During the haze of the newborn days, we all do what we have to do to survive. I remember standing in front of my stove, exhaust fan roaring, jiggling little Amelie in my arms for what felt like hours. I thought the exhaustion would never end.
Those habits that develop in the early days can sometimes go on far too long, though, and can end up costing our children and ourselves great sleep later on.
Typically what happens is parents feel like they’ve finally figured out a way to get a few solid hours of sleep with a small infant, perhaps nursing them to sleep. But then that little baby grows and those nighttime habits stop working as well. Often around four months old, your baby starts waking up more often instead of less. In a frantic attempt to get some desperately needed shut-eye, you up the ante. You find yourself nursing and rocking every two hours all night long, even as your baby shouldn’t need to eat so frequently (or at all) during the night. As your baby grows, you are both more and more tired.
This exhaustion has real consequences. Your baby is unable to focus on her play as well when she is overtired. She may be hyperactive, or cranky. Your ability to enjoy parenting is diminished Sleep deprivation is a risk factor for depression, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease. Your domestic partnership will suffer. And worst of all, as a sleepy driver, you are a mortal danger to yourself and others. Sleep deprivation is a very big deal.
We know that sleep training results in some short-term protesting, aka crying. No parent wants to hear her child cry. It’s hard for everyone. And some parents, who may identify with the “attachment parenting” philosophy, fear that allowing their children to cry can cause real psychological or physical damage. But studies have shown that the short-term crying associated with sleep training is not dangerous to health and does not prevent a strong, healthy attachment. Fostering a strong attachment is not the same as an attached-at-the-hip approach to parenting.
Imagine a parent swooping in to lift her child each time he attempts to pull to stand. We would call her a helicopter parent, and think that she is blocking her child’s biological drive to walk. In the same vein, rushing in to soothe children back to sleep at night is helicopter parenting, and is impeding their development. We can trust that children have the same biological drive to sleep as they do to walk. We need to get out of the way and let them practice and learn.
As good, non-helicoptering parents, we provide safe and supportive ways for our children to grow, even knowing it can hurt them or us. We let our children squirm and roll and eventually crawl, clearing the floor of dangerous objects, knowing a bumped head will still probably happen at some point. We let him practice climbing at the playground, even knowing he may fall someday. And far too soon, we will go on lots of practice drives before finally handing over the keys to the car, even while we fear for our children’s lives.
In the same vein, we must also provide safe opportunities for our children to learn to self-soothe. This ability allows our children to not only sleep independently but also to weather hardship when we are not there to comfort them. We can’t always be there to take away every hurt, much as we would like to. The path to self-soothing will look different for different families, but all children can to self-soothe learn in a safe and supportive environment.
A fascinating article on childhood anxiety in the Atlantic found that while parents don’t create childhood anxiety, when parents stop changing their own behavior to accommodate the anxiety -- be it lying down with the child at night or bringing the child into the parental bed -- the child’s anxiety improves. And the entire family’s well-being improves as a result. “It sets in motion a virtuous cycle: As parent behavior changes, kids will start coping for themselves. As they cope, they’ll come to feel more capable, and they will be treated as such by their parents, who will further reduce accommodation. In turn, the entire family’s well-being will improve.”
Childhood is an 18+ year journey to independence. Much as we might wish to, we can’t keep our children dependent. What we can do is provide them with a strong, nurturing connection that sends them confidently out into the world… and welcomes them back with loving arms when they need support and comfort again. It is not our job to prevent them from ever feeling pain, because that would be impossible. Instead, we teach them courage and resilience and a belief in themselves by providing them with ever-increasing, age-appropriate, challenges.
Many parents fear that sleep training can hurt their child’s attachment or psychological health but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sleep training and teaching self-soothing actually strengthen the entire family’s connection. As The Happy Sleeper says, “Warm, supportive parenting and a full night of independent sleep are not mutually exclusive… they work together naturally and seamlessly.”
If you are ready to create strong family bonds by guiding your child to stronger self-soothing skills but aren't sure where to start, set up a free chat with me and enjoy great sleep in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
"I Put a Night Light in My Baby´s Room So She Won´t Be Afraid of the Dark" and Other Well-Meant But Misguided Parenting Mistakes
As parents, we – with the best of intentions – tell ourselves a lot of stories about our children. And sometimes those stories can seriously undermine our families' needs. Putting a night light in a baby' s room is a perfect example of this.
Children don't develop a fear of the dark before age 2-3. Before that time, their brains simply don't have the developmental maturity to imagine scary monsters under the bed. And light in the bedroom is a bad idea. Light signals the brain that it´s time to be awake. We want to send the opposite message at bedtime and nap time, that it´s time to sleep. Darkness cues the body to release the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy.
