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You have a beautiful new baby but instead of feeling elated you are feeling exhausted, irritable with your partner and maybe even a little resentful towards your new baby. Or perhaps you have an older baby or toddler and you’ve been struggling with their sleep for a very long time.

Sleep deprivation is a serious issue for parents of babies, with recent research showing one in four new Mums are getting just three hours or less of sleep a night. What’s more, one in five admit they have experienced severe depression or post-natal depression when their babies weren’t sleeping well, according to a study by Galaxy Research.

There is an plethora of information on baby sleep and routine, and so much of it is conflicting. It’s no wonder parents are overwhelmed, confused and exhausted. Our babies are exhausted too – “caught” in the same sleep deprived cycle as their parents.

The common perception has been for a long time that baby sleep is complex. However, when we strip it all back, sleep is an inherently primal and essential human function for our babies. Our babies NEED sleep, they WANT sleep and they CAN sleep. There is no baby on this earth who hates sleep.

Here’s the thing – it is not just about the going to sleep process. That is where so much attention is focused but that is only one piece in the bigger pie. Baby sleep requires a holistic approach and all the “foundations” need to be in place before a baby will sleep well.

Here are 5 fundamental guidelines for you to implement with your baby. The key is to stay consistent at all times. If you aren’t consistent, we can’t expect consistency from your baby.

Our babies NEED sleep, they WANT sleep and they CAN sleep.

1. Establish your baby’s daytime and nighttime to be aligned with their 24-hour body clock.

This means having a consistent bed-time at night and get-up time in the morning Your baby’s circadian rhythms (and ours too as adults) is regulated by night and day. Their daytime consists of naps when they are tired, interspersed with periods of awake time. For night time, their body clock wants to be having one long continuous stretch of sleep for 12 to 13 hours (with or without feeds dependent on age). The ideal bedtime for babies is 6pm (6.30pm for toddlers), meaning their get-up time to start the day the next morning falls somewhere between 6am and 7am. Establishing these timings consistently will help your baby’s natural body clock fall into place. Be mindful also that your baby’s day naps don’t finish too late in the afternoon, otherwise this will impact the 6pm bedtime.

2. When at home, always put your baby to sleep in one location – i.e. the cot or bassinet.

Avoid putting your baby down for sleep in multiple locations throughout the house such as on a lounge, on a bed, in a pram, in a baby swing. Your baby should always sleep in their bassinet or cot for all sleeps day and night. By doing this, your baby will form a strong sleep association with their own sleep space (just as we have a consistent sleep location – i.e. our bed)

Baby sleep requires a holistic approach and all the “foundations” need to be in place before a baby will sleep well.

3. Respond to tired signs.

Learn to recognise your baby’s tired signs during the day. Common tired signs include becoming irritable / grizzly, rubbing their eyes, yawning, arm and leg movements becoming jerky and rigid. Babies tire very quickly. If they are kept up for too long, they become overtired and over-stimulated very quickly and this makes it very difficult for them to fall asleep. If this is happening every day (and so often it is) then a baby will constantly be in an overtired cycle and will never sleep well.

4.Create the optimum sleep environment

Your baby’s cot / bassinet area should be free of musical toys, hanging mobiles, play mirrors etc as these all equate to noise, colour and movement. These are strong stimuli and distractions and not conducive at all to good sleep. Don’t be lured by the promise on the packaging that they will help soothe your baby to sleep. They won’t!

Ensure a safe sleep space for your baby – so no bedding, blankets, soft toys in the cot or bassinet. Just the mattress with the fitted sheet and that is all.Make sure your baby is cool and lightly dressed in summertime and in warm/hot climates in general. Likewise, in wintertime and cooler weather (including the lead-in to winter), your baby needs to be dressed warmly and also the room temp needs to be adequately warm too.  A baby who is not warm enough won’t sleep well.

5.Help your baby to acquire the self-settling skill.

Each time you put your baby down to sleep, allow them some time and space to self-settle. Go into them as needed to provide hands on comfort (such as patting) or pick them up for a quick cuddle, but also try and stay out of the room for periods if you can, to allow them time to put themselves to sleep.

For more information on baby sleep concerns visit www.dreamstartbaby.com.au

Expert in the field, Professor Marie-Paule Austin discusses why post natal depression is such a debilitating illness which affects a large number of new mothers.

