Infant Sleep Struggles: Creating Clarity in the Exhaustion & Overwhelm

Feeling uncertain about what’s best for your baby, yourself & the rest of the family around sleep?

Wondering if sleep training is the right fit?

Wanting to avoid sleep training?

Exhausted by lack of sleep & trying to figure it all out?

Feeling overwhlemed by all of the information & approaches?

In this exhausted, overwhelmed state, parents often look to others for answers – family, friends, healthcare providers, “sleep experts”.

(Notice those quotes? There is massive variability among infant sleep “experts” when it comes to their education, experience, intentions & approach. And just because someone has professional credentials, doesn’t mean they have considered normal sleep development, factors that influence sleep or infant mental health when they are making recommendations to families.)

Before exploring steps to addressing the root cause(s) of infant sleep challenges, let’s step back & look at the collective soup we’re all swimming in (especially in North America & other areas of the world with similar societal characteristics) when it comes to parenting & sleep.

We live in a culture that:

  1. separates families from communities of support with the story that we must be independent & do it all ourselves to be successful
  2. pathologizes normal infant sleep & convinces parents to believe infants are supposed to sleep for long stretches at a time
  3. in both obvious & subtle ways, tells parents they are failing if their baby doesn’t sleep long stretches at a time
  4. has created a massive infant sleep industry that
    • takes advantage of exhausted parents who’ve been separated from their support system (or who’ve never had one!) & are desperate for change
    • in many cases provides information with no basis in research, normal infant development or infant mental health
    • claims that sleep training is the only answer
    • requires parents to do as they’re told & not follow their own instincts

Steps to Creating Clarity Amidst Infant Sleep Challenges

STEP 1. Pause. Breathe. You’re not alone.

When you’re struggling with infant sleep, before taking action, I invite you to pause, take a few slow, deep breaths & remind yourself of this cultural soup – the majority of this struggle is not your fault. You have not done anything wrong to create this situation.

Really breathe that in.

Parents in our culture have been set up for struggle with infant sleep.

You are not alone.

STEP 2. Key questions to consider when you’re struggling with your infant’s sleep.

1. What could be impacting baby’s sleep right now?

Sleep doesn’t happen in a bubble. There are many factors the influence it. Without an assessment of the whole picture, focusing solely on modifying sleep behaviour through parent led shifts (no matter how gentle) can create more stress in other areas.

As a lactation consultant, I most often see the impacts of sleep training on feeding. I’ve met with many breastfeeding families over the years who are getting more sleep after introducing parent led changes but are now facing feeding & growth challenges due to lowered milk supply.

Here are a couple of additional examples of factors influencing sleep from families I’ve worked with:

A 3 month old baby who has been waking & cuing to breastfeed every 2 hours since birth.

A full assessment revealed that baby had a tongue tie which had likely been impacting the efficiency of his feeds. In order to take in the calories he needed to stay on track with growth & development & maintain his mama’s milk supply, the wisdom in him demanded he feed every two hours around the clock. Release of the tongue tie & support to optimize oral function improved feeding efficiency, reduced frequency of feeding to maintain growth & development & extended his sleep times.

An 8 month old baby who went from waking 1-2 times through the night to waking every 45 minutes.

He was in the midst of a developmental leap (learning to crawl, self feeding). We explored temporary adjustments to help everyone get as much rest as possible (safe bedsharing, breastfeeding back to sleep, low stimulation days, human resources for meal prep, cleaning, baby snuggling while mama naps) & once he settled into his new abilities, baby returned to waking 1-2 times through the night & sleeping in his crib.

A baby waking every 1-3 hours through the night & having short (45 minutes naps).

An assessment of the whole picture revealed the biggest factor impacting baby’s sleep was mama’s stress level. In addition, when there was opportunity for mama to sleep, she was having difficulty falling asleep & felt restless overall. Mama had a challenging birth experience that was minimized by care providers & some family members (“at least everyone is healthy”). Postpartum there had been periods of isolation due to public health pandemic recommendations to minimize physical contact with other outside of household. Overall she lacked the support she (& her partner) really needed so she was taking on ALL of the tasks at home in addition to breastfeeding & finding her way as a new parent. She was constantly worrying about doing things “right” as a parent. The infant nervous system is wired for co-regulation so babies are sensitive to the emotional states of people in their environment (especially care providers). Parental stress triggers high alert for baby’s nervous system making it difficult to settle them to sleep & preventing them from sleeping long stretches (there’s a constant need to wake to confirm they’re still safe!). For this family, strategies for lowering mama’s stress levels, processing her birth experience, cultivating moments of calm supported baby’s sleep overall.

