Ep. 63 – Tara Mitchell – Sleep Baby Sleep (Pleeeze!)
- Why do we need sleep?
- How to support a child in healthy sleep patterns.
- The importance of moving from overwhelm to simplicity.
The phrase, “all you need is love,” rings true until all you need is sleep… then ‘love’ takes a close second.
In this episode of family360, pediatric sleep specialist Tara Mitchell talks about the toll sleep deprivation takes on family functioning and offers counsel for sorting out sleep in a way that allows our children to rest in our care.
Check in to hear her personal story and how she’s helping put the joy back into parenthood, one good sleep at a time.
Tara MitchellTara Mitchell has always worked with children since a young age. She graduated as a registered nurse and specialized in pediatric nursing, which combined her two loves - children and helping others.
Then her first child had difficulty sleeping, affecting Tara’s sleep as well. After three months of severe sleep deprivation she began to explore options and using different techniques. Getting sleep sorted was a total game changer.
Tara then trained as a sleep consultant, and has now worked with thousands of clients around the world though both private consulting and her Baby Sleep Program. She’s become a trusted referral source for pediatricians, midwives, child health nurses, pharmacists, psychologists, teachers and many more, as well as contributing to a number of parenting sites, blogs and media outlets.
Ep. 63 – Tara Mitchell – Sleep Baby Sleep (Pleeeze!)
Rachel Cram – Well, Tara, good morning to you.
Tara Mitchell – Good morning. Good evening to you, really.
Rachel Cram – You’re in Perth Australia, I’m in Vancouver Canada. I have the sun going down behind me in our studio windows and you have the sun coming up.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Rachel Cram – That still amazes me.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, right. My kids are so like fascinated by that idea.
Rachel Cram – I’m glad they’re fascinated because I feel like it’s just so commonplace for kids now that you can communicate across the world like this on Zoom. So it’s good that they’re still fascinated because it is amazing. It is amazing.
Well, you just dropped off your kids at school. I’m about to go home and have dinner with mine. So thanks for getting us into your morning.
Tara Mitchell – Pleasure. Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here. Thrilled to be a part of this.
Rachel Cram – Oh, awesome. Roy and I were chuckling yesterday morning because we saw an Instagram post go up from you at what would have been like 4:00 in the morning your time. We were laughing, we were laughing because we thought, OK, sleep specialist and here she is up at four in the morning posting on Instagram.
Tara Mitchell – Honestly, sometimes it’s 2am and I just will work for an hour and then fall back asleep. It’s ridiculous.
Rachel Cram – Is that part of your sleep hygiene?
Tara Mitchell – No, I can assure you, if you work with me, you will have far better sleep. It’s like hairdressers with bad hair. You know, they’re doing everyone else’s.
Rachel Cram – Totally got that. Totally get it. And Tara, honestly, you are so genuine and compassionate in your care and responses to the struggles of others, and I know that in part comes from your humility regarding your own realities, which you share in your podcasts and online writing. You quickly put people at ease and that’s lovely.
Tara Mitchell – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well, I love to start our interviews with a question that just gives our listeners a chance to get to know you a little bit more, Tara. And so I’m going to jump right in. Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” So, Tara, I’m wondering, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, the defining moment, I think for me and to be honest, it’s really impacted who I am as a human being in terms of compassion, my ability to relate to people, was that my dad left suddenly when I was 12. Things really spiraled in terms of my family at that point. And I really went through a lot of anxiety around that point and had a hard time. And so that was probably my most defining moment growing up. It’s given me an empathy. It’s given me an understanding on life. It’s given me the ability to be able to grow and know better and do better as I’ve gotten older and heal and that sort of thing.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, my parents divorced as well and I definitely see that as one of the formative parts of my life. And part is realizing that there’s no such thing as perfect families. Because I thought mine was pretty perfect before that happened.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, yeah, it’s funny. It’s a bit of a train wreck at the time. And then there is so many learnings in the depths of despair. And what we thought should be and I think one of the biggest lessons is just coming to an understanding that life isn’t going to be how we imagined it and the sooner that we can move forward with the things that were thrown the better.
Rachel Cram – Oh, I’d love to jump off that phrase “that life isn’t always how we imagined it,” because you are in the important practice of supporting families during what is arguably one of the most challenging times of life, the months after the birth of a child and those toddler years. And before we start talking about sleep, Tara, which is your specialty? Can you talk about overwhelm? In your experience, do parents find parenting young children trickier than they anticipated? Is it not what they imagined?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, yeah. I’m speaking very generally, but I very rarely meet people who are like, “Yeah, it’s everything I imagined. And, you know, I’ve just got it all down pat.”
This was my big, big lesson, right? I’d been working with children for 13 years before I had my daughter. I’d nannied. I’d been a pediatric nurse and suddenly, you know, I just had this really unsettled baby and everything that I imagined, and I really have been the type of person who from the get-go was dead set on ‘I want to be a mom.’ like ‘I’m a mom’. I was the person when I was little that would go up to people who I didn’t even know and ask to sit and hold their baby.
Rachel Cram – You were all in.
