Infant and Toddler Sleep with Dr. Corrine Seeley | Newborn Sleep Workshop | The Birth Center, DE
I recently had the pleasure of attending one of Dr. Corrine Seeley's Newborn Sleep Workshops hosted by the The Birth Center in Newark, Delaware. During her workshop, she instructed birth professionals and new, expectant, and curious parents (like me!) on topics such as sleep in the womb, circadian rhythm development, tricks to settle fussy newborns, and the effects of overstimulation to name a few. It was so informative and fun!
In addition to her toddler and infant sleep workshops, Corrine offers gentle, realistic, and educated solutions for families through consultation-- developing personalized sleep plans based on individual family needs with a focus on small changes implemented over time.
In the following conversation we cover Corrine's background in neuroscience research, her professional opinion on Melatonin, sleep training, co-sleeping and much more. I hope you enjoy!
Can I first say, Dr. Seeley, that you have the perfect name for a sleep consultant!
It’s funny you say that, in psychology there is a theory that people tend to gravitate toward careers that fit their name - it’s called Nominative Determinism - for example a chef named Tom “Kitchin” or a chiropractor called Dr. “McCracken”. As a young psychology student I found the statistics to support this theory amusing - little did I know I would eventually have career that fit my name too!
That is super cool! Let’s start with introductions. Could you tell us a little about yourself, what you do?
Sure! I’m a Pediatric Sleep Specialist. I help families of newborns, infant, and toddlers with workshops and one-on-one support. I’ve been in the sleep world about 18 years now - my Ph.D. is in Sleep Neuroscience; prior to developing my practice I spent ten years researching Sleep Neuroscience and teaching college level Sleep & Development courses. About 8 years ago I started helping families and have helped hundreds of little ones with their sleep!
Awesome! What inspired you to leave academia and start your practice?
Well originally, as an undergraduate it started with a pure love of sleep science: I loved how it was mysterious, important, and something that every single living being needs - sleep is universal. It was also a science that very few peopled studied, being in a small niche was very exciting and fun and there were many questions left to investigate - this passion for science will always be a part of everything I do.
But the inspiration for my practice began when I became a mom. Many of my mom friends were having sleep challenges (including me), and at the same time the information out there felt misguided. When my son was 4-months old I realized that I have a perspective that could be helpful and I began developing my workshop and working with families. As I grew my practice, I really started to believe in what I was doing.
Now, 8-years later, my clients are my inspiration. I absolutely love working with parents, and met so many amazing mothers and fathers along the way. There is nothing better than helping families get sleep, it’s everything to me!
Tell me, what does the sleep support look like for the families you serve?
Support can come in many ways! The first workshop I ever created, my Newborn Sleep Workshop, is aimed to help educate parents about sleep - all the changes that happen, what to expect, and small things to consider to help in the early stages of infancy. This workshop is my baby (no pun intended) and what I am most passionate about - early education that families often don’t get. Studies show that early education can help babies sleep better by 6 months age, so my goal is to make early education more common! So support for families can be as simple as coming to a workshop. I also host infant and toddler workshops.
Support can also take the form of one-on-one coaching, which I offer for newborn, infants and toddlers in both 90-minute consultation or 2-week support plan packages. All of my support is very tailored to the specific baby, their age, and where they are at the moment.
Why might a family seek out a sleep consultant?
Good question! Well I think people come to my workshops out of curiosity, or a general interest in wanting to know more about sleep. Some come to my workshops if they are having difficulty with sleep, but often I get parents who are looking for “preemptive” support - which I love.
But the majority of clients come to me when they are having difficulty with sleep. Typically they are frustrated, exhausted, and are looking for support. Some clients may have a specific goal in mind, others may have a particular transition or change in their life coming up, but often, parents can be lost and are not sure what to do. It can be very overwhelming to make sleep choices - especially when your brain is tired - and I can serve as a third party that can help parents see the big picture. The reasons really can vary widely - from parents who are on the brink of divorce, to moms who are using up all their sick days, and some clients just want to maintain good sleep and want help thinking ahead to the next month. I get clients who are traveling and want help navigating the time change, or going back to work and want help working out a plan. There are lots of reasons to seek out sleep support and I’ve seen them all :D
I can imagine! Do you find there are age-specific sleep challenges or milestones that parents should be aware of?
Yep - all of the them! (Just kidding!). As our babies are changing and developing, and how our babies sleep often needs to adjust along with that change. I’d say the most common age I get emails is around 4-months and as they transition out of the newborn stage, the 5-6 month age when babies are becoming more alert, heavier and staying awake longer stretches, and the 1.5 - 2 year mark when they are toddlers and have new skills that they have to learn to sleep with, and 3 year olds who have found their voices and may start striking sleep. Each age and milestone can have it’s own sleep adjustment period, it really is never ending, and we constantly have to be on our toes, figuring them out as they go. But for me, no milestone scares me - there is always a way to help support sleep!