2. What would be different if my infant slept longer stretches? (AKA What do I really need?)

Most infant sleep programs focus solely on changing (normal) infant sleep behaviour. What if there were other ways for you to get what you need & feel better?

Here are some examples:

If my baby slept longer stretches, I’d get more rest.

What are some other ways for you to get more rest right now?

Is there a friend or family member who would be willing to do some meal preparation for you? Clean & do some laundry? Snuggle baby while you take a nap? Remember, as humans, we were designed to parent in community, not do it all ourselves. Who can you reach out to today for support?

Is your nervous system constantly on high alert – worrying or anxious? Being in fight/flight mode all day & night means that when you do have opportunity to sleep, it’ll likely be less efficient & less refreshing. Simple (short!) daily practices like grounding, breathing exercises, yoga nidra & meditation can be extremely helpful for supporting calm in the nervous system. When anxiety feels more than you can cope with on your own, please seek the support of a counseling professional.

If my baby slept longer stretches, I’d have more energy.

What else could be impacting your energy besides sleep interruptions?

Have you been staying hydrated? Every cell in your body needs water to make energy. Are you eating enough, regularly throughout the day? Having enough fuel is essential for energy production. Remember, if you’re breastmilk feeding – whether at breast or pumping & bottle feeding – your body needs about 500 calories more than it usually does, daily.

Hormonal shifts, gut health & nutrition can all contribute to low energy as well.

STEP 3. Key questions to explore when you’re considering sleep training.

1. How might a parent-led sleep change impact my breastfeeding intentions?

Some breastfeeding babies do well without nighttime feeds – they naturally increase feeding frequency & length of time during daytime hours & their mama’s milk supply isn’t impacted. Some breastfeeding babies need at least one feed through the night to maintain growth & development & mama’s milk supply, even after 4-6 months of age. (Common time when parents are told night feeds aren’t needed!) During the first year, humans grow at the most rapid rate for their lifetimes – doubling their birth weight by 5-6 months & tripling it by 12 months. That growth takes energy!

2. Does the sleep training method I’m considering take into consideration all factors that impact sleep, including normal infant neurological development? (Remember, the credentials of a program’s creator(s) do not always ensure this.)

Attaining sleep maturity is a developmental, biological process. Sleep is not a learned skill. It is a neurological process impacted by many factors – including development! Infants are wired to co-regulate with a trusted caregiver. When distressed or uncomfortable, their nervous systems require the safe, loving presence of a caregiver’s nervous system to return to calm. For some, that presence need only be a felt sense of the caregiver in the room – they can stir from a sleep cycle, sense a caregiver close by & settle into the next cycle. For others, they need touch, contact to sense that presence enough to bring calm – being held, breastfed, rocked are the most efficient ways to shift into another sleep cycle.

3. Does the method I’m considering reflect my core values & FEEL good for us as a family?

Sometimes an approach to infant sleep makes sense but comes with sensations like tension or churning in our bodies signaling it’s really not the best option. Our culture minimizes the importance & reliability of inner knowing but as mothers, it’s one of our superpowers.

4. If the method I’m considering works, would I be willing to do it again?

Even when families have success with sleep training, it’s rarely one & done. The next developmental leap or growth spurt or family stressor or transition creates physiological need for increased waking again (for food, comfort. connection…) & then a need to move through sleep training again.

No matter where you are in your parenting journey, struggling with infant sleep can feel difficult to tackle on your own – especially when you’re feeling exhausted & uncertain. Looking at the whole picture & addressing the underlying cause(s) of what’s going on for families around infant sleep is one of the key ways I support families. I’m here to help with the figuring out, so you have more time, space & energy for yourself & your family.

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