Tara Mitchell – All in. And so you have this picture in your head of how it’s going to be. And I think even for people who don’t know how it’s going to be, there is such a shift in our life when you have a child and one of the biggest things is that we don’t recognize how many touchpoints we have in our day.
Rachel Cram – What do you mean by touchpoints?
Tara Mitchell – So basically, what that is is we go to the same café and we get a coffee in the morning. We make the coffee in the morning, we get dressed, we have a shower in order. We then go to work. We come home, we do our exercise class on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. We try and plan something on a Sunday with family every second week. We see the same people. We form relationships at work. And from all of these things, we’re getting a sense of connection and belonging and significance and then it’s wiped. You don’t have those touchpoints anymore. You can’t get to the cafés you used to or you don’t have the motivation or even in pregnancy, it might be that you’re so sick, you don’t have the energy. There’s this slow like loss of that, you know, as we go along, you know?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like a loss at the time when our body is busy growing a new human being. Talk about touchpoints, that’s an all-consuming one. You’re living a 24/7 internally expanding touchpoint and any more can feel like too many, at least for the Mom.
Tara Mitchell – That’s right. So I’m just going to say then Dad’s life would stay somewhat similar let’s just say or the other parents’ lives would stay somewhat, you know, familiar. And then Bub comes, and there’s such a shift. There is this sudden “Oh my gosh, this baby is ours and my partner needs me more.” There’s that pull. So it is very overwhelming. And I think now there’s other factors that contribute to that overwhelm. Do you want me to say a few of those?
Rachel Cram – Sure. Yeah.
Tara Mitchell – So, now we’ve got a lot of pressure on dual incomes. I think they’re saying in the next, however many years, it’s going to be 75 to 80 percent, dual-income families. So it’ll be just so rare that just mom, for example, is at home or just dad, for example, is at home.
And then, I feel like collectively we have a lot more resources, but with knowledge also comes a lot of overwhelm. We are able these days to know better and do better and to learn and you know, there’s such a big push on parenting and growth and that is so amazing. But equally to that, it can be really overwhelming because one persons saying, you know, your babies can never experience any discomfort and that you should never be apart from them and attachment parenting and that very strong pull that comes with that. And then others are saying, “Oh my gosh, like, we need to teach our kids resilience and it’s actually okay to have boundaries. And, so we’re just navigating this influx of technology and I think in a way, parents are losing their anchor in themselves because there’s just so much that they’re reading and watching other families be perfect, so to speak on Instagram when they’re not, but that’s what we’re seeing. And nowadays we literally are trying to do it all and be it all and we’ve got two busy schedules so there’s a lot of pressure.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Oh, I can so relate to what you’re saying. Before I had kids, I had been an elementary school teacher and then an early childhood educator for several years. And like you, I adored children and I just did not anticipate either, how different it is when they are your own. And I just remember being so overwhelmed. And by the time you get to your second and third child, you get a rhythm. But on your first child, especially, it is like you say a complete life shift that I don’t think anything really prepares us for.
Tara Mitchell – No, and the love, even if you think about the hormones and emotions, the love that you feel for them surpasses anything. And so we take backseat and dad or partner takes backseat. And that in itself is so overwhelming that feeling of protection and doing the best for them. We just want to get it so right, there’s such an overwhelming feeling of “I just want to do it all right for you because I love you so much.”
Musical Interlude #1
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Rachel Cram – The love we feel for our kids is so overwhelming! It really does catch us off guard. Nothing really prepares you for it. It’s kind of like trying to describe a color, you can’t do it justice with words. ‘Parental love’ is completely its own shade of passion and it can be consuming.
On one of your podcast episodes Tara, you talked about the concept of mother as martyr, that that love can actually shift us into an unhealthy place of becoming a martyr. Do you remember that? Do you want to describe that a little bit because I thought it was very insightful?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. So there’s a quote that says, “There’s no greater burden for a child than the unlived life of a mother.” And I understand that personally and I definitely feel my natural is to go into that.
Rachel Cram – To go into an unlived life? Is that what you’re saying?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. To just give all to my children. To not have a life of my own. If I didn’t know more and wasn’t in this space, I would 100 percent be only martyr for my children, because you feel like that’s love, and for me, that’s how it was shown.
Rachel Cram – That’s how your Mom modeled it to you?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, yeah. But you know, in healthy ways in the end. You know, There’s a lot of pressure there and I think a lot of relationship breakdowns. We didn’t just go through one divorce, we went through many between my parents. And so, yeah, I do. I feel like there became this pressure on us essentially. And she may not have meant it and that sort of thing. But yeah, I feel that. That as soon as you start living only for your child, firstly, you’ll model that for them. But also what happens is that your happiness is based on if they do the right thing and if they make you feel good enough or needed. I think that’s was a big part of it, a big thing for us. And if you don’t need them, then that’s when some of that resentment or that push back can come back from mother who’s a martyr. If they’re not needed. If they feel rejected. And obviously there’s a balance right? Like we’re not dropping our kids off every night so we can go out. But there’s that balance between the two. But I think it’s very natural for us to step into mother as martyr.
Rachel Cram – Would you say that getting that mother as martyr syndrome happening leads to a codependent relationship with your children? Between a mother and a child?
