So often, going back to real basics with sleep improves understanding of it. When I say basic, I’m not talking about things like bedtime routine and which story to pick. I mean fundamental basics. Like – what drives our need for sleep? Whenever I take this back to pure basics for people I’m talking to – whether they are professionals or parents, there is a lightbulb moment, and something clicks. I think sometimes we get so bogged down in the nuances of sleep, that we forget the broad fundamentals. Sleep is not a ‘learned process’ – it is a homeostatic bodily function. All living things sleep. On one level, we don’t need to overthink this. But on the other hand, sleep is affected by many different and interrelated variables and we can influence these.
Having an understanding of the 2 independent regulators of sleep can really transform both understanding and practice.
The circadian rhythm is unique to you, and is affected by your genetic chronotype (the inherited preferences you have for either waking late and staying up late, or waking early and going to bed early, and everything in between!). It is also affected by environmental cues – light, noise, social interaction, eating meals, and activity levels. Your circadian rhythm runs literally like clockwork, controlling various mechanisms that differ according to the time of day – such as appetite, urine production, temperature, blood pressure, and many other bodily functions!
On the other hand, the second mechanism is homeostatic sleep pressure. This is the drive to go to sleep that builds the longer we are awake. It is different from physical fatigue, that comes from exercise, and it is different from the circadian rhythm. This is why when you travel across time zones, your homeostatic sleep pressure will tell you it is time to sleep, but your circadian rhythm is completely out of kilter. The younger the child, the quicker their homeostatic sleep pressure builds to the point where they need to fall asleep.
The biggest sleep problems occur when the homeostatic sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm are misaligned. Working to understand, regulate and facilitate sleep that matches these two mechanisms will often lead to improved sleep without any other techniques.
The practical takeaway from this is to respect your body’s natural sleep needs (homeostatic sleep pressure), and help it along by giving it the right cues to support your circadian rhythm. Easy suggestions include keeping the same wake up time every day, having a predictable pre-bed routine, free from screens and stress, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It’s not rocket science, but it is simple and effective, and the same applies to children and infants.
Gentle sleep support is very rarely just about sleep. That sounds completely bonkers I know, so hear me out! There are two reasons I think many people go about infant sleep support in the wrong way. The first is that they make it about the baby. The second is that they forget that it’s not just about sleep.
It’s not just about the baby
First off, sleep is a lifetime event. We go through peaks and troughs with sleep throughout life. In our childhood years we may wake due to nightmares. In our teens, anxiety and homework/relationship stress may keep us awake at night, in early adulthood partying may be to blame, and then as we age, get sick, get pregnant, mature, become parents, have life events, and go through major upheavals, sleep may once again take a hit. Most of the time, we don’t have an actual person to ‘blame’. We might be irritated that we didn’t sleep well, but it’s unusual to be able to point a finger at someone.
Our sleep is affected by our health, our own sleep hygiene, stress, our relationships, food, habits – you name it. Yet, when there is a baby around, the obvious cause for sleep fragmentation is a little person. But I wonder what would happen if we optimised our own sleep, before assuming that all parenting fatigue comes from babies. This is especially important because trying to change what is usually developmentally and biologically normal infant sleep to address underlying adult fatigue is not fair on the child. It’s also not fair on adults, because it’s misleading, and a missed opportunity to optimise sleep more easily.
Improving parental sleep will not only improve parental toleration of normal infant sleep, but it also provides an opportunity to improve parental wellbeing. If we only address children’s sleep, then what happens? I’ll tell you – parents remain fatigued and weary. That’s not due to children’s fragmented sleep anymore, it’s due to our failure to address our own need for self-care. Helping people feel better holistically is more ethical and ultimately more family-centred, because it addresses the actual cause and shifts the focus from the baby to the family.
It’s not just about sleep
Secondly then, it’s not just about sleep. Sleep is often a symptom of something else. Any dysregulation will cause an elevated stress response. When we are stressed, we don’t sleep well. Simple. I talk a lot to my students about shifting our gaze from the tired lens to the dysregulated lens. As soon as we teach parents about looking for dysregulated cues, it opens their minds to the hundred and one other reasons why their baby may be upset, fussy, wakeful or crying.
If we only look for tiredness, we miss all those other opportunities to help little ones feel better, more connected, and more regulated.
But as I said previously – it’s not just about the baby. We need to be aware of our own dysregulation and pay attention to what is making us upset, irritable, intolerant, or stressed. As soon as we are better able to meet our own needs, and the needs of our children, we will be less stressed, more regulated, and sleep better. Guaranteed.
If you’d like a deep dive into the fascinating world of sleep, you might find my courses helpful: