As a parenting mentor, I often see questions about “bad sleep habits.” It’s one of those phrases that stings a little when I read it, as I know it is a phrase exploited and twisted by the money hungry sleep training industry, but what does it actually mean? “They” make you think that tending to your child’s needs is creating a “bad habit.” But it actually just builds trust and attachment, which helps develop the brain structure for self-regulation in the future. Yet, there are some “bad sleep habits.” Often the worst ones are methods used to avoid the one’s that sleep trainers tout as “bad.” The messages are all mixed up and tired parents are confused. I’m going to set the record straight on what is a “bad” habit, a “not so great” habit and a “good” sleep habit. If you have just come from reading a ton of sleep training books, prepare to have your mind blown.
“Good” Sleep Habits
Many of these options are often accused of being “bad” habits by the sleep training industry when in fact, they are the oldest tricks in the book and you know why? Because they build attachment! Attachment is our highest need, babies will sacrifice basic needs such as food and sleep in order to feel connected to their caregiver. Building a secure attachment quality is the single most important job a parent has. The rest of the world can “teach” your child everything else, you are the only one who can provide a foundation of secure attachment. Responsive care and reciprocity is the key to building secure attachment. These “habits” are simple, natural tools that help create relaxing and calm sleep environments, where your child can feel safe and secure enough to drift off into sleep.
- Needing be held to sleep: Everyone has different sensory needs and a different degree of need for physical connection as well. We also feel connection in different ways. You may feel this with your partner. Perhaps physical affection makes them feel more connected, while talking makes you feel more connected. Your baby is the same. Some people are just more physically affectionate, they feel comforted by the presence of others. We do not want to train this out of them. This is a beautiful and wonderful trait that will likely help them to have solid, loving relationships in the future. Not to mention how it sets them up to be affectionate and loving parents, which only passes on the torch of secure attachment.
- Needing to be rocked to sleep: The oldest trick in the book, besides nursing. I’m sure we’ve all noticed pregnant women rocking back and forth at times. The reason babies continue to enjoy the feeling of being rocked is it mimics the movement in the womb, which has been proven to be soothing. As your child grows, you may have to adjust HOW you do this so you do not hurt your back. A rocking chair, exercise ball or baby carrier can all be tools in helping you rock your baby to sleep, while maintaining some level of personal comfort.
- Needing to nurse and/or feed to sleep: Breastmilk contains sleepy hormones and the connection and comfort felt during nursing or feeding can provide a sense of security that allows your baby to feel safe enough to sleep. The sucking motion, because of it’s connection to feeding, is often a natural soothing technique used by babies. The synchrony of nursing and sleep only further proves their need to be together. Often during the night is the best time to have long nursing sessions, when you are both fully relaxed. Many parents find they are able to sleep or doze off while nursing in a side-lying position. I am a person with a lot of energy and often find it hard to relax for nursing sessions during the day but at night, while I am half asleep, we are able to have more quality feeding sessions.
- Nursing back to sleep: Nursing back to sleep is the quickest and most effective way to lull your child back into a deep sleep. It provides comfort and nourishment. It is the oldest and most powerful tool in the sleep parenting tool box, use it. Research
- Sleeping with or near someone: This issue has attachment theorists and neuroscientists at odds with the behaviourists (although it seems they may be swaying more towards our side, given the scientific evidence to support co-sleeping). There are mountains of evidence that supports co-sleeping. Even the authorities who still will not admit to the benefits of bedsharing, have had no choice but to begin advocating for co-sleeping. The closer your baby is, the easier it is to attend to their needs, promptly and effectively. This can limit awake time for everyone and greatly increasing attachment quality through reciprocity and an in-depth attunement to their needs.
- Sleeping on a regular, firm mattress: This is something people disagree about but I have seen so many people try to make infant crib mattresses more comfortable by putting pillows, blankets, and sheepskins, all on top or under the sheet (assuming this makes it safe, which it does not). A firm double mattress, that has a fitted sheet and no pillows or blankets seems much safer to me. The nice thing about starting with a firm adult bed is you never have to transition. One of the biggest sleep concerns is transitioning to new sleep environments (bassinet to crib to toddler bed to adult bed). Investing in a firm adult mattress for your child can help eliminate a lot of the common issues that come with transitioning to a new sleep environment.
