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Is sleep training the magic ticket for mom’s anxiety?

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while. But it is such a sensitive subject, I have struggled to figure out how!

I would say I was inspired by my friend and colleague Lauren Alysha Heffernan of Isla-Grace, and her post on “Wake Windows and Sleep Schedules”. She addresses an issue, that many of us in the sleep coaching industry have been somewhat ignoring. And one that is so important for us to bring attention to.

The “too lazy did not read” of this post is… Sleep training will not eliminate your postpartum depression or anxiety. 😉

Now, it may give you a focal point. A place to put your attention. A subject to think about and busy your mind with. All of those things happened for me when I was experiencing postpartum anxiety with my daughter. And it may decrease your depression and anxiety for a little while. But, it also may not. And in fact, it also might make it worse. Something very few people talk about. 

I remember telling my sleep consultant at the time, “If I could just get this baby sleeping… I am sure my anxiety would be so much lower.”

Now, if I had a dollar for every time I have heard that line since… I would probably have $50 or so. 😉

I ask every family that I work with, “is anyone in the family experiencing anxiety or depression?”. 90% of the families I work with reply. “Yes”. I then ask, “has it been diagnosed by a medical professional?” And 75% then answer, “No”.

In our consultation I always ask why this is… and many parents say that they are certain once their baby starts sleeping better, they will no longer experience these levels of depression or anxiety.  

Now, there might be some truth to this.

We know that lack of sleep is certainly related to a decrease in overall mood, and mental wellness. Experiencing regular, repetitive sleep deprivation is certainly met with increased levels of clinical depression and anxiety. We know that babies and toddlers deprive us of sleep! So making the correlation that regular sleep disruption, night wakings, and insomnia, rob us of our mental health… is a fair one to make! And one that can be statistically proven as well.

But the relationship between sleep, and postpartum mood, is a very complex one. Add in the hormonal changes, and HUGE mental shift in becoming a new mother, or mother for the second or third time, and you’ve got a bit of a crazy cocktail.

Now in Lauren’s piece, she draws attention to a new mom’s obsession with awake times, scheduling, and finding the best possible sleep schedule for their baby. She asks mothers to consider what type of person they were prior to having a baby, and how this might be presenting itself in their parenting. Were you someone who was high achieving, who set goals and could easily achieve them with the right methodologies and practice? If yes, you will likely find a lot of comfort and solace in a baby sleep schedule. *Hint – this was me at 5 months postpartum with my daughter*.

But, what about when your baby does not follow that regular predictable schedule that all other babies seem to be able to follow? It can make you feel like a total failure. *Hint – this was also me at 7.5 months postpartum*. And I have actually had moms tell me they cannot work with me because they were unable to follow the awake times I was asking of them in our consultation without feeling defeat. (Of course, I can almost always tweak things to help them feel some level of success). But, this is anxiety at work my friends! And it is a scary hairy beast! Not one to be ignored. And bringing attention to it BEFORE sleep work, can actually improve your baby’s sleep, while improving your mental health! More on that to come.

Did you know, a recently published study in The Journal of Early Child Development and Care found a positive correlation between the use of infant books that promote strict routines and increased levels of maternal depression, and decreased levels of self efficacy? (Please don’t hand your new mom friends Babywise… yes I might get some backlash for that). But it can feel like you are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. And often new moms can’t handle this level of pressure! Heck… many experienced mamas can’t handle it either.

Now some level of sleep training, or sleep coaching, or sleep shaping, or whatever route you so choose, may help your family get more sleep. And as a result, you might start sleeping more.. And you might find you are better mentally fit to work through any remaining feelings of depression or anxiety you are experiencing. Or, you might find that yes… poof.. They are gone with the wind!

But I can tell you – for many, sleep coaching is not a magic ticket out of anxiety.  

I have worked with MANY families, and with every family I have worked with.. I have been able to increase the amount their child does sleep. But I can tell you, this doesn’t always mean that mom and dad begin sleeping well. For some, the anxiety and depression remains just as high as before we started. And for many, this is a defeating moment as well.

Now I have a sleeping baby, and I can’t sleep?! What the f*ck is wrong with me now?