For this reason, putting a night light in your baby's room is hurting her sleep without any benefit. If she cries at bedtime, it´ s because she doesn't want to separate from you, or because she is overtired, not because she's scared of the dark. Adding a night light will only make things worse in that she'll have an even harder time falling asleep. (And by the way, separation anxiety is perfectly normal and is not a reason to keep your tired child up, even if is what she thinks she wants. It´s only making things worse. When you get her caught up on her sleep debt, you will both see this.)
The best way to sleep, at all ages, is in total darkness. You should not be able to see your hand in front of your face.
You will likely need blackout shades to achieve this level of darkness. Your local hardware store can sell you inexpensive stick-on shades that you can try before you invest in a more permanent solution. You can also do what I did with my oldest, and tape up black garbage bags over the windows. Depressingly ugly but remarkably effective!
You may also need to add painter's tape around the edges of the blackout shades to prevent any light leakage. This may seem like overkill but it´s an easy step to try if your child is waking up too early. Even a tiny bit of morning light can wake a little one in the early morning.
At age 2-3, your child may develop a true fear of the dark. Only at this point should you consider introducing a night light. I use a portable Munchkin night light for my own kids. It turns off on its own after a few minutes, so it won't disturb their slumber once they drift off, plus the portability is great for those scary midnight trips to the bathroom.
If your child needs a light that stays on all night, pick something that has red light, not blue. Blue light is stimulating to the brain and tells us to wake up. Electronic screens contain blue light and for this reason, you should avoid exposure to screens in the hour before bedtime, too. I recommend turning down all the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime. This is one more cue to the brain to start winding down.
Keep night lights as far from the bed as possible. And keep the number to a mínimum. Your child should not sleep with more than one all-night night light. If your older child (preschool or older) child is sleeping with multiple night lights, you will need to wean him off them. When making big changes to your child's routine, I always suggest having a conversation with your child ahead of time (not at bedtime!), getting his buy-in, and rewarding his cooperation. After all, this is your idea, not his. I might say something like, ¨"I have learned that sleeping with too much light on makes it harder for our brains to relax. I want to work on having fewer night lights in your room. I know that might be hard for you. What prize would you like to earn for working on this?"
Some parents fear that creating a dark sleep environment will create dependence or worse, that their children will wake up cranky and miserable if they sleep in darkness in the middle of the day.
It´s true that if you put your child to sleep in the dark, he may require darkness to sleep. And that dependence on darkness can occasionally be inconvenient. But wouldn't you rather have a child that is (nearly) always well-rested and occasionally doesn't sleep well because you can't recreate his ideal sleep environment on the go? Versus a child that is so overtired that he will fall asleep wherever he is, but is never well-rested? (A child that always falls asleep in the car is an overtired child.)
As for your child waking up cranky after a nap in the dark? The problem is not the darkness. The problem is the timing of the nap. A correctly-timed nap will not result in crankiness. A correctly-timed nap in the dark will coincide with your child´s natural surge in melatonin, the sleepy hormone, so your child will nap well and wake up well-rested and happy. An incorrectly-timed nap results in that cranky, miserable feeling we adults feel, too, when we sleep at the wrong time. It´s called nap inertia, and my older daughter had it all the time because I didn't know better and put her down to nap too late. It was miserable for both of us. If you can't put her down on time, it's better to keep her up and implement a very early bedtime instead.
It can take courage to make big changes in your child's sleep routine, like eliminating night lights. Be patient and encouraging with both of you. If you would like some support along the way, schedule a free chat and get your family the sleep you deserve, guaranteed.
There are six essential elements for creating great sleep in young children. If you aren't optimizing each of them, your child is probably not getting all the high-quality sleep she needs. Inadequate hours of sleep, or sleep at the wrong time or in the wrong place or with too many wakings all lead to an overtired child.
Overtired children have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Their naps are too short and they wake up too early in the morning. It's a vicious cycle.
Overtired children also tend to be wound up and hyperactive. They usually are not sleepy. This is because their bodies produce a stress hormone, cortisol, when they don't get enough high-quality sleep. This stress hormone helps them stay awake but makes it hard for them to focus effectively on their play -- their work -- or to fall asleep when naptime rolls around.
If you optimize these six elements, you can guarantee better sleep for your child. They are as follows:
I know reading the suggestions here, or in a book, isn't the same as actually putting them into practice. Doing so can be intimidating, especially when your family is already exhausted. Let me help. Schedule a free call and change your family's life forever.
You most definitely can sleep train your child and still have a strong, trusting bond. Sleep training will not harm that bond.
Attachment theory states that, "Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space." (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969)
Attachment theorists and psychologist define four types of attachment between parent and young child.
The attachment researchers merely stated that a parent should be emotionally responsive to her child approximately 2/3 of the time. This leaves lots of room for us normal parents who make mistakes. It also leaves plenty of room for sleep training.
