By Dr Alison Mooney
The average baby can cry for up to two hours every day, often for no apparent reason. As a new parent, you may find yourself searching for reasons why they might be crying or ‘dialled up,’ and trying a few strategies such as a nappy change or offering a feed in the hope that they will calm down again. You may have heard that your baby must not get ‘overtired’ as they will become very distressed and be difficult to settle again. It is impossible to teach anyone to sleep (if it was, I certainly would have followed the advice to sleep while the baby sleeps).
Sleep is under the control of innate biological regulators and sleep needs between individuals can vary dramatically. Anyone would struggle to get to sleep if they were in a distressed state, even if they were very tired. As an adult, you might have to read a book, have a bath or a warm drink to ‘dial down’ before you are relaxed enough to fall asleep. Another traditional concept you may hear is to avoid ‘overstimulating’ your baby by keeping the environment calm, quiet and predictable. In an attempt to avoid an overtired, overstimulated baby our day to day lives can quickly become structured around our babies sleep and routines, rather than as parents trying to lead a rich, full and meaningful life full of new enjoyable experiences.
The Possums Approach
The concepts of a baby being overtired or overstimulated are based on studies from the 1950’s and 60’s that are outdated. There is now an alternative, evidence based approach that may actually seem to be the opposite of traditional ideas. Rest assured that it is based on over 20 years of medical research and is known as the Possums Program or Neuroprotective Developmental Care (NDC). It has other benefits including optimising night sleep for you and your baby but is also highly beneficial for parental mental health. This is largely due to the ability to focus on enjoyable activities and experiences with your baby while taking the focus away from sleep and routines allowing you to lead a rich, full and meaningful life.
The Possums Approach suggests that we have two great tools up our sleeves that we can use any time we feel that our baby is ‘dialled up.’ Rather than assuming that they are overtired, and the only possible solution is to sleep, our days can be spent experimenting between the two tools of feeding or a change in sensory environment. While we cannot teach our baby to sleep, we can certainly help them to ‘dial down’ and allow sleep to come if it is needed. With a newborn baby, our first go to is usually to offer a feed, whether that is a breastfeed or to offer a bottle feed in much the same way that you would offer the breast. It may not be the milk itself that is wanted but the full sensory experience that comes with a feed. Obviously, if there are any underlying feeding issues then the baby will not dial down or may escalate further. Please seek advice from a medical professional if you feel this may be the case.
The Possums Approach does not use the term ‘overstimulated’ as babies are born with an innate biological hunger for rich and changing sensory experiences. Recent changes to our lives with lockdowns and reducing our movements mean that a lot of babies have spent longer periods at home than they may normally have. Just like us, babies can become bored, and they may cue for a change in their environment by starting to ‘dial up.’ If a feed isn’t wanted or only calms them for a short while, you can then experiment with mixing up their sensory experience. Within the home this could be picking them up, moving to a different room, introducing a toy or song or even having a bath, but by far the easiest way to change the environment is to step outside. If you have an outdoor space where they can see the trees or feel the grass this offers up wondrous stimulation for a baby. For parents, just going about your day to day lives, shopping at the supermarket, meeting a friend at a café or going for a walk is not only beneficial for your mental health and well being but also simultaneously provides your little one with a nourishing and constantly changing sensory experience.
It took me quite some time to realise that I was not in control of my baby’s sleep and it was not my role to teach him how to sleep or ‘self soothe.’ My first son had low sleep needs and I spent a lot of time trying to get him to sleep to a schedule. For us, it just didn’t work and led to a distressed baby, and I will admit, a few phone calls to my husband in desperation! I recall days where I thought I would just have a quiet one at home and let him have good naps in his bassinet. Boy that was a mistake. Hours spent rocking him in a dark room, trying to get him to sleep when he was ‘supposed’ to was incredibly anxiety provoking. On the other hand, days spent out and about, meeting my mum’s group, exercising at the park and going to the supermarket all seemed effortless in comparison. My baby came along for the ride, slept when they needed to sleep, and I had a great time too. Ironically, the noisier and busier it was, the better he slept.
I wish I had known about the Possums program before I had children. The approach shifts the lens from sleep, and I wonder what would have happened if I had experimented with flexibly shifting between the two tools. Those early days might have looked quite different. So, if you are reading this, I invite you to experiment. You are in charge, and you know your own unique baby better than anyone. You might just be surprised.
Dr Alison Mooney MBBS FRACGP DCH Clin Dip Pall Med Originally from Scotland, Alison achieved her Medical degree at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 2008 and has lived and worked on the Central Coast since 2010. She is currently working part time as a GP with special interests in women and child health. Following several years of fertility problems and IVF treatment, Alison and her husband are now delighted to have two very energetic boys! Alison has recently undertaken further rigorous training and is proud to be a Possums Accredited Practitioner on the Central Coast. She is thrilled to share her knowledge with families in her new service, The Moon Clinic.