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Baby Sleep Tips with Sleep Specialist, Tara

August 01, 2023

We are so thrilled to have Tara with us today on the Journalcovering a very hot topic—sleep!Tara is a paediatric nurse, mum of 3 beautiful little ones, and has been a sleep specialist forthe pastnine years. Tara and her team at The Gentle Sleep Specialist have helped thousands of families all over the globe find the gift of sleep.We know that whatTarais going toshare will be so helpful!
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Before we jump in, what is one thing that makes you feel alive?  

If I had to choose one thing that makes me feel alive it would be time outdoors with my family for sure. Being with my family, the outdoors and staying active are my three greatest joys. 

How did your journey as a sleep specialist begin? 

My journey as a Sleep Specialist began nine years ago now when I had my daughter Scarlet. She was such an unsettled newborn. I honestly thought I had it covered. I was Paediatric Nurse for seven years, and prior to that I nannied for many families. In total I had been working with little ones for around 13 years before I became a Mum.
Scarlett was so unsettled with CMPI and reflux, constantly covered in a rash, struggling with diarrhoea up to 18 times a day. Poor thing was so irritable, uncomfortable and of course sleep was hard.  
It was a really tricky time. Scarlett actually got sick around four months but because she was already such an unsettled baby, didn’t sleep well etc I didn’t actually recognise that she was suffering a different illness until her temperatures didn’t subside. She actually had a UTI that had travelled to her kidneys. I was devastated that I’d missed it because it just seemed to be one unsettled moment after another. So, at four months I decided that something had to change and my friend recommended a Sleep Consultant– I’d never heard of one before. And so I took the plunge and it changed our lives and Motherhood had become everything I dreamed of. 
From there I knew if she was up in the night or unsettled that it was absolutely the beginning of her usually being unwell and not due to unsustainable sleep habits. She had nine more UTIs that year and I never missed a beat, I was always on top of it after that and she slept beautifully. I can honestly say that every month from there I would say “This is the best month of my life. This is the best month so far”. 
I kept getting targeted for ads to become a sleep consultant and after seeing what it had done to our journey I took the leap.To be honest when I used the Sleep Consultant I thought, “Gosh, your job is hard”.  Babies are so unpredictable and you’re working with parents who are deep in the emotions of sleep deprivation and Parenthood. But I did it. It's been a journey and more work than I could ever put into words but I haven’t looked back. I love working with families and seeing them thrive. Children and their wellbeing are my passion.  

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If you could only choose three, what would be your top tips to promote positive sleep habits? 

1. To promote positive sleep habits, my top three tips would start with allowing our little ones the opportunity to know how it is to self-settle. To go into their sleep space awake and to know how to get themselves to sleep by truly self-settling. That not only will promote deeper sleep but it will also allow them the opportunity to know how to transition when they awaken in the night or from a short nap and results in them linking cycles and enjoying longer lengths of sleep. Little ones need to wake how they settled in order for them to link cycles. So when babes require external measures to settle to sleep, such as rocking, dummy etc, when they come to an awakened state, be that wide awake or just between deep and light sleep cycle and that external prop is missing or changed you then get the call out to reimplement time and time again causing disruptions in their sleep.

2.The appropriate awake times and the right structure for our little ones without being too strict. Whilst we do have age-appropriate awake times and lengths of naps I do not promote all babies needing the exact same sleep and nap structure. Our little ones are little human beings and we will treat them this way, rather than treating them as robots.  

 3. And number three tip would be managing sleep pressure. Sleep pressure is the need for sleep. When babes are awake we are making sure they don’t lose that appetite for sleep by having really drowsy feeds, getting sleepy in the car or having multiple moments of wind down. Basically it’s about having little moments in the day of feeding, awake, sleeping. If they are sleepy and drowsy this should be a moment of allowing them to have sleep rather than losing sleep pressure with moments here and there resulting in second winds and unsure of awake times due to loss of sleep pressure. 

How does the method you use take a gentle approach to sleep training?  

In terms of a gentle approach, I really believe in sleep changes being holistic. We don’t have one method that we apply to all children and in no way are we a generic program. We pull apart what is going on, look at what their learned habits and patterns are and how we can change those to bring about better sleep, but in a way that we are providing them a new sense of certainty and a new familiar as quickly as possible. It is important for us to listen to parents as they know their babes best and honour their parenting styles, while adapting our methods and foundations to still gain results. We, of course, adapt using different methods based on how the baby is going and how they respond taking instruction from these little loves also. 

Covering the lead up to bedtime, checking their sleep pressure, their awake times, making sure that we look at their feeds, length of naps and settles, the whole 24 hours and the baby as a whole. This means easier settles and lasting changes. Then obviously offering support to our babes through this process offering verbal and physical support.  

What are some myths that you encounter surrounding baby sleep? 

Oh we have heard many! But the most common are: 

“It’s developmental or normal". How come some babies sleep at six weeks and some babies don’t until they’re six years old? Why is it some require feeds, some a dummy and others to bounce on a fitball? It’s learned associations and patterns. It’s something we can impact, guide and lead them to gain better sleep. Some babes just take to feeding, some don’t as well, and in this case we would support and guide them in areas where they may need that. Sleep is no different and does require this same guidance. 

