I had an email recently, in which a first time mother of a wakeful (though normal) baby asked me the question: “do you think we should start some sort of sleep training?”
To this mother, and to others who have asked me similar questions, I always have the same response: “the problem with sleep training is that it is often distressing for baby, and you should always try to keep sleep positive.”
What a lot of parents forget is that their baby is not going to be a baby for very long at all - they will grow into a child…
The thing about children (particularly toddlers) is that they’re notorious for a whole range of complex emotions that tend to present at night-time: nightmares, separation anxiety, fears - of the dark, monsters, of being alone…
If sleep time has developed negative associations in the early months and years, what flow-on effect is this going to have once your child is old enough to form rational thoughts?
“It’s bedtime now. Bedtime means mummy gets very stressed and angry and puts me in my cot and walks away, even though I try and call for her to come back. All I want is for her to just hold me and help me to feel safe until I fall asleep. It also means I’m not going to see her until it’s light again. That’s such a long time… I’m tired, but I don’t like bedtime…”
Our Western society is so desperate for children to become independent as quickly as possible. “Self-soothing” is heralded as the gold-standard that all babies should achieve as quickly as possible, so that their parents can get on with… what? Their lives in a similar fashion to how they were pre-children? Seems odd, doesn’t it?
But this is what seems to hang over us. We must get our lives back to “normal” after having children. They must fit around us, we must not bend to fit around them…
So, we develop these expectations:
We expect them to sleep in large blocks through the night (most parents are forgiving of night waking in the first 6 months. Beyond this, especially as they head towards baby’s first birthday, this tolerance drops dramatically).
We expect them to soothe themselves.
We expect them to manage their emotions (even though we, their parents, often aren’t very good at managing our own emotions.)
We expect them to feed when it’s convenient for us.
And we expect them to fall asleep easily, quickly, alone, drowsy-but-awake, etc. etc.
When they don’t do these things, we become frustrated. Angry. Our patience plummets. We rock faster. Shh louder. Put baby down in the cot, walk away and ignore her cries. We rationalise that she’s not genuinely upset or fearful, just “protesting” or “angry” - because apparently these are two emotions that parents are allowed, and encouraged, to disregard.
Sleep-time becomes about control. A conflict that needs to be won, with parents who are determined to come out in first place. Baby becomes the enemy. Bed-time becomes the battlefield.
Suddenly, sleep-time is shrouded in anxiety and the natural urge to sleep, that should be welcomed by a tired child, becomes something scary, something to be feared - something that is automatically teamed with a set of awful actions and reactions from mum.
So how do we avoid this? How do we keep sleep positive when it really can seem impossible?
We’ve all been there - those days where we just can’t. Where we are exhausted, empty, done.
And the cherry on top of an already draining day is baby is fighting sleep. He’s looking around the room, trying to practice his crawling, flinging his dummy across the room at just the right angle that it rolls under the bed… again.
I’ll be honest, there is no magic trick to helping your baby fall asleep. There is no single “right” way to tackle bed-time.
I can’t give you a step-by-step guide that will work for every single baby. It’s all trial, error, patience and being adaptive to their changing needs.
However, if bedtime is a battle, there are a few general things you can look at:
Are you being realistic with baby's sleep requirements? Every baby has individual sleep-needs and these change with time. So if your baby is happy running on 13 hours of sleep per day, it may not be realistic to expect her to wake at 7am, nap for 3 hours during the day, and then be ready for bed by 7pm...
Speaking of bedtime at 7pm… You may need to consider whether you are putting your baby to bed too early. Not all babies are ready for bed by 7pm… even if that is ideal to mum and dad. For example, some babies aren’t ready to switch off until closer to 9pm. So, are you putting your baby to bed early for her sake? Or for your own? Be honest…
Is your baby napping too much during the day? Or napping too late in the day? Consider adjusting day sleeps. Even cutting them short. Remember - the day is for FUN and learning about the world. Naps are just for baby to recharge so he can continue the fun and learning until his bedtime.
Are you getting outside in the afternoon and evenings, getting lots of fresh air, stimulation, exercise (if baby is mobile) and soaking up the last of the natural light? Or is baby spending the hours before bedtime inside with the TV on? Our early ancestors didn’t wind down at the end of the day by staring at a flashing screen - our babies shouldn’t either (in fact, neither should their parents!)
Is baby’s sleep environment conducive to relaxing and unwinding for sleep? Does baby feel safe in his environment? Is your baby in his own room, but prefers to sleep in close proximity to his parents? If so - consider why you might be trying to enforce separate sleeping environments and whether you might be able to adjust or adapt your space to accommodate baby.
Do you have a predictable, calm, bedtime routine with plenty of sleepy-cues (such as a lullaby, feeding, rocking etc.)
All these things can help to make bedtime easier.
Once you have those sorted, you can focus your energy on keeping it positive. How you do this is actually simple… in theory.
You just have to control how YOU behave and approach this daily ritual.
Yep. You get to choose how you react because YOU are the adult.
So if you find yourself fighting (and becoming frustrated and angry with) this losing battle - step back.
Reframe the situation - he’s not “being difficult”, he’s “finding it difficult to fall asleep”.
Empathise with your baby. See the world from her point of view. Understand why she doesn’t want you to leave her at the end of the day, why she wants you to keep feeding and rocking and cuddling her in the dark… (hint: it’s because you are her world, her universe, her security blanket - isn’t that special!)
Appreciate that this is temporary. It is all temporary.
Above all, keep calm. Don’t let negative energy, anxiety, stress and especially anger, enter the picture. This can take some practice… So practice.
(To help calm yourself - practice block breathing: in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts. When you start to get angry, you will see your baby as the enemy and this is unhelpful. Deep, rhythmic breathing will help you to reset. It’s also important to recognise when your anger is being triggered. Try to stop and label your emotions. Say how you’re feeling out loud and accept these feelings so you can move beyond them. Finally, know when to give up on trying to get baby to sleep, and try again in an hour. My blog on naps HERE talks about these points in more detail).
We have all heard “experts” talk about the importance of teaching our children good habits around sleep. But what about good feelings around sleep? Rather than teaching them to self-soothe, I think it’s far more important to teach them that sleep is safe. Sleep is nice. Sleep is something to be welcomed when they are tired.
For some, this will still present challenges. The active, spirited child may find switching off more difficult. The timid, imaginative child may find being in the dark alone more distressing.
For these children, I would argue that positive feelings towards bedtime are even more important in the long-run.
So look at the bigger picture and decide on your ultimate goal. Is it just for your child to learn to sleep alone for large blocks of time? Or is it to foster within them feelings of safety, security and positivity around sleep?
If it’s the latter (and I hope that it will be), remember it’s never too late to start. Because creating positivity around sleep for your baby starts and ends with you.
Georgina Dowden is a mother, midwife and lactation consultant (IBCLC).
In her day to day life, she looks after her two beautiful children and also supports other families on their parenting journey.
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