If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
Dr. Isabel Morales-Munoz: Before Vera was born, I had been investigating sleep in early childhood for three years, as part of my research. For this reason, and before being pregnant, I was already aware of the relevance of sleep, and the consequences that this might have on my health but also on my baby´s health and development. The positive thing of being so involved on this research is that I was aware of the fact that sleep habits in children are something that can be trained, and that indeed sleep problems can be treated and even prevented. In other words, that having a child with sleep problems was not a matter of lack or something that could not be modified, and that indeed there are many factors that can affect sleep in early childhood, and by addressing those factors, sleep in children can positively improve. However, the message that I was getting from my social network (family, friends, and colleagues) was indeed much more negative: The most common complaint from new parents that I frequently heard was the lack of sleep that they were suffering, and that this was lasting for several years. And indeed, when I announced that I was pregnant, the most common sentence that my husband and I heard was: ‘Good luck, and get used to not getting any sleep, so try to sleep as much as you can during your pregnancy’ I must say, that as a sleep researcher who knows the negative consequences that the lack of sleep has on our mental health, this was indeed a very scary sentence. But still, I had the hope that things might be a bit different with our baby, so I tried to start putting into practice what I had learned from my research as soon as possible, to prevent potential sleep problems.
Some people might think that short sleep in children and very frequent night awakenings are something normal that all parents will experience when they have little babies, but after reading many normative papers on children’s sleep patterns, and after working on this normative data myself, I knew indeed that not all children had short sleep, and that there are in fact children who sleep long hours during night and day, and that very frequent night awakenings is indeed not that common. One of the things that I knew from one of my first publications on sleep in childhood is that some maternal factors occurring already during pregnancy, such as insomnia problems, anxiety, or depression, may affect the baby’s sleep development during the first months of life. For this reason, and since I was pregnant, I started being more aware of my own sleep patterns, sleep routines, and mental health in general; also, my husband and I already started practicing earlier bedtime routines, as evening-type [‘owls’] parents during pregnancy tend to report having more sleep problems with their children than morning-type [‘larks’] parents. And when our baby girl was worn, we continued practicing these early bedtime routines, as much as we could.
Of course, the first weeks after Vera was born were a bit challenging, as this was our first baby, and we did not have any previous experience. Also, we did not have any family around, so basically, it was my husband and me to be in charge of our baby. And I must say, that although this might seem a bit scary and that many people might think that things might be easier, especially during the first month, if close family is around, in my opinion, the fewer the better. I remember that during the first two weeks I was quite tired, especially the first days after giving birth, and it is common to feel overwhelmed with so many new changes and emotions. In my opinion, what helped my husband and I the most was to have a clear organization and clear schedules (when possible!).
The first week we spent basically at home learning new parenting skills and also trying to understand how our little girl behaved. And for me, it was very important that both of us would have a good rest. So we took turns to sleep during the day, to make sure that if the night would be a bit more difficult (especially for me, because of the breastfeeding), then at least we would have had some hours of sleep during the day.
The days just went very fast, and we basically did not have any time, except for taking care of our daughter. And I must say that this was a really lovely experience, to build our own family of three, understanding each other, and creating a new life together. So I honestly cannot think how this could have been possible with other people around (like parents, siblings, other relatives, or close friends) frequently visiting home, breaking these new routines, and having to pay extra attention to them with coffee and cookies and not mentioning of course, the very ‘relevant advice’ on how we should take care of our own baby. Of course, I am not saying that having visits around are not good; indeed, it is lovely to be surrounded by your loved ones, and that they really care about your baby. But what I am saying is that especially the first two weeks, it is not maybe the best time for these visits to come. And this is something that many people have already acknowledged as a positive thing from the lockdown that we had to experience because of COVID-19.
After these first two weeks, Vera’s sleep patterns started consolidating a bit, which made our daily life a bit easier; but we still continued with our routines. But still for me, as a Spanish person by birth and being raised in a culture where nightlife and late bedtime schedules are common practices, it was still difficult to understand what an early bedtime for a baby could be. I also thought about bedtime schedules in the babies from my family or close friends, and I still thought that indeed somewhere around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. was early enough for a baby (taking into account that dinner in Spain is usually around 9:00 to 10:00 p.m.). But after being in Finland, where I lived for four years before I moved to the UK, I started getting used to earlier timing for eating and bedtime, and I also started learning about earlier bedtimes in childhood. Therefore, my husband and I have started putting into practice earlier bedtimes for our baby girl, around 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. at this point (2 months of age), and also earlier bedtimes for ourselves, around 9:30 p.m. What we realized as well is that babies in general are early birds by default, and by 6:00 a.m. our little one is already awake and ready to start the day. So, for this reason it is also important for us now to go to bed earlier than before, to try to get a good sleep during the night, and feel fresh when the next day starts at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.
What I will find a bit challenging is when I will go to Spain to visit my family, as most probably my family and friends won´t understand such early bedtimes and the benefit that this has for having healthy sleep habits and patterns. I am not asking them to change their lifestyles, or to read reliable sources of information like the book of Dr. Marc Weissbluth, but at least we will try to be assertive and to maintain our current sleep patterns, not to interfere on the sleep health of our baby girl.
Last but not least, the main responsibility of taking care of the baby, and the baby sleep patterns in this case, should not lie only with the mother, but this should be a shared responsibility between the mother and the father (or the other partner). It is quite common that the father might ask the mother: ‘What can I do?’ In most cases, the mother does not have a clear answer. But she does need to know the answer better than the father, as this is a learning process that should be taken together. In our case, both my husband and I try to learn at the same time the new patterns of our little girl, how she behaves, what we can do. So what I would recommend is that if you are reading a book about healthy sleep patterns in childhood, like Dr. Weissbluth’s, that I read and that I found extremely useful, don’t try to explain it to your partner, but tell him or her to read it, too. The partner should not only help or collaborate but should equally contribute to the development and care of your little one and the family you are building together.
Nowadays, our little Vera sleeps quite well during the day and during the night; we have even managed to get about seven or eight hours of sleep in a row, sometimes. Of course, we do not always have the same patterns and some nights are better than others, as she might need to wake up to breastfeed or because she has pain in her little stomach. But so far, she manages to sleep around ten hours per night, and four hours per day; and she usually only wakes up once or twice a night. When I mention this to my family in Spain, they say that I have been lucky. In my opinion, luck is the result of the combination of several factors and skills and this is a training that still needs to go on during the different stages of the development of our little girl, in order to continue being ‘lucky.’”