Many parents are familiar with the idea of infant sleep training – trying to get their babies to sleep for a certain amount of time per day, and getting upset when their child is awake. It is not easy to break this cycle because it is deeply ingrained in our society that infants need long periods of uninterrupted sleep. However, those who follow The Possums Approach believe that catnapping is actually good for children’s development and health! Let’s have a look at what the approach is all about, and how you can start taking advantage of it today!
The Possums Approach to baby sleep could be the answer you’re looking for
New parents are given a great deal of conflicting advice about how to best care for their baby, and this causes them considerable worry. A heap of it is just unrealistic in the modern family, too.
Despite what the sleep experts say, infants are often both physically and developmentally incapable of meeting the expectations of even the most popular books.
Infant sleep is getting re-defined by by Dr. Pamela Douglas and Dr. Koa Whittingham in Brisbane, Australia, and their approach is now being introduced around the world.
Since the 1950s, mainstream sleep advice has focused on infant daytime sleep with a certain amount of sleep for age.
The Possums Approach turns away from this approach and provides an alternative school of thought to tired parents that may help both babies and their carers sleep better, and with more consistency than ever before.
The mainstream approach to baby sleep is to maintain long daytime naps, so this approach is the opposite it takes a complete mind shift in order to learn more about it.
- Don’t focus on ‘tired cues’, since the typical rules won’t necessarily apply to every child. Let go of the urge to take action over every sign.
- Signs we might perceive as tiredness might just be boredom – try taking your little one into another environment (including outside!) before trying to help them sleep.
- Catnaps are not bad! Your baby must have only needed a little sleep top-up; daytime sleeping tempers your baby’s rising sleep pressure. (more on this later!) There are only problems if your baby’s nighttime sleep quality is poor.
- Don’t worry about making a minimum sleep quota – every baby is different and has different needs.
Our bodies’ biological regulator – learn to trust it!
The main thing that is important to understand is that we can’t consciously control when we sleep. This is true for everyone from infancy to adulthood.
Isn’t it frustrating to know that you can clap your hands on demand, but not fall asleep? In actual fact, the more determined you are to sleep, the harder will it become.
If we can’t make ourselves sleep on demand, why do we think we can make our babies sleep on demand?
Biological sleep regulators exist to ensure that our bodies fall asleep when we need it:
- Homeostatic Sleep Propensity is driven by sleep-inducing hormones which build up ‘sleep pressure,’ until it eventually reaches a point where you have to fall asleep. The sleep pressure builds and peaks in order for us to enjoy our longest sleeping period – during the nighttime.
- The Circadian Rhythmn the natural clock, which is in-built and develops in the days following birth. It is controlled by the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus, (SCN) located in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and is influenced by light and dark signals to keep things in check. The SCN is responsible for hormone levels that affect not only sleep, but body temperature and appetite, among other things.
In terms of the Possums Approach, the above logic is key. Infants do not need a specified amount of sleep during the day to be “well-rested”; instead, they will fall asleep when their body reaches it’s tipping point. If they sleep too much during the day, baby’s nighttime sleep will be affected.
If we force daytime sleep in a darkened and quiet room, we mess with the development of the circadian clock. That will, in turn, affect the ability for parents to establish a daytime-nighttime sleep routine, where babies get a longer sleep overnight. (and let mom and dad do the same!)
How can parents make sure baby gets as much sleep as they need, not more?
To encourage your baby to only get the sleep they need, don’t try and manufacture ‘night time’ environments where rooms are dark and quiet. If they really need sleep to take the edge off their sleep pressure, they’ll do that during normal daytime conditions, where the room is lit and they can hear their family around them.
The same applies if you need to head out and about – don’t worry about avoiding more noisy or bustling places. Keeping your little one in an environment where it is a little more challenging to sleep will mean that they’ll only sleep if they really need it. I’m not talking about taking them to a very loud music concert! But going to a shopping center or cafe will mean that your baby will sleep to take the edge off, and not more.
The Possums Approach feels like the literal opposite to the ‘expert’ advice to keep your baby to a strict schedule of longer naps in a dark and quiet environment. It’s like we’re supposed to fake hibernation during the day for our children. (I wish I could hibernate during the day sometimes!)
We need to learn to trust what our baby’s body does naturally, and work with those biological drivers, not against them. We can look to different cultures around the world to understand that the ‘perfect’ sleep environment and schedule just don’t exist, yet those children have grown up just fine. Those babies have fit into the day to day of their family – setting them up to be a more significant part of said family.
