Sleep Matters: Interview with Sleep Haven

When my husband and I became first time parents the thing I remember us saying over and over again was how tired we were. Actually, utterly exhausted would have been more accurate. It's not like people hadn't warned us. We had read many books, visited hundreds of websites, and done prenatal classes that all made it very clear: we would be experiencing sleep deprivation. But nothing could have prepared us for the reality of how challenging lack of sleep coupled with the anxiety of figuring out how to care for our new daughter would be.

At 5 months postpartum I hit the wall. My beautiful baby wasn't sleeping for longer than 45 minutes spurts at a time, day or night. I felt physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Many long lonely nights I would sob wondering how I could be failing so miserably at teaching my daughter something that was suppose to be so natural, sleep! The final straw for me was driving to pick up my husband from work, getting there and realizing I could not remember any of the drive. Not a single minute of it. This terrified me! 

Working with new parents I know my experience isn't uncommon. Many are struggling with sleep. So when I was approached by Pediatric Occupational Therapist and Sleep Consultant Margot Byer of Sleep Haven to come into my IntellidanceTM Babies classes to discuss sleep I readily agreed. During Margot's presentation I spent a lot of time wishing her expertise and service were available 6 years ago when I was struggling. Margot was kind enough to let me interview her to share some of her expertise with you!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I discovered long ago that I love to be with children!  For 29 years, I have worked as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist in schools, hospitals, daycares and family homes.  I am passionate about seeing children grow into their potential, and volunteer in Children’s Ministry at my church.  I am married and Mom to 3 grown children.  I have to admit that parenting has been the most satisfying (and challenging) adventure of all!

What is an occupational therapist and how does that relate to children and sleep?  

An Occupational Therapist (O.T.) helps with “skills for the job of living”.   That means that I help children reach their motor milestones, make sense of and use information coming in through their body, and gain independence in “activities for everyday life” – like eating, dressing and sleep.  So many different factors impact sleep.  I find that my experiences as an O.T. (and as a mom!) have been invaluable in figuring out what “sleep robbers” are at work in tired families.

How many hours of sleep do babies/toddlers need daily? 

Sleep needs really change a lot during the first 5 years of a child’s life.  I have posted average sleep needs on my website:  http://www.sleephaven.ca/resources/.  Parents are often surprised at how much total sleep their child really needs.

Can you give us a few sleep strategies for babies? What about for toddlers?

I will highlight a couple of key strategies to start.  First, establish a routine or rhythm to your days.  Get outside in the morning.  Include active play in your day. Have regular nap times and mealtimes.   This predictable framework to your day sets your child’s day-night rhythms in place, so that he is alert during the day, and inclined to sleep at night.  Secondly, have at least one time in the day where you turn off all electronics and reserve that time to connect with your child.  Create an “I love you” ritual with touch and eye contact that communicates, “I love you and I am here for you”.  When children feel loved and safe, they can enter sleep time in a more relaxed way. 

For more ideas on getting started on better sleep, visit www.sleephaven.ca and check out the Resources section I am compiling for parents.

Newborns are generally great sleepers. Why does this change? 

Newborns have immature brains.  When they are first born, they have the ability to simply “tune out” the world and fall asleep when they have had enough stimulation.  They gradually become more alert and interested in their surroundings, but do not develop the ability to regulate themselves well until they are about 3 months old.  That’s when sleep often starts to settle into a better rhythm as well.

Any tips of establishing a bedtime routine? 

Kids love predictability.  Create a simple routine that you follow each night.  It doesn’t need to be complicated:  2-3 activities is lots.  Doing the same things in the same order gives the message to your baby that it’s time to quiet her body and get ready for sleep.

Are there any absolute "don'ts" when it comes to sleep? 

Practice the “Safe to Sleep” guidelines: http://www.healthychildcare.org/pdf/sidschildcaresafesleep.pdf.  Don’t be too quick to give up the daytime nap(s).  Poor night sleep is often caused by inadequate daytime sleep.  And discuss your sleep goals with your partner – being united and consistent is key to dealing with sleep challenges.

How can a sleep consultant help families who are struggling with sleep? 

None of us function well when we are sleep deprived.  Parents can expect to lose 400 – 700 hours of sleep in their baby’s first year of life alone!  As a Sleep Consultant, I offer families a clear-thinking, objective picture of what is happening.  Together, we figure out their family’s “sleep robbers”.  More than anything, I don’t leave parents to struggle through on their own  - but offer feedback, encouragement and support.

Any other information you want to provide our readers? 

Good sleep is critical for healthy lives – and children, especially, need enough sleep to grow and thrive in all areas of development.  Sleeping children make for better-rested parents who are able to cope with the daily challenges of life.  Good sleep IS possible.