Transcript: Tips to Support Your Baby’s Sleep Without Sleep Training

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Tips to Support Your Baby’s Sleep Without Sleep Training and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Heather Boyd: Parents will often say to me, I want to lengthen my baby’s sleep cycle and I think, well, we’re not in charge of that part. We’re in charge of meeting our baby’s needs so they feel safe and secure, so that their energy can go into maturing their brain and having a longer sleep cycle.

Helen Thompson: This is your host, Helen Thompson. Thank you for being here today. If you are already subscribed to the show, thank you so much, mums. You always are amazing and if you’re here for the first time, make sure you subscribe to the show. Google Podcasts will shortly be closing permanently, so if you are subscribed by Google, please subscribe via another platform so that you don’t miss out on each episode. You will find First Time Mum’s Chat on all the main platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, as well as now on YouTube.

You’ll gather from the brief excerpt that I played at the beginning, that in this episode, I’m revisiting the area of baby toddler sleep. I’m thrilled to be chatting with mum of three, occupational therapist, certified family and infant sleep specialist, and podcast host, Heather Boyd.

Heather’s baptism of fire with sleep challenges, came from her eldest son, who had sleep challenges when he was a baby. Heather had worked with babies throughout her entire career as an occupational therapist, but she knew nothing about the sleep area and needed to work out how to support her son.

During our chat, you’ll hear Heather talk about her journey and how she helps tired parents support their baby’s sleep without sleep training, using a holistic approach.

Hi Heather and welcome to First Time Mum’s Chat. I’m delighted to have you here. I’m really looking forward to talking to you about developing strategies for supporting you and your baby, focusing more on the sort of developmental side. So before we start, do you want to share a little bit about yourself and how you got started in your journey?

Heather Boyd: Sure and Helen, I’m so glad to be on getting to chat to you. I’m looking forward to this talk. I am a mom of three from Canada and an occupational therapist as well as a sleep coach and I got into attachment based, developmentally based sleep coaching for parents because of how much trouble my eldest had when he was a baby.

He had a really difficult relationship with sleep and I realized that I knew a lot about babies because I’m an OT (occupational therapist) that has worked with babies from 0 to 3 my whole career but I knew nothing about sleep, and so I needed to gather as much as I could, and the more I found out about how sleep actually developed, the more it made sense how to figure out how to support him.

Helen Thompson: So what did you discover about how babies develop with sleep? How did you find out how babies develop and how did it work for you and your baby?

Heather Boyd: I think I started with doing what most parents do, and that’s trying to figure out what I was supposed to do, when should I try to put my baby down, how should I put them down, what was my job to teach him to sleep? Thankfully, early on, I read a few articles that took a more developmental approach to sleep, that looked at sleep as being something that starts with brain development, and that as the brain matures, sleep matures too and I think that was a huge discovery. It was a major aha moment for me to realize, oh yeah, sleep is something humans have done our entire existence. Sleep has developed in babies without sleep training for most of human history and figuring out what my baby needed to sleep fit in much more with his developmental needs, what he needed to feel right in the world and fall asleep, than it did with any teaching that I could do.

I couldn’t teach him to sleep the way that I thought he was supposed to because he was a little baby who’s brain was dictating what sleep looked like and that sleep was going to look a lot different than what a lot of the books say.

Helen Thompson: it’s really interesting you talk about brain development because I teach baby massage and I’m aware of how babies take time to develop their brains and how baby massage and touch and communicating with your baby and talking to your baby and singing to your baby, all helps with brain development, all helps with social skills, it helps with sleep, it helps with so many different things.

So, you said that you learned through your son, had had issues with attachment based sleep. So what was it you actually did that really supported your baby to sleep.

Heather Boyd: Well, you mentioned touch and communication and I always think that if we can understand what it is that our babies need to feel right in the world. What is it that they’re expecting that lets them take that sigh to say I’m here, I’m where I need to be, I feel safe enough to fall asleep, I feel secure enough to fall asleep.

