The science behind sleep and brain development in the formative years

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #47 “The science behind sleep and brain development in the formative years”

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Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“

INTRO: On episode 47 of the show, we talk about different factors that influence the sleep of infants and toddlers with Cindy Davenport, Co-Founder and CEO of Safe Sleep Space, an Australian organization that supports parents and educators with sleep and settling for young children. In our conversation, we learn about the correlation between brain development and sleep during a child’s formative years. Cindy also give us some advice for educators that have to settle multiple children at once during nap time.

If you are a parent or educator that’s interested in understanding the science behind sleep and its relationship with infant mental health, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Cindy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Cindy DAVENPORT: Thank you, Ron. Thanks for having us here.

SPREEUWENBERG: It’s our pleasure having you on the show. And I’m excited to learn more about what you do as part of your organization, Safe Sleep Space. Can you tell us a little bit more about what Safe Sleep Space is, and what you do?

DAVENPORT: Absolutely, Ron. We’re delighted to be here. So Safe Sleep Space is a early-parenting consultancy group based in Melbourne, Australia, and we do a number of different services in the realm of assisting all our educators and parents around the issues of safe sleeping, sleep and settling, and, really importantly, the social-emotional health of the infants and toddlers. So we sort of span across the baby through to the toddler years – those very important years – and work with lots of different organizations and different groups and community groups Australia-wide, and even internationally. We do lots of calls.

SPREEUWENBERG: So let’s start with the basics. Why is this something that people need support with, the sleeping and the settling for infants and toddlers?

DAVENPORT: It’s quite well researched in the area of… parents often find that they may have [what we call] a sleep challenge – we don’t really like to refer to it as a problem, but a sleep challenge – with their little ones, and in the realm of around 40 percent of all babies. But their parents will have this sleep challenge. We know that in the first year of life a parent will seek advice on their health profession, their doctor or their health nurse, around 8 to 12 times, and 40% of the time around sleep. So it’s quite an issue for parents if they’re not getting sleep, and they’re always seeking advice around how they can help their babies.

And what we do with Safe Sleep Space is an infant mental health approach. So we don’t use the term “controlled crying” or any sort of behavioral approach. We really find it’s very important for the parents to understand where their little babies’ brains are at, where they’re at on that development, so then they can help them get some sleep. And we have fantastic results and work very closely with our educators to then help the family.

SPREEUWENBERG: So can you explain a little bit more about what that connection is – so, the connection between mental health and sleeping?

DAVENPORT: So we’re really, really fortunate now with lots of research by many, many gurus like [Dr.] Allan Schore, Jack Shonkoff, many of our very well esteemed academics who provided us with lots of research about babies and their brains. And we know that our little babies need attunement and need very sensitive, emotionally attached parenting to help them with everything that they do. But with sleep it is so important for parents to be able to connect, read their baby’s cues and then respond to them. And we find that by using these approaches – which is an infant mental health approach – that the results are just outstanding. So the research shows us this as well, and for parents they’re in the same space, if you like, as their babies, walking along that journey with them. And getting those results and understanding their baby is really, really key.

SPREEUWENBERG: So for someone with a limited understanding of this challenge, is it sort of the same approach, ultimately, regardless of the situation you’re dealing with as a parent or an educator? Or are there different sorts of scenarios that would lead you to take different approaches?

DAVENPORT: In essence, Ron, the approach is the same, that it depends on sometimes the very unique situation that a family might be in. So for example, if a parent who is needing to cue in a little bit more – and they may even be a little bit more anxious – then we really work closely with those families. It’s very individualized. But the actual essence of our Safe Sleep Space approach is really about listening, and cueing in with the baby and responding. So to change a little baby’s sleep pattern takes around a week to three weeks, anywhere on that time. So we work really closely with our parents, helping them with that little change, because it is difficult for them to do a lot on their own. A lot of our information that we assist them with helps and guides them across that period of change. If they were in a situation making it a little bit more difficult then we would work hand-in-hand, of course, and guide them. And we have lots of different resources to help them, too. They also are very, very important.

SPREEUWENBERG: So can we dive into the approach one step further? So you mention that it’s really about this concept of, “First connect, then read their cues and listen, and then respond.” Can you dive into each of those three a little bit further about what those mean? And maybe as a parent or an educator working with infants and toddlers, what are the things that I need to do to execute on that approach for the benefit of the infants and toddlers that I’m working with or that are part of my family?

