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13 Minutes

Ask the expert: sleep: the ultimate ‘how to’ for you/your baby

Here at The Journey we are very big on the science behind the power of sleep. For babies, for hormones, for neurodevelopment and for adults and even for fertility. Click here for more as to why it matters for sperm and here for how it plays a real role when it comes to egg quality.  It also plays a role in mental health and our wellbeing overall. However, the science is only useful if we can practically do something about it. All parents wish for a soundly sleeping baby (obviously!) but sometimes it is easier said than done. So, we talk to sleep expert and founder of Just Chill Baby Sleep Rosey Davidson. She talks to us about her unique approach and why it is making such waves. She also gives us a lot of very practical tips and tricks for getting your baby, toddler or yourself into a better position. Through all stages from the very start up through to adjusting/dropping naps and shooting some common sleep problems.

Click here for the full conversation on our podcast (50th episode!) or read on for some of the highlights below.

How and why I came to specialise in sleep: 

This all started from my own personal experience. I have two children: Daisy, now seven, and Lola who is three. When I was first pregnant I had thought I was super prepared. I read lots of books and had a plan. However, when Daisy was born and I had the shock of my life with the sleep deprivation. Obviously in the early days this is normal, but, the issue was came out of the newborn stage and she still wasn’t sleeping. I hit a brick wall. I just couldn’t do it anymore. We are lucky though. We have doctors in the family, and had the help of a nanny. So, I took all of this and set to work with various other sources. Finally I worked out a method and got her sleeping. 

It was like a lightbulb and I quickly realised the things I thought were helping her sleep were actually hindering it: 

Like many new parents you do your best. It was only when I figured out what actually worked that I realised what I had been doing wrong. From then, lots of friends and family who were having babies started to ask for help. I had also been teaching baby massage and realised the topic of sleep came up: a lot! So, I decided to get qualified and Just Chill Baby Sleep was born. 

I want to provide information to empower parents to sort sleep out themselves: 

The sleep world, like the parenting world if full of a lot of opinions. Frankly it is quite muddied. How do you know which information is right? Sleep is a very emotive and divisive subject. I try instead to give a balanced view of sleep. I try and focus on the individual and meet in the middle vs the extremes. 

My unique technique. How it developed and what I learnt: 

There is no secret to sleep, there is no magic pill. It’s about putting things together and looking at the whole picture. With my daughter I had thought we had a great routine. Actually, what I was doing was essentially imposing a routine on her. Forcing her to nap when she wasn’t ready. I wasn’t listening to her cues. She wasn’t able to self settle and was utterly reliant on me rocking her or feeding her to sleep. There is nothing wrong with those things if they work for you, but they certainly weren’t working for us. I was spending an hour trying to get her to sleep and she would last a single sleep cycle (30-40 minutes) before waking and I was devastated. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. 

All about how she was settling into sleep: 

I had thought you just do whatever you need to do to get a baby to sleep. However, what I learnt is that most babies post newborn phase need to learn in some way to how to be in their sleep space. To learn how to get themselves asleep from awake. 

A baby has to learn this: 

We are all born with the inherent ability to sleep, but somewhere along the line we need to learn what it is to go to sleep from being awake. 

Safety checks between sleep cycles: where I was making a mistake… 

This is an important part of understanding sleep. It is confusing for babies (or anyone) to fall asleep in one location and wake up somewhere completely different. So one of the things our bodies do is to protect ourselves when we’re asleep. We’re quite vulnerable in deep sleep. Looking at evolutionary development we are conditioned to have ‘safety checks’ between sleep cycles. The brain will essentially check if it safe to go back to sleep. The body will detect any changes. Changes indicate it may not be safe. So, if a baby wakes up and realises nothing had changed they should go back to sleep. However, initially with Daisy if she made the slightest movement or whimper I would rush in there. I would try and soothe her back, but inadvertently I stopping her from settling herself and going back into the next sleep cycle. 

How early to start helping a baby learn to sleep? 

I think from the very start we can set up good ‘sleep foundations’. That is not to say sleep training but developing a good sleep environment. This means basic things like having a nice dark room.

Light is hugely important: 

We know that light has a big impact on sleep. (Click here for some of the science). So, I recommend having lights on during feeding for awake time. You can use and amber reading light, this doesn’t impact our sleep like blue and white light does.

Click here for more on the science of the impact of light. 