Could you give us an overview of how sleep develops through infancy and toddlerhood? What is it that changes as they age?
There is a massive amount of change happening in the first two years of life, it truly is fascinating! When babies are born they have two stages of sleep which are less sophisticated types of sleep of what you would see at the end of the first year. As they get older these stages of sleep become what we call “deep sleep” and “REM”, and they get richer, with more areas connecting and firing together, and they develop more complex characteristics like k-complexes and sleep spines, that are directly related to their learning and memory development. So the better their sleep development, the more learning and memory processing they will have. It really is quite beautiful to see a brain that is in a rich deep sleep. Also, sleep itself develops, so during sleep, sleep itself gets better. So essentially, you need sleep for sleep to develop- which I find fascinating!
Their sleep timing mechanisms are also developing. When babies are born there is no circadian clock, it takes 2-3 months for that system and corresponding neurochemicals (like melatonin) to develop. Across the first year you will start seeing more consistency in their rhythms, and can actually follow those rhythms to help optimize the system.
Often my three year old will wake up on weekend mornings at the crack of dawn and give us the command to "Wake up! The sun is up!" He is my alarm clock, and the sun is his. I am so curious about how our circadian rhythm develops - could you explain this for us?
For sure! When babies are born there is no night or day and everything is running off one big, 24 hour clock - it is one of the first systems to develop. One of the first tips I give parents of newborns, who want to start thinking about sleep support, is to make small steps to support this develop - and all that has to be done is use light cues!
So as night time approaches, you can think about darkening the space which will encourage their brains to start making it’s own melatonin (they are born with a reserve of it that wears off after the first week), and if you are breastfeeding it will also send your own melatonin production to the baby too. At night keep the space dark (but some small lights to see are okay), then in the morning you could have their first feed near a window and try to nap them in room with natural light. This will help start distinguishing the day and night systems in the brain. By 2-3 months their day night systems should be distinguished, and you might start seeing patterns in when they fall asleep at night, and wake up in the morning (sometimes!).
As babies get older, the suprachiasmatic nucleus - which has direct connections to the eye and controls the circadian rhythms - becomes a small but very powerful influence on sleep and can remain that way the rest of our life. It’s all based on light cues and patterns that can get set. With my clients we can use this to our advantage, or I can help adjust their clock if it’s at a time that is too early, too late, etc. It all comes down to light cues and that powerful little system - it’s small but mighty!
It is interesting you bring up melatonin - what are your thoughts on melatonin? Is it safe or effective for children?
I can’t speak on everyone’s decision to take it, and can only speak from my own personal experience with clients. Because I am very focused on helping babies set foundations for sleep, and thinking long-term into their development, I would have extreme hesitancy
giving it to a developing child. To me, sure it is ‘safe’- in the sense that it won’t cause direct harm - but does ‘safe’ mean that it’s best? Not always. Melatonin is a hormone, so when given externally the brain can stop producing it. I have many parents who have been prescribed melatonin from their pediatrician and in my experience they haven’t ended up needing it, or it has been actually disrupting their sleep more and we have weaned off of it.
Yes, melatonin absolutely helps toddlers fall asleep faster, but given that they are so young, I truly believe that all toddlers can learn to sleep without it, and doing so is better long term. I know I am biased, but in my opinion I think it’s too easily prescribed. My best advice for parents considering the use of it is to remember that pediatricians are not trained on infant sleep, so their word does not have to be the final word. I would consider reaching out for sleep support before using it, I think it could be worth a try! I am more than happy to chat with anyone who has questions on this topic!
Thank you! So I would love to talk about night-time routines. Can you explain the importance of establishing healthy down-regulating routines for infants and young children?
Helping our little ones down regulate and get ready for sleep is another important piece to the sleep puzzle. When our little ones brain is in high alertness you see 30Hz or faster Gamma waves - these are good waves, research shows the faster the gamma wave the more cognitive development is happening: we like Gamma waves. However, for the brain to transition into the first stage of sleep, which is a much slower 4-8 Hz Theta activity, it must down regulate its activity, beginning with slowing to 13-30 Hz Beta waves followed by 8-13 Hz Alpha waves (which occur during relaxed or drowsiness ready to fall asleep). I often have clients that I call "high gamma" babies - they are smart, bright, engaged and amazing - but may need support transitioning down.
Is the transition into sleep the same process for infants, children, and adults?
Essentially yes! It’s funny, being able to fall asleep seems like such a simple concept - you lay down, shut your eyes, and fall asleep. Easy, right? Not always! We all have to down regulate and go through the same process - and each age may have different ways to support that.