DAVENPORT: Absolutely, yeah, for sure. So one of the things we very much start with when we discuss with our health professionals and our parents is to ensure that they have that understanding of where the baby’s brain is at. So the infant brain is only one of the organs that is not fully formed at birth. So the parents find that quite amazing. So we put this in the context of, when a newborn is a first arrived or is first born – and this is a term baby – their little brain is about 25% of that of an adult’s size. And by the time they reach their [third] to fourth year their little brain is around 80 to 85% of the size of an adult. So this is what we call those very beautiful formative years, the time when the baby’s brain is moving from that 25% right up to that 85% of an adult’s size. And you know, Ron, this is the most valuable part about our educators working in this space: they truly are working with our babies at their most prime time. I love to say with our educators they truly are amazing, because they’re working with their families at a very, very important time. These babies’ little brains are forming.

And if a parent understands that where their baby is at developmentally they’re more likely to be able to understand what the baby is capable of doing, sleep-wise. And we get results based around that. So a little baby, for example, of an early age – at three to four months – really has not a great circadian rhythm. So that is, you know… they always mix up their day and night. And this is part of their brain’s little development. And if parents understand that then they go, “Ah, got it. I know why my baby’s awake for a bit more during the night than during the day.” And there’s a really good reason for this: it’s really biologically adaptive for a baby to be wakeful around the clock because they need to feed. And it’s really important that parents get that and understand that. Then they know then how sleep fits in.

So we work along that sort of space, getting the parents and the educators to understand where the baby is at for very many reasons. And we also know that by providing really sensitive and very attuned parenting, being emotionally available – providing those great, what we call “positive early experiences” – helps the baby’s brain develop positive little pathways, neural pathways, and leads to great outcomes for the infant. That’s one of the very first parts that we explain to our parents, and once again that they really also know then where they baby fits.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really phenomenal, isn’t it, that the brain goes from 25% to 85% in those 3-4 years? It just goes to show you, the development. And that’s why I think so many of us in the field are so passionate about early-childhood education, because that timeframe is so formative, like you say. So that’s really neat.

So the approach makes a lot of sense. And I’m just wondering if you can try and bring it to life a little bit, maybe with like a case study or a scenario of a parent dealing with a child, and what cues they might look for, and then how they’re going to respond to that…?

DAVENPORT: Sure. We have many different scenarios that come to us, and what we would say is, we would break it down with the families. We would always ask them where the baby is at, and obviously that they’re meeting all their milestones, ask them about the understanding and again reiterate that the attachment and the emotional bond is so, so key. And then the little one, who… often the scenario will be: the baby has been perhaps rocked to sleep or has a sleep association. It’s probably one of the biggest problems that we have for our little infants and toddlers. And that is thing that the parent has really well-meaningly used to put to help the baby go to sleep. So these could be like rocking them to sleep, or feeding them to sleep, or driving them around in the car to sleep. And then they’ll often ring us and say, “The baby doesn’t sleep for any longer than a short sleep cycle.” And in an infant a sleep cycle really only lasts about 35 to 45 minutes. That is, they go in and out of their deep and light sleep, this short period of time.

And another term coined is “catnapping”, you know? “My baby catnaps.” And we would say, Well, how do you get your baby to sleep?” And often they’ll say, “The only way I can do this is by one of those associations.” So in the example that we might use, they put the baby in the car and they take them for a drive, and the baby goes off to sleep. And then as soon as the car stops and that movement stops, then the baby wakes. And this is really quite common. And we need to explain to our parents that when the baby first goes into sleep, they’re so used to being rocked off, or using the car, for example. And then when they wake in their sleep phase – which is after about 35 to 45 minutes, and this is for an infant, Ron, that we’re talking about here – then the baby needs the car, or needs the rocking, or needs the breastfeeding to go back to sleep. And doesn’t know anything different.

So we explain to our parents that we need to help them to stop the rocking or the car movement in order for the baby to then drift themselves back into their next sleep phase. And how we do this at Safe Sleep Space is, we go very gentle; really gentle. As we say, it will take a week to three weeks, utilizing a very response-based way, which is a really kind way. And it fits intuitively with parents. You don’t want to hear your baby cry. And we don’t use any sort of crying. So we then in a situation would explain to the parent, “Okay, today instead of putting your baby in the car and driving them we might just stay and we might rock them gently, and not to deep sleep. But then we’re going to put them into their little cart or their crib. And you’re to stay with them, and keep your hands on them, and pat with them, and do some shushing.

