Sleep Tips for Babies with Rachael Shepard-Ohta of Hey, Sleepy Baby

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At City Mom Collective, we are dedicating a week to empowering and supporting new and expecting moms. Even though we have always been doing that for the past 10 years, this week, we are focused on four specific topics, EAT, SLEEP, PLAY, and MATERNAL HEALTH.  We are kicking the week off with a conversation and interview with Rachael of Hey, Sleepy Baby around the topic of SLEEP.  Please watch the interview below for tips on helping your baby sleep. 

Rachael Shepard-Ohta :: Founder of Hey, Sleepy Baby and Pediatric Sleep Specialist

Rachael is a Certified Sleep Specialist who lives with her family in San Francisco, CA. Rachael founded Hey, Sleepy Baby to change the way the world views infants and the way they sleep. Hey, Sleepy Baby aims to arm parents with knowledge and guidance so that they can make informed, heartfelt decisions for their family and move forward with confidence as they navigate those first few years of parenthood. Rachael is also a Certified Circle of Security Parenting Facilitator and Breastfeeding Educator.

Follow Hey, Sleepy Baby on Instagram and Facebook. 

Baby Sleep Tips | An Interview with Rachael Shepard-Ohta of Hey, Sleepy Baby

How did you get started as a sleep specialist, what makes you passionate about what you do to help families?

Yeah, good question. So I mentioned I have two kids, my oldest is four and a half now. And back when he was a baby, there wasn’t  that really this world of parenting Instagram. So I was the first of my friends to have a baby, I really had no idea what to expect. His sleep really just completely destroyed me and threw me for such a loop.  I was being told that he shouldn’t be breastfed at night, that he shouldn’t be waking up and needing me for anything. I was being told by my pediatrician to just let him cry it out. And all of these things just were swirling around in my mind, and I had no way of really knowing who or what to listen to and what was normal. I kept on thinking that we had these massive problems, because he was three or four months old and still wasn’t sleeping through the night.

We ended up going through sleep training, with a really popular program that’s still around now. It really just did not work for us. It never helped his night wakings. It was very stressful for us, there was lots and lots of crying, it just wasn’t for us. We tried a few more times, and it still never stuck. So finally, my husband convinced me to just kind of give up and surrender. And he ended up sleeping through the night on his own, dropping his night feeds on its own at about a year. Once I got pregnant with my daughter, I had, you know, some PTSD from that whole experience. I really did not want to go through all of that stress. Again, I didn’t want to be tracking his sleep every second, I didn’t want to be tied to the house all the time, I didn’t want to just be constantly anxious about how much and how long he was sleeping.

So I started to kind of look for alternatives. By this time, there was a little bit more to be found on Instagram. I ended up finding a few accounts that were talking about baby led approach to sleep. The more I dove into that, and I learned more about it and started following a couple of the people that were providing this information, I just got really inspired and decided, actually, I’m just going to be certified in this. I was a teacher and I had been kind of looking for a way out of that for a while. So I decided on a whim that during my maternity leave, I would get certified.It ended up being right at the beginning of our COVID lockdown March of 2020.  When my daughter was five weeks old, I started this Instagram account as a way to share what I was learning and to talk about my own motherhood journey and it kind of took off from there. It’s really what makes me passionate and what started in the first place was just my own experience and wanting to provide all of the things that I wish I had had back then.

What would you say to a mom in the thick of multiple night wakings?

