Dorothy Waide is one of New Zealand’s leading sleep consultants with over 30 years baby nursing and sleep-settling experience.
It's 3am and all is quiet in the house except for the ear-piercing cries of your precious bundle of joy. Sound familiar? Fear not, we've roped in baby whisperer extraordinaire Dorothy Waide to share an extract from her book Simply Parenting: From 12 weeks to 12 months to guide you on how you can best encourage your little one to go nigh-nighs.
Below is the 'Sleep as a Nutrient' chapter from the book.
Simply Parenting: From 12 Weeks to 12 Months by Dorothy Waide takes you through all the parenting options from the end of the newborn stage until the beginning of toddlerhood, using matter-of-fact language to gently guide you to make the decisions that are right for you and your baby.
You can get your own copy here
Below is the 'Sleep as a Nutrient' chapter from Dorothy Waide's Simply Parenting
Sleep as a nutrient
The all-important topic of sleep seems to govern many of our conversations once we have had a baby. Despite being such a natural part of the human experience, the subject of our baby’s sleep tends to be a fairly controversial and divisive one. Sadly, we often find ourselves comparing our experiences with others, and it may seem to us that everyone else has the perfect baby.
Remember, other parents might well be omitting to mention or glossing over any issues they have, because they want you to believe that they are on top of things. In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect parent, nor a perfect baby.
Sometimes, unexpectedly, your baby might start catnapping during the day and waking more overnight. Up until now your little one had been sleeping perfectly through their daytime naps as well sleeping long stretches at night.
Why then the change? Please do not worry, you are not alone, and it is easily explained by one word: melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland of the brain and plays an important role in the regulation of sleep cycles. It is often referred to as the hormone of darkness rather than the hormone of sleep. When your baby was still in the womb, melatonin was happily passed through the placenta and into your baby, but now, after just a few weeks in open air, that supply of melatonin has disappeared and suddenly you find your once peacefully sleeping baby now waking up.
It is also important to realise that sleep performs a role other than providing a tired parent with some much-needed downtime! Like food, sleep is also a nutrient, and so babies need a combination of both sleep and food. It is quite simple: if they eat well, they sleep well, and if they sleep well, then they will eat well. It is important, then, to try to establish and maintain this harmonious balance. Some flexibility may be required to achieve this. For example, babies with reflux or other medical conditions may have their sleep impacted, so consequently these babies tend to sleep better on an adult body rather than in a cot. It therefore takes time to get a baby with digestive issues into their cot.
Note that sleep is especially important for young ones as it directly impacts their mental and physical development. Once our babies are on solids, I always say that their daytime nutrients are a combination of food and sleep, whereas their night-time nutrient is sleep. So, establishing healthy sleep is important.
Infant sleep and obesity study
A good night’s sleep has been shown to have a number of benefits for infants —including a reduced risk of developing obesity. Obesity rates have risen over the past few decades, and emerging research suggests sleep interventions in infancy may offer promise for reducing the risk of childhood obesity and the negative health associations.
A University of Otago trial named the ‘Prevention of Overweight in Infancy’ study assessed whether extra education and support around sleep, breastfeeding, diet and physical activity reduced the number of children showing excessive weight gain over the first two years of life. Results showed children who received the sleep intervention had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than children who did not at 3.5 and five years old.1
Sleep is a learned behaviour
A baby’s sleep alternates between active/light or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and deep or non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. REM or ‘active’ sleep is when our brains are active and dreaming occurs. Our bodies become immobile, and breathing and heart rates are irregular. NREM or ‘quiet’ sleep is when blood supply to the muscles increases, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair takes place, and the important hormones for growth and development are released.
While your baby may be born with the biological need for sleep, they do not enter the world equipped with the skill to sleep. Many parents assume that babies know when they are tired and therefore will just go to sleep when they need to. However, falling asleep is a learned behaviour, not an innate ability.
In other words, your baby does not know how to fall asleep yet and needs your guidance to teach them where to fall asleep. Be it in your arms, in a cot or bassinet, or safe bed-sharing, your baby needs guidance on learning how to self-settle, resettle and sleep soundly.
On average, most infants (3–12 months) sleep for approximately 12 to 16 hours. This includes naps as well as overnight sleeping. Bear in mind that this will vary from day to day and baby to baby, because each little one is different, and some simply need more sleep than others. How well your baby sleeps will influence their feeding rhythms, and so may have a positive or negative effect on you and your family. Some babies will wake around the 20-minute mark due to digestive issues, whereas others will stir or wake between 35 and 45 minutes when they ease from one sleep cycle to the next.
Understanding these sleep cycles will go a long way in helping you deal with the challenges of establishing a healthy sleep pattern for your baby, so read on.