Of course, they’re not thinking that in words, but that feeling is there to allow them to relax and to sleep. So I think when I finally realized that no matter what book I read or what expert was talking about sleep, if I looked at the baby that was in front of me, to figure out what is it that they need to fall asleep, then it made it much easier.

I think, like a lot of parents, I was chasing my tail trying to figure out what was the secret sauce to make sleep happen, instead of looking at what is it my son needs to make this easier. Of course, I think part of it was realizing that this whole thing of sleep development isn’t easy. It’s a very rocky road to get to mature sleep. So it wasn’t not working because I was missing something. It wasn’t working because he wasn’t ready yet for independent sleep.

So you ask, what did I do? I tried to quell the busy overthinking in my mind around, if this isn’t working, I’m doing something wrong or missing something and instead looked at what is actually working for him? You mentioned touch, which is such a powerful way to connect with babies, with anybody really. Babies love to feel our arms around them, they love the movement, they love hearing our heartbeat or even feeling the rise and fall of our breath and the movement that we make just having them in arms, or the deep touch that happens when we give them an infant massage. I think when we meet that need that they have, instead of trying to push, push, push them to figure it out on their own without even touching us, like to transfer them into a crib, where they miss out on almost all of it.

They might still be able to see us or hear us, but we’re not close enough for that. Smell, the movement, the all of the other things that come with being close enough to our babies that they can feel right in the world. So that might feel a little vague still Helen in answering your question, but I think realizing that it was my baby in front of me who was going to guide me in figuring out what he needed best made it much easier.

I still resisted a lot, right? We all want to solve problems and when sleep isn’t going as well as we think, we look and look and look for the solution because that’s what we are usually pretty good at, is figuring out solutions to problems and when it came to sleep with my son, it was realizing this isn’t a problem to fix, this is a need to meet.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think it’s interesting you say that because I think independent sleep is something that babies learn. It’s a learned response and I know it’s tough for mums who are tired and overwhelmed and frustrated because their babies aren’t sleeping and I totally, totally get that because it’s a really tough time. However you’ve got to go with what your baby wants and learn from your baby and just go with the rollercoaster ride and enjoy the time you’re having with your baby. As you said, looking at them instead of thinking, right, well, what is it you need and getting frustrated or overwhelmed.

That’s a tough thing to say because it’s really hard for moms not to get frustrated and overwhelmed because they’re so tired, they’re so exhausted and they’re so sleep deprived. If you just take a big, deep breath in and watch your baby, your baby will pick up on your vibes.

You mentioned, the heartbeat. If you put your hand on your baby’s chest and you just breathe in deeply and you relax, it really actually helps your baby to pick up on those vibes and it helps them to relax. I think also wearing your baby as well is a great way to help them to relax because they’re actually feeling your heartbeat and they’re feeling you moving around so they feel secure and they feel comfort and that’s a great support for them I think as well.

Heather Boyd: Absolutely, absolutely and I am always very pleased when parents are able, cause not all of them are able to baby wear, but it sure takes a lot of the pressure off of solving because you’ve begun bringing baby along for your day and they’re naturally moving in in sync with you.

As you were talking, something else that came up for me in that whole idea of how difficult this is, because part of it is that we want to solve the problem and we’re frustrated because we can’t, when so many other areas of our lives we can tackle with grit and with problem solving and this isn’t one of them. The other part is and it always seems obvious when we say it, but we can be frustrated with ourselves for not being able to solve it and make it work and then we can be frustrated with our babies who aren’t sleeping and we have that internal dialogue of, Why won’t you sleep?

Why, what is it that you need and I can’t figure it out! I think when you took that deep breath just a moment ago, released it to regulate our own nervous systems, one of the things that I find so helpful when I’m talking to parents who are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed about sleep, is to point out to them that when they take care of themselves, when they can remember to take that deep breath to regulate, when they can remember to fuel their bodies to be able to show up the way that they would like to as a parent every day, that when they take care of themselves, it’s like this direct feedback loop to their baby.

That’s a hard thing to do as a parent when you’re exhausted, because, again, I think we slide right into trying to fix a problem, when sometimes part of the answer is just to slow down and take care of ourselves so that we’re regulated, our nervous systems are calmer, we’re taking that deep, deep breath that does so much for our nervous system and it feeds right back into regulating our baby’s nervous system.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I agree with you. I think being regulated is so important for both you and your baby but it is a really, really hard thing to do for mums. It’s a good learning to take that deep breath in. That actually really helps to calm you down and I think it helps everybody to explore their own sleep and it helps you to teach your baby to explore their own sleep and my feeling is not to expect a baby to sleep straight away because babies won’t sleep straight away, they’re not wired that way. They take time to learn how to go to sleep. Babies aren’t meant to go to sleep straight away, they’re not meant to sleep through the night straight away and going back to the beginning of what we talked about, that’s part of their development, it’s part of the learning process that babies need to go through and it all works with how their brain development actually works and taking that time to appreciate that. As an occupational therapist, you probably teach parents a lot about brain development and about awareness of getting to know what their baby’s cues and everything are.

Heather Boyd: Yes, yeah, I talk a lot about how baby sleep development unfolds, too because I think for a lot of parents, me included, when my littles were young, I didn’t understand what was actually happening with sleep to move it from what it looks like with a newborn all the way to, you know, toddlerhood and preschool age. Maybe not everybody loves to understand this. A lot of times when we’re tired, we just want to be told what to do but when we understand a bit more about how it works, it just makes much more clear what it is that’s most likely to make this easier and big emphasis, Helen, on easier, because we know it’s still not easy.

I always think it’s like a car, where we don’t need to be a mechanic, we don’t need to be an expert in cars, but if we at least know where the windshield washer fluid container is, and we know how to check how many kilometers we have on our car so we know when to bring it in for an oil change, and maybe we know a little bit more, like changing the cabin filter.

If we know a little bit of the basics, we sure know what to look for when something’s not going well. And we are in a much better position to be able to make it run a little bit more smoothly. I also think when I think about things getting easier, I feel like for many, many parents and again, me included, I’m doing this work because I went through it too and the exhaustion was palpable, like it was just so raw.

As soon as I stopped trying to fight against what was actually happening with sleep, like trying to push it in a different direction, trying to make it look a certain way, when I stopped working as hard to make it look a certain way, things got immensely easier. I know that’s a really hard lesson because again, I think we default into solving problems and doing hard work, but I find with the parents I work with over and over again, we work on how do we work less hard on this so that we can actually put our energy, the limited energy that we have when our babies are really little, put it towards something that actually makes things easier, makes things work more smoothly.

It may not look at all like you expected because it’s a different kind of hard work. Letting go and leaning in to the reality of what your baby needs right now is not an easy thing, but the letting go does make it easier on the other side.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I, I totally get that and I think it’s how you do it and how you support yourself as well as your baby. It’s more than just self care, it’s more than just looking at your baby and working it out. It’s just something that parents go through. Parents go through brain fog, they go through exhaustion, they go through overwhelm and it’s a shock, I guess, for a new mum who’s not prepared for it. The more people like you who are out there that help them and support them, who’ve been through it, makes it a lot easier for mums.

Baby’s brain development doesn’t happen overnight, it’s something that we learn. As parents, we forget that. We forget that we learned how to sleep. I think that’s the key to all of this, what we’ve been talking about is allowing your baby to learn independent sleep naturally, rather than pushing them and saying they’ve got to do this because I want to sleep.

Heather Boyd: Well, and you’ve said something that really is particularly valuable in reframing for parents this approach to sleep, and it’s that you can’t rush brain development. It unfolds in a pretty predictable pace as the brain does get more mature and looks different. If you looked at it as a toddler versus a baby brain, the differences are very visible and we can’t speed that up any more than we can make our babies walk at four months.

We could work really, really hard to try to get our babies to walk at four months and it’s not going to work very well but because we somehow think of sleep as being something that we’re supposed to do, we’re supposed to make happen, we’re supposed to teach, we work way harder on that than we would on helping our babies walk or roll or clap or develop speech. We somehow put sleep in a different category than that.