Can you provide guidance on creating a sleep-friendly environment? It would be wonderful if you could share some tips on room setup, temperature, and suitable sleepwear?
Some babies need more support than others - and we don’t always have to be at home for this process to happen. I don’t want to create the impression you can’t nap your baby on-the-go, or “out-and about” I actually highly recommend having some flexibility; but when you are home, or if sleep at home is challenging, there are certainly things you can do to help create an environment conducive to sleep.
For some clients, giving the child an opportunity to be tired is all they need. Creating a calm sleep space with simple books, or calming music can be part of their bedtime routine. Shutting off TV early and encouraging quiet play before sleep time is a good way to down regulate activity. A simple walk, or some calming music - often little ones need less stimulation than we think. Temperature can help. Studies show that lowering the temperature of the brain helps slow brain activity down and reduce the time to fall asleep. Setting a thermostat to slightly cooler (for infants 18-22 degrees Celsius)*, using curtains to darken and cool the space, and dressing in light and comfortable sleepwear, can help. Having a fan for white noise, or a sound machine to block out noise around them.
For those of us more familiar with Fahrenheit that would mean keeping the ambient room temperature around 64-72 degrees.
I apologize for being nosy, but what does your own family's bedtime routine look like?
Interesting question! Like all families, our routine has changed along the years and been adapted to fit the age, the bedtime goal, and what we have going on - so keep in mind that a good routine doesn’t have to stay forever, it will change along with you! But one thing that has remained constant is no TV after dinner - I always tell clients “bedtime routine starts at dinner”. What we have done in that space between dinner and bedtime has varied along the years, from a family bike ride along the Beau river in Calgary, to sitting near our window in London Ontario watching the cars go by in the dark, to a simple bath and quick bedtime because we had to rush to bed. Now, my kids are 4 and 8, so they stay up later than usual and that time is filled with swimming in the pool, playing, listening to music and lately my kids have liked playing in their rooms. So the routines have adapted to what they are into - but the general idea was to allow for wind down time.
The other consistency is reading before bed. When my daughter was really little I always had the same small book I read, for consistency and ease. Now she is 4 and we have a 3-book limit so she knows that its’ bedtime and won’t push the limit. We typically read one book, then brush her teeth and get dressed, then read the other two. She says good night. She has a Gro-Clock*, and has a slumber buddy and night light, and is allowed to read books in her bed until she falls asleep. Sometimes she falls asleep quick, other nights she chats and sings to her stuffs until she falls asleep. Both of my kids are early risers, so we naturally go to bed pretty early, in general.
*Interested in a Gro-Clock for your own child? You can purchase one off Amazon HERE.
Let’s jump to the big question - the one that every parent wants to ask! What are your recommendations for sleep training? I think that when most people hear "sleep training" they immediately think "cry it out". When would you recommend it and how do you suggest parents sleep train with a gentle, parent-present approach?
Every families decision on whether to make sleep changes or not is unique and individual. To me it is finding something that is age appropriate and that the parent feels confident in. With clients, I usually go through the literature and research first, and we discuss options and ideas, and what would work for their family and their baby. If we decide to make changes we always break them down into small and manageable changes - for me, any change should be as gradual as possible. I don’t typically discuss ‘blanket’ strategies because it really does depends on the baby, the age, and what we decide would make sense - but what I can say this:
1) Reminder yourself it is okay to break things down into steps. Use all the tools, think of one small step that can bring you closer, and eventually you will get there.
2) There is no timeline. Babies can absolutely go through changes at any age - so don’t feel the rush if things are going well.
3) Don’t do it when they are tired. I always changes pay very close attention to timing, and it can make a world of difference.
My oldest slept in a crib in her own room. It wasn't until my husband started the night shift after my second was born that we became a co-sleeping family. We currently sleep with my 3 and 1 year old wedges. As a sleep consultant, do you work with parents that choose to co-sleep with their children as well?
Good question! A big misconception about my support is that all I do is “sleep train” babies, which is frustrating - so thank you for asking. I myself have also had periods of co-sleeping with my children, and we still had goals and steps we worked on to help sleep. Good sleep does not have to mean independent sleep. Everyone can benefit from sleep support, but generally speaking co-sleeping families who want “other support” around sleep typically don’t reach out. I’m not sure if it’s because of the misconception of what I do, or what the reason, but I don’t typically see it. Most families that reach out want to make a change, and want support to help it be smooth and appropriate for their little ones.
What are some misconceptions surrounding child and infant sleep that you frequently come across? Can you do some myth busting for us?
I have a whole “debunking sleep myths” section in my workshops! But one that comes to mind is “formula feeding your baby will make them sleep better”. I get a lot of moms who have switched to formula because they think it will help their baby sleep - and it did nothing, and then they regret the switch. Breastfed babies are absolutely capable of sleeping well!
