As a new mom, I was overwhelmed with exhaustion and searching for answers to the sleeplessness that clouded our home. During this time, I scoured plenty of sleep books and posts online about how to help my 8-month-old baby consolidate her nighttime sleep and take lengthy, predictable naps. When every single one of the books said something different, I called in the professionals. We hired a sleep consultant to help our baby girl “learn” how to sleep. She began sleeping beautifully in two night’s time. Her naps lengthened and we had recovered the rhythm in our home. I would sing praises about the process to any listening ear, and with the birth of my second daughter I knew that we were going to encourage better sleep patterns from the start. Her birth signaled the beginning of my journey to become a certified sleep consultant.
When there are minutes involved…
After completing my first sleep certification requirements, I got a call from a possible client explaining her circumstances. She needed help with her highly-sensitive child. Her child had been bed-sharing. Mom and dad were ready to make a parent-led change and move their baby into the crib, but the baby would not even go into the crib without enormous anxiety, vomiting, and upset. Mom was at her wits end with exhaustion, but knew that a standard sleep training approach would not work for her family. I was able to give this mother some tips over the phone, but ultimately knew that I didn’t have “the guts” to offer her a sleep training regimen, sensing that it would lead to a chronic level of upset on both mom and baby’s part. I politely declined this client, knowing that the modern sleep training methods at my disposal were all separation-based methods, or methods which allowed for intervention but attached minutes to the plan. These plans told parents to withhold intervention for “x” amount of minutes, or to leave the child in the crib indefinitely until he/she might fall asleep. It is often suggested that families withhold eye-contact from the child in order prevent stimulation. We are told in modern day sleep-training culture that the child needs to learn how to self-soothe. In the depths of exhaustion with my first-born these were all hoops I was willing to jump through in order to meet a good night of sleep, but as my daughter aged we began to see repercussions.
A threat to attachment…
After completing my first sleep certification, we buckled down on sleep habits in our home, working consistently with our 3 year old who had a knack for stalling at bedtime. Consistency is key we were told. Stick to the plan so you can address the behavior. She began to struggle. When she fell during playtimes, she would run away from me instead of toward me for comfort. When we sat together, she would push my hands away instead of welcoming a snuggle. My little girl wanted less and less to do with me, and it all began when we decided to calmly and consistently respond to her nocturnal escapades, according to the plan.
As I have later learned, she was developing a defensive detachment towards me. She loved me deeply, but began to distance herself from my comfort in order to avoid the upset that would come from having it withdrawn around bedtime. But, I was just following the rules. Why the repercussions? It was easier for her to maintain a steady distance versus tolerate the waxing and waning of daytime connection turned to loss every night at bedtime. It was suggested we lock her in the room in intervals until she took the hint that we weren’t coming back for intervention. And although setting boundaries as a parent is important, she took the hint after a few nights and it seemed she would not snuggle with me genuinely ever again. My instincts told me to stop the plan a few nights later as a result.
During this same time I had a 6 month old baby who was “ready to night wean”. She was a chunky little gal and had met the age and weight standards for night-weaning when I was encouraged to cut out night feeds in order to avoid a nursing to sleep association which might cause unnecessary night-wakings. The problem was when she woke once in the middle of the night, I was convinced she was still hungry. I reached out to my colleagues to see what they might suggest. It was suggested I leave her upset and alone until morning, so as not to stimulate her and cause a bigger waking. We would later find out that my daughter was losing weight due to an undiagnosed tongue tie. My instincts told me to feed her, and so I did.
Sleep Training and the loss of intuition…
These experiences began to stir-up in me an apprehension towards many modern sleep training practices. For the mother with the highly-sensitive child. For the baby with undiagnosed tongue-ties. For a consultant who has no clear picture of a client’s day-to-day life. How could I possibly recommend a plan based on minutes instead of pushing instincts first and always?! It becomes apparent that the moment minutes are attached to a sleep plan, a mother’s intuition has been pushed out the window. We have robbed a mother of the opportunity to attune to her baby.
In most other aspects of a mother’s journey she and nature are writing the plan for her baby. Consider for example, a birth plan. “No Pitocin. Allow a birth photographer. Play this soothing soundtrack. Skin-to-skin. Delay cord-clamping.” Just as a birth doula aims to inform and support the mother through the birthing process, encouraging her to trust her instincts, I am compelled to do the same, holding both the mother’s instincts and needs in tension with the baby’s needs and comforts, all while trusting the baby to draw the mother’s instincts into alignment. Mother’s are designed to respond. A baby’s cry triggers a maternal milk letdown. The voice of our children beckons us to respond in this natural dance of the mother and baby dyad.
