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How To Manage Newborn Sleep: Infant Sleep Consultant Libby shares her tips

How To Manage Newborn Sleep: Infant Sleep Consultant Libby shares her tips

Why did you become a sleep consultant?

I learnt first hand how debilitating sleep deprivation is and became a Certified Baby & Toddler Sleep Consultant towards the end of my maternity leave as I loved the idea of being able to support exhausted parents feel like themselves again or reclaim their evenings as a result of their babies sleeping better.

I gave birth to my first baby at the start of lockdown in April 2020. We had so many sleepless nights of feeding / rocking H to sleep and pacing around the room. Sleep deprivation and negativity quickly kicked in. At around 5-6 months I sought out a Sleep Consultant and she gave us tips to encourage optimal sleep for him and us. With little / no distractions, I become slightly obsessed with sleep!  Thankfully H quickly fell into healthy sleep habits and routines - it transformed our sleep and overall outlook. 

It wasn’t until I found out I was pregnant again - but with girl / boy twins this time - did I feel I had to take a more proactive approach to tackling sleep before A&T arrived. It would be a different story with not one but two newborns, alongside a 2.5 year old toddler tearing round the house. I spoke to the same Sleep Consultant who reinforced all the advice previously given with H and tweaked this approach given there were two babies to consider. As a result, from the very beginning our eyes were open to how to improve our newborn twins’ sleep (so giving ourselves the best opportunity to maximise our own sleep). For the record, I was still incredibly tired but functioning (I think, but my mother would probably disagree!). 

My sleep consultancy has developed into a real passion project and throughout the process I have been so interested in learning more about the science behind newborn, baby and toddler sleep, as well as the various training methods to improve infant's sleep. It's such an important part of our overall health.

What's 'normal'?! Speaking as expectant first-time parents ourselves - what should we be expecting?!

In the first few weeks of having a newborn it's all about love and survival. Babies have tiny tummies which is the main reason they cannot sleep longer than a couple of hours at a time. They need regular feeding. A newborn will sleep for about 16-20 hours over a 24 hour period. They could be awake for no more than about 45-60 minus at a time, possibly less. This can change day by day depending on energy levels, and can also be affected by growth spurts which impact feeding amounts, times and sleep. Some days your baby may feed non-stop followed by not much feeding - all very normal! 

At this stage it's hard to set clear daytime routines and sleep patterns. This is more likely from 3 months, as your baby will have a bigger tummy, take on more food, and therefore sleep for longer. 

What's going on in babies' brains, in those first few months especially?

Newborns sleep very differently from babies, toddlers and adults. They don't sleep in cycles, alternating between deep and light sleep, as we're used to. Instead they have 2 states: “Active” and “Quiet", spending about 50% of their sleep in each state. Active state is when your baby could be moving and wriggling around, they may make grunting noises and their eyes could be fluttering. In quiet state, your baby is very quiet and still. It looks like deep sleep with no eye movements - very relaxed and peaceful. How you’d expect your baby to look when asleep! 

You will often hear parents saying "my baby sleeps all day and parties all night". This is because babies are being rocked to sleep more during the day when Mum is active and on the move. When Mum is lying down and sleeping (or trying to!) the baby isn’t being rocked and can often be more awake. This pattern continues when they arrive into the world, and as a result the baby has their night and day the wrong way round.

One of the things I often end up telling my clients is that their baby has their night and day the wrong way round. We all have a Circadian Rhythm - an internal, natural process which regulates our body through roughly 24 hour cycles. It's connected to a master clock in our brain which is highly sensitive to light (as well as temperature, noise and activity), helping us to differentiate between day and night. But a baby has not developed their Circadian Rhythm yet - there are ways we can actively re-align this, encouraging them to sleep longer at night and be awake in the day. 

How can new parents re-align their baby's Circadian Rhythm?

There are a few ways to encourage this shift:

  • Seek out sunlight as much as possible during the day. Exposure to that daylight helps reinforce the Circadian cue.
  • Consistency with a baby’s sleeping and waking periods. Varying bedtime or morning wake up time can confuse the body clock, leading to unsettled bedtimes and early wakings.
  • Create a consistent bedtime routine. This enables a child to understand the cues for night time, helping their body prepare for sleeping at night. Darkness is also key, so avoid artificial lights before bed and ensure their sleep space is blackout. 
  • Regular play and stimulation will not only help their physical and cognitive development, but also help support their internal body clock and assist them to fall asleep easier at night. 

When a baby has the correct day/night rhythm around 2-3 months, they will start to produce melatonin (the sleepy hormone at night-time) and cortisol (the wake up hormone when exposed to daylight). Their Sleep Cycles develop into a 40-45 min cycle where they'll move from light to deep sleep then back into light sleep again, and is easily woken up (not so fondly known as the 4 month sleep regression!). If they have an external sleep association, like feeding or rocking to sleep on their first sleep cycle, they'll continue to seek out this comfort again and again. Potentially every 1-2 cycles, i.e. 45-90 minutes. You want them to self settle. The key to this is to do it from a fully awake state. "Drowsy but awake” is often mentioned, but drowsy is in fact the first stage of the sleep cycle.

Are there some common things you advise your clients to do / not do?