Tara Mitchell – Thousand percent. Thousand percent. And I don’t know how it could not be if mother has given all. And that like, you can still ‘give all’ as a mom but it still means that it’s okay for you to take some time for yourself. It’s okay for you to prioritize your partner again. It’s okay for you to have boundaries with your children and not be so affected. You know so many women that I work with, they’re so scared to have boundaries in case they upset their child. And then they’re like, “I feel like he doesn’t like me the same,” or,
And I’m like, “No, no, let’s stay an adult here.”
As soon as you shift into martyr and as soon as you shift into that codependency, you’re not ‘adult’ and you centrally stay near them and there’s this tug of war between two children. Two lost children is how I see it and how I feel it plays out, as opposed to when mother stays as “I’m OK, you’re OK, and I’m going to make this decision and I’m going to head out tonight. You’re going to be babysat for one night. It’s fine. I’m okay with that, and I’m going to show you that it’s all OK.”
Yeah, I can’t see how codependency wouldn’t be created because equal to that is that if you’ve given your whole life for your child, eventually they’re going to start to want to have a life of their own. And parents and mothers in particular who have ‘given all’ will feel rejected or, you know, that sense of resentment essentially.
So yeah, I do feel that that comes into play.
Rachel Cram – It does, it does come into play because weirdly, we almost feel guilty not letting ourselves become a martyr for our kids sometimes.
Tara Mitchell – Umm, 100%, yep. Going into guilt and shame is really big for moms. Feeling guilty for things that we shouldn’t because we’re almost putting ourselves in their position too much instead of being like, “No, no, this is a really healthy boundary to have.” We go straight into any shame or guilt for having those boundaries or for having that separation to some degree?
Rachel Cram – I think when your child is first born, it’s understandable and necessary even perhaps to become fully immersed in keeping them alive. I think even for yourself, as a new parent, you just need that time when your child becomes the center of your world because you are learning so much and they need you so much.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, and you surrender to that
Rachel Cram – And you surrender to that. But what stage would you say that that can start to shift? And when that stift starts to happen, how do you see your priorities changing? At what point do you feel like it’s appropriate and necessary to shift away from that totally absorbed interaction with your child? At what age?
Tara Mitchell – Oh, I mean, I wouldn’t know exactly what month or age, and to be really honest, this is my biggest learnings, right? Like I.
Rachel Cram – For yourself personally you mean?
Tara Mitchell – Oh, hugely. I’ve lost a marriage. And there was obviously, you know, multiple reasons why their dad left but I would definitely say that one thing was that I became all mother. And he wasn’t around much. He worked away 75 percent of the year, so it was very easy to become only mother, right? When somebody else is not there often and you know, you feel like you’re their lifeline and their only lifeline. But now in my new relationship, it’s being very important to me and very hard for me to now go, “No, I need to still prioritize him. It’s okay for me to show that to my kids, to show that he’s really important and I am going to hold his hand on the walk, and just the littlest things, essentially, that I would usually think about would be like, “Oh no, I only hold my kids hands. I don’t want them to think I’ll only hold…” you know, just the craziest littlest things.
So what I would say is that we know that healthy relationships and healthy families come when mother is first, puts herself first, then partner, then child. Which, if you’d said this to me initially, I would have been like, “That’s disgusting.” I genuinely would have been like, “I cannot deal with that concept. My children are first.” And my heart and head still have that argument to this day.
Saying that I need to put myself before them, and my partner.
It sounds horrible but you know, it’s that feeling. And so we know the families that fare really well are in that position. There has to come that level of understanding that we as person is really important to our child, that we know ourselves. We continue to follow passions because that’s happiness, that’s that belonging. We keep our friendships up. We keep our relationships nurtured so that our homes don’t fall apart because I’ve seen too many parents, through sleep deprivation alone, let alone everything else, where one, mainly mother, will not make changes around sleep because she’s just gone all in to mother. And unfortunately, it’s been at the detriment of their relationship and their marriage, and it falls apart because it never got put back into a priority and time never came in and they couldn’t work together on that.
And then you think, “OK, well what’s the outcome for a mom who doesn’t know herself? So for a mom who’s lost herself? For a mom who has no friends, no passions. The relationships now broken down. Dad’s in another house. You know, when you think of it that way, that serves no child. Zero.
Rachel Cram – The needs of our children can consume us and it is hard to remember the importance of that prioritizing. I totally get there. I’ve been that. You’ve shared the breakdown of your own marriage and I know you’ve worked really hard on how you continue to ‘prioritize’ with the father of your kids, even though you’re no longer together. I’ve heard you say that children need to see and feel their parents have a secure and calm relationship whether they’re living in the same house or not. And that prioritizing that relationship prevents a child from feeling they have to choose a parent.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, this is big for me. My biggest fear when I was in this situation a few years ago where I was suddenly a single mom. This really was like, “How do we lease mess up the children from this? We’ve made adult decisions. Now we’re here, and to be honest, it’s nearly just as damaging in their own home if there is that huge division between parents, because living under the same roof doesn’t mean that there’s not that tug of war in the hearts of children if their parents are at war with one another.