Or their baby starts to sleep, but they are still analyzing every movement their baby makes in the night. Obsessing over every little detail, because it brings some level of comfort and confidence to analyze and problem solve. Two habits leftover from a successful pre-child adult life, and leftover from having a baby who DOES NOT SLEEP.

Now what I will tell you, is working on getting your anxiety or depression medically diagnosed and supported, can actually help your baby start to sleep better.

Hey now, what now?! Working on my own mental health might actually help my baby sleep better? Even without any form of sleep coaching or behavioural intervention?!

Yes.

Yes, it may!

You grew that baby for 10 months. It is connected to you on a cellular level, and it feels every feel in which you feel. Now, I am not trying to say you are projecting your anxiety on your baby (although a few of you might be nodding along now going.. Um… yup.. I’m totally doing that..), but what I am trying to say is.. If you are anxious about your baby going to sleep, they know that. If you are holding and rocking your baby in arms, riddled with anxiety about it going to sleep, it will feel that anxiety, and then also become anxious about transitioning from awake to asleep, and then not sleep, and the negative feedback loop continues!

But the good news here… making small changes to your own mental health and well-being, may help baby go to sleep more easily. It may help your expectations become a bit more realistic, and as a result, you might even enjoy that little 14 pound cutie a little bit more than you already do. You are feeling the love, baby is feeling the love, and bada bing bada boom.. Baby’s sleep improves.

Now, the intention of this blog is NOT to guilt anyone who did sleep train their baby in direct response to the anxiety they were experiencing. (I’m raising my hand here guys.. I was that girl!). And if sleep training did help alleviate all of your postpartum stress or woes – good for you, more power to you!

But, the purpose and outcome I am hoping to achieve here is that no new mother will put all of their “eggs” into the “sleep training” basket. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Take care of YOU first, and baby will follow. 

If you do need some postpartum support, and you are in the Vancouver area, I recommend the Pacific Postpartum Support Society as your first touch point.

Thank you to my girl @stacielynnphotography for the beautiful photos you see here. 

XO

Lara

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It’s almost time to “Spring Ahead”

Alright people – it is coming in hot, but we’ve still got lots of time to get this right.

Daylight savings time is coming for us. Again. I know. Doesn’t it feel like this just happened?! No. Just me. I must be getting older.

Transitioning sleep times can be fairly straightforward, or, it can be a little bit tricky. It really depends on your specific child, how sensitive they are to change, and how sensitive YOU are to change. We know our children feel our feelings as we are connected on a cellular level. So, if changes to your child’s sleep routine cause you a little bit of worry, it might be time to start preparing for the hour where we “spring forward”, so you can take this change in stride.

The clocks will go forward one hour on Sunday, March 11th at 3:00 am in Canada. For frame of reference, 7:00 pm will become 8:00 pm, and 6:00 am will become 7:00 am.

Just like any sleep change, there are a few different techniques you can use to begin to help your child with this transition. I will outline a few below, and those that I feel are easiest for most families to follow.

For all children:

Once Sunday March 11th rolls around, treat the clocks as the true time. You may need to “push” your child ever so gently onto their new schedule, and I would advise waking your babe up at normal time to start the day. If they need to be up at 7:00 am on Monday morning to get to daycare on time, don’t let them sleep til 8:30 am on Sunday.

For infants and toddlers with a set bedtime:

You can begin making this transition as early as 4 weeks prior to the change. If you are someone who likes to plan ahead, this can suit you quite nicely! If your child goes to bed most evenings at 7:00 pm, begin moving their bedtime 15 minutes earlier each week. Wake them up 15 mins earlier the next day if necessary, and put them down for their naps 15 minutes earlier as well. For example;

  • Week 1: 6:45 pm fast asleep

  • Week 2: 6:30 pm fast asleep

  • Week 3: 6:15 pm fast asleep

  • Week 4: 6:00 pm (which will become the new 7:00 pm on March 11th)

As you can probably see – this is NOT going to work out, if you have been letting your child sleep til their normal start time in the morning, and napping them at their regular nap times as well. They won’t be tired when that slightly earlier bedtime rolls around, and they are going to fall asleep right at their usual time.

When we schedule shift, we really move the whole schedule. Not just bits and pieces of it.

