FAQs - Sleep
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FAQs - Sleep from At Home with Montessori

Sometimes it helps to get some outside advice. Meg from At Home with Montessori has become my go-to person for so many things. Not only is she Montessori trained she has some real life experience. I asked Meg to answer my most frequently asked questions about sleep. 


1. We currently co-sleep with our 4-6 month old. Any suggestions on how to transition them in their own room and onto the floor bed?

Co-sleeping works for some families and not for others. Our family is a bit of a mix. My oldest child never slept well in our bed and we never slept well when he was in it! He sleeps so heavily in his own bed that I struggle to wake him in time for school! My younger child sleeps well with me - but keeps my husband awake. I can sleep anywhere! My older child weaned himself when he was 9 months old and I'm sure this had an impact on his ability to sleep alone. My little one (at almost 17months) is still breastfeeding and really just doesn't sleep as well when on his own. So we play musical beds - my husband sleeps in the guest room when he's so tired he can't face another night of no sleep, I sleep in our bed for most of the night and then usually end up in the littlie's bed towards dawn, as this is his 'witching hour'. If I don't hop in with him then, the whole house gets up at 5am which is way too early for all of us. So this unorthodox arrangement works for us - at this moment in time. This is KEY - when it stops working for one of us, we'll change something, so that it all starts working again. 

Transition periods are always difficult - but if you really want change, then you have to persevere through the hard bits until you find something that works. Learning to sleep is kind of like learning to swim. You don't throw your kid in the deep end and hope for the best! You start on the steps, you wear floaties, you keep things light and happy and soon your baby loves the pool and can't wait for a swim, and then one day you can let go, and they manage to do it all by themselves. Why would learning to sleep (or any other life skill for that matter) be any different? Slow and gentle steps, keeping an eye on how everyone is feeling, making small adjustments, finding compromises...this will help your child to learn to sleep. Speaking from an evolutionary perspective - we were not designed to be self-sufficient from the day of birth - we are born needing others. Those needs don't go away just because we are born into a world that expects independence from the start. 

If you have been co-sleeping and now want your bed back I would start by having day naps on the floor bed. I always recommend that parents start with the least amount of 'help' and then add in extra support as they observe that their child needs it. So at first put your baby down, walk out of the room. Sometimes if you pick the moment just right, they will fall asleep with no hassles - this is because you have put them into bed when their signs of sleep are still soft (more on the signs of sleep later). If your baby cries, wait a minute to hear what kind of cry they are making - is it tired, grizzly, or is it more intense? More intense cries need a response, so go in and offer some support by being in the room. The next support step would be to sit in close proximity, or lay down next to your baby without touching or making eye contact. Even more support would mean placing a hand somewhere on your baby. Still no sleep? Try picking your baby up to calm them and when they have relaxed again, try the sequence again. 

Some families find it helpful to start out the night in separate beds, but leaving the option open to co-sleep if needed later on in the night, or early morning. Gradually the periods in separate beds will extend until the co-sleeping naturally fades away. This is not a quick approach though, so expect some time to pass before your baby is sleeping in their own bed for the whole night.

Sometimes it helps to get a floor bed that is big enough for baby and an adult - then instead of co-sleeping in mum and dad's room, the baby gets used to spending a whole night in their own room with some support from a parent in their own bed, if they need reassurance during the night. This also works really well when you have a sick baby and need to be close during the night - trying to fit onto a single bed is pretty hard when your baby starts moving around - you end up with feet in your face!

Also, it is easier to transition to a floor bed before your baby starts crawling. There will always be a period where your child leaves the bed instead of sleeping, but this period generally lasts for a much shorter length of time if your baby is used to sleeping in their floor bed before they can actually get out of it by themselves. 

Door closed or open is another frequent question - whichever you choose, try to decide and be consistent before you baby is around 7 or 8 months - this is the beginning of understanding object permanence and your baby will object strongly to a closed door if they are used to an open one, after this time. We start with a closed door, and I open it when I go to bed, so my kids can get out of bed independently and come to me in the night if they need me.

