We are not given an instruction manual when we welcome our little one into the world, a situation already prime for sleepless nights and a feeling of helplessness. And baby sleep can be such a mystery to many new parents and can remain so for even the most experienced moms who are having their third or fourth child.
What makes the magic happen for a full night’s uninterrupted sleep? As a sleep coach, I always focus on making sure that a baby falls asleep on his own, and he soothes himself back to sleep when he wakes during the night. Many parents are always surprised their baby has the potential to be this, well, independent. What did they do wrong, they ask.
From the work I do as a sleep coach, here are a few observations:
#1 Parents introduce a pacifier too early. The recommended time to introduce a pacifier is around 1 month of age to avoid conflict as you try to establish a successful breastfeeding routine. Your breasts need to be on center stage from day one. The pacifier should not be used as a substitute for feeding at the breast.
By the way, parents can unintentionally "force" a pacifier on their baby, resulting in pacifier dependency. It happens when you put a pacifier back into your baby’s mouth after she has spat it out. Putting it back reinforces the idea that she needs it.
I use pacifiers as a sleep aid during times when a baby needs comfort, but it's done on a temporary basis. If you are choosing to bottle feed from birth, the pacifier is less detrimental, but it is still unnecessary that early.
#2 Many parents consider pacifier use okay, but they frown on thumb sucking. I have many clients who hate the idea of thumb sucking, but they are fine with pacifier usage. Too much thumb-sucking will have the same effect as pacifier dependency.
However, your baby controls his thumb, unlike a pacifier that he would never have known unless you give it to him. He uses it to comfort himself, which is good because "he's finding ways to make himself feel better without your help." The thumb becomes problematic when he grows up, primarily because it can cause dental problems.
#3 You disregard the use of a "lovey." As a new parent, you've probably received a lovey as a gift, but you didn't see it that way. In a previous article on SmartParenting.com.ph, a lovey is defined as a “transitional object” that you can introduce to older kids during bedtime.
Give your child the object before bed, and your child will associate it with you, a feeling of security and sleep. When your child wakes up in the middle of the night, the object can take your place as a soother.
#4 You continue to rock and carry your baby even when he's deeply asleep. Rocking your baby to sleep is unavoidable in his first few months of life. And, in fact, the skin to skin contact, hearing your heartbeat and breathing and feeling your warmth are all highly beneficial in parent-child bonding.
Overdoing it, however, can foster dependency. Put your baby down the moment he is asleep, rather than continuing to sway him in your arms for the duration of the nap.
#5 You pat your baby to sleep. I'm not a big fan of this action, especially for newborns. Doing it during your baby's first three months creates a dependency. It can also interfere with your baby's ability to drift off to sleep on his own when his body is ready to do so.
When a baby is ready to sleep, he will do so during these first few months of life without your help, which brings me to the next point.
#6 You ignore your baby's sleep cues. Babies show many physical signs that they are sleepy. You'll see them yawning and rubbing their eyes. They become fussy. Some just stare out into space. We need to keep an eye on these cues throughout the day because they will often lead to a pattern, and it will help you create a sleep schedule.
When we miss these cues, we push our baby beyond his physical limits. It can lead him to be overtired, resulting in poor feeding and growth.
#7 You assume that you and your baby has the same sleep needs. Our required sleep is very different from that of infants and toddlers. We need to respect their physiological needs by fitting yourself into the baby’s sleep schedule, rather than making it fit into yours.
Parenting is a job you learn with experience, so it's easy to commit missteps. Don't also dismiss the fact that every baby is different. Forgive yourself and move onto making it better. Don't feel guilty if you feel you need help -- and don't be afraid to ask for one either.
Sleep coach Gabrielle Weil trained with two UK-based baby sleep trainers using various sleep training methods. You may reach her at email@example.com.
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This story was updated on September 18 at 1:32 p.m.