It may be worthwhile for your listeners for me to break down the four things that I point out to parents that do unfold with brain development that impacts sleep. When I point these things out, it becomes a little more clear to most parents just how much this is your baby doing the work instead of you. Parents will often say to me, I want to lengthen my baby’s sleep cycle and I think, well, we’re not in charge of that part. We’re in charge of meeting our baby’s needs so they feel safe and secure, so that their energy can go into maturing their brain and having a longer sleep cycle but it’s going to take time.

So the four things that I always point out to parents are that sleep cycles do get longer over time but we can’t speed that up either. Sleep gets deeper as it matures. So all that light sleep that babies, not newborns, newborns seem to be able to sleep through anything, including fire alarms. I remember even my child that had trouble with sleep, when they were testing the alarms and he was just a little infant and I thought this day is going to be horrible and he slept right through it. It went on for like 20 minutes and he slept through it. Deep sleep does happen, it unfolds. So, longer sleep cycles, deeper sleep eventually babies start linking those sleep cycles, but that takes a long time too because that involves being able to come up out of sleep and then fall back into sleep and of course, newborns come up out of sleep and they need to be fed. They’re feeding very often. Then, older infants, they wake up and they can’t control their environment. They can’t pull covers up or roll over into a more comfortable position, or feel reassured without you there to feel safe. So those sleep cycles, I always picture like islands moving towards each other, like plate tectonics, it’s going to take time for those things to join. Before babies are able to link sleep cycles themselves, parents are the bridge between those sleep cycles. So when babies wake up and you’re there and you feed or you rock or you pat or you shush, you’re the bridge to that other sleep cycle.

Then the fourth thing is progressively more independent sleep, where eventually in toddlerhood and preschoolhood, babies will rouse out of those sleep cycles, roll over or even take a sip of water, get comfy and fall back asleep on their own and that happens because they feel safe and secure. So they don’t feel they need to signal to us at that point as often, as we know, toddlers and preschoolers still need our support but more and more of their time is spent falling back to sleep after those sleep cycles.

Helen Thompson: I was interested in what you said there, and back to the brain development, it is so much part of how the brain develops, and social skills, and talking to your baby and communicating, I think those are the three main keys because that helps your baby to communicate. You mentioned crawling and walking and I jotted down something where you said that because I used to teach brain gym.

I know as an occupational therapist you work with babies not to push them too quickly to crawl because from the brain gym side if a baby walks too quickly or doesn’t crawl, I’m not saying that it’s bad for the development, I’m not saying that at all, but I noticed when I was doing kinesiology and brain gym how much babies, if they didn’t crawl, or if they were put into walkers, they were more likely to have dyslexia or learning problems in the respect of walking because they didn’t get that movement, they didn’t get that left/right side of the brain, it wasn’t working properly. I know we’re talking about sleep, but it does bring in the brain development side as well and the crawling. You can’t force a baby to walk, or you can’t force a baby to sleep, it all takes time. I don’t know the development side, you’ll be able to tell me more on this but if a baby’s not crawling by I’m guessing between around 7 to 8 months, there may be an issue, I don’t know.

From my child care experience, I know that if a baby isn’t crawling, or relaxing, or going to sleep at a reasonable time, then there may be something that as an occupational therapist, you would jump in and encourage them and teach them ways to crawl, or teach them ways to roll, because they haven’t quite mastered that milestone at that age. I don’t know what age, I’m going with eight months. It may be a bit older, but I know it’s around about that.

Heather Boyd: Yeah, it is about that. Of course, there’s a range and the later that a milestone tends to happen, the wider the range tends to be, because there’s so many other things babies are doing. But yes, when it comes to these milestones, it’s almost like building blocks and some babies like to skip building blocks like crawling because it’s difficult for them. That left/right is difficult or the rotation of their trunk is difficult. So they launch into something that feels a little bit more stable to them and sometimes babies will skip crawling. The buzz is that my child skipped crawling and they’re fine but I think what little pieces are they missing that will make movement easier for them overall, as adults or as teenagers, as their bodies are growing, and part of what baby’s brains are expecting is to learn through movement and one of the pieces of movement, one of the building blocks is crawling.