For those who have not prepared quite as far ahead, this is still a nice transition to use over the course of 4 days, or a week or two. Work on slowly moving the time up with each passing night until you arrive at a bedtime one hour earlier than your usual bedtime, prior to the change. Approach naps a little earlier, and wake your child to start the day at an ideal time if necessary.

For infants and toddlers with a somewhat flexible bedtime:

My advice on this one is to also be somewhat flexible. A few days before the time change, begin moving their daily naps slightly earlier.

This really depends again on how time sensitive your child is. Some babies will respond super well to having their naps moved up by 15 mins every few days, and an older toddler might not notice this change in the slightest.

Move bedtime up by the same amount of time that day, and you should be able to adjust to the new time within 2 – 4 days.

If your child typically goes to bed between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm each night, aim for the earlier time over the course of a few days leading up to the change, and then somewhere in the middle of that hour for the few days following the change.

For example; the week before the time change bedtime is closer to 6:15, or 6:30 pm, and the week after the change bedtime is closer to 7:15 or 7:30 pm. You can then begin moving this time up if it still is not suitable to your schedule.

Yeah. So. I didn’t plan and now my kid is going to bed at 10:00 pm. Now what?!

If you’re reading this March 12th after your child was up til 10:00 pm the night before, my best advice is to relax. Do get your child up at the wake-up time you expect tomorrow morning, and they should make the transition on their own within 3 – 4 days. But remember this – the best place to counter a later than preferred bedtime is in the MORNING!! Not, at night. 

Older children tend to make this transition quite seamlessly by going by what the clock says as of March 11th. But all children WILL find their groove within 7 – 10 days for sure.

Lastly, get your child outside first thing in the morning for a few days after the change for some fresh air and natural light. This will also help re-set their biological clock and the fresh air will help achieve good naps, and easier sleep that day. Not to mention, the whole point here is that we get to enjoy a little more light later into the evening!

Thank you to Stacie-Lynn for the beautiful photo featured here.

 

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Sleep Associations – the good. the bad. the ugly?

You’ve surely heard about them by now..

Sleep associations. The things your baby associates with falling asleep.

Are they negative? Are they positive? Are they causing you to wake up MORE at night than you would be without them?

Good questions, really.

In the world of baby sleep there is a lot of emphasis on sleep associations. There is a lot of emphasis on the way your baby makes the vulnerable transition from awake to asleep. We do know that this transition IS a vulnerable one for a baby to make, and so it is only natural and normal that they would need some help in doing so.

Sleep associations that you hear of often include; pacifier use, or sucking on a bottle to fall asleep, being nursed to sleep, or rocking in the arms of a loved one. Sometimes a baby requires the swing, car, carrier, or stroller, to be able to fall asleep.

I would argue that some of the above can be used in a very positive way to help your baby go to sleep, and this is where I will remind you as I always do.. That if what you are currently doing is working for you, there is absolutely NO REASON to make a change!

Unfortunately, many of the same associations above can become an unsustainable sleep need that families are unable to uphold at every sleep time.

For example; if your baby can only sleep in a car (true of a couple of families I have worked with), this is usually not going to be a sleep association you can sustain for months. If one person always has to drive overnight so a baby can sleep; when will that parent get the sleep that they need to be happy, healthy, and attentive?

In my experience, there are some sleep associations that will ALWAYS be helpful for a family. If your baby learns that these items are associated with preparing for sleep, it is likely going to help you in the long run.