- Bath before bed: Having a bath before bed is a common routine for a reason. It provides a multi-sensory experience that is calming and exciting, all at the same time. It is often a bonding experience, as parents tend to engage with their children during bath time. Also, touch and warm water both lower blood pressure, providing a protective factor for you and your child. The only issue with daily baths is they sometimes dry out babies skin, if you live in a colder climate (like I do). You can choose to not take baths everyday, to moisturize your child’s skin with natural oils after a bath or you can choose to not have a bath at bedtime. Only you know what will work best for your family.
- Read before bed: Reading provides so many benefits, but at bedtime, it can really set the foundation for a healthy sleep routine. As I am writing this, I am laughing though, because so many children just jump all over the place when we try to read with them. It often does not look like the picture we have seen in so many books and movies where the child sits quietly beside the adult, silent until the book is over and then the adult kisses them, says good night and walks out. Now that I have children, I see these scenes are mostly fantasy. That’s why starting the reading routine early can help but if you have a live-wire at bedtime and trying to read to them is just causing everyone more stress, don’t do it. Often it is something that works when they are young and immobile and then can become hard during the early childhood years. You can always try bringing back and see if they are ready for it again. Allowing your child to choose the reading material can help keep them engaged.
- Snuggle before bed: Feeling close to your attachment figure gives a sense of security that cannot be mimicked by anything else. No cozy blanket, pillow that smells like mom or soothing toy with a parents heartbeat will ever replace the real thing. Babies and children are meant to be snuggled before and during sleep time.
- Singing to your child before bed: I recently lost my father and one of the special memories I spoke about was him singing to us at night. Just “row, row, your boat.” He could barely carry a tune but that did not matter. My mom had a special simple song for us too, that she had made up, that just had our names in it. These are special memories that I will treasure forever. If a child is used to hearing a certain song at bedtime, it can cue the brain into knowing it is sleep time. I find music to be one of the more powerful ways of letting a child’s brain know it is time to relax.
- Soothing a crying child with “baby calmers”: These are natural and responsive ways of soothing a crying child or helping a child go to sleep. This includes many of the things already discussed, such as bouncing, rocking, singing, etc. Each baby has their own specific routine that works best for them, this can also change over time too and be different with different caregivers. Often your child’s routine with Grandma or a their child care provider will be drastically different from yours. As long as it is still responsive to their need to be soothed before sleep, it doesn’t matter if the routines look different. Grandma can’t nurse to sleep but she has many more options then child care. Child care has limited options but a ton of resources and professional knowledge and experience.
- Sleeping in a baby carrier: This is safest when done while the parent or another adult is actively awake and alert, monitoring the child’s airway, especially under 4 months. It is a great way to get a few extra Z’s during the hardest points but it should be done with caution, as when you are asleep, you are unable to monitor the babies airway in the same way. However, a baby carrier can allow your child who loves contact naps, to nap, while you continue on with your life. It eliminates the need to be “nap trapped” and is a great way to sooth your child to sleep while keeping your hands free and saving your back. Baby carrying is how many cultures care for children, while working and carrying on with their lives. It is also a cornerstone of attachment parenting.
When bed sharing: Follow the Safe 7 to ensure that your child has the safest sleep surface, while still maximizing attachment and ultimately, sleep for both of you. The article below is written by Dr. James Mckenna of Notre Dame. He specializes in mother-child behavioural patterns, specifically with sleep and is a huge advocate for bedsharing. This article is a detailed account of the scientific evidence supporting bedsharing and comparing the risks to other infant sleep options.