So I always take a peek at that when I’m running my infant development circles to look at what is it that each of these stages that we need to be patient about unfolding, what is it that it gives babies that does impact everything, your nervous system, your ability to rotate or to catch yourself when you’re starting to fall.

All of these are movements that are valuable and feed back into the brain and the brain is what allows us to do the movements in the first place. When I’m talking to parents about development overall, because it is the same with sleep in terms of this unfolding of these quote unquote milestones, and when I point out to parents that there are all of these little, I call them micro milestones, I don’t know if there’s a different name for them, but there are all these little pieces that start coming into play that we often don’t notice that are happening before a major milestone. I always talk about those big milestones that we put in the baby book and the date that it happened, like their first step but when we know what to look for, for these little micro milestones, it means that you get to celebrate these little pieces that are falling into place for them.

These new things that for a lot of parents, unless they know what to be curious about and to look for, then they miss getting to enjoy these little signs that more is coming. That walking will come down the road but right now you get to see how your baby is rotating their trunk or leaning on one side, which shows that they’re figuring out how to move one side of their body separately from the other.

I like pointing out those micro milestones to parents because then they get more little periods of celebration for what they’re getting to see their baby do. If it’s a building block that their baby is struggling with, then that’s a great time to be looking at ways to support them to do that, so that those building blocks can unfold and things will unfold with development.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think it’s putting the jigsaw together with the sleep. It’s putting the jigsaw together with the milestones, with the crawling.

Heather Boyd: Yeah, and it’s like you’re putting it together with someone else’s picture on the front cover, right? You’re watching it unfold in real time with your baby and trying to figure it out. I think what you’re saying, really aligns with this idea that development is all connected.

We tend to focus just on sleep or just on mealtimes or just on gross motor, but they’re all intricately connected. When we support one, we’re supporting it all because of how connected it is. That a baby that can move freely and move their body and are figuring out how to move their body in ways that they want, like to be able to reach for something or be able to stay in sitting, is also a baby whose nervous system is figuring out how to put this all together.

Of course, sleep at its foundation is a nervous system or brain activity. So when these pieces fit together, it unfolds and again, I won’t say it’s easy, because we know it is so hard. Sleep in particular, because when we’re not getting sleep, it doesn’t feel very good to us at all. It feels quite challenging but when these pieces start fitting together, sleep does get easier. Big emphasis on the er.

Helen Thompson: I could talk to you forever about these different milestones and the sleep and the brain development, because as I said at the beginning, I come from a baby massage background. If somebody wanted to find out about how to get in touch with you and talk to you more about what we’ve discussed and learn from you as a first time mum, through your own experiences as well as through your professional experience how would they go about doing that?

Heather Boyd: Well, one of the best ways would be to tap into my podcast, the Baby Sleep Connection. I draw in all the things connected to baby sleep. So it’s baby sleep and beyond is what I cover in the Baby Sleep Connection podcast. But they can also find some blogs and free resources around sleep and attachment and development at

Helen Thompson: Well, thank you so much Heather for all your pearls of wisdom. I’ve actually learned a lot from you about all the different milestones as well as the brain development and sleep. I’m also passionate about supporting mums to sleep through baby massage and through the podcast as well. So thank you for being here and sharing all your wonderful, amazing tips and advice. I really appreciate it.

Heather Boyd: Well, thank you for having me, Helen. That was a lovely conversation to have. I appreciate it.

Helen Thompson: I highly recommend checking out Heather’s website, Instagram, and also be sure to subscribe to her Baby Sleep Connection podcast. I’ve included links to all of these in the episode show notes. Thanks mums, you’re amazing and I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you hit the subscribe button, because in next week’s episode, I’m doing something a little different. Instead of hearing from just one guest, you’ll hear answers to questions that I put to a number of special guests that relate to the challenges faced by a first time mum.