Parent’s often worry will they get enough sleep when they have a new baby and baby’s often struggle to learn how to sleep. Sometimes this can be linked to parent’s unrealistic ideas about their baby’s sleep needs, perhaps based on the idea that to “sleep like a baby” is to sleep a long and deep sleep! This does not recognise that a baby’s early sleep is often broken by the need for food and the need for doses of relationship to help a baby grow a sense of security that there is someone there to support them while they are so vulnerable. Many guidelines on sleep focus heavily on aspects of the physical environment such as the baby’s position, wrapping and other practical matters around feeding and night time routines. What is often less emphasised is the importance of the emotional environment that surrounds a baby and an adult around sleep.
An infant will need much support from the caregiver to learn how to settle to sleep. Within the womb they experience inbuilt systems that support settling- rocking to sleep through the rhythm of parental movement, the whooshing sound of blood flow, and the pressure of the womb to contain them. Once born, the need then for wrapping, rocking/ patting and white noise, all in the context of a stress free environment will support the baby’s development of the ability to self sooth to sleep. Research by Papousek and Hofacker ( 1995) and others has shown that early self regulatory competencies are closely associated with the development of the infant caregiver relationship and therefore should be at the centre of assessment and intervention where there are sleep disturbances in infants. For an infant, the ability of the caregiver to contain their distress and anxiety so that it doesn’t pass into the infant, will mean that the infant can grow a sense of security that underpins being able to fall to sleep and stay asleep. A parent who is unable to manage their distress in the presence of the infant will dys-regulate the infant and lead to heightened anxiety and often sleep disturbance in the infant if it becomes a repeated pattern. Supporting the parent in being able to calm and have this calm influence the infant in positive ways is often the early work of child and family services.
For adults sleep patterns, it is helpful to review habits around sleep- see http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Info-sleep%20hygiene.pdf for a quick check list. Beyond good sleep hygiene practices, the need for the adult to feel safe and settled in relationships is significant to supporting sleep. Like an infant, the bedroom should be a place where a person can feel able to rest and feel safe, which is why the bedroom should be kept as a place associated with rest or pleasure and not tension or any activity that might be associated with stress. The old biblical concept “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26) supports the notion of being able to rest easy in relationship with others, that will support a night of sleep that means one will wake refreshed for the new day.