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.
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.