“Bad” Sleep Habits
Just because you are using some of these options, does not make you a “bad” parent. You are a tired parent, who is just trying to get everyone more sleep. Sometimes we take what we may perceive as the easy way out and that is ok, I am all about reducing stress load on everyone but making informed decisions is what responsive parenting is all about. Here are a few things parents do that often do not help in the long run or are dangerous and many people are just unaware of the risks:
- Falling asleep with the TV on: We all need to do it sometimes, especially when your babe is young, and napping frequently. Somewhere between 6 to 12 months, it can be helpful to try and develop a bedtime routine that does not include falling asleep to the TV or some other screen This can be a tough habit to break and screen time with bedtime can seem like a natural combination, but it is actually not conducive to restful sleep. (I say this as a complete hypocrite who usually watches TV or goes on my phone before bed. My youngest never has screen time before bed, but my eldest has had a lot of trouble kicking the habit. I am sure that my husband and I’s sleep habits play a major part in his). If you aren’t able (or willing) to go to sleep without TV, I would try a floor bed in the child’s room so you can sneak out to watch a show or two at night. That’s what we did with our second and it has worked much better. Research
- Using an unsafe sleep surface such as a dock-a-tot, swing, rock and play, nursing pillow or a car seat that is not attached to a car: all these options can cause positional asphyxiation. Meaning your child can easily and silently slip into a position where they cannot breath. In many cases, parents just look over and see a blue baby, in some cases the baby is saved in time but severe brain damage is often a result. Swings, rock-and-plays, dock-a-tots, car seats, bouncers, bean bags, infant chairs, nursing pillows and infant positioning products ARE NOT SAFE FOR SLEEP. I know it seems ridiculous and irresponsible that they are selling unsafe products but their lack of safety was just recently proven. Manufacturers quietly and cunningly changed all the labels to say ‘child should never be left alone and product is not for sleeping, it is for lounging.’ I would advise to invest in a baby carrier instead. It will last longer, is more versatile and provides so many more benefits for you and your child.
- Needing to hold an unsafe toy while sleeping: Toys and blankets create suffocation hazards. Many children who are responded to quickly don’t ever attach to an object (many still do and it is not an indicator of attachment). Around one year old, it becomes safer to let a child sleep with a small toy or blanket but until then, it should be removed from the sleep area, once the child falls asleep. Some toys are safe but most are not so it’s best to exercise caution.
- Using a pillow or wedge and propping up the bed/mattress: These are all risks for positional asphyxiation and other types of suffocation. If you have a babe with severe reflux, who needs to be more upright when sleeping, I would opt for a baby carrier and lazy-boy, over one of the other options. There is still risk to this option but the baby is secure and you can continually monitor their airway. Research
- Trying to over feed in order to extend sleep time: Trying to over feed is trying to override your child’s natural hunger signals. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food in the future. Also, being really full before bed can cause indigestion which can make for a restless sleep and sometimes bad dreams. Putting rice cereal in a bottle is a choking hazard and should never be done. Even if your doctor recommends it, I would consult an IBCLC before making the switch. Many doctors, including paediatricians, are not up to date with current infant feeding research. That is not to say to ignore your doctors recommendations, but if they do sit well with you, please get a second opinion. Research
- Crying it out: This practice increases the level of cortisol in a child’s brain and can change the way their brain is structured, because it is done at such a crucial time for brain development. Often it has one of two effects, it desensitizes the child so they struggle to react appropriately to stress. Or it can also cause children to have a heightened response to stress, as they were left to learn how to regulate on their own. Self-regulation is actually learned best through supportive co-regulation. Research and more research and more research and a good article and one more.
“Not great” Sleep Habits
These are survival techniques. They are not unsafe but not really optimal for development, these options are generally parent replacements, the real thing is always better.
- Pacifiers: Truly unnecessary, actually (not an attempt to parent shame, just saying). They are hard to take away, not great for teeth, and even people who can not nurse, can dry nurse, also the original pacifier, the thumb, is still available for most babies. If your child is already a pacifier lover, that’s ok, Don’t rip it from them. Let them have it for as long as they want. Forcefully taking it away is worse than just letting them have it. The comfort it provides is far more valuable than the cosmetic risks to teeth.
- Car rides: Simply because of the environmental impact, I think this method should be used to get through the rough patches but the environment and your wallet will thank you not to make this a habit.
- Soothing toys that are taken away after asleep: These are not the worst thing and can provide comfort when parents are not available, like in the car or while running errands. As a sleep aid, they are not the best option as they are an attempt to replace real human connection. Then this need is not met, it is pacified by the object and teaches very early on that “stuff” provides comfort, not people.