If a child has to choose between a mother and father, who to love or who to side with, it’s too much for them, they cannot choose. It’s too much to bear. And so they’ll start to turn externally or they’ll start to have symptoms of that inability. And so they’ll look elsewhere, where to put their belonging and their love and that attachment. They’re going to essentially look externally at some point, but we want to try and keep it with us as long as we can. And so it’s basically about being able to keep that. And so Brendon and I, we do our very best to champion for one another constantly.
Rachel Cram – Brendon, your first husband?
Tara Mitchell – Yes. Yes, that’s correct. Yeah. Stay on the same page and champion for where each other are in our lives and do things together still with the kids and that sort of thing. And I’m very grateful, obviously, that I’m in a position to be able to do that with him. I know some people aren’t, but that’s what we learned. That was the key.
Rachel Cram – I appreciate you just going over that, the feeling of overwhelm and what happens, because I think often before we have children it can all look so rosy and then when we step into it and it does become complicated we can feel really alone. And what your clients are doing, which is so good, is they’re reaching out for help. When they come to you they’re saying, “I can’t do this on my own. I’m overwhelmed. Please help me.” Which takes a real humility and vulnerability. But that’s what moves you forward? So I admire that.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. Same. I was so floored because I put out a questionnaire a while ago about why people don’t reach out for help. And so many people were like, “I feel I should know it myself because I’m their mom and I feel like a failure.”
And, oh my gosh no. Like, there is that vulnerability in reaching out but I just relate it to if your little one had speech issues, if your little one had feeding issues, there’s experts for a reason and that’s OK to utilize that.
Rachel Cram – I think sometimes it’s a matter of vulnerability. I also think sometimes it’s a matter of just going so hard to try and figure out what you’re doing that you think that it’s going to be too much to stop and seek help. You know, the analogy of the guy that’s sawing down the tree and someone comes up to him and says, “Your saw is dull.” And he says, “I don’t have time to stop and sharpen it.”
It’s that concept that we can get so caught up in the overwhelm and in the survival mode that we forget that if we stop and go for help, it’s actually going to help us out so much.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, and sometimes people are at such a point of anxiety they feel hopeless. They’re at such a point where they’re so scared that anything they do might make it worse and they cannot cope with that concept. And so you’re asking them at their most vulnerable point, when they can’t bear one more thing, “I’m just surviving this. I’m just getting through,” and the thought that you’re going to come in and shake this, even though it’s so hard that anything else that pulls them is the brain’s like, “No that’s uncomfortable. This change is too much for us, so we’ll just stay as it is.” You’re really asking them to trust.
Rachel Cram – I get that. I think we have quite a number of listeners that don’t have kids yet that listen to Family 360 in preparation, and they’re probably listening to this going oh my goodness, this is so scary.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, no, it’s no, it’s not all scary.
Rachel Cram – It’s not. And we’re painting the difficult picture. But obviously, having children and a young family is also a beautiful, amazing experience.
Tara Mitchell – The best. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – The best.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Tara Mitchell’s writing and work, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation with Tara, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – Well, now that we’ve stressed out all pending parents, let’s talk about sleep because you’re a sleep specialist, and one of the key reasons people come to you is because their lives have become difficult, often because of sleep deprivation, which is part of the reality of being a young parent.
You were talking about the touch points earlier on. One of my touch points was I usually went to bed at 10:30 and woke up at 7, and that all changes.
Tara Mitchell – That is a good sleep.
Rachel Cram – It was a good sleep. I needed my sleep. I still do. So why is sleep important? Why do we need it?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. So there is no doubting the physical foundations of healthy sleep and what it brings to the body. If we look at the physical side of things, it’s growth, it’s tissue regeneration, it’s rest and digest. It’s the brain’s ability to be able to take everything it’s learned that day and process it. So imagine if you’ve learned learned learned and then the night time when you go to sleep, the brain processes that and creates memories. It’s immunity. The outgrowth hormones are released in deep sleep. There’s so many things that happen in sleep. It is definitely not a stagnant state.
Rachel Cram – Yeah but I think we’re tempted to think of it as a stagnant state, maybe so that we can overlook it and not feel bad. I know that psychologists have a term for a new way that we are negotiating with sleep, called ‘revenge bedtime procrastination,’ great name, which is when people put off going to bed in order to do what they wanted to do but didn’t get time to do during the day. It’s a way of having leisure and entertainment time, which we all need, but at the expense of sleep time.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, like sleep. Sleep has become very 2022. It’s a luxury, like sleep when you die, keep hustling, you know? But unfortunately, the cracks start to appear, be that autoimmune issues, mental health issues, physical issues. Our bodies just aren’t getting enough time to rest during that sleep period of time. Sleep is our ability to cope. Sleep is our ability to regulate emotions, hormones. Soon as we’re sleep deprived we don’t make decisions effectively; safety-wise you know, driving a car, things like that. It’s such a big issue. High blood pressure. And it should and is one of the biggest impactors and one of the first questions that health professionals will be asking. So there’s so much that happens in sleep.
