Parents with new baby

WAKE WINDOWS AND SLEEP SCHEDULES…

After a pretty popular post I wrote in the group I run on Facebook called Baby-Led Sleep, I thought I would follow up with a blog post about Wake Windows.

First, I’d like to ask you to reflect on who YOU were before you became a parent.

Who were you before having your baby? Did you have control over most things in your life? How did being in control make you feel? Were you an over-achiever? Did perfectionism make you happy? 

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I am sure that you are thinking I am nuts.  What does this have to do with a sleep schedule for your baby? Trust me on this one.

I recently interviewed Sarah Patterson, a psychotherapist specializing in issues specific to parenting, families and maternal mental health. 

Sarah talks about how one of the biggest challenges of becoming a new mom is the loss of control, and the loss of the person that you knew. As Sarah points out, “Whenever anyone loses this control, we look to find control. One way many women feel that they can find it is through their infant sleep…for many women they feel like they are being a great mom if they are following these so-called rules of infant sleep. For a lot of women that really harsh transition from predictability and structure to none often gets put on infant sleep…I noticed there was a connection between women who were feeling really anxious, overwhelmed and low and the need for their baby to sleep in a certain way.”

Sarah goes on to mention that, “A lot of people have had a lot of predictability and structure in their day before becoming a mom.  If you are already a bit of a worrier, or perfectionist, or hard on yourself, people use structure, predictability and being successful as a way to manage that inner ‘stuff’. Then baby comes along and BOOM!… out goes predictability and structure and there are no tangible successes.

When we look at sleep schedules and wake windows, they are a bit like ‘rules’ and this can make you feel like you gain some control over your baby and your life.

The majority of questions I’m asked on Facebook Posts, in Mommy Groups, and when I do sleep presentations are around schedules.  I’m not sure whether this is an internal obsession or whether ‘sleep experts’ or sleep books have forced schedules upon us.  But the idea that every single child at a certain age has the exact same wake windows is crazy.  You and I don’t get the same amount of sleep, or go to bed at the same time, or (if we could nap) nap for the same length of time and we may be the same age.  

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A big concern I have about these schedules is that they can make moms feel like a failure. Take a new mom, who is barely getting through her day because of all the major changes in life, and is so sleep deprived that she can barely function, and make her feel like an even bigger failure – that is what we are doing.  For example, if your 6-month old baby is not sleeping for two hours at each nap, then they aren’t following ‘sleep science’ and they aren’t getting the sleep that they need.  This then spirals into parents feeling like their baby is not going to develop into a healthy child and therefore the parent has failed them. Since when did a book (a lot of which were written in the 1980’s) become a better expert on our baby then we are? Since when did we as a culture seek to make new mothers feel like absolute garbage? How has this happened?

If you are holding on to this obsession with your baby’s schedule and this need for control (sleep and/or feeding), I would like you to ask yourself why? Why do you need to control your baby? What is driving this obsession and is it really benefiting you in any way or just adding stress to your life? Is this obsession healthy?  

It is important to get to the root of what is driving this obsession because forcing your baby onto a misconstrued sleep schedule is not going to solve this deep-rooted need.  Also, your baby is going to grow and their sleep needs change.  As parents, we need to accept that who our children become cannot be forced and controlled.  Likewise, their bodily functions like eating, sleeping and eliminating are also not within our control. Although not easy, letting go of control is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for our baby. For more on this, have a read of my blog post on the need to control our babies. I speak a lot about this in my Parenting Courses and Sleep Courses.

I want you to know that your baby will sleep when they need to (and it might be for 30 minutes or 3 hours) as long as we do not get in their way, we are able to stay calm around sleep time, and we learn to tune into them and read their UNIQUE cues.  Rocking your baby for an hour, in a dark room, to try to get your baby to sleep at the time listed in the book is only going to do more harm then good.  You cannot force a baby to sleep.  

After an hour of rocking, you are feeling frustrated, your baby then feels frustrated (because they mirror back everything we are feeling) and what did we teach them? They learned that going to sleep is not enjoyable, it is a time of stress and anger, it makes you angry, so avoid going to sleep.  Then instead of you getting time to go for a walk and getting some fresh air (really key for mental health), you spent the whole day in a dark room. Click here for specific strategies that you can use if your baby is not napping.

“Sleep is not a state that you should try to force a baby into. It’s better to set conditions that allow sleep to overtake baby and that make self-settling and lengthy sleeping easier and more attractive to baby” (Sears 2005). 

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I am not saying that sleep schedules and wake windows have no benefit.  I use them as a GUIDE.  Especially when I see signs of an overtired baby.  If we are willing to rethink what a baby’s sleep schedule is, then we can still have predictability (which babies will thrive on) with a rhythm. 

The best way to learn your baby’s unique rhythms and wake windows is to take the time to find your baby’s unique wake windows. Log your baby’s nap times and bedtime, noting when you observe them getting tired and when they fall asleep. If you do this for a week, you may find a pattern that can help you to create a flexible schedule. It is, however, important to note that there are lots of reasons that these times may change (e.g., illness, a more interrupted night sleep, a new developmental milestone, a busy day), so again, you do not want to be married to your schedule.  

You can still have predictability without following a “sleep expert’s” schedule.  You can have a natural flow to the day: your baby will eat something, then you will maybe do an activity together, then you will do your nap wind-down, and then your baby might eat again, then sleep. Repeat when your baby wakes from their nap, and start again. If it is taking your baby a long time to get to sleep, stop and come back in thirty minutes when everyone is feeling calmer. Follow your baby’s lead.  Doing this will help you to avoid power struggles and over parenting to sleep while keeping a positive association with sleep for everyone involved.

What I really want parents to know is that wake windows are a VERY small piece of the bigger perfect sleep puzzle.  The fundamental unit of development is the dyad – baby AND mom.  If you feel stressed and anxious, I would try altering your own feelings/attitude before you look at your baby’s schedule.

I would like to challenge everyone to let it go.  Sing it with me: Let it go.  Do what feels right for you.  Understand that your baby has unique needs.  Know you are NOT a failure and that whether your baby sleeps or not is NOT a reflection of who you are as a parent.  You are the best person on the planet to be a mom to your baby and if you trust your instincts, you will always do what is right for your baby.  

So… because I titled the post, ‘Sleep Schedules and Wake Windows,’ I wanted you to be able to get your hands on them so I have created a FREE handout that lists the wake windows and schedules promoted by many sleep consultants who use sleep training.  Many will find these nap lengths are unrealistic but you can use the schedules and windows as a starting point/a GUIDE. Get your copy here.