I would love for you to share a sleep success story from a family who has seen significant improvements in their child's sleep after working with you!
Well, let me think back to my most recent client. Let’s see…
I just finished helping a toddler who was 2 years and 7-months old. He had a great sleep history (which can be a big factor in how plans are structured) but for some reason had begun fighting bedtime - it was taking parents up to 2 hours each night to get him to bed and was overall very exhausting. He had also begun waking up in the night and wanting the parent to sleep in his room with him. For this family in particular, the mom works full time, and needs her sleep - and the little boy was tired in the day and having behavioral issues as a result of the disrupted sleep.
Our plan: for this toddler we decided he needed more sleep in the day. They had been capping his nap at daycare as a way to hopefully make him more tired at night, which actually was contributing to him being needier and making bedtime longer. It is very common that separation anxiety increases in children who are tired, and this separation anxiety only causes more sleeplessness - it can become a vicious cycle. Our first step was to let him sleep as long as he needed at daycare, and we also moved bedtime up a bit earlier. At the same time, we worked on a strategy unique to him to help him be comfortable being in the room and falling asleep without the parent - for this boy in particular a special light and flashlight, with lots of snuggle time before. What we found - a happier child come bedtime. He was willing and happy to fall asleep on his own (rather than calling his mom in and playing around for two hours). He started falling asleep 1 hour earlier than usual and did it pretty happily most nights - this resulted in him sleeping through the night. He also had more daytime sleep, and all of this helped his behavior. He did amazing- and one night he even asked to put to bed! All he needed was a bit more sleep, a few rules, and an incentive to like his bed.
That is so awesome for that family-- and for that little boy! Do you ever work with families whose children experience frequent bad dreams or night terrors?
All the time. Night terrors are very common in my clients - they happen during the first half of the night during deep sleep. During a night terror the child often cries/screams, but is not able to respond to the parent - it can be hard to wake them, and can be very unsettling for parents who experience them. Night terrors are caused by over-tiredness, and typically happen when you to go sleep wired and tired. They are more common in summer time, or after days of exhaustion, too much sun, or physical excursion. They are absolutely manageable, and go away once we help the child get better sleep.
Nightmares typically happen in the second half of the night during REM sleep. During a nightmare they are often more alert when they wake up and can verbalize or communicate they are scared. They are caused more by emotional processing that happens during REM sleep, and reflective of something in the day that might be triggering the nightmare. They have their own unique set of strategies to help.
My mother will often tell a story about being woken up in the middle of a cold, winter night to pounding on the front door-- it was my three year old brother who had slept walked outside and couldn't get back into the house. While my own three year old hasn't slept walk, he often mumbles about monster trucks in his sleep. Do you ever help families with children that sleep talk and sleepwalk?
Sleep walking and talking, or any type of ‘parasomnia’ usually begin between 4-8 years old, so my clients are too young to experience them. However, I often have clients who have “precursors” or small indicators that a parasomnia could develop. Often if children have a family history of sleep walking (there is a genetic link), paired with a propensity to be overactive during deep sleep - I see this as something for parents to watch for and manage. Parasomnias seem scary, but they are absolutely manageable. For these clients, avoiding over tiredness and helping them get enough sleep is the best way to manage them. Sleep walking is often triggered by overtired/stress and fatigue, or interrupted/poor sleep. Starting early and getting support if you see these signs is a great way to prevent and do early management before it occurs.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I just want to thank you for taking the opportunity to get to know more about what I do. Sleep is such a controversial topic - how families go about making sleep decisions, and the big picture factors that weigh into their choice is so unique to their family. I really admire that you are a co-sleeping family, and have been one myself, but at the same time I understand that setup doesn’t work for all families. In the past I have felt shamed by co-sleeping advocates, and I just want parents to remember that decisions are made with a big picture in mind - and everyone's situation is different. I am here to support all families in their sleep journey, and just want to help foster a generation of healthy sleepers! How we go about getting them there will be different for everyone and that is okay! I appreciate that you are open-minded and non-judgmental, the mom world needs more of this!
Thank you! I too have experienced a lot of mom-guilt and raised eyebrows when it came to my choice to safely co-sleep with my children, especially with my babies when they are small. Sleep, like so many other parenting choices, is deeply personal. I'm a firm believer that whatever works for your family is what you should be doing!
How can people get in touch with you?
Never hesitate to reach out with sleep questions or book a free 15-minute assessment at email@example.com
Interested in what co-sleeping looks like for real families? Check out my on-going photo series HERE.
If you enjoyed this interview, check out these other articles featuring birth and baby workers and creative momprenuers!