Sleep guidance & surviving the Christmas holidays with Lise Dullaerts

It’s funny how things happen. One minute I’m talking about writing a sleep training blog for our lovely Toddlekind readers, and the next minute, I meet Lise Dullaerts, a huge fan of Toddlekind playmats and a Baby slaapcoach (for the non-Dutch speakers among us that’s baby sleep coach).

I was delighted when Lise kindly agreed to sit down with me to discuss all things sleep training, including tips for how parents can manage during the holiday season. 

The first thing I noticed about Lise when I met her was how gentle and calm she was. Clearly, those are key criteria when working with babies and their sleep-deprived parents! But as she explains, becoming a sleep coach has been a journey of time and experience. 

“I started my career, over 15 years ago, as a midwife working in neonatal care and specialising in developmental care. Eight years ago, I wanted to do something more and started as a baby planner who helps families prepare for birth and their newborn. But soon after I started, a lot of parents came my way for help with crying and sleep problems. I started to experiment with what I knew from my studies in newborn developmental care, and spent eight years researching everything there is to know about sleep. The theoretical knowledge of sleep is all the same, but the approach varies between countries and the different coaches.

For me, the key is to look at each child independently, as well as the need(s) of the parents. My job is to support in a caring and loving way, and I made my own methods within what I like to call ‘sleep guidance’ instead of ‘coaching’ which for some people has bad connotations”.

 ... the key is to look at each child independently, as well as the need(s) of the parents.

Our conversation continued like this …

Q: What ages do you assist?

A: I work with babies from 0 months to children up to 5 years. The age at which I receive the most requests for help is 0-8 months and 15 months to 2.5 years.

With sleep guidance, the baby decides how fast we go, and what he/she needs. We guide the baby to ‘learn’ how to sleep, and we do so in a safe environment.

Older children rarely have a ‘sleep problem’, often the sleep issues are symptoms of another, often bigger, problem. I work on teaching the parents to search for the problem, instead of a quick fix solution, so we can approach it head-on, and we also work on communicating with their child. 

... choose your battles - you don’t have to be super strict but you have to be consistent.

Q: What should parents try themselves before they engage a sleep coach? 

A: No matter the age of the child, a routine is vital because it is important a child knows what to expect. It doesn’t have to be a strict rigid schedule, but a schedule does need to exist. 

When you have a routine your child knows “after this, I’ll go to sleep, or have a nap”. They know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them.

Start your routine from birth, and make sure it is one that works for you. It’s important to know the wake and sleep windows, and how long your little one can stay awake before nap time. Always watch your child and their cues, more than schedules you find online. 

Sleep schedules are a guidance that is not written in stone, it has to work for your little one and the situation.

Q: Is there such a thing as a good bedtime routine?

A: Yes, I like to follow the EASY acronym.

Eating

Awake time or Activity time

Sleep signals

You. When your baby is asleep take that time for yourself. This is the time for you to relax too, and charge your batteries a little. If you don’t relax yourself, you get stressed out, and it will stress the baby out also making wake time more difficult.  

During the day, I encourage my clients to use a short routine before naps. For example, tell your baby “it's almost time to go to sleep”. Even if they are young, they will learn from the tone of your voice. Grab their swaddle blanket, make the room dark, put on some white noise (if you want to), and let them calm down with you. 

For the evenings, start your routine after dinner: eating, bath, bed. You don’t have to bathe your baby every day, but the warmth of the water helps their nervous system to calm down and it helps to settle them. After a bath, you can give your baby a massage if you want. Put on their PJs, sleeping bags/swaddles and give them their last feed in a semi-dark room, followed by cuddles and kisses. 

If you have a preschooler you’ll include teeth brushing and some time to read a book or talk about the day within the routine also.

The need(s) of the child will vary by age for how you leave the room. 

Q: Is there such thing as a bad sleeper?

A: In theory, there is - but there is always a reason so look for the symptom. It is not always easy to find, as it can also have something to do with the parents (or even grandparents) too. Ie the child is bouncing off the parent's tiredness, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Or grandma doesn’t follow the routines established at home.

Q: Is there a guide for how much sleep a child should be getting? 

A: Every baby is different, but on average a newborn may sleep 16 hours per day. By 6 - 8 months, they may have 2-3 naps, which provides them with three hours of sleep in the day.

If the nights are not going well, look at the day, and vice versa. Over-tiredness and over-stimulation is the number one reason a baby or young child does not sleep.

 As Lise answers this question, my mind wanders to my own children who have always been early wakers, so I take the opportunity to ask her the question again but this time about older children.

Q: Lise, why do my children wake up so early, how much sleep should a 5 - 7 year old get a night? 

