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Doula to Doula : Talking Sleep with Parents

For the past several months, I’ve had the really wonderful opportunity of teaching Infant Sleep Basics for Doulas with Cornerstone Doula Training. Though I wasn’t trained by Cornerstone apart from their Nutrition for Midwives course, I’ve worked with many doulas trained by them and have been so impressed. I knew I had big shoes to fill in being taken on as one of their instructors — especially on a topic as loaded as sleep training.

Well, so far it’s been awesome and I’ve been so thrilled to be apart of so many doulas’ expanding knowledge. One doula-in-training reached out to me recently about a particular struggle and the back and forth exchange was deeply resonate with what I hear from many other doulas and parents in my sleep training practice that I asked her if I could share it. Luckily, she said “yes” and so here it is! I hope this sheds come insight into the common struggles of new parents and their in-home care takers in navigating the tricky territory of sleep support.

J : I run into a situation frequently where a baby 1-6 months will SCREAM and fuss as soon as you take them into a sleeping area, or they know it’s going to be time for a nap. Which has resulted in parents holding them for naps etc. Is there any way around this? These babies also only sleep one 20-45 minute cycle at MOST. And maybe even just 1/2 naps for a 12 hour day. 

I would appreciate any insight you have! Thank you!! 

Me : Easiest solution - have them sleep wherever. Stick a basket in the living room. Who cares? They are responding to some other stress than the room itself since they have no object permanence anyhow. But anyway, infants can just sleep wherever.  Or they can start staying in the room with baby longer with a hand on baby’s chest. Check out Kim West’s Sleep Mommy Shuffle. 

If they insist on baby being in another room :

Is the baby swaddled? - They will transfer better if so and will sleep more soundly if they are not put down till at least a few minutes into the deep sleep phase. 

What sort of space are they sleeping in-basket, crib, etc? - Trying to transfer baby into many sleep spaces can be challenging since they are often quite deep (triggering a baby’s reflexes to stir), too large (messing up baby’s vertigo and causing them to feel alone and thus “unsafe,” which will impact deep sleep), they may need to be closer to a human body for the sake of developing their biorhythms and there is really no need for an infant to sleep in a separate space since they can’t sleep well on their own and don’t have object permanence to cause a “bad habit.”

Are the parents generally anxious or stressed around sleep rituals in a way that might cause overstimulation in the baby? - often this becomes a vicious cycle where parents and care takers feel pressure about sleep and then start routines with anxiety which these primal little blobs soak up like sponges, causing more stress and crying, and ever onward till someone caves. They can either accept the need to hold/carry baby for some naps (which is certainly an ok thing to do  if it works for their life) or accept that it will take some adjustment if they are not thriving. Adjustment can be gentle or difficult so it’s a balancing game that will be different for each family. I’ve worked with many families who thought it was near impossible to get babe into their own sleep space without using harsher methods, but time (TIME TIME TIME) and observation and gentle care for everyone involved (and for me at least, Glenn Harrold in my earbuds) did the trick 99% of the time. 

Do the parents do a lot of “development” activities in between naps? - you can help them see that those aren’t really necessary and can overstimulate baby and make it harder to get them settled for sleep. Two articles to look into on this: Leave Those Kids Alone from the Atlantic and this one.

My advice to you and family is to keep tuning into baby over reaching for quick fixes or giving up. Both lead to more confusion and suffering most of the time. 

Hang in there, this is normal. You’ll develop your rhythm and approach to all this as you hang with more babes and families and see the possible pitfalls and solutions. 

J : I think the root of the question is really just WHAT is normal? 

I know some babies who have slept through the night at 6 weeks without crying and others just never want to be put down. 

I feel like in our culture people feel it is abnormal for babies to want to be held and co-sleep. Do you have any resources that are nice and REALISTIC about what you can actually expect from a baby?  And what do healthy sleep "habits" actually look like? I totally understand if you cannot answer these questions! I am happy to read articles or books or listen to podcasts, it just seems everyone is either so far on the left or far on the right when it comes to what a baby sleep should actually look like and who qualifies as a "baby". 

Me : So pretty much everything is normal. That’s what crushes parents. There are going to be LOADS of circumstances where you try everything under the sun and nothing seems to help. We are a culture obsessed with diagnosing and “solving” things, but that doesn’t totally jive with the primal blob nature of infancy. 

Over time you will feel desperate in some way and it will lead to a cool trick or some deeper understanding that helps you better communicate these things to parents. If you fight the urge to make promises, rely on crappy information, or feel that your role is to give definitive answers to things that aren’t actually “problems,” you and the folks you serve will be better off. It’s hard when word of mouth and testimonials are such a big part of our business, but you have to keep in mind that you’re teaching parents to be parents, not acting as a contractor mending a collapsed wall. Our help is more subtle and nuanced and can take time to be appreciated or understood — even within ourselves. 

Instead of furthering the bullshit idea that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to sleep/hold/feed/rest/care/bond/teach/parent, keep pushing the notion of filtering and thriving : Filter through information + Pick things that help your family thrive (regardless of the other book sitting next to the one you picked that says the opposite thing than what you’re doing). HARD and EASY are relative. 

This isn’t the same as doing nothing. Making shifts and observing then adjusting when folks aren’t thriving is a great thing. You being there to normalize that, give options, validate choices, and take some of the physical load off implementation is priceless. 

This all sounds floofy, trust me, I’m a legal researcher who pushes evidence constantly, but the truth is no matter how deep you dig into trying to find a solid answer with newborns, they exist on some other plane not quite here on earth, talking to faeries as my Irish grandmothers would say, and so logic doesn’t always prove solid. And almost always, the answer is be gentle with them, be gentle with yourself, be firm in your ideas of what is necessary to thrive, and give it time. 


I hope that helped give some insight into my process of postpartum and sleep consultation work and gives some validation to the struggles you might be facing as a doula or new parent. You’re not alone in not being able to feel confident in navigating what is “normal” right from the go.

Books are currently open for all consultation services, including sleep training. I have two sleep classes scheduled at Mini Mint Studios in Santa Cruz next month — May 9th from 1-3 for parents and May 13th 4-7 for doulas and midwives. You can register for both on my Contact page.