We all know the newborn period is rough. You do what you have to do to survive. Safely, I hope.
But sometimes the habits that begin in the newborn period stretch far beyond the early days without parents even realizing it. And suddenly those early habits can end up really hurting you.
Case in point: rocking or feeding your baby to sleep. In the early days, your baby may not be able to fall asleep without you. So you rock her or nurse her to sleep. Fine. With many newborns, you can hope for at least one longer stretch of sleep before the next feeding.
But now your baby is 8 months old, or 2 years old, and he can't fall asleep without you. Worse, he wakes up every two hours all night long and needs your help to fall back to sleep. You know a child his age doesn't physically need to feed every two hours. You know he's waking up to be with you.
Now, if this isn't a problem for you and your family, rock on. You do you.
But most families who reach out to me aren't doing so well with this. They are typically in a crisis of sleep deprivation where they aren't getting a whole lot of enjoyment out of parenting. Worse, they are putting themselves and the general public at risk because they are driving while sleepy. Their immune function is down from sleep deprivation, and their stress levels are up. Their romantic partnership, if they have one, is probably struggling. Worst of all, their children are exhausted. Tired children are often hyperactive, irritable, and unable to play independently for long.
This is not a win. For anyone.
In this case, it's time to change things up. And before we can change her behavior, we need to look at your thoughts.
Some of these struggling parents identify with the "attachment parenting" philosophy. But fostering a strong attachment with your child is not the same thing as helicopter parenting. Imagine your child was working on pulling to stand and you lifted her up every time she made an attempt. You would be blocking her growth and development. The same can be said of rushing in to soothe her every time she makes a peep during the night. With the best of intentions, you are actually preventing her from developing essential self-soothing skills. After all, you aren't always going to be there to right every wrong. You need her to develop resilience and perseverance and a belief that she solve problems on her own.
Many parents believe that their children simply can't fall asleep, or stay asleep, alone. And these thoughts are selling your child short. Don't underestimate his abilities. He can sleep independently as soon as you are ready to believe in him.
Childhood is an eighteen-year+ process of moving away from one's parents. It's our job to support our children in their drive towards independence, even when it hurts them, or us. It means allowing them to crawl on the floor, even when it's not ideally clean. It means letting them climb the playground climbing structure, even when we know it might result in a bumped head. And some day, it will mean handing over the keys to the car, even when we fear for their lives.
The key to all these scenarios is providing a strong base of connection, affection, and trust while allowing children space to test their new abilities. When your child is practicing crawling, you clear the floor of dangerous objects. When your child wants to climb, you stay close by, ready to catch her, until you are confident in her abilities. And when the driver's license is granted, you spend plenty of time on practice drives before you let him take the car out alone.
They key to all these examples is that you support a strong connection, show faith in their abilities, and stay close by to ensure their safety while not interfering in growth.
To foster a strong attachment, you play peekaboo or tag or go for a walk together. You offer plenty of hugs and kisses and verbal reassurances. You offer healthy food at regular intervals. You show delight in his achievements. And when nighttime falls, you don't interfere in the development of self-soothing abilities. You decide ahead of time on your response to nighttime wakings, and you stick to your plan. For some parents, this might be sitting quietly in a chair near the crib while the child settles. For others, it involves a quick check and then leaving again. You only offer nighttime feedings when they are physically needed (usually only in the first few months of life). And most importantly, you trust that your baby is capable of developing her hardwired ability to sleep well.
Please note, changing a child's nighttime habits typically involves some amount of "protesting," aka crying. This is not a problem. The short-term crying associated with sleep training is not dangerous to children. Elevated levels of stress hormone for a few days is not dangerous. In most cases, children are sleeping well after one or two weeks of sleep training, sometimes less.
But the long-term implications of high stress hormone associated with chronic sleep deprivation -- in children as well as in adults -- is dangerous and can cause serious health problems like obesity, hyperactivity, and high blood pressure. You owe it to yourself and to your child to get this situation resolved.
If this isn't evidence enough, check out this excellent article on childhood anxiety from The Atlantic. It found that 95% of anxious children have parents who change their own behavior in an attempt to diminish their children's anxiety. This can include lying down with a child at bedtime, or bringing the child into the parental bed. And treatment that teaches parents to stop accomdating the behavior results in children who are less, not more, anxious. By allowing our children to work through their discomfort, we actually make them stronger.
Healthy sleep habits are essential to good health. And so are strong, loving relationships. It's time we stop seeing them as an either or situation. 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 want to shift your family to healthier habits while fostering a strong connection, but aren't sure where to start, set up a free consult and get your family on track in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
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