Navigating the intricate cycle of infant sleep can leave many parents feeling exhausted; add in the many outside opinions on the subject, and uncertainty piles onto the exhaustion.
However, registered nurse Carolyn Marshall decided the best way to help parents is by offering a free, evidence-based guide on navigating infant wake times.
"As someone who has dedicated their career to helping expecting and new parents feel confident and empowered to take care of their children, this was one easy way I could help a lot of people and help people who need more one-on-one help find me," Marshall explains.
As an Infant and Child Sleep Consultant with over a decade of experience in nursing and her business, The Mama Coach, Marshall says she continued to hear from clients and through her social media following that there was too much information available, making it difficult to sort through, especially for sleep-deprived parents.
Recognizing that working on sleep with babies can be stressful, the wake guide is there to help make it easier for families.
While many factors determine a child's wake window, Marshall explains that, in general, the window increases as they age. However, temperament, genetics, feeding, personality, and a child's tolerance for being under or over-tired can also influence the window.
"Another important point about wake windows is how we measure them," Marshall says, recommending parents start the wake window when they remove the child from their sleep space and not when they wake up.
Marshall says red or glazed eyes, ear pulling, yawning, difficulty staying awake without stimulation, and irritability are all signs that your baby is probably ready for sleep. These cues are infants' unique ways of signalling their need for rest and by following them, parents build a shared language with their children and show that they will respond to their needs.
"This language builds over time, and it's okay if it's not perfect initially," Marshall says. "Both the parent and the child are learning to communicate effectively."
Another reason for following cues is most babies do not take the same number of naps per day, especially at the challenging three- to five-month age, explains Marshall, and following a rigid schedule instead of sleep cues is setting parents and their children up for failure.
"Babies are not robots - sometimes, they will have sleep disturbances or challenging sleep patterns as they continue to grow and develop. This is all normal," she explains, adding that a child typically doesn’t have a predictable schedule until they’re closer to six or seven months old. Feeding volumes, extracurricular activities, appointments, regular developmental changes, and overnight challenges can all play into the length and number of naps a baby needs.
"If you are forcing your child to have a set schedule, you can inadvertently try to get them to nap or go to bed when they're not tired enough, too tired, or even hungry."
Marshall says it's normal for infants less than 12 months old to not sleep throughout the night, especially with breastfed babies as they often feed during the night to have the energy to thrive. and maintain mom's milk supply.
Formula-fed babies can also wake throughout the night for a feed. However, for parents struggling with their child getting enough sleep despite following their cues, Marshall recommends ensuring feeding is active and effective, meaning they're actively drinking out of the breast or bottle.
Marshall explains feeding and sleep are intricately linked, especially under 12 months old, and following a perfect wake window schedule won't fix sleep problems if your baby is struggling with feeding.
"If the child is using the bottle or breast for comfort and drinking very little or having shallow or slow sucks, they're usually feeding for comfort," she says. Although there is nothing wrong with this, if sleep is challenging despite working on wake windows and optimizing a baby's sleep environment, she recommends stopping the feeding when the baby shows signs that they're finished and have begun comfort-sucking.
This may be the missing piece of the puzzle for some children and is often a high judgement zone for many parents, can be complex, and is something Marshall works extensively on with parents when she works one-on-one to ensure she meets a family's goals and wishes.
"Another reason I made this guide is to help parents through their journey because sometimes, one stage of infancy is going well - and then all of a sudden, you're in uncharted territory, and you're not sure how to proceed."
The guide has approximate sleep schedules and wake windows for babies 3-12 months old.
"I hope to help parents at any stage of infancy, and this guide helps through the whole first year," she says. Marshall's new free wake guide can be accessed here and will be sent via email in PDF format.
Marshall also offers private sessions for clients who need more sleep help and provides comprehensive nursing-based assessments, personalized care plans, and, if wanted, weekly support.