  1. A predictable and loving bedtime routine – we know that babies become great predictors of events. They come to associate their actual routine with going to bed at 9 or 10 months of age after going through the leap of programs. But this is not to say a loving bedtime routine is not a helpful sleep association sooner than this. It is an increased opportunity for connection with babe, and this is always a positive thing!
  2. Bath before bed – a warm bath at the start of your little one’s bedtime routine can be helpful. The bath raises your body’s temperature, and then the almost immediate decrease in temperature after the bath is done helps signal to the body that it is time for sleep. The steeper drop in temperature is more likely to put your little one into a deeper sleep, with the onset of melatonin production.
  3. Massage before bed – Deep pressure calms the nervous system, and babe will love the skin-to-skin, and eye-to-eye, connection time here.
  4. Dark sleep space – we know that our bodies will secrete melatonin in the dark, which is why those blackout blinds are truly important!  
  5. White or pink noise playing consistently – when babies transition through their sleep cycles, we know the first sense to “turn on” is a baby’s auditory sense. If they hear white noise in the background when they fall asleep, as well as, at partial arousals.. There is a small chance they will put themselves back to sleep. It also helps drown out toddler siblings, and neighbourhood noises.
  6. Swaddle or sleeping bag – depending on the age of your babe; these are great signals that sleep is coming. Many babies form a positive association with what they wear to bed, and I have seen my own children rub their cheeks fondly on the shoulder of their sleep sack. Bonus – you’re not second guessing their temperatures in the middle of the night where our body temperature naturally drops.
  7. Reading a book, or singing a song – another beautiful cue that bedtime is coming. When a parent sings or hums the same song on repeat, this often becomes a nice focal point for babe as they transition to sleep.
  8. Mutually beneficial cuddling, rocking, or snuggles – I say “mutually beneficial” because there is usually a time limit here for a parent before they become frustrated that the child is not going to sleep. I usually ask the families that I am working with to snuggle their babies for 5 minutes closely before putting them down for bed. There is a bit of an art to this, but not really one I can write out in full detail in a blog post! You will have to hire me for the elaborate shush pat. Haha.

I often say to the families I am working with this…

If you resent something your child associates with going to sleep, then let’s change it?

For some this means removing one thing the child associates with falling asleep, and offering another connection point instead.

For example; for a family who is having to replug their child’s pacifier multiple times per night, can we introduce a back rub that baby associates with falling asleep instead? Work on adding that in for a few nights, and then sub out the pacifier for a hold and back rub in the middle of the night? Allow baby to express their frustrations in arms with you, but don’t offer false hope if the pacifier is not coming back.  

Or, if baby is used to being bounced back to sleep at every night wake; is there another repetitive motion we can replicate in the crib that is less “hands-on” or labour intensive?

Not all sleep associations are bad. Not in the slightest. Depending how you look at it, maybe none are bad! It is all perspective, and education.

Breastmilk makes babies sleepy. That was designed by nature, and nature makes no mistake. Unfortunately nursing a baby to sleep at bedtime, does not always equal long stretches of sleep through the middle of the night. But it is also not wrong to do in the slightest, and some families are lucky enough to see their babes link up sleep cycles doing this as well.

Try out some other associations with your babe, and see what they think? You might be very surprised to see that they associate something else positively with going to sleep, and it may be something that is more mutually agreeable for the both of you.

Hope that helps give you some ideas, and food for thought.

XO

Lara

Thank you to Stacie-Lynn for the beautiful “feetie” photo shared here. 

 

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The Myth of Self Soothing

This topic of conversation is getting a lot of attention these days from what I can see. Everywhere I look people are discussing whether or not infants can self-soothe. Some sleep consultants are speaking out saying infants very much can do this for themselves. They have seen these behaviours with their own eyes, and believe that this is a natural development infants need to make in order to put themselves to sleep.. While some bloggers, or natural parenting experts, question how a baby could be possible of such a feat.

Can a baby self-soothe?

I think this largely depends on what your definition of “self-soothing” is.

When I first heard the term “self-soothing” my initial reaction was.. Okay.. so my baby has to learn how to soothe, or comfort, herself. If I am always doing this for my baby, then she will never have a chance to do this for herself. What about when I am not there to soothe her? For example; when she is on the playground, or when she is at daycare. What will she do in the moments where she is scared or frightened, and has to figure this out on her own?

I’ve noticed that some people don’t share this exact definition with me. Some people are talking about the very specific behaviours babies develop in order to put themselves to sleep. I’m talking about an infant sucking their thumb or fingers, sucking on the inside of their lip, or rubbing the corner of their blankie on their face to go to sleep. These are all behaviours I have seen infants do before they go to bed at night. This is often what I refer to as self-settling behaviour. And I put an emphasis on seeing this develop through infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years, through parents cued care in response to their children’s needs, or emotional expressions.

