You have unconscious beliefs and thoughts that are telling you that it's your fault that your child doesn't sleep well. You are beating yourself up.
You also think it's too hard, or not fair, or selfish. You fear that sleep training might hurt your child.
The problem with all of these thoughts and beliefs is that they are keeping your child, and you, from getting the sleep you both need.
The more you think these thoughts, the more you feel the negative feelings they create. And even worse, your child feels that negative energy, too.
A family that I worked with a few months ago was convinced that sleep training was abusive. I tried my best to convince them that this was not true, and sent them research demonstrating that sleep training is safe and beneficial to children. I showed them that misleading articles that argue that sleep training is traumatic were based on flawed research (on rat pups or children in homes with domestic violence).
But these parents were ultimately unable to let go of their damaging belief. And a result, their child did suffer with sleep training. Because he felt his parents' emotions, and believed them, that there was something wrong. Of course. Children, especially pre-verbal children, are incredibly tuned into our feelings and our energy. Especially feelings of fear.
If you want to change your child's sleep, you have to identify, first, the story you are telling yourself about the problem. You can't let go of that story until you know what the story is. I suggest you write them down. Then, forgive yourself for the situation you are in. It's not your fault. You always had the best of intentions. You are a good and loving parent who has only ever wanted to help your child.
Next, we can create a new story. You know your child needs better sleep. Depriving a child of healthy sleep is like depriving a child of food. You wouldn't let your child go hungry. And from now on, you won't let your child go without sleep, either. Your child will be healthier and happier with better sleep. And so will you.
You also need to believe that you are strong enough to support your child through a transition. You have to believe that you and your child are strong enough to withstand strong emotions about that transition. You and your child can tolerate strong, negative feelings in life, not just in sleep training. Your role is not to take away the negative emotions, but to support your child through them, to assure him of his safety despite feeling angry or sad or tired. Tell yourself and your child that all feelings, even negative emotions, are okay.
We parents have a hard time allowing our children to feel pain. We love them so much; we want to take away the pain. But we can't prevent children from feeling pain. We can only support them through it, and teach them that they are strong enough to feel all the feelings. Feelings can't hurt us.
We are having a great example of this right now with COVID-19. We can't keep our children from feeling sad, or anxious, about the changes the pandemic has brought. We can acknowledge that our children are missing their friends, their routines, their birthday parties and trips to the beach and hugs from loved ones. We are sad alongside them. But we can't make them not be sad. To tell them, "you aren't allowed to be sad about missing your old life" would be ridiculous, right? So why can't we give them space to be sad about a change in their sleep routine? We can. Our children can be sad without us doing something wrong. Sometimes, life is hard. We can get through it, together.
Next, we focus on building up our children's confidence, and our connection with them. Special time, cuddles, playing hide and seek or tag, praising desired behaviors, maintaining limits, even letting them have tantrums and staying close by for a hug afterwards all strengthen your connection with your child. If your child is anxious, make time to discuss the anxious thoughts well before bedtime. At bedtime, gently enforce a limit that anxiety-provoking topics will be discussed the next day. Offer to write down all the anxious thoughts on a notebook next to the bed so your child knows she can let go of those thoughts without fear of forgetting them. Then, practice mindfulness or sing a song or listen to a meditation recording. Make bedtime a reassuring, relaxing time.
In the morning, after the separation for sleep, show your pride in your child's new independence. Be joyful. Greet him with smiles and hugs. Show him that you know he can learn new habits that will keep his body feeling well-rested and healthy. Push the fears away and remind yourself of the story that you believe, that your child is so much better off with healthy sleep.
It can be hard to change your child's sleep habits. Hard isn't bad. You were built to do hard things. And so was your child.
If you would like emotional support during the process, or if you need some practical advice, set up a free consult and let's get you and your child the sleep you need. We can have your entire family sleeping soundly in two weeks or less.
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.