to artificial light by dimming the lights. You could also use low-watt, amber lightbulbs instead as these have less of a negative impact on sleep compared to white light (Dr. Dewar, 2018). Lastly, you could use blackout blinds overnight.
c) Noise: A white noise machine may be helpful as it can provide the constant humming noise baby is accustomed to in the womb as well as block out other loud noises in the house which could wake them up. Keep in mind it is recommended to set the machine no louder than 50 decibels so as to not have any negative impact on your baby’s hearing.
2. Adjust the timing of naps and bedtime
When timing is off for naps and bedtimes, it can lead to shorter naps, more night wakings, and early rising, to name a few. Adjusting the times at which you put your baby to sleep can make a big difference!
First off, what are some signs baby is undertired and therefore, not quite ready to sleep?
it is taking more than 20-25 minutes for them to fall asleep/they are fighting sleep
they seem more interested in playing/looking at their surroundings
What are some signs your baby is overtired?
rubbing eyes, pulling ears, yawning, are difficult to soothe
falling asleep within 5 minutes or less (it should take at least 10 minutes to fall asleep)
What should you do in each circumstance?
if baby is undertired, wait 15 minutes then try again to get them to sleep
if baby is overtired, do what you can to get them to sleep as soon as possible. To avoid this happening for the next sleep time, try to put them down 15 minutes earlier than you normally would and/or whenever they are showing early tired cues, such as glossy eyes, rooting and sucking on fists or fingers (for more information about tired cues, download my free guide here!)
3. Use calming routines to signal it is time to sleep
Here is a quote from Dr. Stuart Shanker, Canada's leading expert in self-regulation, that describes the importance of having routines for babies:
“…what is happening in the first year of life is that the baby is starting to form patterns. This is what our brains are designed to do. Our brains are designed to form patterns around us, and we’re really good at finding them…When it (the brain) sees a pattern, the baby can anticipate what’s about to happen. Why is this so important? Because what it does is dramatically reduce stress. If a baby knows what’s about to happen, the baby won’t be scared or startled… If the baby has no idea what’s about to happen, then what we find is heightened stress reactivity."
This quote demonstrates the importance of having nap and bedtime routines as they signal to your baby that it is time to sleep. Furthermore, using routines ensures they have a positive association with going to sleep as it reduces their stress since they know what to expect.
Along with having routines for sleep times, it is also essential that your baby finds the routine soothing. So, how do you know if this is the case? By tuning into their body language. For example, if they settle into your arms, seem comfortable and content, and aren’t doing things such as arching their back or crying uncontrollably, these are good indicators that your baby is calm. Most babies are seeking to feel attached to you as they fall asleep, so things such as bouncing, rocking, and singing soothing lullabies are all great ways to help ease them into sleep.
4. Investigate any underlying issues that may be impacting sleep
There are several medical reasons that could be leading to more struggles both with your baby falling asleep and staying asleep. Here are a few to consider and further investigate:
a) Tongue tie
What is it? All of us have a cord of tissue called the frenulum underneath tongue, which connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. Some of us have a frenulum that is too thick, short, or tight and when this causes the tongue to not be able to lift to the roof of the mouth, this is referred to as a tongue tie.
What are some sleep-related red flags? Mouth breathing, snoring, if baby can never lie flat when sleeping, baby waking hourly.
What should you do? You could first see a lactation consultant who is well versed in tongue ties as they can identify if your baby has a tongue tie. They could then refer you to a paediatrician or pediatric dentist who could determine the next step to take, such as a tongue tie release.
b) Iron deficiency
What is it? Approximately 20-25% of infants have iron deficiency anemia (IDA) and close to 50% of worldwide infants have some form of iron deficiency.
What are some red flags?
baby is very restless the whole night (moving around a lot, limbs flailing, etc.)
hourly wakes that have been going on for more than 2-3 weeks
if mother was iron deficient in pregnancy, there is a greater likelihood of the baby being iron deficient as well
What should you do? Talk to your health care provider to see if they will do a blood test to check baby’s ferritin (iron stores) level. In Canada, unfortunately, doctors do not typically do this test but a naturopath may be more likely to do so. Even if the test comes back within the “normal range”, levels under 50 mcg/mL can have an impact on sleep, so it is still a good idea to try to increase baby’s iron levels. Doctor or naturopath may recommend taking a supplement depending on results.
c) Food intolerance
What is it? A food intolerance, or a food sensitivity occurs when baby has difficulty digesting a particular food. Common food triggers include dairy, wheat and gluten, peanuts, eggs. Breastfed babies may develop food sensitivities by reacting to the foods that mom is eating.
What are some red flags?
Baby waking up uncomfortable, fussy, very upset.
Physical symptoms like skin rashes, bloody or mucousy stools, vomiting or diarrhea, wheezing or congestion
What should you do?
seek support from a naturopath or allergist to assess the situation
you may need to eliminate specific foods from your baby's diet and yours if you are breastfeeding
it may take some time to see improvement even after particular food has been eliminated from diet
One of my goals as a Baby-Led Sleep and Well-Being Specialist is to empower parents that you can do things to optimize your baby’s sleep without resorting to sleep training! I hope this post provided you with this reassurance and ideas of things to try. If you would like individualized support with improving your baby’s sleep without sleep training, book your free 15-minute discovery call here to see how I can support you with your particular situation.
Baby-Led Sleep Certification (Sleep Coach Certification - Isla-Grace (islagrace.ca))
Dewar, G. (2018). 15 baby sleep tips: A guide for the science-minded parent (parentingscience.com)