Julie, our sleep expert, is part of the dynamic and passionate Babies & Beyond team based in Dubai. She is more importantly a qualified British trained Nurse, Midwife, Health Visitor, Doula and Sleep Consultant. She is married and mother to 3 beautiful girls and the youngest two are currently both at university. I have spent the last couple of months getting to know Julie, and love her warm relationships with her daughters. She continues to provide much support to her daughters, and as an outside observer she has achieved a balance, which can be challenging for any parent, to give her daughters a sense of independence whilst making sure they sense they have her and her husband’s parental support. I admire her style of parenting, and I do, therefore, trust her advice when it comes to my children. We have achieved significant milestones for our children with Julie’s help in terms of sleep and a few other areas. Read about my family’s experience here. We sit down with Julie to ask her about her background and some frequently asked questions about sleep, and her take on the subject.
How did you become a sleep expert for babies and children?
Many years ago when I was working as a midwife I found that to practice as a Midwife my ability to come home and be emotionally present for my 3 daughters was being compromised. I made the decision to study to be a Health Visitor, which fueled my curiosity into child health and child development. I practiced for many years as a Health Visitor and saw the impact of sleep deprivation on young families. When I moved to Dubai I was able to consolidate my knowledge and experience and qualified as a Sleep Consultant.
Can you tell us a bit about your qualifications?
I qualified as a Sleep Consultant with the International Maternity and Parenting Institute. Their philosophy and course focused very much on the holistic approach to developing healthy sleep habits within a family during all stages of development. I also participated in a live webinar course for 15 weeks at Toronto University for Infant and Maternal Mental Health which has been invaluable in my practice.
I am currently undertaking an equally comprehensive training and Mentorship programme to become a licensed Gentle Sleep Coach. My driver for participating in the current qualification is to equip myself with as much knowledge as possible, as every family and child’s sleep issues are unique.
Why is it so important that children learn to sleep on their own?
I think it is crucial to break this question down into very manageable steps.
When our children are learning to sit up, learning to crawl and learning to walk we encourage, gently guide and support them.
Sleep I feel is a skill but also very different because of the emotional component. And therefore as parents our approach requires a different level of understanding, knowledge and participation.
For example the psychologist Erik Ericson talks about the first year of life being associated with trust verses mistrust. Essentially how relationships are formed in a child’s first year can have a long lasting impact. Therefore teaching a child how to sleep independently in a gentle, age appropriate manner assists their ability to self-sooth and overcome their fears. This I believe permeates into other aspects of their development helping to build up a confidence and resilience as they mature.
Can you tell us 5 important facts about sleep and why is so important?
Sleep is critically important to the development of brain function such as the consolidation of memory both short and long term.
Uninterrupted sleep facilitates the release of the growth hormone needed for tissue and muscle development, This is essential to child growth and development.
Sleep, both with children and adults, affects our mood. In a large study it concluded that sleep debt in children could cause behavioural and emotional disorders. Another study supported findings that sleep disturbances may, at least in part, be the cause of some ADHD symptoms.
Good sleep prevents inflammation. This has a positive effect on out immune system. Therefore poor sleep compromises our immune system leaving children specially vulnerable to illness.
Sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same section of the brain. When we are sleep certain hormones are released into our blood system and these same hormones drive our appetite. There are several studies, which demonstrate very clearly that chronic sleep debt contributes to obesity and diabetes.
I find this fascinating – sleep deprivation will kill you more quickly than food deprivation!
What do you say when parents choose the Cry-It-Out method?
I see my role as a Sleep Consultant being that of an advisor. I would endeavor to provide as much education and advise to enable parents to make an informed choice regarding the sleep method in which they wish to teach their child. I believe when parents are fully informed of the neuroscience of sleep for example and its impact on the developing brain, they may chose a more gentle approach.
We are constantly learning so much more about the brain, sleep and the epigenetics of the brain and more studies are coming to light which supports the findings that ‘cry it out’ is not only ineffective but does not work as it does not provide a platform for a child to learn how to fall asleep .
However I fully respect a parents sleep approach is as personal and complex as any other aspect of parenting.
For any mother with a 2-month old baby who can’t get them to sleep for more than 20 minutes do you have just some thoughts to share?
This is a really challenging time for a new mother as by now they are very sleep deprived, they may well have experienced a developmental growth at 5 weeks and could be in the middle of a second one at 8 weeks. I find that reassuring the mother this developmentally is very normal and ensuring a mother has realistic expectations, is the most beneficial approach. There is so much information available it is completely overwhelming for parents. I would also suggest coping methods to try and extend the naps such as using motion. This could be being in a push chair, swing or rocking their baby. New research is also showing contrary to previous thinking that motion sleep puts a baby in to a deeper sleep, which in turn is restorative. I would explain the importance of a mother sensitively watching for signs of overtiredness in her baby (such as a glazed expression) and be mindful that overtiredness impacts a baby’s ability to fall asleep. Creating an environment conducive to sleep will also be beneficial and trying to recreate the environment of the womb may well extend the babies sleep time. Examples of such an environment include the use of white noise, swaddling and temperature control. At 8 weeks babies are not manipulative and unhelpful habits cannot be created. What is most important a babies needs are being met and they feel safe and secure. Providing a predictable, peaceful slow paced day will not only benefit the baby by ensuring the baby is not over stimulated but will also ensure rest for mummy too!
