Mr Sandman, bring us a dream…

Sleep is one of the subjects most often discussed between mothers because we know how important it is. It’s challenging when our children don’t sleep, because often then we don’t sleep, and really it's being tired and not being able to attain sleep that makes the need for it, such a hot topic.

Sleep is ubiquitous with being happy, or healthy, and essential to being alive and yet it is the least understood of all bodily functions. We do know some things. For instance, we know we need sleep for brain function and development. This doesn’t just apply to babies and children of course. We know that sleep cycles include Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or "quiet" sleep and Rapid Eye Movement(REM) or "active" sleep. In babies these are only about 50-60 minutes, increasing to around 90 minutes by pre-school age. Is it any wonder our small folk wake every couple of hours? Of course we do too, only some of us have learnt to soothe ourselves back to sleep. We also know that we need to be mindful of babies sleeping too much when they are very young; lethargy can be an indicator of ill-health.

Sleeping for only two hours at a time is hard going for anyone, especially new mothers already on high alert, vigilant and trying to be prepared for every eventuality. It may not be helpful to hear that sleeping in 2 hours stints, sounds very normal for a baby. But for an adult, being without sleep can feel decidedly abnormal at the best of times, let alone when you’re dripping with milk and starving at 4am, your baby feeding hungrily with no-one awake to feed you.

Most of the mothers I’ve met and read experiences of online, say that sleep doesn't really even out long term until around* age 4. (or a year/two/three/extend as needed more). I am also sure that there will be someone who says to themselves as they read, that their baby slept through the night at 12 months, or perhaps sooner. They may, for a while. And they may not...but each child is different, each household is different and there are a myriad of ‘ways to help your baby to sleep’, some more provocative than others, mentioning none.

There’s a huge amount of information online in parenting and child development sites about sleep; one wonders how on earth did we manage/sleep/survive before? Most of it seems to pertain to the logistics of preparing the environment, appropriate temperature settings so, and the obvious stuff of putting pyjamas on and brushing teeth (don’t we all do that?) What concerns me is that we have reached a point where we need to be advised to turn tv/screens off and lower the lights. Then there’s ‘encourage being calm’ and not eating ice-cream as a bedtime snack. Really?

Other sites are ‘myth-busting’ and insisting children be drowsy or awake when they are put to bed so routines are established and associations are made. Let’s bust that one…there’s nothing to suggest that we won’t associate sleep with, erm, sleep if we are rocked to slumber in loving arms. Reading a story…sweet relief, I’m happy that made a regular appearance in the sleep guides of the online parenting world.

Some of these advice pages suggest at this point to say goodnight and leave the room. You might choose to do that, but there’s a lot of lovely stuff missing that can nurture the process of our children drifting into sleep with comfort and enjoyment, rather than sleeping because they can’t stay awake. What I write here is not advice, nor a method. It is not a ‘way to sleep train’ nor am I a sleep specialist. I know some of the UMEmamas have already tried it with some comforting results (really don’t like putting results in the same post as sleep, but there it is). Perhaps try some, perhaps try them all, none of it will do any harm.

As I said, I’m not an expert, but my daughter sleeps like a log, and finds it very easy to get to sleep, and drift back off again if she wakes. She chooses to go to bed, and is confident staying at other people’s houses where she sleeps equally well. She didn’t sleep through the night at 6 weeks, nor at 6 months, nor at 16 months. She’s nearly 6.

We didn’t let her cry it out, although we did attempt around 1 minute of crying on two occasions. These were the longest minutes of my life, and we began life in intensive care so I know how time can be elongated. We've also had sleepovers with babies and kids who (according to their parents) don’t sleep so well. Some of them are super fidgety before sleep, some of them refusing to sleep, some of them restless in their sleep, some of them waking in the night, some of them waking super early…. they’ve all slept when I do these things.

Download the day... As you're getting your baby or child ready for bed, perhaps putting pyjamas on, getting them comfortable, lowering the lights, the routine after bath etc, talk about what happened during your day. Explore what you've done together and how it felt, if pre-verbal you can explain what you noticed about their responses. It's a great addition to the bedtime routine for them to get into, and so useful as they grow, when more and more is happening that they need to process. It's also a lovely practice for you, to recap what you have done. I'm pretty certain your time will have been spent doing lots of things to make your child’s day wonderful, and going through these will help you both remember, and help you to value yourself more as a parent.

Human touch... massage your creation from head to toe...every night. And not gentle whirls on the skin, but a good massage where you really feel the energy in them. As you move through their body you'll feel the 'alertness' their tiny limbs hold, particularly in the inner thighs. Usually by the time I reached my daughter's toes when she was a baby, she'd be asleep and she still loves to be massaged...long may it be so.

If you need some direction contact your health visitor; baby massage is available to all mothers, you just need to ask. They come to you and show you how. Failing that go to a baby massage class, I know there are some wonderful teachers here, and then start to make contact with your child through touch. It's very powerful and sends lots of signals to the brain to say it's safe to relax. Babies are surging with hormones, and cortisol levels can affect sleep by making children very excitable and hard to relax. Not only is there lots of science to back this up, see links at the bottom to the Touch Institute, but it feels lovely to show your child how touch can heal. And, if you keep it up, you're giving life skills to show that being gentle and touching to soothe is something special.

Body Scans... Some might feel this is for when children might know the body parts you refer to, though this as a fabulous way to teach them about their bodies; preverbal they can easily understand to point to their noses and I hope you can credit them with being capable of knowing more. It doesn't hurt to start, for your own practice too. It can go along with the massage, just naming each part of the body you touch. This is a mindful exercise and can be very calming for you. We call ours ‘The Calms' a steady rhythmic tone, calm in our eyes, calm in our nose, calm in our lips….all through the body until…calm in our ankles, calm in our feet, calm in our toes. I rarely get to toes and my daughter still be awake, although I like to round off with: calm in our heart, calm in our mind and calm in our dreams. My daughter still asks for ‘The Calms’ when she’s feeling overwrought, I feel I’ve helped her determine what she needs, she really can choose to be soothed. Oh, and a short while back she started offering me massages and her own version of ‘The Calms’…and I have to say, she honestly had quite an effect.

Ok... I've gone on a fair bit…but please, share your stories, your sleep nurturers, and if you do any of these things, how do they work for your family? I often write these in comments when I read posts of mamas struggling with sleep. Because as much as your babies and children need to sleep, you need to rest so you can support them in their awake times, and all these practices are aimed at you too. They help you to relax, so your baby can sleep better. And if you want to learn more about the little known thing called sleep; here is a book from an expert; Matthew Walker

Mine is en route…so time to get to bed. It is very late.

Information on massage at The Touch Institute


Sam McCarthy, UMEUS co-founder, psychotherapeutic counsellor, mother, creative producer, wrangler of words.