Rachel Cram – Well, for a parent, often the reason that they aren’t sleeping well is because their child is not sleeping well, their baby is not sleeping well. And your specialty is helping babies to get into good, healthy sleep patterns. And I know there is some controversy around how this is done and maybe you can even speak into what the controversies are. But you do say, and I think this would be something that anybody could agree on, that parents need to lead the bedtime routine and be confident in their child’s bedtime plan. What would be the bedtime plan that you put forward for babies?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. And I’ll touch on the two sides as well. So firstly, newborns, I’m very relaxed about the fact that there’s a fourth trimester. So we’re not trying to teach newborns strict sleep schedules or to settle by themselves, anything like that. There’s very much a space for a fourth trimester.
Rachel Cram – Meaning almost like the child is still inside of us even though they have already come from our womb? We can live like they are still surrounded by our skin and organs, fully regulated by our being.
Tara Mitchell – That’s exactly right and it’s funny because what I feel has happened is that once upon a time, children were seen and not heard, and it was brutal you know at points for children. But I feel like then we had this big understanding of attachment, which is amazing and I’m all about it, but we went the other way where we became baby-led everything.
So parents stopped leading the babies. They stopped guiding them. They stopped any discomfort of the baby. And what we have to remember as human beings, and our baby’s brains are no different, is that whether or not something is good for us, so waking up constantly for a baby overnight is actually not good for them, we know this physically, emotionally, mentally like we know that. But because they’ve become accustomed to certain habits around sleep, changing that means there’s going to be a discomfort period. There’s going to be a period where they cry or they show that they don’t like that change.
And that is no different to saying, well, as adults, if we’re in a really poor job, as soon as we go to leave it feels uncomfortable, right? Like if we have bullying in our workplace, you could leave, but you’re going to feel really uncomfortable for a period of time. It doesn’t mean it was right. It means it’s what we knew. And so I feel it’s really important that we recognize that what we’re doing here is changing habits and patterns that don’t serve our little ones’ health or family health or well-being. Right? That’s the bottom line of what we do.
We can still support during that change but parents leading and not relying on the baby to just sleep when they need to or, “I have to rely on them and listen to all their cues.”
They need us to lead. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to step into parent and to guide.
So it’s like saying if a baby wasn’t feeding well, “Oh well, like it’s baby-led, and if they just, “You know, like you would never surrender to that.
Rachel Cram – “If they don’t want to eat, they don’t want to eat.” and we’re not going to guide on that?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, yeah, like you would guide, you would work on that. There’s no difference in sleep. Psychologists will agree we’ve gone way the other way. We’ve become so scared of boundaries. We’ve become so scared of leading our babies. We’ve become so scared of any discomfort. We just don’t feel like our baby should experience that because that might raise their cortisol, and there was a Russian orphanage once, and you know, these things happen to the babies.
And they’re comparing this to like healthy, loving homes and writing articles to really petrified parents into getting things sorted. And I just think it’s one of the very first times that we as parents, might need to step into that role of being like, “this isn’t healthy for us, we need to make some changes even though it’s going to come with a few days of discomfort or grizzles,” you know, that change period. But the outcomes are profound for the child’s well-being, the child’s ability to cope with their day, their skills, their development. So much is happening. Their growth. you know, and so we forget about that side of things. So we have to find that happy medium, and that’s where I want to see it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it this way, but with sleep, this is the first time that we are leading our child into something that causes them a little bit of discomfort. So of course, it’s difficult and on top of it we are already tired. So when do we start? And what do we do?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, sure. So in the newborn stage, what I say to parents is just give them the opportunity to see if they’ll settle. Just put them down, give them opportunity to learn their sleep space because what’ll often happen is that we’ll get to three months, suddenly, Bub’s not sleeping for so long during the Netflix. Suddenly Bub’s really alert and won’t just fall asleep in weddings and also, we’re getting really tired now. The visitors have slowed down. The adrenaline has worn off, and we’re starting to get really tired. And so then their like, “Now go into your bassinet for a sleep or go into your cot” and the baby’s like, “Ah, this is not what I know.”
So it’s basically just about offering opportunities. It’s not about not having those sleepy cuddles. It’s not about the fact that babies can still get drowsy on feeds. That’s all normal. But a lot of lactation consultants are seeing this and having big issues with this is that in the hospital they’re like, “Right, just feed. If the baby cries feed,” because we need to build out that milk supply.
But what happens is then we go home and then just keep popping them on the breast constantly. And so Bubs is getting no time to rest in between, no time to digest, and we’re having so many issues now with colic and reflux because there’s just this idea that ‘baby-led’ everything. If they’re crying, put them on the breast, instead of being like, “No, no, let’s focus on a full feed and then a sleep. Let’s put some emphasis on the sleep side of things so they have the energy and the appetite and the digestion to wake up and have a good feed.
If we get bittsy we’re lost, you know, and no one’s guiding. No one. And so creating that bit of a cycle for them can be so beneficial. It’s just being like, “Right, I can see what’s happening here. We’re getting lost. You’re feeding for two minutes and you’re falling asleep for five minutes then you’re waking up crying. I don’t know if you’ve had a full feed. I’ll pop you back on the breast again,” and then their reflexes and colicky and windy and they just don’t have that space.
Rachel Cram – So I can hear a parent listening to this and going, “Okay, that is totally happening to me. But how do I break the cycle? What do I start with?”
