For the last few generations, it has been a tightly held belief that infants need a certain amount of sleep by day in order to be ‘well-rested’.
Thanks to the strongly maintained notion that ‘sleep breeds sleep’, mainstream sleep advice focuses on ensuring babies have long day sleeps, and they sleep a certain amount of time for their age.
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New parents are bombarded with unrealistic information and advice about where, when, and how much a baby should sleep, causing a great deal of confusion and stress
In spite of what we’re told by ‘sleep experts’, these expectations are often physically and developmentally inappropriate for babies.
An entirely new approach to infant sleep is being pioneered by Dr. Pamela Douglas and Dr. Koa Whittingham of The Possums Clinic in Brisbane, Australia.
The Possums Approach turns mainstream sleep advice on its head and offers a much-needed alternative to infant sleep training which has been favoured since the 1950s.
Dr. Douglas and Dr. Whittingham are working tirelessly to bring parenting advice in line with evidence-based research, proven to help not only babies sleep better, but also their carers.
The Possums Approach is the polar opposite to what we have been taught to accept about baby sleep and it takes a big mind shift to understand it better.
The biological sleep regulator
One of the most important things we need to understand is falling asleep isn’t within our conscious control. This applies to humans of all ages – from babies to adults.
If you’re told to stamp your feet, you will have no trouble doing it on cue but, if you’re told to fall asleep, you’re unlikely to simply fall asleep on request.
In fact, the more you try to make yourself sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep. This is the sleep paradox. You can’t make yourself sleep. Therefore, you can’t make your baby sleep.
There are two biological sleep regulators which ensure our bodies fall asleep when sleep is needed:
- The Sleep-Wake Homeostat is driven by sleep-inducing hormones which build up ‘sleep pressure’ until it reaches a point where we must fall asleep. The sleep pressure builds throughout the day and reaches its peak at night, to help us find our soundest and longest sleep period – at night.
- The Circadian Clock is our biological clock and it develops in the early days and weeks after a baby is born. It’s driven by environmental cues such as daylight, activity, and stimulation to keep it in ‘real-time’. Being in a darkened environment with limited stimulation and activity can confuse our biological clock and cause us to take more sleep than we normally would in daylight hours and this can disrupt night sleep.
These factors are key to the Possums Approach. A baby will fall asleep when their sleep pressure reaches the tipping point.
During the daylight hours, their body only requires the sleep it needs to take the edge of their sleep pressure. Too much sleep during the day can impact their night sleep.
Dr. Douglas explains: ‘when we try to get these big long blocks of daytime sleep in a darkened room, we disrupt the circadian clock. Sometimes, it’s a couple of weeks down the track that the disruption becomes clear, where trying to set up a pattern of these big blocks of day sleep leads to unnecessary broken sleep at night.’
To understand more about babies’ circadian clocks, check out Baby Has Night And Day Mixed Up? Here’s What To Do.
How can you be sure your baby only gets the sleep they need?
To help your baby find the sleep they need to take the edge of their sleep pressure, avoid quiet and darkened rooms and allow them to sleep in natural light during the day.
If you’re out and about, then the natural hustle and bustle will help regulate the amount of sleep your baby takes.
If 20 minutes takes the edge off, then your baby will wake after 20 mins. If they need two hours, then they will take two hours. The Possum Approach to infant sleep reminds us to trust in our baby’s sleep regulators.
This may sound very contrary to the advice from mainstream sleep ‘experts’, involving block out curtains, sleep schedules, and consolidated sleep in a low sensory environment.
Yet if you look at the Possums Approach from the context of the real world, it makes perfect sense. Babies around the world have always found the rest they need while following the rhythm of their family’s life.
With the focus of sleep and onto living a rich, fulfilling life, suddenly the pressure to find and maintain sleep comes off, too.
Obstacles that get in the way of sleep
Have you been focusing hard on keeping your baby from becoming overstimulated or overtired during the day?
Have you been spacing feeds or implementing a Feed-Play-Sleep schedule?
Well here’s the good news: you can forget it all and reframe your thinking with the Possums Approach.
The key here is to try and keep your baby’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dialed down. The SNS is responsible for activating what we call the fight or flight response.
When the SNS is dialed up, the biological sleep regulators can’t do their job and your baby is unable to find and maintain sleep.
When the SNS is dialed down, the sleep regulators are able to function properly and your baby’s body has nothing working to fight sleep off.
How to keep the SNS dialed down?
There are three things which can keep the SNS dialed up for young babies, so it’s important to understand and recognize them in order to keep the SNS dialed down:
- The hunger for milk
- The need for healthy sensory stimulation
- Sleep reversal.
The first two are crucial and if you are taking care of those, the third will most likely be taken care of.
A baby who is hungry for milk will quickly experience their SNS dial up. As they are satiated, either at the breast or through paced bottle feeding (bottle feeding which mimics breastfeeding), their SNS will naturally dial down.
This leads babies to feel sleepy and even fall asleep. This is what is meant to happen.
Scheduling feeds, spacing feeds, or waking a baby after a feed can actually disrupt and inhibit sleep and isn’t recommended by the Possums Approach.
Decoupling a baby’s natural biological process of falling asleep can lead to sleep reversal, where the baby learns they need to fight against what their body is feeling as it naturally seeks sleep.
Dr. Douglas is quick to point out underlying feeding issues can lead to much more frequent waking and marathon feeds which should not be written off as normal.
This is a feeding issue and needs to be addressed so a baby can feel satiated and their SNS can dial down. A consultation with a trained IBCLC is strongly urged if this sounds familiar.
The other reason your baby’s SNS may dial up high is their need for healthy sensory stimulation. This may surprise you if you’ve been watching for ‘tired cues’ that lead you to rush off to get your baby down before their ‘sleep window’ closes.
Babies have an intense need for sensory stimulation and their body physically demands it’s forthcoming.
Many nap-time battles and bedtime marathons may well be avoided if we view our baby’s behavior as them being tired of the same four walls, darkened spaces, or limited sensory stimulation. For example, ask yourself:
- Have you noticed how when your baby is really unsettled, they calm down if you step outside?
- Have you noticed your baby may peacefully fall asleep when out in the pram or carrier but won’t at home?
- Have you noticed your baby yawning and grizzling even though they have just woken up?
This is your baby’s body telling them (and you) they need a change of scenery and some new sensations. Once they get the sensory stimulation they require, their body can start dialing its SNS back down so that rising sleep pressure can do its job.
How do the possums approach look in reality?
It seems fine to talk about a different way of approaching infant sleep, even one that goes against the mainstream advice most parents are given today. But how does it look in the real world?
It looks like you and your baby getting out and about and enjoying life together. Trusting your baby will sleep when their body needs sleep, provided they have their SNS dialed down.
The Possums Approach is not about just ‘waiting it out’ with your baby’s sleep. Instead, it’s working with the natural, biological processes in your baby’s body which means sleep will come more easily without inhibitors.
It’s not a quick, magical fix because it honors and respects the normal patterns of sleep for human infants. Instead of viewing babies as having ‘sleep problems’, it acknowledges normal sleep behavior.
Obviously, it requires parents to change their mindset and expectations of what their baby’s sleep should look like.
As this approach is so new, it can take time for the ground to be broken and a path paved to get the word out. For more information about the Possums Approach, you can check out the Possums Sleep Film and Workbook which are available on The Possums Clinic website.
This small, not-for-profit organization is doing great things for very tired families and their children. Continuing research, education, and training health professionals will go a long way to ensuring more parents and their babies enjoy better sleep.