How to establish a Positive Sleep Environment
Having a positive sleep environment really is the foundation of encouraging healthy sleep habits and by having certain conditions that help your baby feel comfortable, safe and secure you can help them to be more predisposed to sleep, which will have a positive effect on both daytime naps and bedtime sleep. By setting a positive sleep environment for your child you will help them get to sleep initially as well as stay asleep through a wake up or a partial arousal during a sleep cycle transition.
Setting some positive elements for your child’s sleep is beneficial at any age, even as soon as your child is born. There will be some slight differences in your child’s sleep environment as they age, but a positive sleep environment can have a profound effect for all children. To help newborns through their ‘Fourth Trimester’ this really is the best way to encourage great sleep throughout the day as well as night time. When helping with any child’s sleep, I always take a holistic approach to healthy sleep habits and these particular elements are always the cornerstone of any of my sleep plans.
By Far the most important part of a child’s sleep environment is that they are sleeping within a safe space. Newborns are at a higher risk of SIDS or SUDI because they are vulnerable when they are first born and although there is no clear reason for SIDS, you can help create a safe sleep space to ensure your child is not vulnerable to SIDS or SUDI by following these guidelines:
· Back to sleep for EVERY sleep
· In their own sleep space in a bassinet/cot with a firm mattress
· No excessive bedding or soft items in your babies sleep space
· Sleep baby in a safe bassinet/cot, in the parental room
· Keep the child’s head and face uncovered and free from obstruction whilst asleep
· Keep baby smoke free before and after birth
· Bed-sharing is not recommended due to the risk of SUDI (Sudden unexpected Death of an Infant)
· Safe sleep environment night and day
These are the very basic points of safe sleep guidelines and should be used in conjunction with advice from a qualified healthcare professional, I urge you to read the information provided by Red Nose Australia for more comprehensive information of safe sleep or speak with your Doctor.
After you are confident that your child’s sleep space is safe, the next step is to prepare the space, ensuring that the environment in which your child sleeps is free from distractive furniture or adornments and makes them feel calm. I know that Nursery décor is going to another level over the last few years, but for children sleeping in their nursery we need to ensure that the space isn’t full of too many distractive décor items that may overstimulate a child. For younger children sleeping in the parental room, it is important that the space is also free of distracting items or furniture. If you have a distractive space in which your child sleeps, it can inhibit their ability to focus on what they need to do - Sleep.
Another part of preparing the sleep space is about darkness and the effect that a dark sleep space can have for your child. The Sleep hormone Melatonin is not released unless a child is exposed to darkness, so if we look at a scale from 1-10 with 1 being daylight and 10 being complete darkness, we would like the space to be around 7-8 on this scale. Melatonin is responsible for helping a child get to sleep initially as well as stay in a deep sleep, so it is very important we give Melatonin the optimal conditions in which to flow. Newborn babies are born with a supply of maternal melatonin at birth and at around 5-7 weeks of age, this begins to run out, hence why crying periods quite often peak during this age. It is not until 8-10 weeks of age that babies start producing their own Melatonin, so it is really important that we allow a child to sleep in a dark sleep space for naps and night time sleep to help the sleep hormone flow.
When our babies are in the womb they are exposed to a plethora of noises such as the mothers breathing, muffled voices and the flow of blood through a mothers veins. The mother’s blood flow can sound like the whoosh of water flowing through a tap, almost as loud as a vacuum cleaner. Because our babies are exposed to this loud constant noise in the womb for most of their short life, recreating this noise can have a calming effect and make them feel safe and as if they are encased in the womb once more. Using white noise at both nap time and night time sleep can reassure the baby and give them a sense of safety which helps them nod off to sleep. White noise is also great for older children to help block out external stimuli and allow them to concentrate on sleep. I recommend that white noise be played at a safe level of around 60-70 decibels which is around the same level as a running shower. The great thing about white noise is that it is completely portable, pop an app on your phone and you can have white noise in the car, in the pram at the shops or when your little one has a sleep at Grandma’s house.
Swaddling your baby can be another way to re-create their sense of being in the womb once more. This is especially important from birth to help them transition to life outside of the womb, helping them during the ‘Fourth Trimester’. Babies are also born with the Moro (startle) reflex which when activated can give them a sense of free fall and exponentially unsettle them. Whilst in-utero this reflex does not bother them as their movements are muffled by the amniotic fluid. It is important that we swaddle our babies until this reflex starts to diminish, which will help them nod off to sleep initially as well as prevent the Moro reflex from startling them awake. Swaddling can also be a positive external cue to show our babies, that once they are swaddled, they can expect to be put down to sleep.
We must follow safe sleep practices when swaddling our babies. The recommendations are that they are only to be swaddled whilst in the supine position (wholly on their back) and are not to be swaddled once they have begun to roll or around 14-16 weeks.
Once your baby moves on from Swaddling a sleeping bag can be a fantastic way to replicate the swaddled feeling whilst also sleeping safely. Sleeping bags are also an excellent positive sleep association to utilize during a wind down routine to help signal your child that sleep is soon to follow. I recommend using swaddles and sleeping bags for both daytime naps and night sleep, ensuring that your child is appropriately dressed according to the weather.
Utilizing a dummy can also be a great way to provide a positive sleep environment when used within the right context. Allowing your child to have a dummy as a part of their sleep routine can allow them to have some non-nutritive sucking which can help calm a child off to sleep.
A dummy should not be used until Breastfeeding is fully established from 3-4 weeks. A dummy can be used in conjunction with breastfeeding, as long as the dummy is not being used to stave off feeds or replace them entirely. Only give the dummy to your child once you are sure they are well fed and are prepared for sleep. Only use the dummy for what it is intended for, which is non-nutritive sucking to help the child nod off to sleep.
There is a period between 4-6 months where a child will have difficulty finding and replacing the dummy on their own. We do not wish to see the dummy transition from a positive sleep association into a negative one or a prop. Allowing our children to self soothe without the dummy, or without heavy reliance on the dummy is key. If you feel your child is heavily reliant on the dummy by 11-14 weeks, it may be advisable to drop it completely and focus more on self-settling without it, or allowing the child to suck their own fingers, once they become un-swaddled.
Once your child reaches 1.5-2 years old it is also advised that the dummy be transitioned away. This is to avoid tooth disruption or movement with the developing mouth/teeth. Contact your dentist for more information.
When preparing your child for sleep ensure that one of the last things you do is give them a nappy change, a clean and dry nappy will help the baby be more comfortable. Also ensure we have them dressed in appropriate clothing as per the temperature conditions, making sure they are not too hot, too cold or in uncomfortable sleep wear with itchy tags or annoying zips/buttons that could dig in.
Another point to remember when setting a positive sleep environment is to keep your general mood calm and confident. If you are calm, serene and confident about putting your child to bed, they will pick up on this feeling and match your tone. For younger children that are still having a cuddle or slight rock before sleep, keep your breathing strong, deep and purposeful. This will help your child to match your pace and slow their breathing into a calm state that is ready for sleep. If you feel confident in what you are doing, your child will as well. If you are hurriedly putting them to sleep or feel anxious during this time, your child will pick up on this and mirror your feelings.
These elements form the most integral part of all of my sleep plans, ensuring your child is set up for amazing sleep right from the get go. A positive sleep environment can help set the tone for great daytime naps and bedtime sleep allowing your child to achieve healthy sleep habits.