Looking at your baby’s own awake windows: 

A newborn can only be awake an hour to hour and a half before needing to sleep again. Each baby will be slightly different and this will happen at different times. So it’s looking for your baby’s own ‘sleepy cues’. If a baby is starting to fuss, check how long they have been awake. Chances are if it is an hour/hour and a half this is a signal that its time to settle for sleep. You want to do this before they get to the point of hysteria. These awake windows are quite individual for a baby and can be impacted by many factors. If they are waking up multiple times a night they will be more tired than a baby that is sleeping better through the night. 

Sleep teaching not sleep ‘training’ and when to start? 

I don’t love the phrase sleep training because there are so many opinions and some pretty extreme techniques. I tend to really focus sleep teaching from around six months old. I start it then as by this point medical issues have typically been identified by this point. Allergies for example. Six months is also a good point to move them out of your room. Safe sleep guidelines recommends them being in the room with you to protect against SIDS. (Click here for more on the latest around SIDS and cot safety). By this point you have also probably developed a bit of a routine. That being said, as previously, sleep foundations and a good environment can start from the very beginning. 

What is the ‘right’ routine for sleep? 

Depends on the age and the stage. You need to keep up with it and look and listen for cues. Often I suggest building it initially around feeding. However, things work at six months but then change at eight months and a year. 

Signs your baby/toddler is ready to drop a nap for the next stage: 

The first obvious sign is that they start to resist a nap. You’ll know as they will stop settling for it. The other thing is they may sleep but start waking up earlier as they have filled their sleep tank enough. If you’re looking at a toddler who is ready to drop naps completely they may either resist the nap or they do it but then they don’t want to go to bed at night.

It’s all about ‘sleep pressure’:

For both babies and adults, in order to be ready to go to bed, ‘sleep pressure’ needs to build in the body. If a baby has napped too long/too close to bedtime they will fight sleep. For younger babies – the third nap can be a common cause of this or it can cause night waking/waking up too early.

Generally if your baby has been sleeping well and something starts to go wrong look at the number/length of naps: 

If you’ve been doing a certain sleep schedule for a while and it starts to go wrong then it is probably a signal to move on and reassess what naps are happening. 

Waking up too early? Put them to bed earlier?! 

Putting a child to bed too late can be a cause of early waking. However, there are a number of potential causes. The reason why a late bedtime can cause it however is that if we are putting a baby to bed too late we have missed their ideal window and so cortisol (the stress hormone) rises. Which is what happens when a baby gets overtired. It can cause it to impact the next morning as that is when Cortisol naturally rises again. 

Other potential causes for early waking:  

It is about working out the individual reason. Sleep environment is the first thing I would look at. Particularly we come into the summer and it gets light in the morning early. When it comes to light: I mean pitch black in a baby’s sleep room. Is your baby or toddler too hot or cold? Are they truly self settling at bedtime. I see this issue a lot even with good sleepers. As we come into the very early morning 4-5am the body is in a lighter stage of sleep Melatonin the sleep hormone which has been high through the night is dropping. Cortisol, which wakes us up is starting to rise, so if a baby comes out of a sleep cycle around this point and doesn’t have the ability to soothe it is a much harder point. Especially if they normally have an adult assisting them getting to sleep. This can then cause an early wake up. However, similarly putting them to bed too early also has the same impact!

Looking at the whole picture: 

As with any sleep challenge, its a bout looking at the whole picture and the individual. Under tiredness will do the same thing. So, it’s about looking for the right balance. Naps also make a difference. If a baby is doing a morning nap when it isn’t really needed it is seen as an extension of the night sleep. 

Experiment: but be consistent: 

Because there are a variety of potential causes you need to take a look at the whole picture. Being consistent is key, choose your path and stick to it for a bit before you conclude it isnt working. Something you do one day may not take effect until the next day, two or longer. 

Dummies/Pacifiers and sleep: 

If they work for you then great. They’re very good for premature babies or those with reflux. If it is hindering you and you’re doing the ‘dummy run’ ie you’re going in and out during the night replacing the dummy you should think about taking them away. Some older babies can replace it themselves and if you want to keep it then put a few in the cot. The NHS guidelines say to get rid of them by 12 months, but I think it is individual choice and what works for you. 

Sleep Associations: helping a baby settle itself: 

Babies are able to sleep. We’re all born with this. But, we form sleep associations which help get us to sleep. These can be quite hard to break. Before you embark on any type of sleep teaching you need to make sure a few things are in order. Your sleep environment (it’s dark, the right temperature etc) and your routine is in the right place. Then, start at nighttime. 