Tara Mitchell – Sure. So what I would do is first try and focus on full feeds. So if you can try and put a bit more emphasis on keeping them a little bit more alert on the feed.
Rachel Cram – How do you do that? How do you keep a tired infant awake as they drink? And your still talking about under 3 months right?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. Not leaving them in their swaddles. Giving them a minute to wake up when they do get up from their sleep to let them wake up properly, then making sure we’re talking with them, engaging with them during that feed. You might bring some toys in or have your partner come in to talk over your shoulder while they’re feeding. Touching them. Blowing raspberries into their hands, that sort of thing. And the idea is that we want to make sure that they’ve had a decent meal. So if we can even look at meals rather than constant snacking.
Then once they’ve had that feed, then we go, “Okay, they’ve now fed, now we’re going to try and give it a bit of a space and work on sleep.” So then making sure that if they do wake up after only 20 minutes, we work on trying to get them back to sleep for a little bit longer.
Rachel Cram – Oh Gosh. I always found that hard. How do you do that? How do you get a baby who’s just woken up to go back to sleep?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. So basically, when they’re newborns, you might do that by holding them. You might do that by giving the bassy a rock and a shush. You might pick them up, calm them or cuddle them, get them a bit drowsy, then pop them down and see if you can preserve it that way. You might go for a walk in and pram. You might pop them in a carrier, right? So when they’re newborns you can do that sort of thing.
If your little ones spending their awake periods dozing on the feeds, on and off the breast the whole of their awake period, there’s a really good chance they’ll start to fight sleep. That’s because they’re using those opportunities as micro naps. They’re losing their appetite for sleep.
Rachel Cram – It’s kind of like when we fall asleep during a movie that we’re watching and then afterwards, we’re not ready to go to bed.
Tara Mitchell – Rebooted. You get a second wind. It’s like an entree before the main. It just takes that edge off and then it’s much harder for them to go to sleep. So we work on them being more and more awake in their awake periods. So what we want to do is look at their sleep pressure and make sure that we’ve built it up. But we don’t want to build sleep pressure by making them grossly overtired.
What we want to do is know they’re around about awake periods for their age. So we might say a five month old is on an 1:45 or 2:00 hours awake time. And then in that awake time we want to make sure they’re really awake so that then when it’s bedtime, they’ve actually got that appetite for sleep.
Rachel Cram – Which is hard when we’re tired and tempted to let them go back to sleep if they want to. This is called delayed gratification, for both parent and baby.
So after the first few months, where do we go from there in leading our child into healthy sleep patterns?
Tara Mitchell – Yes. The next thing is, how your child falls asleep will become what they learn to re-get back to sleep or to expect when they awaken. From four months onwards our little one’s sleep cycles become more defined and they awaken in between these sleep cycles. If they awaken and things are different to when they fell asleep, there is a very good chance you’re going to get a call out every hour and a half or two hours, time and time again, to come back and recreate what it was that gets them to sleep. And that’ll be what they learn. Now, temperament plays a big role. For some little ones you can feed them to sleep and they’ll sleep beautifully. Amazing. You don’t need to change a thing. For some little ones, they’ll use a dummy. They’ll sleep beautifully. But for others, if they use a dummy and it falls out, they’re awake and they need you to come put it back in. Or if you move them off the breast and lay them down, they awaken 15 minutes later, and that’s it until you put them back on the breast.
They just become so patterned to believe that one plus one equals sleep. Rocking plus Mom’s boob equals sleep. And when you repetitively put that into them that’s essentially what they then awaken for. And parents know that because dad might go in to put them to sleep and they won’t have a bar of him. Or they’re used to being rocked and you try and just give them a pat in the cot, they will not have a bar of it. So they want what they know.
Rachel Cram – It always amazed me how quickly my kids would get a routine going as well. It happened so fast.
Tara Mitchell – Yes. And honestly, like they’re just learning that everything’s okay. If you drop your little one off at daycare or grandma’s or kindy and they have a hard time, you show them “It’s OK.” And then it just becomes their new normal. And so my job is basically, how can we create a new sense of certainty and security in a very predictable way for them? Because when you try and make changes on sleep and it’s messy, so sometimes dads in the cot, sometimes mums picking them up, the child can’t predict it. It’s just horrible. It ends up with lots of crying, days of no change, and they end up back at square one.
Rachel Cram – Oh goodness, as you describe this Tara, I am reliving the stress. I clearly remember this because it is so hard to hear our child uncomfortable, when we know we have the ability to jump in and make them comfortable. To fix it for them for that moment at least. But then that wrecks the bigger, important goal of guiding our child into healthy sleep patterns.
A few moments ago you said, “Kids want what they know.” How do we, in an ‘unmessy’ way, guide them to know what will be best in the long run for them?
Tara Mitchell – So what my whole concept is, your little one awakens to use what they’ve become accustomed to, right? And they become accustomed to what we show them repetitively. They are in their sleep space. They’re safe. They know as they fall asleep will be as they awaken, because that in itself brings a lot of security. We don’t want babies to have to wake and scream because mum’s gone, the rocking stops like, that’s just a horrible existence for everyone.
