Don't rock the cradle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am


Sleep deprivation is part of becoming a parent. Newborns have irregular sleep cycles that are shorter and lighter than adults. They cannot differentiate between day and night, and reaching slumber land is a skill that has to be learned.

Rocking may seem the most natural way to soothe a tired baby to sleep but, according to experts, rest-filled nights only come once a baby masters the skill of self-soothing.

Deborah Taylor, an infant and young child sleep consultant in Hong Kong, says one of the most common problems she encounters is that a baby can only settle with the aid of a prop such as rocking, leading to a habit of reliance and sleep loss on the part of parents and child.

Several schools of thought proffer advice on self-soothing, including paediatrician Richard Ferber's method of leaving a baby to cry for specified lengths of time and the attachment parenting technique by Dr William Sears, which encourages co-sleeping.

Each has generated controversy, but a loyal band of parents advocates the effectiveness of one or other method, and there is an entire range of in-between theories too.

'My own feeling is that helping a baby learn to sleep and settle well works best if it is introduced gently and consistently from fairly early on,' Taylor says. Introduced around six weeks old, a nurturing, intuitive solution is likely to become a baby's new normal pattern that can be maintained throughout childhood. 'The aim is to enable babies to become good sleepers early on, which has a very positive impact on growth, development and learning independence.'

Hulda Thorey, midwife, director and founder of Annerley Maternity and Early Childhood Professionals, agrees that training should wait until a baby is a few weeks old.

'Routines are important at some point, but when they are too strict, too early, this usually does not help the baby or the parents,' she says. 'Many parents don't understand this and feel from early on they need to stuff the baby with as much food as possible, in as few feeds as possible, to achieve a longer night-time sleep.'

Recognise the signs of a tired baby and put it to bed before it becomes overtired, Thorey says, adding that many babies are overstimulated and then unable to settle. A familiar bed also helps. 'Be there but don't hover over the baby,' Thorey says. 'He will make noises and movements that may look like he's awake, but often that's a normal part of the sleep.'

Taylor says that keeping a diary for a week helps parents look for patterns in their baby's sleep and identify sleeping aids that may hinder them.