Being a parent invites many changes into our world, some that we welcome, others, not so much. I think we can all agree on that the biggest impact is sleep. Yes, sleeping soundly through the night fast becomes a distant memory and powering through the day with a nice pair of shiny bags to accompany us is now the norm.
If you’re in need of a little advice to ease the late night wakeups and seek inspiration for an effective sleep routine, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, shares her advice on how to improve the quality of sleep for the whole family.
Could you give our readers a little insight into you and your background?
My first degree is in Psychology. I initially spent five years working in research and development in the Pharmaceutical industry, mainly working with clinical trial data. After I had my first baby my passion shifted to childcare and development and I retrained as an antenatal teacher, birth and postnatal doula, infant massage instructor and hypnotherapist, specialising in working with new parents. Alongside this work, which I have been doing for over 16 years now, I started to blog about parenting and this developed into writing my first book (of 12), almost ten years ago. Now, as well as writing, I work as a parenting coach for parents who are struggling with their child's sleep or behaviour and I run regular workshops and talks for both the general public and professionals about all aspects of childcare.
Where did the interest in child psychology come from?
I've always been interested in the human mind, but I actually didn't really like children until I had my own! I was one of the people who would hide in the toilets at work when a co-worker brought their new baby into the office. Becoming a mother really sparked my maternal side though as well as increasing interest in learning how children develop and the influence we can have on their growing personalities as parents. I don't think anything else is as interesting as learning how people become who they are!
You have 4 children yourself – Do you find they provide inspiration and ideas for your books?
Of course. I've always said that I will only write about parenting related issues that I have personal experience in, regardless of my professional knowledge. I've recently released a book about raising 'tweenagers' (8-13 year olds), despite people asking me to write it for at least the last five years, I wanted to wait until I had gone through the stage with all of my children first. My youngest is now 14. It's important to me that my work is as authentic as possible. I try to write in the style of an older friend who has been through stuff before, sharing it with a younger friend who is newer to parenting. For this conversational and supportive style to work I think it's important to let people know about my own mistakes and misgivings, in fact I think it's more important to tell them about what I did with my children that didn't work, and things that I'm not proud of than telling them about what I did right!
Have you put into practice the advice you share with parents with your own children?
Absolutely, it would be incredibly dishonest of me to lie about what I've done in order to sell books! Most importantly though, I have to have a passion for what I write about, I have to believe wholeheartedly that it works, otherwise, what's the point? Pretty much all of my work is about sharing with others what I do with my own children (both good and bad!), laced with some scientific research and evidence!
‘The Gentle Sleep’ book was one of your best sellers – what would be your ‘go-to’ for a better night’s sleep?
It's really important that parents realise there is no one 'quick fix' for sleepless nights. Sleep is like a jigsaw puzzle, to complete the puzzle you have to consider a multitude of different pieces, checking for missing ones, or making sure you haven't got something a bit confused and the wrong way round. Every child is unique, so their jigsaw puzzles are all different. There are no magic answers that work for all children and quick fix sleep training doesn't really resolve problems, it just palliates them with short term compliance (and quiet!) from the child, which is why this sort of training doesn't product long term positive results, even if things get better temporarily. Also, we must start with realistic expectations about child sleep. Babies and toddlers don't sleep through the night. They're not meant to. Frequent night waking is important to keep them safe against SIDs. Their sleep is physiologically completely different to that of an adult, so it's impossible to make them sleep like us when their brains and bodies are so very different. Starting with realistic expectations is always the best thing to do, because it takes the pressure off of parents, they stop questioning what they have done wrong and start to find peace with their child's sleep a little. Aside from that I place a lot of focus on the sleep environment. A lot of products you can buy to help babies and toddlers sleep actually make their sleep worse, for instance most nightlights and musical toys or music boxes! If the light is anything other than red light it will inhibit the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and make sleep much more difficult and if you use music to get your child to sleep you need that same piece of music to play constantly ALL night, otherwise when they wake up it is alerting to them that something has changed and they get upset and cry.
