Rest assured, new parents, you will sleep again
A custom sleep plan and better sleep habits could help you get more zzz’s
Samantha Foster was waking up every two to three hours with her baby and trudging to her full-time job every morning, frustrated and exhausted.
She and her husband, who live in northern Massachusetts, found themselves bickering about schedules and unable to enjoy their evenings. Something had to give, she said, which led her to seek out a sleep specialist, Arielle Greenleaf of Expect to Sleep Again, who helped turn her family’s nightmares into sweet dreams.
While the internet, how-to books, and friends and family all have well-meaning advice, there’s something to be said for working with an expert one-on-one, Foster said.
“I worked with Arielle and discovered that bedtime did not have to be an anxious activity — and four or five days later, my husband and I could have dinner together and we could watch TV. I could shower alone. Just being on a schedule was so wonderful and I had no idea it was even possible,” she said.
Foster’s daughter is now 19 months old and will be joined by a baby sister in August. She’s more than ready to tackle sleep deprivation head on; Foster is now one of Greenleaf’s sleep consultants who helps other families enjoy better infant and toddler sleep.
“It’s important to understand that every baby is different; what works for one child may not work for another. That’s the hardest misconception that I think a lot of parents have,” she said.
Obsessed with sleep
Greenleaf started Expect to Sleep Again in 2016, a little more than a year after the birth of her daughter. She knew firsthand how anxious parents were about getting their children — and themselves — back to sleep.
“My story starts much like many new moms would — I was tired! Really tired. And I desperately needed sleep. As a child, I didn’t sleep through the night until I was four years old. And even after that, I struggled with sleep. I knew I needed to address my daughter’s sleep issues for her sake and for mine. I felt confused, defeated, scared, and exhausted,” she said.
Greenleaf said “the clouds parted for her” after she worked with a sleep consultant.
Thanks to her positive experience, she wanted to assist others who were suffering from sleep deprivation like she had and became a certified sleep pediatric consultant.
Greenleaf and her team of sleep consultants create personalized sleep plans for parents of newborns and kids up to age 10. Plans not only take into account a child’s developmental sleep pattern, but also the method the family prefers. They consider holistic, developmentally appropriate recommendations, while also supporting families with their individual needs.
For example, some families prefer a gentler method, while others prefer a firmer one. Greenleaf and her consultants who are based in the Boston area work with parents from all around the country, communicating with parents by phone or email.
Specific sleep services include newborn packages, help for parents challenged by their 4- to 6-year-olds, and a special “refresher” option for returning clients who find themselves stuck.
For those parents who want guidance in lieu of a personalized plan, Expect to Sleep Again offers a self-paced online newborn sleep course that gives parents the basics to survive the newborn stage, a newborn guide for purchase, and a self-paced online sleep course.
Whatever path families decide to take regarding sleep, one thing is for sure: sleep is an important building block that shouldn’t be ignored.
“Sleep is important for growth and development. Studies show that sleep helps a baby’s brain develop. During the newborn stage, your baby should be sleeping anywhere from 15 to 18 hours in a 24-hour period,” Greenleaf said.
“Because newborns don’t have clear-cut sleep patterns, the most important thing is to attempt to get them to sleep before they become overtired. This means getting them down for naps during the day about every 45-60 minutes.”
At around 4 months, sleep patterns shift again, often surprising parents. At this point, babies sleep cycles can become more adult-like, she said. This is the point where sleep scheduling may become possible, although this varies by child as some aren’t able to get on a good schedule until closer to 6 months. Throughout infancy, babies do tend to experience sleep disruptions during developmental “leaps.”
“Technically speaking, a ‘leap’ is when your baby is going through a developmentally sensitive period during which time her cognitive skills are rapidly developing,” Greenleaf said. “Due to these developments, babies can often struggle with sleep disruption. Likewise, physical developments can also disrupt sleep, crawling and walking in particular.”
When should parents be concerned about a newborn’s sleep? While you do have to “survive” the newborn stage, if a baby is inconsolable much of the time and not sleeping at all, you may need to uncover whether there are physical issues at play such as gastrointestinal discomfort or ear infections.
“If your baby is inconsolable and appears to be struggling to sleep for a few days, definitely consult your pediatrician,” Greenleaf said.