Rachel Cram – Well, I get them because I think if I fall asleep in bed beside my husband at night and I wake up through the night because we all wake up through the night, but if I wake up and notice he’s not beside me, I’m awake because he’s gone. Where if he was beside me I don’t even think I would have been aware that I woke up.
Tara Mitchell – So imagine that then as a baby where you’re so reliant on that primary attachment. And the thing is it’s a security measure that comes in around three to four months because what happens is their sleep cycles become like ours. So every hour and a half to two hours, they now awaken to check everything is as it was, because that’s the security. That’s like, if they were in the bush, they need to check they’re still in their hut.
We’ve got to remember the brain is quite simply old and primal, and so if the baby is in the same setting, it is as it was, they understand it and they know that it’s okay to go back off to sleep, it’s magic. The sleep transforms.
As soon as you start to create a really consistent pattern, they’re able to pick that up very quickly and learn it within a few days. Like you said, they’re just so quick on learning habits as long as those patterns are consistent.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, but you’re saying having them safe in their sleep space is key, which means they need to be alert enough to see where they are when they’re going to sleep.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. You’re putting them down awake. And that’s the idea. You want them to be in their sleep space awake, but you want to support them so you can give verbal and physical reassurance while they’re learning that process.
Rachel Cram – And you want to keep that consistent. So it might be that you carry them to their bed and you sing a certain song. Is this what you’re saying?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, yeah. So you don’t need to do the same things. We don’t need to get too ritualistic in the lead up to bedtime. In fact, that can sometimes make babies more annoyed because they know bedtime is coming. So some people will say, “I sing the same song and they start crying every time I start singing it.”
It’s like when you swaddle a baby, they’ll often start crying when you start swaddling them because they know bedtime is coming. So you can mix it up. I just say, “Keep it fun,” to be honest.
So for me, it’s like you might feed them 30 minutes before bed. Then you’ve got some playtime in the lounge room as a family. Then you go into their room, pop them into their sleeping bag. Big smooch. If a song is great for you guys, do a song, or you might say a little phrase or a little prayer, then popping them down in their cot. Then if they start to get upset, that’s when you might stay and do some in cot settling.
Rachel Cram – What does that look like?
Tara Mitchell – Yes, so you might choose to stay near the cot for a couple of nights, hands on, doing a pat. Some babies hate physical, so when you’re patting them it gets them more annoyed. So you might take hint and go, “Right, you know, they’re better off when I do a humm or they like the phrases that I say.”
So you just take note on those things, the things that are making them better or worse. And then you try and lessen that. So the next day, you might do a little less physical and you just stay with your verbal reassurances as you’re going along because remember, we don’t want to completely play a new role in getting them off to sleep. They’re doing it themselves.
Rachel Cram – OK, so you lay the baby down. If they start crying, at any point do you pick them up and take them out of the crib again? Or is that breaking the routine? Does that make them feel like, ok, if I cry long enough, perhaps that’s part of the routine here.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah, it’s complicated so we definitely can support them. But the thing with picking up and cuddling, it sometimes can drag on the settles longer because as you pick them up, they think you’re going to go back to what you usually do and then when you put them down again to settle themselves, because that’s the goal, they get more frustrated with that pick up put down. And also it keeps them awake. It’s very stimulating, so it can sort of almost drag that settle on. And the other thing is, is that it isn’t as consistent as if they were in their own sleep space. So you can definitely do it but again, pay attention to if you feel it makes them worse.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. In your experience, do you find there’s a wide range of how children adapt to this change? Like, are there some kids that get it really quickly and some that take a long time to get into a routine?
Tara Mitchell – I would say there’s a very big gap between parents who take a while to bring in the routine. My biggest common denominator between a baby who takes a long time to get something is if the parents are consistent or not. Without a doubt. I just don’t believe that there are children who can’t learn to sleep well.
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with the Gentle Sleep Specialist, Tara Mitchell.
Parenting is not easy, particularly because it’s a lifelong relationship. Our next episode is about the power of showing up. We’re in conversation with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline. Based on the latest brain and attachment research, Tina shares stories and simple strategies for showing up in a manner that helps our children, and others, feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Join us!
And now back to the conclusion of our conversation with Tara talking about supporting toddlers’ sleep, and last thoughts on finding freedom from the tyranny of overwhelm.
Rachel Cram – When you say it has to do with the parents, how important is it that both parents are on board with this plan?
Tara Mitchell – Mm. I always say dads are my biggest allies. And the reason is they can remove a bit of the emotional, and I’m being very generalized here, but moms are so, you know, in it all and so sleep deprived already. And one of the things that we find is that when a mom is back to work, they tend to be able to get a hold of this very quickly. And it’s almost like they’ve got that outer perspective that everything’s okay. But when you’re at home and you’re just consumed by this little love and sleep and that sort of thing, it’s so much harder to see outside and to know that everything is OK. I’m simply putting in some new sleep habits. Do you know what I mean?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, and not only when my kids were babies. I still get that now and my kids are older. My kids need of me, or at least what I perceive they need of me, it can consume me. Which is one of many reasons I’m so thankful for my work because your right, sometimes we need to step out, take a nap, go for a walk, go out with our partner or friends, to see the bigger picture. But that can be hard to convince a parent when they’re holding hard to martyr mode or guilt. Like, how do you convince people Tara?