I think really, at the core of what I believe in, and what I try to teach parents is that these night  wake ups are mostly very normal, mostly very protective, they help baby and mom establish and maintain a healthy breastfeeding relationship. I try hard not to pathologize normal waking. For one baby, that might be a couple of night weeks, throughout the first year. For others that might be much more. Babies have very short sleep cycles, they only go through one sleep cycle every 60 minutes. Some babies really do wake almost every sleep cycle or every couple. That is going to feel really exhausting to the parent, and I totally get that. It’s like, okay, this is normal, I get it, but I’m exhausted, and I can’t do this anymore. So I totally hear that as well but  I really think the key to getting through it is to know that it is normal to know that it will stop, even if you do absolutely nothing to change your situation, those night wakings will get less and less over time, I promise you that. There are also things that you can do in the meantime, to reduce those night wakings as much as possible. There’s lots of things that I talk about on my page, as far as optimizing your baby’s sleep environment, making sure that they’re properly fed with full feedings during the day, so that they’re not reverse cycling and trying to make up at night. You know, making sure that there’s no red flags or other symptoms that could be preventing your baby from sleeping. We always want to make sure that we investigate those types of issues, and then call out for support. Do you have a partner or a parent or someone in your life that could help you either on the weekends, catch up on some sleep, take some naps or, potentially helping with the night wakings as well?  That can really, really help you kind of get through that first year or so where it can be really hard. And it can kind of go like this. Even if you have a couple of months of great sleep it could start to go off the rails again. Because that first year just there is so much rapid development happening and that definitely impacts sleep.I do think there’s a lot of parts of motherhood that sometimes as moms, we just need to hear like, this is normal.

How do you recommend families optimize their baby’s sleep environment?

The environment in particular is a really good one because it’s something that as parents we do have a little bit of control over. Much of a baby’s sleep is so outside of our control so we can do things that can optimize the sleep environment and your baby’s routine and schedule.  It gives us a sense of control that we’re doing something. I like to tell parents that really easy basic things to do are to invest in some blackout blinds or curtains that you’re using at night so that it signals to baby that it’s time to go to sleep.  You might even try adding some really dim lighting in your bedroom so there is less of overhead light, that’s going to be more stimulating to baby. I also really recommend no screens, especially in the first year and especially in the evening. If your baby is going to be exposed to screens, I really, really recommend to stop that in the few hours before bedtime, at least two or three hours because it can really inhibit that melatonin production, and throw off their biological clock as far as knowing when it’s time to go to sleep.

I also really like to use white noise for most babies, not all babies are going to like it, some might find it really irritating, especially if the are auditorily sensitive. But as a general rule, white noise can be a really nice tool, just to kind of block out other sounds from the house. It’s not the white noise itself that puts baby to sleep necessarily, but it lets them focus on falling asleep. You want to make sure that your baby is a comfortable temperature. One of the big things that I see that can inhibit sleep is baby being too hot or too cold. Usually the best way to measure that is not their hands or their feet, because those are naturally going to be cold with poor circulation that babies have. You want to just feel their cheek or the back of their neck or even their tummy. You want to make sure that it’s not too cold to the touch but also that it’s not sweaty or clammy, where they might be too hot. So those are kind of the big things. The light, the sound and the temperature are things that are usually pretty easy for us to help baby out with.

Reader Submitted Question: When will my baby sleep through the night?

I wish I had a crystal ball that I could just tell everyone when it would happen for you. I said at the beginning, it didn’t happen for my son naturally until he was I night weaned her. For other babies, I hear about it all the time, they started two or three months. So there really is such a huge, huge range of what is normal. I will give you a ballpark that most babies will sleep through the night after about a year and after there too. So sometime in that one to two window is what’s most common. Of course, is a lot of variability. There are kids that come home from the hospital and sleep through the night they have very, very lucky parents. And then there are kids who need a little bit more support at night until they’re three or four. So there really just is no way to tell.

I think it’s really important for parents to know that your baby sleeping through the night is not necessarily a finish line. There are also those babies that will do it for a couple of months and then something happens. They go through a big developmental burst, or you go on vacation or you move or you have another big life change, or you have a sibling added to the family. Then, they might need some more support again. So all of those changes are normal too. It’s important for us to remember that our babies are little people and sometimes they might need more support than other times just like us. And so again, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. If that happens, it’s just a natural part of the first few years of parenting. What happens for one child is likely not going to be the same exact thing that happens for your next baby. They’re all lso different. I have some interesting posts about this on my Instagram page. Some examples from siblings and then some examples from twins, where the parenting is exactly the same. The genetics are exactly the same and still, both babies are totally different with when they start sleeping through the night or how they are with naps. So it really just proves that it’s it’s very much about temperament and personality.

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