Any mother will tell you the saying “Sleep like a baby” is a puzzling expression when you have a child who wakes multiple times a night. And while sleeping through the night eventually happens, it can take years for some kids to do it. In this interview, we speak to baby sleep expert & best-selling author, Sophie Acott, about her top tips & techniques to get bub (and you!) some restful zzz’s.

Writer: Rebecca Walker, The Conscious Wordsmith

There are dozens of sleep training techniques in the world. What method do you use & why? 

With foundations rooted in attachment parenting, my unique method focuses heavily on the parent-child connection and the role of emotional (and physical) safety in sleep. In my early years working as a sleep consultant and utilising traditional ‘sleep training’ methodologies with families, I realised very quickly that the existing (and somewhat outdated) approaches only focused on the ‘behavioural’ aspect of sleep, or the symptoms if you like.

But in my research and study, I have learned that sleep is actually not a behavioural process, but it is highly influenced by emotional, developmental, and environmental factors. Behavioural sleep issues often develop when we have overlooked the latter. Not only do behavioural methods vary with success in improving sleep patterns, but they  lack sustainability, and fail to acknowledge the inextricable link between emotional well-being and sleep.

I work with families, sharing tools to assist them to strengthen the parent-child connection, and to understand their children’s–emotional and physical–needs, consequently, improving sleep for everyone within the family unit.

What are some of the top strategies parents can implement to establish healthy sleep patterns from a young age? 

There are a host of reasons why babies may not sleep as we expect them to (or to their full capability), and this is often a combination of emotional, environmental, developmental, and routine influences (which I often assess in detail during my consultations). There are so many factors that contribute to healthy sleep patterns.

Encouraging safety and security is paramount, as fear of separation + the dark + monsters are among the main reasons children of all ages experience difficulty sleeping. Incorporating plenty of one-on-one time, play, laughter, and roughhousing into your child’s daily routine can help fill their attachment tank and alleviate fears around sleep time.

The key environmental factors include: ensuring the child’s sleeping environment remains warm (ideally 19-22 degrees Celsius), utilising white noise (to block out household and outdoor noises whilst sleeping), and keeping the room nice and dark (which encourages the release of melatonin/sleep hormone).

I often tell parents to be wary of engaging in sleep props/routines/associations that are not sustainable and/or those that inhibit the child’s ability to fall (and remain) asleep independently long-term. However, this becomes more relevant as babies evolve past six months. It is important to note that you really can’t spoil a newborn baby! The first 3-6 months really should be all about establishing secure attachment, feeding on demand/regularly, as much skin to skin contact as possible and following a regular sleep schedule based on age-appropriate awake times.

Do you encourage parents to let their baby cry it out or ‘self-settle’ through ‘controlled crying’? If not, why not and what techniques do you use instead? 

Self-settling can be considered a milestone like any other, and babies and children will be capable of sleeping better – and on their own – given the space and opportunity to do so. Many parents find that this becomes more effortless between four to six months, given the appropriate foundations have been established.  Self-settling cannot be forced by restricting our love and presence, in fact, the opposite. The safer our child feels, the more capable they are of achieving this milestone of independence. 

What are the biggest misconceptions new parents have about baby sleep?

That newborns or young babies should be sleeping through the night. It is biologically normal for young babies to wake frequently for closeness (coregulation of their emotional and physical state), and to feed. 

What are the biggest mistakes new parents make when it comes to baby sleep patterns? 

I think the biggest mistake parents make is listening to other people's opinions, beliefs and stories about baby sleep. We outsource advice from friends, family, blogs, books, and google. But all children have unique needs and sleep requirements, and families will differ with their circumstances, values, dynamic, and parenting styles. You are the best advocate for your child and you know them better than anyone, so tune into what works for you, your baby, and is most beneficial to your family unit.

What are the most common sleep cues babies give us to tell us they’re tired?

The most common include; rubbing eyes, clenched fists, jerky body movements, yawning, losing interest in an activity, crying, becoming increasingly agitated or upset. 

Let’s talk about attachment parenting and co-sleeping. What are the benefits and drawbacks of co-sleeping?  

Attachment parenting and co-sleeping are not inextricably linked; meaning that a secure attachment can be equally fostered in the absence of co-sleeping. Whilst co-sleeping can be a nurturing, bonding experience, it must be a family decision, and one that works for the family unit. What is best for the baby or child isn’t always what is best for the parents (or other siblings) and vice versa, so it is imperative to identify the needs of everyone within the family. Whilst many parents can enjoy a mutually rewarding and beneficial co-sleeping experience, I have worked with many families that have “fallen” into co-sleeping out of convenience rather than choice, and sleep of the parent(s) and child respectively is compromised.

What about babywearing and sleep. Do you encourage or discourage this practice? 