Because the two sounds of shushing and patting, to parents we explain as well, and for many educators, they come from when the baby has been in utero for nine months and three weeks. The baby is very used to those two sounds. They’ve had the digestive juices and the placenta sound, which is: “Shush-shush, shush-shush shush-shush.” And that’s where our [verbal] “shush”-ing comes from.

SPREEUWENBERG: That’s interesting.

DAVENPORT: And then of course the heartbeat of the mother is the, “Pat-pat, pat-pat, pat-pat.” We use these two sort of techniques using our voice for shushing and patting and helping the baby because they’re so connected with that sound, because they’ve had it in utero for nine months or more and they’re very, very happy with both sounds. They feel like it really helps them drift back into sleep.

We do lots of this and help and guide our parents. So instead of using those sleep associations that they might of got used to, like the car or the rocking or the feeding, then we help our parents use these other strategies of shushing and patting, and very gently then take your hands off the baby and then still stay within sight of the baby. And if the baby cries we ask the parent to listen to the cry. And if that baby has a full, forceful cry then the parent needs to pick that child or that baby up and calm them, get their heart rate down and their breathing calm, and then commence again. Or if not we leave it for that sleep and start again at the next one. So very calm, and it really sits very, very instinctively with our parents.

SPREEUWENBERG: So obviously these approaches and methods for parents are also very much applicable to early-childhood educators out there that are working with infants and toddlers. However, as an early-childhood professional, you’re obviously not the primary caregiver for that child. If you’re in that scenario is there any advice you can provide to people in the field that are working with infants and toddlers and experiencing some of these challenges when they’re not the primary caregivers?

DAVENPORT: Absolutely, and we do this on a day-to-day basis with our early-childhood educators here. We very much ask them to have a conversation with the parents first and get to understand little signals, little, little things about their child that are unique so that that childcare educator can understand the baby. There might be some little ways that they communicate with their baby, or little signals. So we very much ask the educators to sit and have that conversation. And it’s an ongoing one, as well, collaborating with the parents so they’re all doing the same strategies.

And in our early-childhood education system here [we] very much to have… here in Australia, our ratio is either 1-to-4 in the infant room, or sometimes even 1-to-3. So we understand too that settling three or four babies is much harder than settling one. So this is one of the things that we work with as well, and get the educators to work out the temperaments, also, of the babies. So those little ones with a temperament… temperament is something we’re born with and it’s a great thing that every baby is unique and has a different temperament. But if the temperament is that the child needs say, winding down, or preparing for sleep a little quicker, it might take that second book that you read to them, or that soothing lullaby that you sing to them, or that calming on your lap, so you’re coddling them but not to sleep. Then the educator gets to understand that baby.

And then they put the children into a close proximity. So we always suggest – and we have a very good model of this within our resources – that they worked together. And instead of, say, patting the baby – which you can’t pat four babies – or patting the mattress, we get them to pat their leg in the center of a four, or they’re sitting in the middle, if you like. They’re central to all their babies. So they pat their legs so they get that same, “Pat-pat, pat-pat, pat-pat” sound. And they use that “Shush-shush, shush-shush shush-shush.” And it really, really works very well. And the babies are amazing. They really do calm in that childcare setting. And working with the parents, these babies settle quite quickly.

SPREEUWENBERG: It’s really interesting stuff. I always love learning more about the science behind why different things work in practice when we’re working with our youngest children. And so it’s very cool to hear a little bit more about that side of it, and that natural connection.

Now obviously this is a really significant thing that people are dealing with, parents and caregivers in a childcare [or] early-learning setting, as well, given that 40% of the issues that they’re talking to their doctors about is related to sleep and settling. Now if I want to go find some more resources or information about one of the things that you’ve been talking about, where is a good place for me to go?

DAVENPORT: Absolutely on our websites. We have lots of resources and we have free tip sheets for parents for sleep and settling. So that is just simply on our But for out early-years educators we’ve designed and developed an online resource for them which is a three-course program really about understanding the social-emotional development of the baby, and then how to settle an infant, and how to settle a toddler, because we haven’t really talked much about toddlers today. There also some very unique ways that we can assist them. So that’s on our website:

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. Cindy, this has been a really informative conversation, and I think definitely some great, practical resources for those of you out there that are working with infants and toddlers every day. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Cindy, it’s been great having you.

DAVENPORT: Absolute pleasure, and thanks for having us, Ron.

SPREEUWENBERG: Our pleasure.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.