Inspiring Lives 10
Expert advice from psychotherapists, Heather & Julie, on how to softly guide your baby to sleep.
Sleep is fundamental for everyone, whether it’s adult or baby. To nurture a little one’s mental and physical development, regular and undisturbed sleep must happen. We spoke to Julie and Heather, authors of The Happy Sleeper and scientific experts in the field of baby sleep about how to gently guide your little one to sleep, through attachment and bonding techniques.
Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, both psychotherapists specialising in babies and children, are the authors behind the best-selling book The Happy Sleeper, which was featured in The New York Times. With evidence from science, the book talks parents through how to nurture & care for littles ones whilst being clear and concise in their approach to get babies to sleep naturally and self soothe. Heather & Julie also do sleep consultations, in person and over Skype, where they walk parents through how to get their baby to sleep without the need to completely detach emotionally.
Staying attuned to your little one’s needs and allowing them space to do what is essentially the most natural human behaviour, is the most successful way to get a baby to sleep soundly.
You can also follow Heather & Julie on their social channels: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram
Julie, you’re a psychotherapist specialising in babies, children and their parents. Could you explain a little bit more about what this entails and what drove you to take this path?
Julie: During my training I did an internship at a place here called Cedars-Sinai Early Childhood Centre and I was able to learn about the 0-3 year age that you don’t usually learn about when you’re studying clinical psychology. I have always loved children and had an interest in babies, so I had a unique opportunity to learn about how the brain develops, and how relationships and attachments matter during those years. I just immersed myself in that world. What I learned inspired my Mommy and Me programme here in Los Angeles that implements not only sleep but also the attuned and mindful parenting approach that we love so much. Heather and I are actually working on a new book about that.
Heather you write the Science of Kids column for Babble and you also write for the National Sleep Foundation. Science is truly the key to everything, but how does it help with general parenting? And why did you decide to take this direction?
Heather: I also studied psychotherapy like Julie, but when I had my son who’s 8 now, I just started doing lots of research and I’ve always been fascinated by the brain. I come from a family of scientists, and Julie and I have always been science minded. Learning about brain development and how relationships affect children and how their first relationships are the most important and formative was really what inspired me. With regards to sleep, it’s been such a lovely combination for Julie and me, that science really backs up what we know to be true about sleep and comes to some really wonderful conclusions for parents. Like how sleep is really natural and actually comes very easily, it’s a basic biological function.
You both have a lot of experience in the field of not only parenting, but in particular sleep and how to make sure babies sleep well at night. Your book focuses on providing a nurturing but also structured approach to guiding a baby to sleep. Also known as the fading technique, what is the main philosophy behind it?
J: The main way of thinking is that we start from the point that babies are built to sleep and that sleep is very natural. It’s actually very primitive and our sleep centres are in the stem of our brain so they’re very strong and very natural. The main idea of chapter 3 in our book (for babies 0-4 months) has to do with helping parents know during those early months that babies do need help soothing. We also give them strategies in this 0-4month chapter about how to step back just a little bit so that babies can show them their emerging self soothing capacities. Once a baby is at least 5 months, and some babies are ready earlier, we really want to hand over the role of self-soothing to them, because developmentally and scientifically we know that they’re ready.
"The main way of thinking is that we start from the point that babies are built to sleep and that sleep is very natural."
The main philosophy that we want to face head on is that healthy attachment & healthy sleep are natural partners, they’re not antithetical to each other at all. Being an attuned parent, means being attuned to when your baby needs you but also being attuned to when your baby doesn’t need you and that way of thinking applies to all moments of parenting.
The other thing about our technique, which seems like a small difference, but we feel strongly that it’s not just a small difference, is that our approach is not exactly a fading technique. When we have a baby that’s crying we have parents check on them every five minutes and that amount of time never changes. We call the technique the ‘sleep wave’ and the reason is that it’s really designed to give the baby a feeling of a wave – it’s very rhythmic, predictable, almost hypnotic. We want to set a pattern that the baby absolutely knows, recognises and comes to trust
Do parents find it overwhelmingly difficult to accept that babies need to soothe themselves? Or do the waves comfort them in that regard?
H: When we do sleep consultations in the house, we demonstrate what it looks like and we show parents – or if we’re on Skype we talk them through and we use a certain voice and a certain predictability. We want parents to have a very confident tone, we want them to send their baby the message that they believe in them. We’re demonstrating to them that we always want the baby to know that mum or dad are there and have a really predictable and reliable response. We don’t want to confuse the baby or interrupt their self-soothing process.