Many parents experience ‘night terrors’ with their children – do you have any advice to deal with this for worried families?
Night terrors are a common and normal part of childhood sleep. A lot of people confuse them with nightmares, but they are very different. Night terrors occur during a specific phase of sleep. The child will thrash around, they may shout or cry out and they may have their eyes open (but they will be fixed and glassy), but they are actually deeply asleep, which is why they don't respond to you when you try to calm them down. Nightmares obviously cause them to wake and be scared about their dream and they will accept comfort from you. Coping with nightmares is all about providing comfort and trying to remove the fear trigger as much as possible, but with night terrors, the only real solution is time. They will outgrow them naturally. Until then, try to keep them safe, remind yourself that they are not awake, so however distressing the night terror is for you, your child won't remember it. There is research showing that potentially making sure they eat enough omega 3 fatty acids may reduce the incidence, but time really is the biggest solution.
Would you recommend a ‘night-time’ routine for babies and children? If so, what is the best age to start doing so?
I always recommend a bedtime routine, even from the new born months. What I don't recommend is following a strict schedule to the clock. This is an outdated idea that often causes far more stress than solutions, as babies haven't read the manual and can't tell the time! Instead, what I advocate is getting some predictability and ritual into the evenings, by introducing certain activities and environments in a certain order. For instance a bath, followed by a story and massage in a dimly lit (or red light!) bedroom, introducing a special bedtime scent in a diffuser, singing a special lullaby or poem while getting them into their PJs and then using a specific piece of music to help them go to sleep (and left on all night). It doesn't matter what time you do these things, just that you do them in the same order each night. The bedtime routine then provides reassurance to help them to fall asleep more easily, and - with time - to help them to stay asleep for longer.
What advice can you give to parents who are struggling with their offspring at night with the transition of child moving into their own bed/bedroom?
Patience, lots and lots of patience! When you change something huge in a young child's life (and moving bedrooms is really huge for them) it takes time for them to adjust to the change. It doesn't matter if you're moving rooms, potty training, weaning onto solids, a new baby arrives in the family, starting nursery or school - transitions almost always make behaviour trickier in the short term. They are likely to be clingier, more unsettled, wake more at night and so on. We need to stay calm, be consistent with our own behaviour, provide lots of reassurance and support and empathise with them. Remind ourselves this may be a small change to us, but it's huge to our child. Give them time (and by that I'm talking months, not days or even weeks) and they will get used to the transition.
What do parents tend to reach out to you about? Do you find there is a common problem/issue that you get asked regularly?
Without doubt, the top three are:
- Sleep, particularly waking lots in the night and only settling for mum
- Behaviour, especially managing toddler tantrums and dealing with difficult tween and teen behaviour (backchat, rudeness, defiance and the like)
- Eating - specifically fussy and picky eating that tends to manifest around 18 to 24 months and can persist right the way through to the teenage years.
What are you working on at the moment?
Two exciting projects! Firstly, I'm currently writing my 12th book, called 'How to be a Calm Parent', which is out early next year. It's all about how to keep your cool with your kids, tame your anger and get rid of that awful parenting guilt. I realised that although I frequently talk about the importance of staying calm and being a great role model for your children, that I hadn't ever actually told people HOW to be calmer! So, I have high hopes that the book will be well received!
I've also been working with Italian food brand Barilla on their 'Kids in Cucina' campaign (Italian for kids in the kitchen). It's a great campaign to get parents cooking more with their children, because there is a huge body of research showing that when we cook with our children they are far less likely to be picky eaters and it also really helps with their self-esteem, maths skills, fine motor skills and even their reading and communication skills. Cooking together is basically the solution to a heap of parenting worries! I love Italian food for it's fresh ingredients and simplicity. You don't have to be a great cook to knock up a fantastic pasta dish and the recipes are also naturally really child friendly, both in terms of tastes and the ease of cooking. You can read my tips on the Kids in Cucina website if you want to learn more: www.kidsincucina.co.uk