A: The reason why children wake so early in the morning is because of sleep hormones. Your sleep hormone (melatonin) rises from 6 pm till around midnight and then goes back down. Around 5 am your melatonin is at its lowest level again. That’s why children wake at that time, after 10 - 11 hours of sleep. If a child is going to bed at 9 pm and is waking at 5 am, it is better to put them to bed sooner.

Bedtime routines and being in bed on time helps to create calm and lessen over-stimulation. 

Also, being outside in the late afternoon is helpful as it produces the serotonin hormone, and then once in a dark room, it transfers to melatonin. The more serotonin, the more melatonin and often it helps to let your baby/child sleep longer in the morning.

Q: There are so many different theories on sleep for babies and children, ie sleep training, cry it out, go with the flow (no method) or letting the baby guide you. 

In your opinion, of all of the theories which is the best/most effective for both baby and family? Or are all sleep theories just that - a theory!

A: They are indeed theories! People want a quick fix, thinking the next day the problem will be fixed. But sleep issues are symptoms of other, often bigger problems. Until you get to the root of the problem nothing will help your baby. Sometimes these theories will help for a short time and then stop.

Lots of people think sleep problems are caused by a medical problem, but statistically, only 5% of newborn babies have a medical reason (reflux of allergies).

The most obvious reason why babies have trouble sleeping is that they need to learn how to sleep.

Lots of new parents will hear people say, “at 12 weeks everything will settle down”. This is because by this age a baby’s body has developed all the hormones we need to help them sleep. But while physically they have everything they need to sleep, developmentally they need help to teach them how to sleep on their own.

Another obvious reason for not sleeping or being fussy, can be caused by trauma (ie birthing trauma or something emotional). When a baby or child experiences trauma, they must also be able to process this. To process trauma, a baby or child will cry more often. Allowing this expression of emotions is very important.

Crying is the body’s way of releasing, and healing. People always feel better after crying, and yet adults constantly try to stop a baby from crying which prevents the baby from ‘releasing’ and working through what is upsetting them.

Your baby can only tell you by crying so welcome the crying by acknowledging their feelings and letting them know that you hear them. It’s all about your tone and intention when you comfort a baby, and the way you go about things.

I always say to my parents, “Let baby tell you what the problem is, comfort them, let them release, get to a calm place, and then see what works for them. Secure. Safe. Story told.  

Lise Dullaerts on a Prettier playmat.

Q: What are the classic things parents do that makes sleep time more difficult for themself without realising it?

A: I'll answer this in two parts for babies and toddlers.

Baby: With babies, it's common that parents are not looking at what their baby is telling them. Babies need a safe, confined environment to help them sleep. They come from that small space in the womb into the big wide world and are placed in a big cot! It is very normal that they don’t just settle and go to sleep, since this large cot gives an unsafe feeling. I often encourage swaddling and bed bumpers (there are some on the market that are safe like sleep pods) to help your baby to find that cosy feeling and safe space to go to sleep. White noise can also help calm your baby.

Also, remember what I said about crying. Don’t try to pacify your baby all the time, let them release. Your baby needs your support because they can’t do it on their own. If you try to get them to do it on their own you are setting yourself up for problems.

 

Lise Dullaerts image

Toddler: As I’ve already said, make sure you have a good bedtime routine - that is clear to your toddler - to help them calm down from the day. 

Along with a routine, your toddler needs boundaries.

Along with a routine, your toddler needs boundaries. For example, if they are not going to sleep they must stay in their bedroom but give them the freedom to play quietly in their room in a calm space (make sure you only have calm toys and books). Stay outside the room, and offer guidance. If they are jumping on their bed, tell them they can’t jump on the bed but they can sit quietly and look at a book, or play with their toy. 

After 3 - 4 days they will have explored everything in their room, and then will settle. 

Also, stay with your toddler when they cry. It’s okay, you’re not “spoiling” them and inconsistency in the comfort makes it worse. Be consistent and stay present, so sit down on the floor - Toddlekind mats are helpful for this - and put your hand thru the crib, and be there. With you there talking her through, let your child cry until she is done.

Q: If parents should do just one thing when sleep training their children what would it be?

A: If I have to pick one, (calm) consistency.

With Christmas just five days away, having discussed some of the basics of sleep guidance, I take a moment to ask Lise what can parents do to support their baby’s sleep journey, while juggling Christmas commitments with family and friends. 

Q: Christmas is around the corner, and some people will be spending the holidays with relatives. If people are staying away from home, what guidance can you offer them?