Certainly some infants come out of the womb sucking their thumbs and fingers. But others do not.. And they will pick up some of the above behaviours while their parents are teaching them to “self-soothe” through some particular form of sleep training. Sometimes I believe an infant is strengthening a skill we have already seen them do from birth, but it is something they have not been relying on consistently to put themselves to sleep. And at other times I think they develop a way to fall asleep quickly from a place of stress, because they are not being comforted by their caregiver, and their body is eliciting a fight or flight response.

When it comes to sleep, and sleep science.. It is very difficult to find any conclusive sleep training studies that are valid and meaningful. Most are flawed in some way, shape or form, and it is not every day that a parent hands over their baby and gives a professor permission to let them cry-it-out without some form of parental response. Often data numbers are low, or external variables have not been fully accounted for when conclusions are made.

Therefore, I have used brain anatomy to determine where I stand on this debate. I look at our brain, and the field of psychology, in determining whether or not a baby is actually able to comfort itself; as my original definition of self-soothing demonstrates.

We know that babies are born with a developed hippocampus and amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The hippocampus allows us to store long-term memories, and together these parts of the brain function within the limbic system. This system is responsible for us developing fight or flight reactions in stressful situations. Infants are born with the capacity to feel fear, and distress, and they are able to elicit fight or flight reactions as necessary for their survival.

In order for us to truly regulate our emotions and thus, “soothe the self”, there is a very important part of the brain that needs to fully develop. This would be the prefrontal cortex. This brain region allows us to develop complex thought, make decisions based on those thoughts, and moderate our social behaviour. Babies are not born with a developed prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is actually not fully developed until we are in our mid to late twenties.

Based on these facts alone, I do find the definition of an infant self-soothing to be quite confusing, and somewhat misleading. If we, as their parents, are barely capable of thinking rational thoughts at times… how can we expect that this is what our babies are doing when they are left alone to cry?

I realize that this blog is likely to ruffle some feathers, and that is okay. I suppose I am opening myself up for some healthy debate on the subject. Or, if you have another scientific finding I have not included in coming to my conclusion here, I am all ears.

When I work with families, I am often helping them move from co-sleeping, to independent sleep. It is not to say that a change in behaviour does not evoke some feelings in our babies. It very much does. But I believe our children can learn through watching us every day. They learn self-settling behaviour through cued care, and this means, watching how a parent does make an effort to comfort their crying infant. Sometimes this means crying in a parent’s arms, sometimes this looks like a parent holding their child’s hand, and sometimes this is mom or dad sitting beside baby saying, I am here for you.  

I ask the families that I am working with to be there for their babies as they express the emotions they are feeling, and this is very hard for some families to do. Of course it would be easier for us to walk out the door and lean on the idea that we are teaching our babies a positive thing by having them “self-soothe”. But ultimately, is that what we are teaching them here? That is a question only you can answer for your family.

I am not writing this to guilt, or shame anyone. Both of my children have endured some form of sleep training whereby I thought I was doing them a service in teaching them independence from me, and how to put themselves to sleep without any sleep props or sleep associations.

But ultimately, I do believe our babies need us. And usually if we dig deep, we can find a way to be there for them in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes we just need the right support ourselves, to get us to that place. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have that when I needed it most.

XO

Lara

Photos seen here shared with permission from the beautiful and talented, Stacie-Lynn Photography.

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STOP Shaming Tired Moms

If you’ve been following me a while you probably know that I am not your average baby “sleep trainer”. I actually try to achieve as much sleep as possible without initiating any formal sleep training.

Ultimately, I work with families and we shift behavior, yes. I have been known to nudge a baby or two to a better night’s sleep. But I want the process to feel more natural, more normal, and in-line with a baby’s unique temperament, a family’s unique needs, and their desire for a strong attachment with their infants.

Every time I do a consultation I ask families a variety of questions. One I ask the most often is..

Why does this have to change? Why is your current scenario one that is not sustainable? Why do we have to make some changes here today?

I let parents blurt out whatever is in their heart at that given moment.. and I hear a lot of different things.

“We are not sleeping. We are not functioning. We are not able to be the parents we hoped we would be because of this lack of sleep.”