If you are just starting out with a newborn, consider using a moses basket with a topponcino near your bed from the start, and then transitioning to the floor bed after 6-8 weeks, using the topponcino as the transitional object (it smells the same, feels the same and your baby will have positive associations with sleeping on and being held with the topponcino). 


2. I currently feed my child to sleep or use a pacifier. Any suggestions on how to help them become an independent sleeper?

The newborn baby is born with the natural urge to suck - her survival depends on it! Under ideal circumstances, a mother will be able to offer her baby the time to satisfy her hunger for milk, as well as her need for sucking, at the breast. In time the baby will find her fingers or thumb and will be able to satisfy the urge to suck on her own. Eventually the drive to explore her environment through tasting everything, will be overtaken by the need to touch everything and so the natural progression from oral satisfaction to tactile exploration takes place. By 18 months, the child will have left behind the need to suck, and will no longer explore things by putting them in her mouth. 

Parents offer a pacifier for a number of reasons: to stop their baby from crying, to satisfy the need to suckle, to aid the transition from wakefulness to sleep, and to prevent thumb-sucking. All honourable reasons, because what parent doesn't have their child's best interests at heart? The big question though is, when offering a pacifier to your infant, who is in control? You hear your baby cry, or struggle to find their fingers and you offer the pacifier to ease their distress. Except that when you offer the pacifier (or the breast for that matter!) every time your baby cries, you are taking away an opportunity for them to learn to soothe themselves. You can at best only guess why your baby is crying, and then by offering the pacifier you take control of the situation. Crying is hard to hear as a parent - but even harder is to try to undo the unspoken message that expression of feelings and communication of distress is not okay. This doesn't mean that you ignore your infants cries, just that you are accepting of them as a means of communication with you, and that if you can help your infant to find a way to soothe themselves (given that other needs such as hunger or discomfort have been met), then you will be preparing the path for healthy self-development. Get rid of the pacifier if you can...don't do it in stages, just ditch it and throw them all away so you can't be tempted to pull one out. Changes are best accepted by your child when you are able to project confidence in your decision. If you don't want a pacifier then take action to get rid of it, and be confident that you have made the right choice

I did not use a pacifier with my first child - he is a thumb sucker. At 6, he still sucks his thumb when going to sleep. Great that we didn't need to use a pacifier, but not so great for his teeth, because prolonged thumb sucking is now having an impact on the position of his jaw and milk teeth - this is just to illustrate that not everything goes according to plan, even when you do your best as a parent! My second child was a baby with a strong need for sucking - so much so, that when I approached my osteopath in tears (seeking adjustments for both of us, after the birth) with cracked and bleeding nipples from acting as a human pacifier, he insisted that it would do no harm if I used it within the context of sleep. So Luke has a pacifier...We try to help him to be independent in its use - we have a pacifier next to his bed so that he can get it and use it when he wants to have a sleep. We encourage him to leave it in the basket when he wakes up, so that he doesn't walk around with it in his mouth. And we also find opportunities to fall asleep without it.

When feeding to sleep, a baby develops an association between food and sleep, which can hinder prolonged, deep and restorative sleep because they find themselves unable to re-enter a sleep cycle when they surface from deep sleep unless they can suckle the breast. This non-nutritive sucking seems to be the easiest option at times, which is why we can get stuck in this pattern of needing to breastfeed to fall asleep. But in reality there are a number of reasons why children find it difficult to get to sleep. Elevated stress levels, over stimulation, getting a 'second wind' when the first round of tired signs are missed, and busy schedules which result in a biological rhythm that is maladapted to the daily rhythm of the family, all make it harder to fall into sleep peacefully. So there are definitely things you can do to help your child become a better sleeper...

If you use a pacifier, try to keep it within the context of sleep and help your baby to be independent in its use.

If you regularly feed to sleep, aim for one sleep transition each day where you help your baby to fall asleep in a different way (remember always start with the least amount of assistance, and offer more support only when needed).

Try to increase the number of transitions to sleep without feeding, and don't be discouraged on the days when its not working.