A: During the holidays, if you are not sleeping in your own home then make sure that every sleep association you use at home is brought with you ie. white noise, favourite blanket, sleeping bag. Set up the travel cot in a room away from everyone and all the noise, and try to repeat the bedtime routine you use at home at your family members home. 

Make sure you start things earlier so you can take the time you need to feed, bath, calm and not rush your little one. Remember to stay calm, as they sense and work off your emotions. It’s ok to be away from the party while you go through your routine.

Q: What should parents do if they are going home, and not staying over? 

A: If you can, and baby is settled and asleep, leave them there and pop back in the morning. 

If you have to leave, make sure everything is in the car before you move your baby, and then feed them, if necessary, before putting them in their own bed at home. 

Don’t feel bad to say ‘no’ to family when they want you to push your routine out, skip a nap or take over bedtime. You know what’s best for your baby, and your baby can’t speak for themself. You are their advocate so speak up for them. 

 

A couple of weeks ago on our Toddlekind Instagram stories, we asked our followers what questions they would ask a sleep expert, here is what Lise said:

Q: What advice do you give parents who have opposing ideas of how to sleep train?

A: I experience two types of opposing views: Disagreement between parents, and disagreement between parents and family (usually grandparents).

I start all my consultations by listening to my clients and then start searching for the real problem. Once we know what the problem is, I talk them through all the possible approaches. I try to bring everyone’s ideas into the mix because this helps ensure everyone feels heard. It means that the routine then has shared ownership.

Q: How do you break co-sleeping when you’ve done it for years? 

A: My advice would be (since this is not a general guideline), the moment you wake up from your child, or your child wakes up from you is the time to move them to their own room, even with co-sleeping.

If it works for you, and no one is waking up and you are getting enough sleep it's fine. But when you aren’t getting enough sleep and waking each other up that is the time to separate. The transition will take time and as I have said before it will take around 7-10 days.

Q: Does listening to stories help my children (primary school age) sleep or does it stimulate their minds to the point where it keeps them awake?

A: No, I often have a lot of children who listen to stories at bedtime. As long as the room is dark, and they are comfortable it is okay. In fact, it can really help, and relax the mind. Just make sure they are calm stories, you don’t want things that stimulate their mind and get it racing so it can be helpful if you listen to the story first, and also if they listen to the same story every night. 

Q: How do I get my baby to sleep all night?

A: It is normal for a baby to wake in the night up to 6 - 8 months because they wake to feed. I even have children who wake up to 1 year to feed. I always say 10 minutes of “work” for feeding is better than 2 hours of crying because they are hungry. 

Q: How do I drop one nap?

A: Don’t force a nap drop. You’ll often see when it's time to drop a nap because they don't fall asleep as easily, and they’ll give the cue. You can bring the next nap forward (lunch) and see how it works. If it doesn’t work then you know it's still too soon. 

As a guide to dropping naps:

4 months: drop from four to three naps

6 - 8 months: drop from three to two naps

15 -18 months, drop from two to one nap

Children will usually drop their last nap around 2.5 - 3 years, and how they sleep at night is a good guide for if you should drop a nap, or keep the naps as is. If you have a good schedule and all of a sudden they wake in the night it's often because they are sleeping too much during the day.

Your daytime, sets up your night and vice versa.

Q: Do you have any sleep soothing tips?

A: I like to use Dr Harvey Karp’s five S’s to trigger their calming reflex:

  1. Sideways position
  2. Swaddle
  3. Suck
  4. Swing
  5. Sooth (i.e shhhhh- shhhh). 

These are the same sentiment as they felt in the womb for calming reflex. It disappears around 4 months, but the technique still works for 6 - 8 months and they feel more content. 

Incorporate these things when you put them to bed. Always keep your hand on your child, but don’t move it (ie stroking because it triggers their sense) because the weight of your hand gives them comfort in feeling you. 

Welcome the crying, encourage them to release and support them with your words and tone by saying things like “it's okay, you can cry”, “it's difficult today, I understand” or “I hear that you’re upset, I am here for you”. They will sense your support and settle.

Welcome the crying

Know, and believe, that what you’re doing will help. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that tells you crying is wrong. Even if this takes a while, maybe your little one is just not done crying yet! Remember, when we adults are crying, frustrated or angry, we can not just stop this either.

 

Keen to know more? Join Toddlekind’s Samantha Brückner this evening (Monday 20 December) at 8pm, UK time for an Instagram Live with Lise Dullaerts where they will be discussing sleep guidance, surviving the Christmas holidays and answering some of your sleep questions.

 

Photographs by Charlotte De Vos (@Charlie.devos)

Toddlekind playmat: Prettier playmat, Persian style. Colour: Sand