Most new mothers sing the same song. You know the words. It goes, “I had no idea how hard it would be. I’m too tired to even make a cup of tea.” Repeat.
Everyone struggles to keep their head above water. But what do you do if you feel like you’re sinking? Professor Marie-Paule Austin is working as a lifesaver for women who are in danger of going under. She’s the Chair of Perinatal Mental Health at the University of New South Wales and runs the Mother and Baby Unit at St John of God Health Care in Burwood — and she is there for you.
In 2012, a Victorian woman suffering from postnatal depression killed one of her infant twin daughters and left the other brain-damaged. It is Marie-Paule’s mission to support women through their darkest hours so that they never feel pushed to such desperate, tragic acts.
Depressed women have a real handicap in the daily business of being a mum.
“Depression affects our motivation, our ability to think clearly, to make decisions, and to organise ourselves,” says Marie-Paule. “It reduces energy levels, can impact on sleep and appetite, and is often associated with increased anxiety. It can include low self esteem, a sense of hopelessness, and thoughts that life’s not worth living. All of those symptoms put together mean that if somebody suffers with a significant depressive episode, their ability to function day-to-day will be significantly impacted.”

“If the mother is isolated and there’s no one else to take over for a while, then that child is more at risk of what we call insecure attachment patterns.”

Caring for baby
“Depressed women have difficulty maintaining a routine with the baby. We’ve seen mums who just can’t remember when they last fed the baby or if they put enough spoonfuls in the formula. So in that sense the mother is not able to tend as well in a practical way to the baby.”

Bonding with baby
“What we find in most cases is that, even if a mother is able to provide the practical, day-to-day stuff — like feeding at regular intervals, settling the baby and so forth — she’ll more likely be affected in her ability to emotionally care for the baby.
“If she’s totally preoccupied with very negative thought patterns, she can’t be in the moment, picking up Baby’s cues. Babies are very communicative, right from the start. They don’t have verbal skills, but they’re doing all sorts of things to catch Mum’s attention and begin that lovely emotional bonding relationship that they need to develop with their primary carer.
“If Mum’s not able to attend to the much more subtle stuff, then the baby will, over time, learn not to expect that from Mum and will start to look for that from other key caregivers. That’s if the mother’s lucky enough to have one of her parents or in-laws or a partner who can give Baby that emotional input. But these days it’s very often the mother at home on her own with the baby. It’s very isolating. And that will impact on the gradual process of bonding and attachment that develops in the first year or two of the child’s life.”

“If she’s totally preoccupied with very negative thought patterns, she can’t be in the moment, picking up Baby’s cues.”

Baby’s future mental health
“If the mother is isolated and there’s no one else to take over for a while, then that child is more at risk of what we call insecure attachment patterns. In the more vulnerable, less resilient offspring, that may translate into an increased risk for their own mental health in future, and their own capacity to engage in meaningful, committed relationships. So depression can definitely have a trans-generational impact.”

Do you need help or a good zzzz?
Most of us will cheerfully admit that our beloved babies drive us crazy from time to time. So how do we differentiate between serious depression and just feeling overtired and stressed out?
Marie-Paule says, “Even clinicians don’t always know the first time, because sleep deprivation can send some people literally crazy. If you sleep-deprive someone and isolate them, in some cases they can become psychotic.
“Sleep-deprivation is inevitable with a newborn, even in the best circumstances. So we admit the mother and the baby to a Mother–Baby Unit, such as the one we have here in Sydney. We give Mum a period of time where she can catch up on sleep. Sometimes that’s all she needs.
“If we’re concerned about depression, what you’re looking for are some key features, like a sense of not being able to enjoy anything. So, even if someone got a good enough sleep and you’d think they’d have a bit more energy to enjoy things, they don’t. They can’t see any point; they can’t see any future. If there’s no sense of hope, no capacity to enjoy any aspect of their life, then we’re much more likely to think that this could be an episode of depression rather than sleep deprivation or anxiety with a new or unsettled baby.

“If she’s totally preoccupied with very negative thought patterns, she can’t be in the moment, picking up Baby’s cues.”

“At the Mother–Baby Unit, about 30 to 40 percent of the babies we see are actually quite unsettled. So we help with the routine, those mother-craft skills that many first-time mums lack — settling and feeding, things that create high levels of anxiety.
“We take pregnant and postnatal mums, with their babies up to one year of age, from across the whole Eastern States. Anyone who thinks that they or a relative might need help can ring St John of God Burwood Hospital on 02 9715 9200 for advice.”