Tara Mitchell – I don’t, I don’t convince people. So if a mom’s not ready to make the changes, I will almost convince them not to yet because my job is not to tell you what you should be doing with your baby. I’m here to help you when you’re ready to make changes.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, and it does require support. I know when I was going through this process with my kids it’s a tense time. And it actually would create tension between my partner and I, my husband, because we both were convinced that we needed to get our babies onto a schedule but when they’re fussy during it, it’s stressful. It is. But we held each other committed. And then, you know, a few weeks later, they had it and they were great sleepers and all my kids love going to bed. They loved going to bed as children after that.
Tara Mitchell – It’s just their safe space in the end. You just show them it’s OK. And usually it changes, you know, in a few days or more. So it’s good.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, then I remember, though around probably 18 months as toddlerhood started to come in. That’s when it started to change again, though, because they could start to negotiate and talk with me. So they would say things like, you know, “Just one more story,” or, “I want one more drink.” Or, you know you’re starting to to toilet train them and they’re like, “Oh, I have to go the bathroom.”
“Really? Do you really have to go to the bathroom or is this a ploy to stay up later?”
So do you have any advice on sleep for toddlers? Things to keep in mind?
Tara Mitchell – Toddlers and talking about them just make me smile like they are just the funniest to work with because just stuff they come out with is just so funny.
Rachel Cram – It is. I love that stage.
Tara Mitchell – Oh yeah. So the biggest thing with toddlers is essentially we let boundary slide. And when children feel like they’re running the show, it brings too much responsibility. So toddlers push on doors they do not want to open. They actually thrive with our boundaries. But we hit 6 pm, we’re done. We’re done with the day. We’re like, “Just go to bed. Yeah. You want four glasses of water? I’ll sell you my soul. Just go to sleep,” right?
And the most remarkable thing about toddlers is that their ability to manipulate in a very toddler beautiful way, is that they do it very slowly. So it’ll just be one more drink. One more this. “Oh, OK. I see where this is going. I like this.”
But the downside is that once they start to lead that bedtime too much it becomes a very anxious time for them. And if we’re not able to control and lead in that bedtime and hold boundaries in place, they will feel the need to control it more to soothe their angst around it. And so with toddlers, it’s really important to get that back, to start to bring in those boundaries around bedtime, to do it in a really positive way. So we have a stamp chart where they get to stamp of, like they’ve had their drink of water. It’s done. And they carry around their clipboard.
Rachel Cram – I love this idea.
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. And they feel like they’re in a sense of control because they’ve got the clipboard and they’re showing you what’s next. But it’s a sense of distraction from their usual mayhem.
Rachel Cram – Yeah so on this stamp board, what would be the typical kind of things you would have?
Tara Mitchell – Yeah. Might be that they’ve had their drink of water, they’ve gone to the toilet if they’re not in nappies. They’ve had their book and then they’ve gone into their bed and they stamp that. We’ve stamped it. That’s it. The boundary then stays.
So it’s just about managing that. And I know we’re tired but as soon as a child starts to see us being flustered, frustrated, they know that they’re this close to getting what they want, so they’ll push a bit harder.
Rachel Cram – You know, earlier on you were talking about as parents we have to lead, and our kids are going to be uncomfortable at times, and you talk about that sometimes it’s just a mess and that that’s OK.
In light of that, as we start to wrap up this conversation Tara, I’m wondering, when you look at the parents that have come to seek help from you and when you look at your own life, is there one key element, one key suggestion that helps parents step out of the overwhelm apart from sleep. Is there any other suggestion that you would have?
Tara Mitchell – Love this. Yeah, so for me, it’s simplifying, simplifying life. And also just bringing childhood back to how children’s childhoods used to be. And it wasn’t filled with so many activities and being in and out of the car constantly in the day. And so much going on. We’re so overscheduled and it brings so much pressure to the parent and it makes us flustered and rushed. And then we bring that to the child and we expect them to conform when we’re even flustered and rushed. But I love the idea of the simple life, really looking at things like, ‘Do we need these? Do we need to be doing all of this? Can we plan a day, even a Saturday, where we do not do anything until 2 p.m. and then we can catch up with a friend if we want to?’
Things like that. So just really starting to de-stress our lives in terms of the programs that we have running. And can we have more outdoor time? Can we have more going for a walk as a family? Can we have more time where there’s no screens? Can we have times where they’re using their imagination? We’re doing messy play. We’re OK with the fact that the house doesn’t look perfect for a while.
All of these things come when we simplify life for them and they’re expending that energy because all of these things contribute so greatly to their sleep, their behavior, their mental health, them. And as parents, we are far better parents when we have space and time and less stress, without a doubt.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. Excellent. Simplicity is a great way to end. Let’s stop with that. And we’ll have links to your work and how people can get in touch with you if they want more information or help.
Tara, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and for sharing your own story as well.
Tara Mitchell – It’s been my pleasure. Loved it.
Rachel Cram – I have too.
Tara Mitchell – Thank you guys.
Roy Salmond – Thanks Tara. Great job.
Tara Mitchell – I feel good. Yeah. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.