Start sleep teaching/any change at night: 

At night you have biology on your side. You have high sleep pressure, you have high melatonin and your body wants to go to sleep. So your body is working with you. This is the best time to introduce change – like getting rid of a dummy. You can switch a dummy for a conmforter for example (if the baby is over six months). A small toy/piece of muslin as babies are very tactile and an older child you talk to the child about the dummy fairy for example. 

Comforters are great for positive sleep association: 

Each sleep time you put it in their hand. Be consistent, they may not love it at first, but, after a few weeks you’ll see that they start to cuddle it, put it over their face. If your baby doesn’t go for it don’t worry you can still get rid of the dummy. Just go for it at nightime. The chances are they may not be happy with it. There are lots of other sleep associations that you can use and it is just about working out what works for you and what’s right for your baby and their personality. 

What about crying?

Initially, as you’re making adjustments a baby will probably cry but the evidence suggests that if everything else is in place, good environment, temperature and they are fed then they will be absolutely fine to leave for a few minutes. The key is that if they’re calm, leave the room. It is best you’re not there when they start to sleep. It can be very individual however and you have to do what’s right for you and your baby. If you feel your baby is very sensitive and you don’t want to leave them for more than a few minutes then thats ok too. As usual, its about what works for you and the baby.

Where my technique is different: 

There are some very aggressive and extreme approaches to sleep. Allowing very long periods of time where the baby is crying (say putting them to bed at 7pm and not going in no matter what) is not really my approach. I think to an extent you have to be flexible and intuitive with your own situation and your baby. What works for you. Not necessarily about cast iron very rigid approaches. 

Working with the rules and science of sleep: 

Generally, it is about looking at the rules and science and the general typical patterns that babies do and working out your path and then being consistent with that. Babies have strong personalities from the start. Some are just inherently better sleepers than others. The good news is that for any baby we can improve their sleep. 

Swaddling to help newborns sleep: 

I think this is really good for newborns. Not all of them like it, but it does help control their startle reflex which can wake them up. Also they are used to being squashed up and it can be reassuring to them. You must follow safe swaddling guidelines. I always check out the Lullaby Trust they have everything you need to know about safe baby sleep. Click here. When it comes to stopping with the swaddle: you should stop as they start to roll. You do it gently, release one arm and then the other over a period of a few days or a week. 

White noise machines: 

Also good for newborns. They tend to replicate sounds in the womb. Also good if you have a noisy home. There is no cut off when you should stop it. Adults use them too. If you want to try and get rid of it just gradually start to turn it down. The key is that you have them on consistently for the entirety of the child’s sleep. Some of them only stay on for twenty minutes as when they stop the baby can wake. Some have a sleep sensor and switch on as the baby wakes but I think that’s too late. Just get a basic one that is on consistently if you want to use one. 

Why I decided to get into helping adults with sleep: 

We have helped so many parents with their little ones sleep. However, one thing I hear quite a bit from parents is that when that’s sorted they themselves struggle. I also really don’t like the way sleep is seen as decadent. You don’t hear people boasting about going to bed early and working on sleep, it is the reverse. I want prioritising sleep it to be something normal and something that people work at. We have developed a course online with a number of experts. I have a clinical psychologist, a meditation expert and Dr Robert Davidson also gives input. We have ideas and ways people can improve their own sleep and health.   

A lot of the sleep skills for babies apply to adults too:

Light is so important. Even more so than children as we are glued to our phones. Particularly now. Ideally put that down 2hrs before bed. It is hard. Ideally we would be reading by candlelight but it isn’t necessarily realistic! Controlling screen time and learning to unwind and manage anxiety. Put your phone away when you go to bed, have it in another room. Be strict with yourself. Do it for yourself and your family. Perhaps you can start 30 mins before bed and then build up. You may even enjoy it and feel more relaxed and less stimulated. It is also what you watch pre bed. An intense movie/the news, we need to reduce Adrenaline and Cortisol before bed. It is an issue for teenagers as they are gaming late at night. News just before bed can bring anxiety which we know has a huge impact on sleep. 

How to get more from Just Chill Baby Sleep: 

Instagram is a good page for resources – click here to check it out. I do regular Q&As there are many opportunities for me to answer questions direct, plus a free YouTube channel. Many people say watching that helps solves issue without spending money. We also have online courses and packages for one to one consultations with our resident experts. Our online courses are really popular as you can do them at home and in your own time. Click here for more. 


This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.

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Each month we will be giving away a curated box of goodies to suit the individual stage of your Journey, worth £100. To enter the draw and join us, enter your details below. Winner announced at the end of the month.


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