Setting the scene for a settled baby
Just as adults may feel more alert and have more energy on some days compared with others, so too does your baby, who may be more difficult to settle on some days than others. Before we move on to the next stages, as well as the independent chapters on self-settling and resettling, I want to touch on a common reason for the inability of a baby to settle — overstimulation.
It is easy to think that an active or alert baby has lower sleep needs than the average baby, especially when they seem happy enough for the most part. However, hyperactivity, in my experience, is more often a sign of an overtired baby. Everything in this new world your baby finds themselves in is exciting and stimulating. However, because babies cannot self-regulate, and do not know their limits, they rely on you to manage their rhythms and wake times for them.
And please, do not just rely on looking for so-called ‘tired signs’. Babies are all unique, and it may take months to recognise which tired cues your baby uses to communicate — from yawning or rubbing their eyes to excessive fussing or making jerky hand movements.
There are limitless ways to be a parent, and the parenting style which suits one family will not suit another. No style is more correct than another — it is absolutely your choice how you choose to parent, and how you choose to help your baby to find sleep, or as I call it ‘parenting to sleep’.
Some parents enjoy the experience of teaching their baby to fall asleep in their arms, while others prefer putting their baby in a cot. Many parents find settling baby in their arms, as opposed to a cot, easier, as it involves less bending and provides an opportunity for quiet intimacy. In some families, circumstances influence how a baby is settled; for example, if there are other siblings, a cot may be more practical.
Find what works best for you and do not be afraid. You could mix it up from around 12 weeks onwards — perhaps practise cot or bassinet settling in the morning when you have more energy on board, and then opt for settling in your arms in the afternoons. This is often a fussy time anyway, and may be a much welcome chance to put your feet up and be with your baby at the same time.
As part of your parenting journey you may also choose to seek the advice of a professional (eg. a post-partum care provider or sleep consultant), but remember they may not have all the answers, as it is about you and your baby and finding something that works for you. Their role is to support and guide you, for instance if you want to try a new parenting method, and this takes time.In these situations it is about supporting you in how you want to parent rather than change the way you are parenting.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to parent, and ‘parenting to sleep’ is just one part of your journey.
Your parenting style
Allowing your baby to sleep in your arms is not a cop-out. On the contrary, it instils a sense of security that makes your baby feel nurtured and ready for sleep.
For those mothers out there who feed to sleep, you are amazing, but just remember that feeding your baby to sleep is a long-term commitment and not something that can simply be changed as your baby matures. Are you happy to keep this up indefinitely?
Parents who practise bed-sharing, again you are absolutely wonderful as safe co-sleeping is so good for bonding.
Last, but by no means least, the parents who do neither of these . . . well, that is perfectly fine too, and do you know why? Because all parents are different (thank goodness), and what works for one parent or baby may not work for others.
When parents are settling a baby in their arms and a baby is crying, onlookers may be critical, thinking the parent would be better to put the baby down and leave them to ‘cry it out’. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
These mums are nurturing their babies within their arms, helping their babies find sleep. Six months down the track, these parents may well be the ones who are being complimented by those same people because it seems they now have the ‘ideal’ baby: happy, contented, on three wake cycles and two naps per day, and, to top it all off, sleeping through the night! There is no one right way. I cannot stress that enough.
Others may well look on and criticise your style, but on what basis? Just because they prefer to rock, swing, sway, feed to sleep, or use a soother to keep their little ones quiet until they fall asleep, does not make their mode of parenting any better than yours.
Ideally, any changes you do decide to make to your parenting style will be done in small steps. For example, it would be too big a step if you suddenly went from feeding your baby to sleep or from rocking them to sleep to then putting them straight into a cot while wide awake, and we will talk more about this as we progress through the chapters.
Some mothers are told that co-sleeping/bed-sharing spoils a baby or is unsafe. On the contrary, I believe that there is nothing more nurturing for a baby than to be held close, sensing the rhythm of your heart, your familiar scent and the warmth of your body. If you as parents wish to practise bed-sharing, do not be influenced by others; it is absolutely your prerogative, as long as it is done safely.
How to make your bed as safe as possible for bed-sharing
- Ensure bedding is tight, ideally fitting to the mattress.
- Ensure your mattress is firm.
- Use a sheet or lightweight blanket to cover the lower part of your body.
- Layer your upper torso to keep warm.
- Use an infant wahakura (pepi-pod) in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions.
- Place your baby beside one parent, not between parents.
- Place your baby where they cannot fall out of the bed, but not against pillows or a wall.
