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5 Things every parent should know about baby sleep

5 Things every parent should know about baby sleep

As a parent, sleep can certainly feel like a bit of a whirlwind. Advice is handed out, nights blur into days, and your tiny human has probably altered how your family sleeps!

Before you start optimising sleep, it’s good to understand the basics, including the function and mechanisms that control it.

When it comes to your baby, these are the top 5 things you should understand about sleep.

1. Sleep is a biological function

Let’s start with the basics!

Sleep is a biological function that improves our physical and mental health. The exact reason we sleep is unknown by scientists. But, they generally agree that it conserves energy and allows for lots of amazing things to happen in the brain and body, including growth, repair and consolidation.

Sleep helps to boost our mood, cognition, immunity, energy and physical performance.

Babies need plenty of sleep as their bodies are doing more of all of these brilliant things as they are learning constantly.

This biological function is something our bodies are designed to do and, therefore, is not a skill that can or needs to be taught.

2. Sleep is controlled by two main systems

Our need for sleep is managed by two really clever systems in the body. The body clock (known as the Circadian rhythm) and sleep pressure (The Sleep Tank).

Getting familiar with the things that drive sleep is crucial as it can help us as caregivers to look out to signals of tiredness and manage sleep and wake times effectively!

Circadian rhythm

The Circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock. It is a 24-hour cycle that manages the body’s functions and behaviour. It is driven by cues from the environment (zeitgeber), like light and dark, feeding and sleep!

The body clock manages the release of hormones to make us alert (cortisol) or sleepy (melatonin) at appropriate times.

This is why lots of people advise a similar daily structure to support the body clock!

Tip: Don't worry about putting too much pressure on yourself to create a strict routine if this doesn't work for you. I often find a loose daily rhythm is the best way to manage sleep alongside family life!

Sleep Pressure

Sleep pressure builds as we spend time awake and gives our bodies the urge to fall asleep.

Imagine sleep pressure like a tank (Lynsey Hookway); as we spend time awake, our energy levels fall, making us feel sleepy. This is caused by levels of adenosine increasing in our bodies. When we sleep, the tank is topped back up and we feel more energised as adenosine has been lowered. This is why naps are important for children!

When we make sure we have sleep pressure on our side, getting children to drift off can be much easier.

3. Aim for calm

My golden sleep tip for ALL parents is to AIM FOR CALM.

We all know we fall asleep easiest when feeling calm and relaxed; if you are forcing yourself to try and get to sleep, then it just feels impossible! The same is true for babies.

We cannot force little ones to fall asleep (unfortunately). Still, by supporting them to a place of relaxation, we can set them up to be ready to fall asleep.

So next time you are battling a nap, remember that ensuring your little one is supported to become calm, you are doing all you can to help them fall asleep.

4. The journey of sleep isn’t linear!

Like anything parenting-related, you learn tools, adapt and suddenly, your child has a new set of needs! The story can be pretty similar for sleep!

Different children need different things at different times. Often, sleep can go wonky for a number of reasons throughout infancy and childhood.

It’s important to remember that this too shall pass and that along that journey, getting help for your family is okay too! Whether that be calling in the grandparents for you to get a well-deserved rest or consulting an infant sleep specialist.

However, just because it is normal doesn’t mean it’s not hard!

5. Sleep needs vary

Every child has different sleep requirements, and that's okay! We are all unique, and this is why, for many families, set routines and schedules don't work!

Our personality, attachment, temperament, health and even biology can all influence sleep needs. This means that the amount of sleep a baby gets will exist on a spectrum; some days will be more or less.

The best way to manage infant sleep is to ensure that they get enough sleep in a 24-hour period. You can find my guide on sleep needs by age here.

A child’s behaviour will be a good indicator of whether they are getting enough sleep in 24 hours. If they seem groggy and unhappy a lot, try adding in a little more time for sleep and see what happens!

Sleep is a vital biological function controlled by both the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure; understanding this can help you lay a strong foundation to support and enhance sleep.

It’s okay for sleep to be individualised and not follow the grain; celebrate their individuality and find comfort in knowing you are definitely not alone! Embrace the non-linear journey of sleep, aim for calm and reach out for support when needed!

Sleep can certainly feel crazy sometimes, but armed with these five must-knows, your sleep toolbox is now well-equipped.

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