What I Wish I’d Known About My Baby’s Sleep

(10 minute read)

This blog post has been brought to you by Louisa Hirst - Postnatal Doula, Infant Feeding Coach and Author of the Parent Prep Book.

Having trained at the world-renowned Norland College and having spent eight years working with babies and young children as a Nanny, I felt very confident and prepared as I waited for my first baby to be born. Sadly, however, we didn’t have the easiest start with a very traumatic delivery and a hospital stay for three days due to Jaundice. I was determined that I wanted to breastfeed and having watched a few online tutorials and read a few books I thought it would be fairly straightforward. The forceps delivery and Jaundice got in the way of this a little bit though, resulting in a sleepy, sore baby who then really didn’t want to feed.

I’ll never forget that first night at home. No hospital buzzer to ring and no midwives on tap. I remember sitting propped up in bed, with aching muscles I didn’t even know I had, hand expressing and finger feeding my baby before passing him to my husband. ‘Don’t hold him for too long!’ I’d say, petrified of all I’d read about bad habits being created by babies being cuddled too much, and how we needed to teach him to self-settle from as early as possible.

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I would spend hours and hours each day trying to settle him in his Moses basket. I’d sit there with his warm body next to mine, breathing in his heavenly newborn scent, before fighting with all my might against my instincts and putting him down in his basket. I felt everyone would be looking to me to have the perfect baby and I truly believed that a baby needed to be taught how to sleep. If only I knew then what I know now…

Firstly, babies aren’t born knowing the difference between night and day. Factors such as light, noise, temperature and eating habits help set our Circadian Rhythm (body clock), along with a hormone called Melatonin which makes us sleepy. This hormone is passed to baby via the umbilical cord, but once this is cut after delivery a baby no longer receives it, and he won’t produce this himself until around 3-4 months of age. I found this out the hard way. I couldn’t understand why my new baby would sleep most of the day and then be wide awake from 2-4am. Convinced I must be doing something wrong and causing these ‘bad habits’ already, I rang The Breastfeeding Network one morning to ask for advice. A lovely lady on the other end of the phone explained that my baby needed me right now and that, no, I did not need to start waking my baby in the daytime to try and get him to sleep more at night. And that no, my baby was not wide awake at 2am because I’d not got him used to his Moses basket! She suggested I expose my son to daylight with perhaps a walk if I could manage it once a day, and that I should enjoy those newborn cuddles rather than being petrified of spoiling my baby. ‘You simply cannot spoil a baby and you don’t need to teach him how to sleep. He’ll get there when he’s ready’ she said… Although deep down I still wasn’t convinced, and it wasn’t until I trained to be a Doula and Gentle Sleep Educator that I truly understood this.

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You see, if we divide the brain into three parts we have the downstairs brain (primitive brain) which is responsible for functions such as breathing, heart rate and fight or flight. Next, we have our mid brain (emotional brain) which controls feelings such as joy, fear, anger and sadness. And our upstairs brain is our thinking brain which is responsible for logic, empathy and problem solving. Now what’s key here is that our mid/emotional brain is controlled by our upstairs/thinking brain, but the thinking brain is not fully developed until the age of 25… YES, 25!!! 

So, as adults if we feel stressed or overwhelmed we are able to use the thinking part of our brain to think logically and problem solve to calm down- perhaps we might make a cup of tea or call a friend. But how on earth is a baby supposed to do this? Well he can’t and he needs you, the adult, to help him meet these needs.

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A baby who has had all his needs met and is in a calm state at the point of sleep will appear to self-soothe, but actually he just hasn’t required support to calm himself from a state of stress. If, however, a baby is left to cry themselves to sleep not only do they learn that no one is coming to meet their needs but the stress hormone, Cortisol, rapidly builds up and some studies have shown levels of this hormone remain high long after the baby has fallen asleep. This shows that they haven’t self-regulated at all.

But won’t all this cause my baby to become clingy I hear you ask? Actually the opposite is true…

The NSPCC website discusses John Bowlby’s theory of attachment; ‘Attachment is a clinical term used to describe "a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1997)1. In particular, attachment theory highlights the importance of a child’s emotional bond with their primary caregivers. Disruption to or loss of this bond can affect a child emotionally and psychologically into adulthood, and have an impact on their future relationships.’ 

Newborns do not know they are a separate entity from their caregiver- when his/her comforting smell and body are gone, are they coming back? If we think about it, were babies put in the cave next door in stone age times?


With this in mind it is crucial that we meet our baby’s needs. Babies cannot manipulate us and they cry to communicate something is wrong. You cannot spoil a baby by cuddling her, picking her up when she cries or paying her attention. Neither will you cause her to be clingy when she’s older. It is in fact the complete opposite. By responding to her and meeting her needs you are showing her you’re there for her, building up trust, confidence and a secure relationship. A child who feels nurtured will go on to build healthier relationships when she is older.

Doula Lou



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