Watch for the first signs of sleep: jerky arms and legs, no eye contact, frowning - these are early signs... yawning, rubbing eyes, clingy - these come a bit later... crying, grizzling, flailing limbs - these are past the point of no return! If your baby gets to sleep at the first sign of tiredness, they are able to wind-down from consciousness to sleep by themselves. If you miss the signs, they will need your help to make the transition. 

Enough restful sleep in the day, leads to better sleep at night. 

Have a sleep routine - keep it simple and make sure everyone who initiates it sticks to it! Eventually your baby will start to initiate the routine for themselves.

You are preparing the way for later skills - everything the infant knows is hidden, but you will see the fruits of your labors when they are ready to bring these learned behaviours into the realm of conscious action


3. My child rolls a lot and I am worried about them rolling out of the floor bed. How do you handle this?

If your baby has been on the floor bed from the start, they will be less likely to roll out of it, since they will have internalised its boundaries when lying on it and scooting around it. If your mattress has rounded edges - like a futon - the drop from the bed to the floor will be softer. You can place a bumper (made from a firmly rolled blanket, or a thin mattress) next to the bed to protect your baby from bumping themselves when they roll off. My preference was for using a futon mattress to start with, and then moving to a double inner-sprung mattress when my children were more intentionally mobile.


4. My child is now crawling and frequently gets out of bed and wants to play, what should I do?

When choosing to use a floor bed, one is implicitly accepting a fundamental truth...No one can make another person fall asleep! So yes, your child may choose to leave their bed and play, instead of lying still and sleeping, but conversely, they may also choose to lay down and sleep when tired! With both of my children this happened for the first time at around 16 months - all was suspiciously quiet and I wondered where they were...only to find them curled up, fast asleep on their beds. Seems like a long time to wait for independent sleep, I know! But the joy of seeing them both make full use of their independence, and not only recognise their own tiredness, but also associating their beds with the positive experience of sleep was a conquest in my eyes! I knew that I had prepared them well for sleep skills that would last them a lifetime. 

When you child gets out of bed to play, wait and watch...they might get tired of it and get back into bed, they may even fall asleep on the floor next to their toy. They may not be tired and not go to sleep at all! But if you are sure that they are tired, and need to sleep (peaceful and calm concentration with an activity indicates that they may not have been as tired as you thought they were...) then simply try laying down next to them and closing your eyes, modelling the appropriate sleep behaviours for them. 


5. I am currently setting up our nursery and working out where to position our mobiles. Would the mobile be better over the bed so the child has something to focus on as they go to sleep?

Mobiles are stimulating to watch - my first instinct would be to suggest that they are better suited to an area where your baby undertakes his wakeful 'work'. This way you can watch him for signs of over-stimulation (grimacing, lack of eye contact, turning his head away) and help him to take a break by changing the scenery.

Using the mobile requires concentrated effort on the part of the infant - they are learning how to coordinate their vision so that both eyes work together to focus on and track the mobile's movements. They will inevitably want some respite and if they are not mobile (and mobile babies would really need tactile mobiles, not visual ones) they are unable to remove themselves from the source of stimulation unless you move them.

The mobiles could be in the same room, hanging above the movement mat, but far enough away from the floor bed so that your infant is not lying directly beneath them, and can choose to look at them or not.


6. My child is the same age as yours. How much sleep should they be getting? 

Newborns can sleep for between 16 and 20 hours a day, split evenly between daytime and night time. At 12 weeks the pituitary gland begins to function helping your baby to establish a day/night rhythm. 

After three months the need for sleep decreases until your toddler gets around 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period - this need remains constant until your child is at least 3 years old.   

Every child is unique, so don't measure sleep by the clock, but rather by observing your child. A well rested child is happy, content to play independently, not excessively clingy, and full of physical energy. The need for sleep may increase when your child is unwell, going through a growth spurt, or teething. 


Meg has also addressed sleep in this article which is a fantastic read especially if you are expecting or have a newborn.  Thank you Meg - so much! I really appreciate the time and energy you put into answering these questions. 

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