"The 'attachment parenting' philosophy promotes a lifestyle and a specific set of practices that are not proven to be related to a secure attachment. As a result, the movement has sown confusion (and guilt and stress) around the meaning of the word 'attachment.'" https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there
Rest assured, you can most certainly sleep train your child and maintain a strong emotional connection with him. In fact, there are many ways to do so.
Some of my clients choose to stay in their children's room while the child falls asleep. At first, they start out sitting next to the child's crib or bed and touching the child gently as the child drifts off to sleep. After a few days, the parent moves the chair further away and uses just their voice to reassure the child. The chair moves further and further away until the parent is eventually out of sight. Once they are out of sight, the parent can still call to the child to reassure him, if necessary, but by that poiint, it rarely is.
This method can be reassuring to even the most anxious of parents, because the child can see the parent throughout the sleep training period.
Some parents, though, don't want to be so involved, or fear their presence may be too stimulating to their children. Some kids are more mad than comforted to have a parent so close by but not rocking them to sleep. In that case, some parents choose timed checks, where they check on a child at ever-increasing intervals until the child is asleep.
And another group of parents believe that it's easiest for their children -- though not necessarily for themselves -- when they simply don't go back into the child's bedroom during the night unless there's an emergency. I have seen through countless clients as well as my own parenting experiences that these children can easily maintain a strong, loving bond with their parents through a few nights of short-term protesting.
What matters for creating a strong bond is being a loving and consistent presence in your child's life most of the time. Rest assured, evolution has made sure that children can survive less than perfect parenting.
The phrase "good enough mother" was first coined in 1953 by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. Winnicott observed thousands of babies and their mothers, and he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers "fail" them in appropriate ways.
"The process of becoming a good enough mother to our children happens over time. When our babies are tiny infants, we try to be available constantly and respond to them immediately. As they get older, though he believed that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. Children need their mother (or primary caretaker) to fail them in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they can learn to live in an imperfect world. This teaches them resilience. Building our children's resilience is the gift of the good enough mother."
Children are built to survive and thrive in this unpredictable world. They are best equipped to do so when they eat nutritious food (most of the time), get great sleep (most of the time) and get unconditional love from their caregivers (most of the time).
If you would like help getting your family great rest -- through any approach -- set up a free chat and see choose the option that works best for your family.
As loving parents, we sometimes create stories -- with the best of intentions -- about our children and their needs. Stories that can end up inadvertently undermining our families.
A child's fear of the dark is a common one. Children don't develop a fear of the dark until around 2-3 years old. Before that age, they don't have the developmental maturity to imagine scary monsters under the bed. So putting a night light in your baby's room -- or keeping the shades open during his nap -- can lead to overtired children and parents.
And we all sleep best in the dark. The presence of light signals our brains that it's time to be awake. Darkness tell our bodies that it's time to sleep. For that reason, keep your little one in a completely dark room as long as you can. Even with newborns, keep the lights as low as possible during the night (during feedings and diaper changes) to help them learn the difference between night and day. Use a dim nightlight as needed and total darkness whenever possible. You'll sleep better, too!
The ideal darkness for sleeping is so dark that you can't see your hand in front of your face. In order to create this level of darkness, you will likely need blackout curtains or shades. You can get inexpensive, stick-on ones at your local store if you are reluctant to commit without trying them first. You may need to use painter's tape around the edges to prevent any light leakage. This may seem like overkill but it can be enormously helpful with preventing early waking and short naps.
For those who fear that total darkness during daytime sleep will make naptime waking disorienting, not to worry. Appropriately timed naps mean that your baby's body clock is producing melatonin at the same time you put her down to nap. She will wake up refreshed if she isn't inadvertently woken too soon.
If your toddler or preschooler develops a fear of the dark, try to keep the nightlights to a minimum. With my own kids, I use a portable Munchkin nightlight that turns off on its own after a few minutes. The portability is great because they can carry it with them on those "scary" midnight trips to the bathroom. And the fact that it turns off on its own means that it won't disturb their slumber once they do drift off.
For night lights that stay on all night, it is best to avoid blue light -- which is stimulating to the brain -- and use red light instead. And of course, keep those lights as dim (or distant) as possible. For this reason, it's also best to avoid screen time in the hour before bed, as electronic screens also have blue light. It's best to dim the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime, too. All of these things signal your child's brain that it's time to sleep.
If your toddler or preschooler doesn't mention a fear of the dark, there's no reason to introduce a night light at all. Children who have always slept in the dark may continue to willingly to do.
If your child has always slept with a lot of light, you may need to wean them off it gradually. As always, I suggest involving them in the process as this will make them feel a lot more empowered and therefore, cooperative. Pick an afternoon -- not bedtime! -- to discuss the issue. Ask for their suggestions. You can say something like, "I've been reading that having a lot of light on in your room makes it harder for your brain to sleep well. I would like to work on having less light in your room at night. What do you think? Which nightlight could we try turning off first? What prize would you like to get for being brave?
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.