For any mother with an 18-month baby who can’t get them to sleep on their own, what tips can you share?
This is commonly known as one of the biggest sleep regression situations as this is accompanied by discipline. This is our child’s first exposure to becoming aware they have a sense of “self”. I therefore like to describe this age as having a considerable shift in the architecture and development of the brain. Learning to fall asleep independently very much becomes a process.
A parent’s attitude is essential – your calm demeanor, loving and positive approach will prevent a power struggle developing. Giving lots of “yes times” is helpful. Observational studies show that at 12 months, toddlers respond to receiving more positive response from mothers while at 18 months toddlers may receive more instructions and directions.
There are two key elements to teaching your toddler of 18 months how to sleep independently – consistency and not giving up. A sense of humour and an ability to marvel as this little person developing in front of you also helps!
Does nutrition matter?
Nutrition and sleep are intertwined and both compliment each other. Inappropriate food can have an adverse effect on your child’s sleep. For example, eating pepperoni pizza at night may prevent sleep as it contains a protein, which stimulates the brain. On the other hand a study from Oxford University revealed that children who’s diet included adequate amounts of omega 3 not only slept longer for a duration of 1 hour but had fewer wake ups during the night.
It has also been identified that a combination of complex carbohydrates and lean proteins provide the perfect combination for healthy sleep. This is due the fact it allows the body to focus on sleep. Also the absorption of the amino acid tryptophan – a sleep inducing neurotransmitter is activated. Examples of foods that include tryptophan are turkey, chicken, eggs and bananas.
Iron is another key nutrition for sleep and poor sleep can be a symptom of poor iron status. Therefore foods containing iron such as leafy greens A perfect sleep inducing bedtime snack would be a turkey sandwich on wholemeal bread as it contains the tryptophan (in the turkey) and the iron in the wholemeal bread. Smoothies are also a great way of encouraging our children to have a nutritional diet but in a fun way. Ensuring your baby’s diet consists of adequate amounts of zinc and magnesium will promote better sleep by relaxing the central nervous system. Foods such as milk, peas, lentils and yoghurt contain zinc.
Therefore, an overall balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, minerals and vitamins and antioxidants help promote better sleep.
With all the mothers travelling over summer, can you give some tips about dealing with jet lag?
Preparing a children for travel will help them cope with the transition of a holiday. I often advise a parent to make sure the child sees the suitcase being filled and is not just be met with the suitcase by the door 30 minutes before leaving. When we are emotionally prepared we cope better with change. Allowing them to be part of the process will have a positive impact both on their behavior and adapting to their environment, albeit temporary. So using skype and pictures to let them feel they have some autonomy. If travelling on a nighttime flight, putting on pyjamas as though getting a child ready for bed will help avoid disrupting the sleep pattern.
Jet lag is a reorganized sleep disorder and I particularly like the definition from Dr. Robert Sack who explains that jet lag is a disorder that results from crossing time zones too rapidly for the circadian clock to keep pace.
Exposure to light is the key component to adjusting our circadian cycle. Additional exposure to light in the evening going westward or additional exposure to light in the morning heading eastward will help minimize the effect of jet lag.
Therefore where possible, expose children to as much natural light as possible.
Having arrived at your destination it is important to ensure the environment is conducive to sleep such as having a familiar toy, dark room and cool temperature are all essential in helping the body clock to readjust.
Offer your child food at local times. A healthy filling option will promote sleep.
Encourage child to nap during nap time at your destination. It is very tempting to think less sleep will result in a longer and later sleep. Sadly this does not happen, and can also have an adverse effect on a child’s immune system.
If your little one is not used to sleeping in a stroller it may be helpful to practice this before you go away. Find a quiet walk along the river for example where over stimulation can be kept to a minimum. Cover the pram again to minimize overstimulation.
Looking after yourself is also very important! Try to nap when your little one naps and in the first few days don’t over plan. Wait and see how your little one adapts to the change.
What is your opinion about electronics, Ipads and television before bed?
Electronics, ipad before bed. I think it is extremely important to recognize children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronic use then we think they are. It must also be acknowledged that a very small amount of stimulation can disrupt a sensitive brain which is still developing, resulting in circulatory overload. This is very detrimental to healthy sleep conditions.
It has also been identified that high levels of blue light emitted from the screen deplete levels of melatonin in the brain, therefore not only affecting the duration of sleep but also the sleep quality.
As explained light from the screen devices mimics daytime, depresses the melatonin and desynchronizes our internal body clock. This creates a cascade effect such as hormonal imbalance and brain inflammation. What’s more, this increase in arousal when we should be sleeping doesn’t permit deep sleep which is when the body repairs itself.
In the first year of life children learn best by interacting with people and not screens, and for a child to understand in 3-dimensions rather than 2-dimension is better for the overall cognitive development.
It must also be said parents are the most powerful role models for our children and if we wish our children to have limited access to electronic devises especially before bed time (2 hours before is the recommendation) we need to be setting an example by being present with our children, instead of staring at a screen.
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