- Intuitive infant beds: This is the same issue as the soothing toys, except, sooner than later your child will grow out of that bed and then what? That transition is likely going to be just as hard as transitioning from co-sleeping to a crib.
- Sleeping in a crib or play pen: Obviously this is not terrible and still safe, when done right, but you will have to transition at some point and that may be very hard. Using a floor bed, from the start, eliminates the need for bed changes with development. It also saves you a lot of money and is so much more comfy for parents too. There are also so many “don’t”’s with sleeping in a crib or play pen so make sure you know what is safe. A firm floor bed, when kept away from walls and other furniture, and is free of heavy blankets and pillows, in my opinion, is just as safe, if not safer than a crib, bassinet or playpen. You know your own family and what is safe for you, but I think in many cases, starting with a floor bed or transitioning to one in the first year can be a positive choice. For us, it only improved everyone’s sleep quality. Research
- Sound machines that are too loud: Unfortunately the blessed sound machine also has risks (how could they do this to us, I know!). The truth is, I was always unsure about them. Essentially it is too tempting and easy to play them too loud. In our home, we use rock-a-bye lullabies played on repeat, instead. It took about two weeks for my son to adjust to when the song changes, now he needs them to sleep. That is a little scary, given I need power to access the music, but I prefer it to a sound machine because I am less likely to turn it up too high. Some experts would say no noise is best but that is not always realistic in a busy home and we have to make reasonable compromises. If you are going to use a sound machine, make sure it is new, you have read all the guidelines and then I would still not turn it up too loud. Babies ears are more sensitive and vulnerable to permanent damage from semi-loud noise. Research
- Lights and sounds toys that attach to the crib: These are generally over stimulating and not really conducive to sleep. I just can’t figure out how they would be useful unless the intent is to distract the baby, while they lay in the crib. If your child is being responded to, there is no purpose. Most babies will not lay contently in their crib and watch their electronic fish tank. They usually want to be with others and that is totally normal and healthy. It helps develop attachment. There is really no benefit to distracting them from their need for their parents with a bright, loud, plastic toy.
My two cents about positional asphyxiation and bedsharing: When you try and look up positional asphyxiation, you also get all the information about the dangers of bedsharing. Like a lot of science and data based information, it is often not based in a reality setting. When you compare safe bedsharing with safe crib use, it actually has a preventative effect, when combined with breastfeeding. What boggles me is, it is assumed that when people bedshare, they do not take safety precautions. I have not found one case of a child dying in a safe bedsharing situation but there are cases of babies dying while alone in a “safe” crib. It is somehow assumed that tired parents, when using a crib, follow safety measures but, let’s get real, there are tons of products on the market that try to make a crib more comfortable and none of them are safe. Parents who have not slept more than 30 minutes in five months are going to try things. I am of the belief that the oldest and most natural way of soothing a baby cannot be unsafe and there is mountains of research to support that claim. I’m not going to go on a bedsharing rant but I do feel we all choose to take measured risks, everyday, even with our children. People will shame parents who choose safe bedsharing, but we never shame parents who put their children in cars, even though it is way more dangerous than bedsharing, we consider this a necessary risk. Some cultures would just laugh at us and say “sleep is a necessity, love is a necessity, driving is a luxury.”
Clarification about SIDS versus suffocation, strangulation or positional asphyxiation: It was difficult to find research that I found credible for this article, as many reliable sources are still using the wrong language to describe the risks with positional asphyxiation, strangulation and suffocation. SIDS is when a baby, under 12 months, dies of unknown causes. If a baby is found in a position that caused them to stop breathing, this is not an “unknown cause.” The cause is known. When an article states that avoiding soft bedding, toys, strings, wires, gaps, bumper pads and incline infant sleep products helps reduce the risk of SIDS, this is just incorrect. There is no known cause for SIDS, it is by definition a death by unknown causes. This type of language feels like a passive aggressive attempt at fear mongering and it makes me distrustful of the article. The deaths they are talking about preventing are strangulation, suffocation and positional asphyxiation. Using the correct language will help parents make informed decisions. So many parents think bedsharing is extremely unsafe, while they think allowing their baby to sleep in the rock-and-play is safe. Information is power and it allows parents to make the best decisions for their families. Research
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