Do You Ever Worry That Your Baby Has 'Failed' The Possums Sleep Approach? This Article Is For You.
I look at the new mum sitting in front of me. Her beautiful, perfect baby is nuzzled into her neck as she gently rubs his back. The tears fall silently. It has been a hard week.
She tells me how each morning, her eyes have opened to the sound of her baby crying next to her. The tiredness is so deep now that it seems to be her whole existence. She heroically rises, smiles at him, comforts him, holds him close as he seeks her breast. Her partner brings her coffee and she breathes it in like oxygen. The morning passes, and she manages to take a shower. Her baby fusses, no longer happy kicking his legs on the playmat. She offers a feed, and he takes it happily, but then continues to fuss. Walking around the house seems to intensify the crying. Finally, she wraps him close in the baby carrier and rocks back and forth. He goes quiet, then gradually his body relaxes as he falls asleep leaning into her heartbeat. She says this guiltily, as if confessing to a terrible crime. I know Possums says not to let them have long naps in the carrier, but it’s the only way he will sleep.
I hear this expression so much, either from patients or comments on social media.
I know this goes against Possums.
We didn’t really do Possums the way we were supposed to.
I liked the idea of Possums, but we couldn’t follow it properly.
I failed Possums.
My baby was just not a Good Possums Baby.
These responses often come with a lot of shame and guilt, as if there is one way to do Possums and they somehow came up short. As a mother of four, GP, lactation consultant and NDC practitioner, I would never use statements like this. Traditional sleep training and first wave behavioural approaches have heavily relied on rules, guidelines, wake windows, feeding intervals, timed interventions – Possums is about tuning into your baby.
Possums is about finding your own rhythm as a family, not observing a rigid set of rules. The key words are flexibility, workability and experimentation. I encourage parents to try different approaches until they find what works best for their baby at that particular stage of their development. Every baby has unique sleep needs and unique sensory needs. If you are doing your best to meet these needs, respond to their cues, soothe their cries and enjoy time with your baby – this is what Possums is all about. You have not failed. You are doing it ‘properly’.
There are a number of common misconceptions I have noticed about the Possums sleep program. The first is the idea that providing a rich sensory environment means your baby needs constant noise, activity and outings – all day, every day. Why is this? Well, unlike many first wave behavioural approaches, which emphasise wake windows and putting babies down for naps frequently throughout the day, Possums encourages parents to bring their baby out of the house. Seeing friends, exercising and participating in enjoyable activities is vital for a new parent’s mental health. It also enables the baby to experience a rich range of sights, sounds and social interactions – so important for healthy development.
Unfortunately, this advice is often taken to the extreme and can be viewed as rigidly as the old sleep advice. Mums feel guilty for having an occasional day at home and can put pressure on themselves to have constantly scheduled activities that cause them stress. If you are an introvert and enjoy spending time at home, it is perfectly fine to experiment with meeting your baby’s sensory needs where you are. This may be a warm bubble bath, a ride in the baby carrier whilst mum mops the floor or sitting on the grass playing with pegs whilst mum hangs out the washing. Find your own rhythm that can meet your needs as well as your baby’s needs. Tune into each other, find joy in each other’s company and relax into your days together.
Another common concern parents express is with the concepts of overtiredness and overstimulation, which are one of the cornerstones of most traditional sleep and parenting advice. Questioning and reframing this has been one of the most ground-breaking aspects of the Possums approach to sleep. It is also one of the hardest for parents to get their head around. We have been told for so long that babies need to sleep, to watch for tired signs, to get them to sleep before they become overtired – it is hard to let go of this advice.
If babies are dialled up, traditional sleep advice tells us that the baby must be overtired and needs to be put to bed. Often, parents are then frustrated that their baby fights sleep and doesn’t settle. The Possums approach instead suggests that the baby may need a change in sensory environment to dial down. Again, this concept is sometimes taken too far and applied too rigidly, and parents feel that they must keep adding more noise, more activity, more stimulation to settle their baby. The baby then cries more and still won’t sleep. It all becomes very confusing.
I have moved away from using the term overtiredness because it adds an element of blame onto the parents, as if they have caused their baby to cry by failing to provide them with enough sleep. For a parent who has spent all day trying to pat their baby in a dark room, this is completely unhelpful. I have also stopped using the term ‘overstimulated’ as this oversimplifies the baby’s sensory experience. Not all sensory input is the same, so suggesting that there is a tipping point where the baby has suddenly had too much sensory input is unhelpful.
When I am explaining this to parents, I try to reframe what they are seeing as ‘overtiredness’ or ‘overstimulation’ as this – the baby’s sleep pressure is currently high, but they are struggling to dial down in this moment.
How you respond to your baby to help them dial down is the key to what Possums is about – experimenting and tuning into your individual baby’s sleep and sensory needs.
When we talk about a ‘rich and diverse sensory environment’, this is not only referring to input that is loud, bright and busy. Sensory input also includes gentle touch, rocking, cuddling, shushing, singing. It may be a quiet walk outside looking at the light in the trees. It may be a quiet breastfeed lying down together in a cool, dim room after a busy morning out of the house. If your baby needs a calmer, quieter approach to dialling down when their sleep pressure rises, then meeting their needs in this way is perfectly in alignment with the Possums approach.
The advice in the Possums program about keeping the days bright is to encourage the healthy development of circadian rhythm. For many babies, taking long enforced naps in a dark room through the day will have a negative impact on night-time sleep. This does not mean that your baby must or should have constant light and noise exposure all day! Sensory needs are so unique for each baby and sleep needs can be highly variable. Sure, some babies will close their eyes and nod off whilst in the middle of a busy playpen, but other babies will need more support from their parents to feel dialled down. If you have been experimenting and following your baby’s cues and find that they need to be cuddled in a dim room and sometimes need to withdraw from loud noise and activity to dial down – then by all means, follow your baby’s needs. If your nights are still manageable and the days are enjoyable and joyful for you both, then you are doing a beautiful job tuning in to your baby’s needs. Possums is about flexibility, workability, experimentation – not rigid rules and expectations.
If you would like more information about the Possums Sleep Approach, their website can be found here.