Sleep-deprived parents all over the Ireland and indeed around the world have benefitted from sleep therapist Lucy Wolfe’s methods. There are countless reasons why children have sleep problems, but with consistency and commitment and with her support, Lucy says that parents can expect to see improvement in sleeping habits as little as four to six days. Mary O’Brien gets some advice from the paediatric sleep consultant, hailed as the ‘Baby Whisperer’ due to her success, and Sinead, a parent, tells us how her family’s sleepless nights were transformed after getting help from Lucy Wolfe.
“Where struggles with sleep are concerned there are two major contributory factors,” says Lucy “First of all, some children above six months have become used to parental input in order for them to actually achieve sleep. As a result, those families will be more vulnerable to nighttime activity than a family with a child not needing parental input. I would call it dependency, which covers an umbrella of anything parents do to make sleep happen — feeding, rocking, rolling, laying down with, driving — these are all likely to have an impact on nighttime.
This is augmented by biological timekeeping — parents attempting sleep when their young child is already overtired and there is a resistance to sleep. Once parents have an understanding of these two things, we can get to work.”
Lucy advises that most children between six months and six years of age will benefit from being in bed somewhere between 6 and 8pm. “If you have a child who doesn’t historically sleep through the night, or a child who doesn’t nap very well, then even 7.30pm or 8pm can be too late,” she says. “Depending on what the family dynamic is, particularly if both parents are working, it can be very difficult to achieve an early bedtime. But if you have sleep difficulties then one of the most positive steps you can take is to bring everything forward and have your child aiming to be asleep sooner rather than later.”
Lucy’s advice to working parents is to start a sleep plan or new bedtime routine going in to a weekend. “When correcting sleep difficulties, in general the first seven to 10 days are the most difficult,” she explains. “But it’s the same as any self-improvement programme you do…you have to be flexible to make those initial changes and adjustments, for example dad finishing work early one night, mum the next, and so on.”
Another common mistake made by parents is giving the child an inadequate daytime sleep or having a nap imbalance. “This is where children are getting enough sleep on paper but it’s not at the right times for their body clock,” says Lucy. “Or, there are big gaps between the sleeps, the most common of which is the gap between the end of the last nap and being in bed asleep. With toddlers, very often their nap is too early in the day, creating a very big gap between the nap finish time and bedtime.”
Regardless of age, Lucy says that too big a gap will give the child resistance to sleep and make him or her vulnerable to nighttime activity and large wakeful periods overnight or early rising.
“Most children between eight and 18 months do very well if they’re not awake for four hours,” says Lucy.
Another common mistake that Lucy sees parents making is putting their children partially to sleep using a bottle or feeding too close to bedtime. “Put the child to bed more awake than asleep so they go to sleep independently. This is a big one with twins. Often their feed is too close to sleeptime, which is a contributory factor in nighttime activity.”
According to Lucy, a child’s sleeping pattern can be shaped from four months with much more headway made from six months.
“Children aren’t born with this ability and don’t just fall into a regular sleeping rhythm. This doesn’t come to the surface until about four months,” says Lucy, who encourages parents of newborns to give lots of input, rocking and holding the child whenever needed and letting the child sleep when they need to. “Beyond six months, nap rhythms become more established and nighttime sleep can be more organised. A feeding and sleeping balance can be established. If you get the right balance then you can start to lay a really positive foundation without needing to ‘cry it out’ or do any of these intensive approaches.”
If you have a toddler whose sleep regresses, for example with the arrival of a new baby in the family, Lucy advises working through it consistently and most importantly without giving mixed messages. “I’d recommend giving loads of comfort but distributing it. Comfort the child in his bedroom rather than yours and help the child feel loved safe and secure. Or, just stay in the room with the child to give reassurance.”
“Mixed messages are a big part of the problem,” explains Lucy. “Sometimes we let them in to our bed, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we let them cry, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we give bottles, sometimes we don’t — it’s the mixed message that causes problems.”
It can take four to six weeks to really correct a sleep issue. “I always see a vast improvement in the first seven to 10 days but sleeping through the night comes with regularity and it depends on how consistent the parents have been in seeing things through from the beginning.”
Lucy practices a modified version of Gradual Retreats, which means the parents stay with the children and there is lots of physical and verbal responding, such as picking up and eye contact. “All the things that you’d think that you shouldn’t do,” she says “but then I scale it back, as the child feels more safe and secure. My ideal scenario is that every three to four days, the parent moves further out of the room, but it doesn’t always unfold like that, it depends on how the child is getting on. The ultimate goal is to get the parents out of the room but every journey is different.”
Lucy also emphasises how important it is to read your child’s sleep language. “This means noticing when a child is getting tired as opposed to overtired. There is a huge misinterpretation where these two things are concerned. If I ask a group of parents what does your child do when getting tired, many will answer along the lines of whining, rubbing eyes, yawning, fussing, clumsiness — these signs are all too far gone. If your child is doing this it means that the body has had a chemical reaction, which causes adrenalin and therefore resistance to sleep.”
The biggest barrier to Lucy’s sleeping plan is if the child gets sick. “Everything can derail, but then again it’s how you respond to the situation that matters. It’s also about giving parents the confidence to know they can do it, even when extremely tired.”
“When Eoin was one he had a run of really bad ear infections, one after the other. He wasn’t eating during the day, so we fed him bottles at night. He started waking up regularly, up to 12 times a night, and each time he’d scream the house down.
In April 2015, we moved in with my parents while renovating our home. They didn’t believe how bad Eoin was at night until they saw it firsthand. We had always put Eoin to bed early, between 6.30 and 7pm, so we also tried forcing him to stay up later, which only made things worse. He was overtired and we were all exhausted, I used to get a pain in my stomach as bedtime approached.
A few people mentioned Lucy Wolfe to us and when Eoin was a year and eight months and still not sleeping, we decided to contact her for help. I was seven months pregnant with our second child at the time.
In June 2015, we started the Gradual Retreat programme with Lucy.
We didn’t have a wind down at bedtime with Eoin, we were very inconsistent, depending on our mood, how tired we were and so on. Eoin also went to bed every night with three soothers. Lucy addressed all these issues. The soothers were reduced to one and we established a relaxed bedtime routine. We gave Eoin his bottle downstairs, made it clear there was to be no food or drink in the bedroom, and teeth cleaning, pyjamas and storytime became part of the calm bedtime routine upstairs.
After three weeks, the Gradual Retreat wasn’t working. It was still taking us over two hours to put Eoin down to bed. So Lucy suggested the timed cry out method.
Bedtime routine remained as normal, which took half an hour. We’d then put Eoin into the cot, giving big cuddles and kisses and let him settle. Once he started crying, we set the timer for five minutes. After five minutes we’d go in to his bedroom and reassure him but never stayed too long. We’d then set the timer again. We found five minutes very long so never increased it. The first night, it took 45 minutes for him to fall asleep but this was opposed to over two hours the previous night. The following night, it dropped to 20 minutes and the night after that, 10 minutes. We don’t use the timer now, our bedtime routine is the same every night and we don’t see Eoin until the morning.
Our second child, Conor, was born in September. By remaining consistent with Eoin’s bedtime routine, we’ve had no problems, even with the new arrival.
Eoin is now two and goes to bed every night at 6.45pm. He’s usually asleep by 7.15. Five-month-old Conor is also sleeping through the night.
We’re much more more confident this time round. Before you do Lucy’s programme, you can’t understand how it will work, but it’s the small things like keeping it consistent that really make a difference. We enjoy bedtime now and we’re all much happier. The confidence that Lucy has given us has definitely helped us as a family.”