I guess it’s a bit of both – what baby needs and what the parents need as well. What makes this way of helping babies sleep different from other techniques such as ‘crying it out’ and ‘no tears’?
J: The sad news is that closing the door and not going in works. That’s really the main reason why we wrote the book because in our Mommy and Me classes we would encourage soothing, responding and helping, but many parents found that their baby’s sleep was getting worse instead of better. They would have reached a point of desperation, gone to their paediatrician and been told to close the door and not go in. We wouldn’t want to shame this mum, but they would tell the class how well it worked and we didn’t want to come across as if we condoned this type of parenting. So we decided we needed to solve this dilemma in an intelligent, scientific and appropriate way that satisfies both secure attachment and baby’s sleep, which is what we feel differentiates our book.
Sleep is an important aspect to everyone’s daily lives, but especially babies as it’s essential to development, as you mentioned. How exactly does sleeping through the night undisturbed benefit them and help them with their development?
H: There are so many functions that sleep has; it’s how you consolidate information and memories that you have from the day, and that’s why babies sleep so much, because they’re learning so much. They need 11 hours of night time sleep and regular naps to transfer information from short term to long term memory and consolidate their learning. It’s important for emotional regulation, so babies that don’t sleep enough are more emotionally fragile and fussy. It helps with the immune system – if you don’t have a certain amount of sleep then the immune system doesn’t function how it should, meaning people who don’t sleep enough are more prone to getting sick. The other thing is that when parents and babies are sleeping well it supports the attachment relationship and the way they enjoy each other, which is so important.
Many parents seem to struggle with maintaining a sleep routine and implementing ways to help their newborn to sleep through the night. What tips would you give to new parents to help their child get to sleep?
J: It’s very age dependent. For babies 0-4months you definitely want to attend to them, and we want you to help them to sleep well. Depending on how much help baby needs with rocking, bouncing and moving, you also need to think about starting to give baby a little bit more space. We want you to be helpful, but not over-help so in addition to creating the right environment and timing, you also need to understand your baby’s sounds. Little newborn babies make a lot more noise than parents were expecting so it’s really common for parents to go running in at the first sound of fuss. You need to just wait because babies didn’t get the memo that when you’re in bed you’re supposed to be quiet, so they’re usually just resettling or trying to figure things out, and we don’t want to interrupt that. So really listen’ are they crying or is it something else?
H: We also like parents to practice putting baby down awake, in other words, knowing that’s it’s time for sleeping. Babies can be awake for an hour to an hour and a half during the day, so knowing that they’re getting to the point of needing sleep & putting them down in their regular sleeping spot awake is a really good habit to get into. Eventually they will fall asleep on their own, but you don’t know until you try. Another thing is some parents often keep their babies awake too late at night. By 2months babies are programmed to sleep with the sunset, so quite early. Putting them down following these guidelines will help them to sleep.
What would you advise parents to avoid?
H: Letting them just cry it out – we never want parent to feel like that’s the only option left and that they’re just going to have to leave their baby and not respond. Avoid weaning feedings and cutting out feedings completely for babies younger than 5 months. There are some techniques that suggest taking away feedings at night, but we always advise parents to wait a certain amount of time, usually until baby is 5months, before weaning night time feedings. Even when you’re going to wean them, it needs to be really, really gradually and our book has very specific and gradual weaning guidelines.
Finally, if you were going to give one piece of advice to parents-to-be and new parents that are becoming anxious with getting a baby to sleep, what would it be?
J: Really believe that your baby is built to sleep and that sleep is a natural function. Give them credit for what they’re capable of doing. It really helps to understand that this isn’t a high-level prefrontal cortex function, it’s almost like breathing and swallowing. Heather and I stay away from the word ‘sleep training’, because it doesn’t fit in with this way of thinking that sleep is a natural function. I can’t train you to swallow, breathe or fall asleep because at that moment when you’re trying to fall asleep, are you doing anything? No, you’re not. You’re trying to let go and relax and you have to let your body do what it does. it’s fascinating to think about.
TIP: What to wear to bed?
H: Many parents overdress their babies for sleep, so we usually encourage them to back off a little on the layers and also keep the room temperature nice and cool. Also for safety reasons, you shouldn’t overdress them. When they’re learning to self soothe, it’s important that they have space like in your Clever Sleeping Bag there’s plenty of space for them to have one leg over here and have their legs up or be able to roll to their backs.
J: Swaddling is definitely a plus for most tiny babies, as they like to feel secure and need to be put on their back for safety, so we do believe in swaddling. But once a baby can roll and move – that’s when we really like them to have freedom to move.
You can read the full interview with Julie & Heather that has more detailed advice on how to get a baby to sleep soundly.