A myth that implementing or gaining sleep-help impacts attachment. There are many studies now to disprove this notion. We support and nurture our babies when we make the changes. It is simply guiding them to better sleep having nothing to do with attachment. You can and will support your little one throughout the change often improving overall sleep only builds attachment for families. How can we expect parents who are sleep deprived to give and be their best for their little ones. Many are in some ways simply getting through each day, some emotional, others numb or detached to survive this time. This myth is upsetting as it may deter families from getting the help they need. 

And a myth we hear almost daily would be that “Teething means constant disrupted sleep.” I just don’t believe and don’t see that is the case and Paediatric Dentists have also confirmed. For sure, maybe a couple of days here and there you might have a bit of a bump in the road but teething and regressions don’t have to have a big, lasting impact on sleep. We shouldn’t need to be constantly medicating or using this as an excuse for poor sleep. Our little ones are going to teeth for three years, so it’s a really long path to take if you’re going to start blaming that. 

How is having a routine important to promote healthy sleep patterns and what are some simple ways to set up a routine? 

In terms of routine in structure yes that is important, but routine in the lead up to settling less so. I would actually say that you can mix it up a little having a loose routine. You might sing a certain song or read a book in the lounge room, perhaps just general playtime together before bedtime. I always encourage the lead up to bedtime to be about connection and to be somewhat predictable having a sense of what’s next but it doesn’t have to be stringent in nature.

What is the deal with catnapping?! 

So, catnapping essentially comes into play more so between three to four months when our little one's sleep cycles become more defined and in turn results in more night waking and increased catnapping. It doesn’t have to be the case for long though. Our little ones drift in and out of sleep cycles and check everything is as it was when they fell asleep. If they use external measures to get to sleep then rather than drifting out of one sleep cycle and into the next they awaken fully because something has changed or is now missing.

Examples of these external measures or sleep props are dummies, being rocked or fed to sleep and it is common for little ones who use a prop to stay on a lighter level of sleep. Self settling, the right awake times and how we manage catnapping are key. When a babe falls asleep with the right awake time, into a deeper sleep and awakens momentarily and nothing has changed they are more likely to drift back into the next sleep cycle. 

Do you have helpful tips about toddler day naps (specifically how to help them have a longer, more restful nap) that you could share? 

Firstly, we never want to rush dropping the day nap completely. Some families who are experiencing poor sleep think this is the answer to gain better overnight sleep rather than addressing issues with sleep. We want to make sure they aren’t losing sleep pressure before their day nap. Outdoor time and play are great ways to prepare for sleep exposing our toddlers to natural light is so important when it comes to sleep quality. 

Not having any screen time near naps and near bedtime and overall minimal screen time. We know its effects on hormones that essentially stimulate drowsiness and we know its effects on behaviour. During screen time toddlers are bottling up a lot of physical and mental energy, the energy we want them to expend.  

It is really common come 2y 3 months and over, our little ones may no longer be willing to have it in their cot or bed. You can persist for a little while but don’t put too much pressure on this as it will result in total nap refusal. Instead we would offer this nap in the car or on the go. When it is time to drop completely, they are usually over 2.5 - 3 years old and over and you will firstly reduce in time, and then offer every couple of days rather than completely cut. 

Some signs a toddler may be ready to drop their nap completely are: 

Bedtime is pushing past 7:30 pm and you have checked it’s not because they lost sleep pressure.  

They simply won’t have this nap, even on the go.  

Split nights occur. This is where on nap days they wake up at 2 am for example and want to play and non nap days this doesn't occur. 

How do you know when it is time to transition from two day naps to one? 

Usually this nap transition happens when they just won’t take that second nap, or it won’t fit into their day anymore without pushing bedtime past 7:30pm Going from two naps to one usually happens between 15 to 19 months. It can take a month or so, meaning some days you will need to use two, other days just the one. You don’t want to rush the transition. Keeping naps as long as you can helps for a smooth transition so before you drop nap two make sure you’ve tried more awake time first and also try using the car or pram if they are refusing their last nap in the cot before removing this nap and moving to just one. 

As a mum of three, what advice would you have for a new mum? 

As a mum of three and someone who has worked with families for 20 years my advice for a new mum would be to not over schedule. Our entire lives are just one big rush, babies and children are not designed to be caught up in that rush. We need to take the pressure off and truly be present with our little ones as much and as often as possible. Looking into their eyes during feeds, cooing back at them, watching them sleep and being there for the small moments. 

Don't underestimate the outdoors, nature and gently moving our bodies. It is an incredible asset to our mental health and our well-being. It often helps us feel less isolated and is a great way to shift into a better mindset.  

Accept the help, reach out for help. There’s no medal for simply surviving. You will never look back and wish you said no, or regret being vulnerable enough to allow someone else to support you. Motherhood wasn’t meant to be done in isolation and connection during this time is essential. 

You can find Tara and her team athttps://gentlesleep.com.au/ and on Instagram @thegentlesleepspecialist  

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