Things not to do if bed-sharing
- Sleeping with your baby is not advised if you or your partner are under the influence of recreational drugs or alcohol, or while you are smoking.
- Do not use a waterbed.
- Do not sleep on a sofa where your baby could easily roll into the cushions or roll off onto the floor.
- Do not cover your baby with any sheets, duvets or other bedding.
- Do not use pillows to surround your baby.
- Avoid mohair and any fabric with loose fibres and threads.
- Do not place baby on the wall side, as they may become trapped.
Remember above all else that we are laying the foundations for our babies to experience nurturing love and security. As with everything related to parenting, be well informed so you can make the right decision for you. Unsafe bedsharing has sadly resulted in infant deaths, so it is imperative that you take the utmost care to educate yourselves and create a safe sleep space.
No one likes to hear their baby cry, but please remember that crying is the only way for a baby to communicate with you.
My favourite saying is: Crying is communication. Communication is words.
When our babies are using their ‘words’ we STOP, LISTEN and ACT. Ask yourself: Where am I when my baby cries, and what am I doing? The LISTEN relates to the type of cry it is. What do you think they are telling you? The ACT may mean to continue to listen to your baby for a little longer, or you may intervene and comfort while your baby is in their cot, or you may pick up your baby and engulf and comfort them back to sleep.
Imagine listening to your baby crying (talking) to you, and what they might be saying: ‘Mama no sleep, me not tired’, ‘Daddy play with me’, ‘Me want a drink’, ‘Me need a cuddle’. This is exactly what your baby may be saying to you through their ‘cry mode’, but unfortunately they just have not got the language skills in place to make their message clear.
As parents, it is very difficult to understand the difference between acceptable crying and unacceptable crying. Honestly, how do we tell the difference? The answer is that you will not know, there is no ‘one guideline’, no right or wrong, only your instinct — so use it!
Helping your baby find sleep
There are three main ways of helping your baby find their sleep.
The ‘no-cry’ sleep solution is one where you allow your baby to suck to sleep, using either the breast, soother or bottle. Gradually, over time, you then remove whatever it is you are using. Another way of doing a no-cry sleep solution is to introduce large movements (rocking, swinging, swaying) that will eventually put a baby to sleep. Some parents use a combination of both, but once again,I have to say that one way does not suit all, and we need to listen to our babies and act accordingly.
The no-cry sleep solution may work for a short time, but more often than not it becomes less effective as your baby grows from about 16 weeks onwards, because they have not established their own self-settling ability. Of course, you may be one of the lucky ones with a baby who falls asleep and stays asleep.
Cry it out
It’s important to remember that there has been extensive and well-publicized research into the harm done by leaving babies to cry it out. While the cry-it-out approach is how we did it in the past, in the past few decades we have learnt more about the art of listening and the importance of being there for our babies, sometimes in the role of ‘being’ and other times in the role of ‘doing’.
The middle line of parenting
The middle line of parenting acknowledges that, yes, our babies are going to cry — they are hungry, need a cuddle, too hot, too cold, in pain — this is how they communicate. This is how we get to know our little ones. By paying attention to our babies when they cry, we can work out what they are trying to tell us, and therefore whether we need to intervene or leave them to self-settle.
This balancing act of intervene/leave comes to the fore when the baby transitions to independent sleeping. I believe the ideal and natural time for your baby to start the transition from arms to sleeping independently is around the 12-week stage, which coincides with the end of the ‘fourth trimester’,although some babies may be ready at around six weeks. As the parent it is up to you to decide when seems the right moment for this.
Here we will start with small steps: stepping back and intervening only when necessary, so that we are listening but not doing all of the ‘doing’ for them. Remember, our role is to guide, support and teach them to find their sleep. Do not forget that every so often your little one will need to be re-shown how to self-settle and resettle, so do not be concerned if you have to start again with the settling techniques you used with your newborn. What your little one needs right now is TACT: TIME, ACCEPTANCE (patience), CONSISTENCY (this does not need to be 100 percent, rather aim for 80 percent) and TOUCH (presence).
Once again, I reiterate, there is no right or wrong way to parent and ‘parenting to sleep’ is just one part of your journey.
1. Taylor BJ, Heath AM, Galland BC, et al. (2011). 'Prevention of Overweight in Infancy (POI.nz) study: a randomised controlled trial of sleep, food and activity interventions for preventing overweight from birth', BMC Public Health 2011, 11:942; Taylor RW, Gray AR, Heath AM, et al. (2018). 'Sleep, nutrition, and physical activity interventions to prevent obesity in infancy: follow-up of the Prevention of Overweight in Infancy (POI) randomized controlled trial at ages 3.5 and 5 y', American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2018, 108 (2): 228-236.