Coping with typical infant and child sleep can be exhausting. It is not surprising that there is an entire industry based around training your child to be the unicorn of nighttime parenting; the elusive child who sleeps through the night. The truth is, there is no secret magic formula that can make a child sleep through the night. Nobody sleeps through the night, we all just have different degrees of wakefulness and different needs. What parents are really trying to achieve, is their child not needing them to go back to sleep; an independent sleeper, as they are often called.
There are three ways to get an independent sleeper;
Have a child born with an easy temperament and a low need for tactile comfort. This is what many modern parents hope for, but in caveman days this unicorn child would likely have not survived. Babies make a lot of noise when they have needs to be met. Meeting the child’s needs promptly was paramount to survival as a loud baby could alert predators of a baby’s presence. This in turn, allows the baby to thrive as they are receiving constant care and nourishment (what’s the easiest way to quiet a baby? Feed them!). The child who does not make a big fuss, is left alone and not fed as often. They struggle to thrive because they CAN be left alone, this also leaves them vulnerable to a predator. Babies and young children (up to about age 6) would normally be kept close to their parents, often attached to them, for long periods of time, through the day and night. Being separated from one’s primary caregiver feels unnatural for the child and that is why so many of them struggle to regulate when they are apart.
The other option is to try and train your child not to need you during the night. This is called sleep training. There are methods that simply leave a baby to cry, to more gentle methods that involve trying to “break sleep associations.” Any method that tries to change the baby is considered training. It’s not focused on the needs of the baby, but the needs of the parent who want more sleep. Sleep training advocates state that babies need to be trained to sleep well. Sleep trainers prey on exhausted parents by twisting facts about child development to suit their own agenda. The truth is, babies know what they need, that’s why they are calling for you. By not responding, you teach them to ignore their bodily cues and messages, creating a disconnect between their emotions and physical sensations. Training them not to feel their instincts is the opposite of responsive parenting.
The third way is to wait until your child reaches the developmental milestones of self-soothing, independence and self-regulation. Contrary to what many sleep training advocates will say, self-soothing can not be taught. Well, that’s kind of not true. It can be learned, but not in the way they prescribe. Co-regulation is the only way to “teach” self-regulation. Babies who are left to cry or only have their needs pacified, instead of met, have been shown to suffer more anxiety when they wake alone, than the child who is screaming and crying for their parents. The screaming and crying means they still believe in your connection and your ability to meet their nighttime needs. Once they stop crying and just lay there, alone, they have given up. The connection is broken. It is not self-soothing because that implies a calming. What it actually is, is emotional and physical exhaustion. They have not learned to sooth, they have learned to stop asking for help. They have learned helplessness.
What can you do to get everyone more sleep?
-Try to follow your child’s sleep cues and avoid overtiredness
-Respond to your child’s nighttime needs for nourishment, warmth, contact and comfort
-Find a safe way to sleep that allows you to respond to your child’s needs promptly, while maintaining minimal wakefulness. This includes bed sharing, co-sleeping, sidecar beds, floor beds, cribs and safety approved co-sleepers.
-Try dream feeding
-Get more sleep overall- nap during the day, sleep in when you can, go to bed early, have someone watch your child while they are awake so you can have some more rest
-Rule out medical factors such as reflux, allergies, tongue and lip ties, etc.
-Seek the support of a postpartum doula, parent’s helper (aka mother’s helper), family member, friend or neighbour
-Create a nap-focused play group (you meet up and one parent gets to nap, while the other two watch your children and theirs)
-Try baby-wearing, for the babe that won’t even let you lay beside them
Sleep can be one of the more challenging hurdles for parents as the exhaustion reduces our ability to think clearly. In caveman days, we were surrounded by neighbours and extended family who could take our child for an hour or two, if we really needed to sleep. They also helped with meals and I’m pretty sure standards of cleanliness in a cave were not that hard to achieve compared to the Martha Stewart level we’re all striving for today. Grace can go a long way. Give your child grace for being a typically fussy baby and not sleeping as you would like, give your relationship grace, if it’s hard to connect while your going through this parenting season, give your home grace for not being the idealistic paradise of a domestic goddess and give yourself grace for not being perfect all the time. It is not your job to train your child to be on a schedule that results in them not needing you for 12+ hours. It is your job to respond to their needs, no matter what time of day they arise.
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