Consistency is paramount for instilling good habits. At the early stage, this is more directed towards bedtime routine which is my major non negotiable. My ideal routine lasts 45-60 minutes max and looks like this:

  1. Split Feeds - these are game changers! Aim for Split Feed number 1 at 45 minutes before your ideal bedtime. This will give your baby energy to get through the routine. Milk can often send a baby off to sleep before filling up, so offering a top up feed later will ensure they are full come bedtime. It also gives them time to digest the biggest portion of milk pre bed. 

  2. Bath time - it doesn’t have to be every night (and you won’t be doing a proper bath until the umbilical cord has dropped off) but encourage going upstairs into the bathroom and doing a splash or a wipe down. It's a great bedtime cue. 

  3. Baby massage - this is a great chance to help with winding down and with digestion. Babies tend to find it very relaxing and it’s a lovely bonding experience (worth checking with your doctor / health visitor if your baby has any skin conditions to consider)

  4. Split Feed 2 - Go for the top up feed to ensure your baby is completely full.
  5. Bedtime Story - this creates a nice evening ritual, gives your baby a small window to help digest the extra milk, and separates the feeding and sleeping.

  6. Place you baby in their sleep space when they're awake, if possible, to encourage self settling. 

My other non - negotiable is ensuring any client follows The Lullaby Trust’s Safer Sleep guidelines. Their website has a library of information around Safer Sleep and top tips to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). The main thing for babies is for them to sleep on their back, with a clear sleep space (no toys, bumpers, loose bedding etc), and a breathable waterproof mattress. Also consider temperature in their room and dress them accordingly. They have a section for co-sleeping and co-bedding twins / multiples too. 

What about as a mother of twins - how did those first newborn months differ for you and what advice can you offer to other parents of twins?

Being completely candid, having twins is incredibly full on, especially if there are other siblings in the mix. It really is double the feeds, double the work, double the anxiety. But double the love too. I knew only a couple of other twin mums and spent a large part of pregnancy asking them for their advice and support. They say to raise a child it takes a village - this is true to the extreme when dealing with newborn twins. So reach out to your network of family and friends and don't be afraid to ask for help and lean on them. Take a look at The Twins Trust too - a fabulous organisation supporting parents of multiples.

In terms of practical tips, twins generally do sleep well together from a young age and get comfort from the presence of their twin, which usually has a positive impact on their sleep. Both A & T ‘co-bedded’ from day 1 and now have cots next to each other - even if one wakes in the night teething, 9/10 times it does not wake the other up. I'd advise to start as you mean to go on - if your aim in the future is for them to share a room then keep them close by (whether that is co-bedding in the same crib or in two cribs next to each other). They need to get used to each others’ noises. 

I would try and keep them on the same schedules - by putting them down for naps and bedtime at the same time consistently, this should help them get onto the same schedule. Once the first twin wakes from a nap, I would wake the other within 15 minutes to ensure consistency. It will help you manage their sleep better and hopefully give you a little break to catch up on whatever jobs need doing or get some rest. 

Putting them to sleep awake is the key to helping them learn to self settle (this is the case for any baby not just twins). This doesn't mean you can’t have those gorgeous contact naps. Enjoy those newborn cuddles, but if you can allow them to self settle even just once a day at first, it will gradually get them into a great sleep habit. 

What could you not have done without in your own pregnancies / experience as a new parent? 

I would recommend researching Hypnobirthing in the lead up to birth. I found the Hollie De Cruz ‘Your Baby, Your Birth’ book full of helpful and practical tips to approach labour, recognising you won’t necessarily have the perfect birth experience but it can be positive. I can honestly say I went into both births calm, safe and confident in my decisions. 

I was given some Mother’s Balm from Neal’s Yard when I was pregnant with the twins and ended up having to use it very sparingly on my vastly growing tummy! I also think Bio Oil is brilliant. This may not be a very popular comment to make but I believe stretch marks are hereditary so there is little you can do to avoid getting them altogether. However these two lotions are brilliant at minimising them!

I also devoured Jessie Ware’s ‘Is it Normal?’ podcast. Every pregnancy and birth is different - the podcast follows her third pregnancy week by week, with health professional guests from midwives, mental health experts as well as sonographers and doulas. A really interesting and enjoyable listen!

How do you help parents improve their baby’s or toddler’s sleep?

I work with parents who have babies aged 5 months, to children aged 5 years. Each baby is unique with their own personalities and specific challenges, relative to their age group. I provide Bespoke 1:1 Sleep Plans which are completely tailored to each situation, sleep needs and family goals.

I use a range of methods but don't believe in the 'Cry It Out' method. I provide Daily Support when these sleep plans are implemented to guide parents through the process. I also offer Newborn Consultations which are suitable pre birth - 8 weeks, focussing on optimising Newborn Sleep.  My approach is very gradual, practical and supportive - I want parents to really thrive, not just survive.

Thanks so much Libby, you're a fountain of knowledge! Anything else to share?

I'm offering a free 15-minute discovery call to anyone wanting to tackle their sleep issues, after which I create a Bespoke 1:1 Sleep Plan to work through with my support to make these improvements. I also offer Newborn Consultations which is 1 hour and goes into all the science behind sleep, safer sleep guidelines and top tips to optimise sleep in more detail.

All NINA readers can get a 10% discount to the Sleep Plan (normally £299) or Newborn Consultations (normally £65). Most of my clients are virtual, but also happy to do face to face if nearby!



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