Baby wearing can be extremely nurturing, practical, and convenient – and in the early months, I would say almost a necessity! Like anything we engage in to help our children fall asleep or stay asleep, it only becomes an issue when it is no longer sustainable. This can be for many reasons, but common difficulties I have experienced with families are that the child is unable to fall asleep (or stay asleep) unless they are held or rocked. Again this isn’t necessarily a problem in the early months, but as the child grows older (and heavier) the physical task for parents becomes exhausting, and parents often report that they are unable to get anything done or even leave the house during the day as they are caught in the “nap trap!”

Any top tips for settling babies in the night? 

Before we approach “how to settle,” it is really important to establish why a baby is waking. Often the night is a reflection of what is, or isn’t happening during the day. Some examples are as follows;

  • Is it simply biological? i.e., its completely normal for babies to wake up to three times in the first six months, and even one-to-two times in the first year. 
  • Are they hungry?
  • Did they nap well during the day or are they overtired?
  • Have they had too much sleep throughout the day?
  • Are they cold/waking from noises/is the room too light?
  • Are they overstimulated from lack of “wind down time?”
  • Do they feel safe and connected? 
  • Is it habit? what is the parent doing to get the child to sleep/re-settle when they wake? Is the child being fed, rocked, or held to sleep? Whatever the child requires to fall asleep, they will often need to fall back to sleep when they wake (and usually they wake more often for this throughout the night and/or during naps.
  • Nightmares/night terrors are common from as early as nine months 
What advice do you have for mums whose babies sleep all day and wake all night? 

A schedule is important to ensure that babies don’t establish (or maintain) day and night confusion. I usually recommend waking a young baby every two hours during the day; even if it’s only for a nappy change, feed, and brief play. At any age, we want babies to sleep longer stretches at night as opposed to during the day, so having a routine with regular naps (and capping these naps as required) is paramount.

What advice do you give mums whose babies will only be ‘boobed’ to sleep? 

I usually maintain; if it's not a problem for you, then it’s not a problem. Where the “boob to sleep” pattern may present an issue is when it  interferes with the child’s ability to sleep for longer periods of time day and/or night  i.e., they are waking every sleep cycle to be boobed back to sleep. This habit can also make it challenging for mum to get any time out as generally no one else can put the baby/child to sleep or resettle when they wake.

Let’s touch on ‘awake times’ (between naps). Are there any general age-specific guidelines you can share with us? 

Average recommendations are as follows. Keep in mind that all children have individual capabilities, so tuning into your child’s sleep needs is imperative to ensuring they receive the sleep they need. 

  • 0-3 months: 45 min to 1hr 15 min
  • 4-6 months 1.5-2hrs
  • 7-9 months 2.5-3 hours
  • 10-12 months 3-4 hours
  • 13-18 months 3.5-5hours

*most children are on one nap by 18 months

Are there any common tell-tale signs your baby is ready to drop a nap?

Common signs that babies are ready to drop a nap include; taking longer to fall asleep at their regular bedtime, falling asleep at the regular bedtime but only having a short sleep, and the ability to stay awake for longer periods of time without becoming overtired or agitated. it’s important to note that these will be consistent patterns over the course of three or more days, not just a “once off” – so the process of actually dropping a nap can take some careful planning. Dropping from two naps to one can take weeks for some babies, and they may need to continue on two naps for some days, whilst one nap on other days will suffice. Energy levels, health,

Keep in mind that some of the above signs can be synonymous with illness, teething and leaps, so it’s important to tune in to where your child is developmentally (cognitively, physically, and health-wise), and 

Sleep regressions. When and why do these typically occur?

Sleep regressions are really just progressions in a child’s physical and/or cognitive development. As anyone with children can attest; they are constantly growing and evolving. Changes in sleep patterns (including increased overnight waking, cat napping, or difficulty falling asleep) is completely normal for children when learning new skills and mastering milestones.

Teething, illness, introducing solids, starting childcare, changes to routine, and potty training are also among common milestones which can also cause sleep to “regress” or change. The Wonder Weeks is a great app I refer my clients to for the most common developmental milestones by age, and what is going on for the child during that time. From experience, you can expect sleep patterns to change regularly throughout the first one-to-two years… sometimes as often as every six to eight weeks or less for some. Again, there’s many factors that contribute to this, and sleep disturbances during these times can be minimised with a regular age-appropriate routine, positive sleep associations, parent-child connection tools, and optimal sleep environment.

What piece of comforting advice do you have for exhausted mothers who are delirious from sleep deprivation and feel like they can’t survive another day? 

Nothing has to be a problem, unless it is a problem for you. Just because your neighbour, sister, friend, or maternal child health nurse recommends you to do something a certain way doesn’t mean it will work for you and your child. Tune into the needs of your child, yourself, and your family… follow your intuition and you can’t go wrong! 

To connect with Sophie or purchase a copy of her book, visit https://sleepplaylove.co/