And you know something? If we feel less pressure to maintain a rigid sleep routine and environment, we can divert some of that attention toward living our best lives and helping our family do the same. I bet that reduced stress will mean we all sleep better, too!
What prevents babies from getting good sleep?
Many parents believe that they have to prevent baby from getting overstimulated or from getting too tired over the day. They’re acting on the assumption that they should prevent their baby from taking short naps because of the belief that it will ruin their sleep at night. (kinda like snacking before dinner will spoil your appetite!)
Ultimately, your baby will get the best sleep if their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is kept in check. The SNS is what controls the ‘fight or flight’ response. If the SNS is kept in check, baby’s sleep regulators can do their job and your baby can drift comfortably into sleep.
If their SNS is running riot, your baby will have a much harder time having longer sleep, let alone getting to sleep at all to begin with.
How do you keep baby’s SNS in check?
There are a few things that affect your child’s SNS. Working on identifying signs and triggers of the below will mean you’re better able to support your little one.
As is the case with us adults, a baby who is hungry will start to become progressively more stressed. When they’re fed, their body will begin to calm and relax, and eventually, they will become sleepy.
At the end of the feed babies may even fall asleep – this is a perfectly natural thing to do. Provided you are comfortable that baby has been able to burp, a baby who falls asleep soon after feeding is one who is calm and content.
the possums approach actively discourages scheduling feeds, and suggests that waking baby after they’re fed is actually counterintuitive – you run the risk of disrupting baby’s natural sleep cycle and rhythm development.
In the extreme, babies whose sleep rhythm development is interrupted may end up being affected by something called sleep reversal; this is where a baby is effectively trained to ignore the signs that they need sleep, and fight against those feelings instead of embracing them.
All this applies only to babies who are typical in their development – parents should keep in mind that there are a number of other potential issues a baby may face in terms of feeding. If you are concerned about your baby’s feeding habits, reach out to a pediatrician or lactation consultant.
Sensory stimulation can be another reason for your baby’s high SNS. This is an interesting one, especially if you’ve been using “sleep cues” to detect when you need to help your little one head to sleep.
Sensory stimulation is the key to development and growth in babies, and their body naturally seeks it out!
One of the problems with a rigid approach to baby sleep training is that babies are seeking that life experience, leading to the battles you have with baby whenever it is time for rest. They need different environments and sensory stimulation. (like movement and sound)
My oldest son is a perfect example of this. As a new parent, and recovering from a C-section, I found it difficult to take him out regularly into new environments and to have different experiences. To get him to sleep I had an extensive routine of squats, lunges, and rocks while I held him. I guess I got a little bit of exercise, but it did absolutely nothing to help him learn how to regulate his own sleep, and me focus on recovering from surgery.
Common examples of a baby needing more sensory stimulation include babies who settle when they are taken outside, (both of my boys loved standing in under shelter outside when it was raining) babies who fall asleep more easily in the stroller or rocker and babies who are still seemingly grisly after having had a long nap.
Since babies can’t use words to tell you how they are feeling and what they want, you may find that a baby who is resistant to sleep in the ‘perfect’ sleep environment is actually telling you that they’re looking for a bit more life experience. It’s almost like they have a fear of missing out!
Is the Possums Approach to baby sleep actually achievable?
It’s all well and good to stand up And say that the sleep experts we’ve all been listening to for years are wrong. I mean, I took advice from a number of sleep experts and programs, with different levels of success – but still a success. What I’m finding interesting now is that so much of what the possums approach talks about is some of the sneaking suspicions I had with my sons.
In the end, the Possums Approach is the most achievable approach to baby sleep. It fosters situations, where your baby learns to read and understand the signs at their own body, is giving them, and frees you up to live life without feeling tied down to a specific schedule or regimen.
A baby who doesn’t sleep a specific amount of time per day isn’t necessarily abnormal – we are all different, in different environments, and we all have different needs. It’s important to note that babies, particularly newborns, have small stomachs and an awful lot to learn. Caring for them does disrupt the life you had before, and things like illness and travel upset the balance, too.
It takes a little bit of a shift in mindset to really take the approach on board, but in essence, we’re heading back to our roots; leveraging your baby’s natural biological processes to help them get the best possible sleep, while in turn getting the rest you need yourself.
Pair the dark, quiet, nighttime sleep with other physical associations like a baby sleeping bag and a book before bed. Fostering those associations will help you in the long run when they’re toddlers!