“If something doesn’t change soon we are going to lose our patience and we are just going to let her cry-it-out, which is something we don’t want to do.”

Most often, it is the parents wanting to make a change so that they can parent the way they had imagined. So that they can move on from sleep being the ONLY focus of every day, so that they can begin to lift above the cloud of sleep deprivation and enjoy their baby more.

But sometimes, they are worried about their baby too.

“I’m worried she is not getting enough sleep for her physical and emotional development.”

“I know he is supposed to be getting more sleep than this, and I feel like we are doing him a disservice because we can’t get him to sleep more than he does.”

“We are worried that his body is not getting the rest it needs in order to thrive.”

“We are worried that she will be behind her peers if she doesn’t begin to sleep well.”

Now.. I am not here to say that sleep is not important.

Sleep we know is very important.

Without sleep, our bodies do not restore and recover. Our cells regenerate in our sleep, and we rid our bodies of toxins to make space for new connections in our brains.

But here is the thing… almost every single baby I have worked with is thriving. THRIVING. They may wake up 5 – 7 times per night. They may take 2 x 20 minute naps in a day. But you know what, these babies are THRIVING.

They are weighing in at amazing weights. They are healthy. They are whole. They are reaching all of their developmental milestones right on cue! They are reaching new heights, babbling new words, and creating connections each and every day before their parents’ eyes. And they are securely attached to their caregivers, and loved beyond measure.

Yet somehow these parents have been made to believe that their children are inadequate? That their child is not thriving because they are up more than 1 or 2 times a night to tend to their needs? And that they are failing because they are not getting them the calculated number of hours of sleep as recommended by some book, or some blog somewhere that may or may not know the first thing about their infant.

So. Can we stop?!

Can we just stop this mom guilt, motha f*ckin shame?! PLEASE!

I’m on a rant. It is true.

But I want the world of “baby sleep professionals”, wherever you may be, to stop selling your packages by guilting parents into believing they are screwing up their children.

Yes. I am probably going to get some backlash on this one.. but I really can’t take it a minute longer.

I tell every parent I meet this – Yes I want your baby to sleep more.. but that is because I want YOU to get more sleep. YOU are the one who is not thriving here. YOU are the one who is tired beyond what you can take. YOU are the one who feels like you are barely making it through the day.

But LOOK at your baby!!!!!!!

Are we looking at the same baby?! Because the baby I see here right before my eyes is a happy, healthy, beautiful, interesting, dynamic, chubby, cute, and securely attached little infant. Your baby is perfectly fine – and somehow she is getting the sleep she needs.

Yes, she may be on your boob all night. But – that girl right there.. she is looking pretty damn rested. Ha! It is YOU who has the bags under your eyes. (Okay.. so.. I don’t say the last part, but.. you know what I mean!)

I come at this honestly, friends.

As some of you may know if you’ve been following my stories on instagram, my son has a slight developmental delay in gross motor development. It is very small – and I won’t begin to pretend for a second that I know about the struggles other moms face as they work through their children’s physical and emotional delays.

I look at my son, and I also see a beautiful, thriving, 14 month old, baby boy. He may just be learning to crawl. His legs give out beneath him every time he tries to stand, and his core strength needs a little work. We are hoping he will have a 6 pack by next Christmas if we keep up with his regular physio schedule. 😉

But here is the thing. My baby. He sleeps.

He lives with me. He never had a choice! Ha.

The kid sleeps 11 straight hours at night, and takes 2 x 1.5 hour naps each day. That is MORE than the average 14 month old.

Could I get him more sleep if I tried?

No. I really do not think I could possibly get him any more sleep than he gets currently.

If I did get him more sleep, would he have been more likely to meet his previous gross motor developmental skills on time?!

No. I really don’t think that has had anything to do with it. The kid has slept very well most of his life.

He is who he is, and I love him dearly for that.

But he is going to do things when his body is ready and prepared to do so. I will be right there cheering and nudging him along as best I can, but ultimately, it is his body’s choice when he will walk.

And to me. Sleep has very little to do with the equation.

So celebrate your babies for all they are my friends. The sleepy ones, and the sleepless wonders. They are perfectly designed for you. And they are thriving.

XO

Lara