Battling sleep deprivation with sleep training
Christine Brown, a certified sleep consultant and owner of Nashua-based Bella Luna Sleep Consulting — who also teaches classes at Nini Bambini in Bedford — developed her passion for sleep after the birth of her twin boys in 2014. Like Greenleaf, she now works full-time helping families and their children get back to sleep.
Long-term sleep deprivation not only affects children, but it affects moms and dads, too.
“Sleep deprivation affects mental, emotional and physical health and can contribute to increases in postpartum mood disorders including postpartum depression and anxiety,” Brown said. “For optimal growth and development, babies need happy and healthy parents. A lack of sleep oftentimes brings out the worst in us and then we aren’t the parents or spouses that we want to be due to the negative effects of sleep deprivation.”
Sixty to 70 percent of Brown’s clients seek sleep support for their children between the ages of 4 and 11 months, which represent a major development period in a baby’s life. The other 30 to 40 percent are parents of toddlers and preschoolers, up to age 6.
In addition to the 4-month sleep regression, babies also experience an 8-month sleep regression, Brown said.
Whether parents are already aware of how these developmental milestones affect sleep, it’s helpful for them to have a road map to develop healthy sleep habits from the start, she said.
Parents often resort to sleep theories they’ve read about such as “Cry it Out,” co-sleeping, or laying down with their child to provide comfort. Often, these attempts can backfire, particularly if you aren’t consistent, Brown said.
“It’s difficult for humans to make change in general. But if you don’t follow recommendations, it’s not fair to you or your child. You are setting them up to be confused by giving them mixed messages,” she said.
Brown and her Bella Luna consultants offer families customized sleep plans based on answers to a detailed family intake form and information gathered from a one-hour video consultation. Most consultation takes place through text, phone, and email.
A safer sleeping environment
Brown and Greenleaf agree that providing a safe sleep space is one of the most important aspects related to newborn sleep. Neither recommends co-sleeping, as it’s not considered to be safe by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Always place your baby on a flat, firm surface such as a crib, bassinet, or pack and play. Babies should always be placed on their backs for sleep and their sleep space should be free of any blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, lovies or any other toys before the age of 12 months,” Greenleaf said.
It’s also best for your baby to be swaddled (up to 8 weeks of age or until your baby is mobile enough to begin rolling) and the AAP recommends pacifiers for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) prevention as well, she said.
Rooms should be kept dark, with temperatures between 65 and 72 degrees.
You’ll especially want to avoid any product marketed as a “sleeper” that does not have a flat, firm surface. Recently, the popular Fisher Price “Rock and Play” inclined sleeping product was recalled from the market.
“Only use approved cribs, bassinets and play yards for sleep,” Greenleaf said. “Avoid all inclined sleep as it increases the risk for positional asphyxiation; including wedges, bouncers and swings.”
Although room sharing can be convenient from a breast-feeding standpoint and can potentially reduce SIDS incidences, Brown suggests that parents reconsider if no one is able to sleep as a result.
Bed-sharing is another story. Many parents resort to bed-sharing as a reaction to not being able to get their babies to sleep. When working with families, Brown always recommends an independent sleep space for babies, especially since spikes in SIDS incidences have been linked to bed-sharing.
“This is a personal choice and my only advice would be to recommend that they do their research to ensure that they are taking every precaution to make co-sleeping as safe as possible,” she said.
A final word: Recognize ‘sleep shaming’
In our culture of busy, moms can be made to feel shamed when they prioritize themselves and their sleep, Greenleaf said. Now that many more moms are working, and are critical to supporting their families, it’s even more important that they have access to tools and resources that allow their families to be happy, functioning members.
“There are false claims out there that if you are sleep training your baby, you aren’t being responsive to their needs. That is false. It does not cause learned helplessness,” she said.
Megan Knopik, of Minneapolis, Minn., is a mother to twins who will turn 3 this summer. Owen is a champion sleeper, while Claire needed extra help getting to sleep. At one time, Knopik woke up 14 times a night and remembers what life was like before hiring a sleep consultant.
“I went from being homebound to getting my life back,” she said.
Now a sleep consultant for Expect to Sleep Again, she is excited to assist families and is happy when she hears they are finally getting rest, thanks to her guidance.
“One of the things I love most about sleep consulting is waking up to emails from parents who just got their first good night’s sleep in months, or even years. It brings me back to when my children first started sleeping well and how good it felt,” Knopik said.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and a marketing director. Mom to Everett, she has lived on the Seacoast for the past 20 years.