When the mother/baby dyad is challenged…
Whenever a plan is offered to a mother which goes against her instincts, a mother will be withdrawing from her maternal center. In the same way, when dependent children are expected to regulate or soothe themselves from a state of stress, we are drawing them outside of their comfort zone and away from their own centeredness. Dr. Stuart Shanker, a leading expert in infant self-regulation states, “In addition to forming connections between all the different sensory and motor systems, the part of the baby’s brain that is growing the most is the prefrontal cortex, where the systems that support self-regulation are housed. Over the past decade, developmental neuroscientists have learned that it is by being regulated (emphasis mine) that these robustly growing systems are wired to support self-regulation. The experiences that promote this process begin immediately. The tactile stimulation that the baby receives when you hold or stroke her release neurohormones that are highly calming; through your voice, your shining eyes, your smiling face, or gently rocking or bouncing your baby when she is fussy, you are laying the foundation for good self-regulation.” (Shanker, 2012) In other words, babies learn to self-regulate or self-soothe by first “being regulated”.
Attachment is polarizing. When mom and baby are fundamentally secure, the dance of the dyad draws them together, waltzing in synchrony. When attachment is challenged by stressors (exhausted mom, stressed baby), the polarization works in opposition to the dyad, forcing mom and baby into further relational distress. A mother may become resentful or disengaged. The baby might detach and discover premature independence.
One of the biggest challenges to the mother and baby dyad is our modern culture. The amount of village support for mothers is often limited, and many moms are left discouraged having to hold every working part together on their own. Weighing this cultural norm into consideration, we have to understand that exhaustion and defeat can seem inevitable for a modern-day mother. This exhaustion can force a mother to want to fix her child, who seems to be the cause of her sleepless struggles. The problem with this attitude though is it forces a mother into a mindset of quick-fix solutions, as she tries to fix a baby that was never broken to begin with. “Walk away from your child, let him learn to self-soothe, he needs to be an independent sleeper, you’re tired mama” – our culture reiterates this message as we validate mom’s very real and legitimate challenges with the suggestion that she walk away. This is advice that we would never offer during a daytime upset, and yet somehow culture believes nighttime parenting is less relevant when a child just needs to “cry it out”.
The argument is often made that if we can get everyone sleeping, all will be well and the few nights of stress will be worth it. We forget the patterns that are set into motion with this logic. When we give-in to short-term parenting fixes, we communicate a principle which carries into parenting for years to come. We say – mom you are exhausted. Your child needs to adapt. The problem then is that instead of addressing the root problem (lack of support for mom) we instead foster separation in the dyad, setting into motion a pattern that an exhausted mom can walk away from her dependent child in the height of his/her emotions instead of supporting and validating the emotions that flow from her child. Or following the same logic, we see parents inclined to find a quick fix to get compliance (logic such as….bribe the child with a sucker to induce cooperation) during later upsets because the goal we teach parents from day one of sleep training is that our child’s compliance is the goal, use whatever means necessary to get them to cooperate with our expectations. The problem so often with infant sleep though, is that parent’s unrealistic expectations are really the biggest sleep challenge. Out of 50,000 infants aged 6-18 months only 10% of them are sleeping through the night (Hysing, et. al, 2014).
Does that leave mothers without options?
Sleep is a biological function that cannot be taught, similar to eating or eliminating. If I told you to fall asleep right now, could you do it? Maybe, if you were really exhausted. But, more than likely you would need to make sure you were comfortable, that you didn’t have any major things on your to-do list, that you had not just consumed caffeine. Why can’t you fall asleep on command? Because sleep is not within our conscious control. Once the “puzzle pieces” were in place (to-do list complete, body tired, environment comfortable) then your body would be ready to drift off.
I hear everywhere that it is important to teach our children to sleep, and this comment is misleading. We cannot teach sleep. That does not mean that we are left helpless with an exhausted child either. So, what CAN we do for our children? We can control most of their environment, making it conducive to sleep. We can offer sleep opportunities, where children can feel calm, relaxed, and secure. We can monitor stimulation, understanding that too much will cause our children to become hyper-aroused, or too little will cause our children to become hypo-aroused. We can offer parent-led pattern changes and extend our loving support as our child adapts to the new expectations. Can we put our children in the crib and make them sleep?! NOPE. Can we make sure all of the sleep “puzzles pieces” are in place as we support sleep for our child, ABSOLUTLEY!! Digging to find the missing piece certainly takes more work than plopping baby in the crib and trusting that they will eventually give-up and lay down to sleep. But, we owe it to our children to offer them support.
Mothers - Listen. Process. Respond.
Respond with feedings. Respond with rocking. Respond with cuddles. Respond with loving boundaries. All are important to the dance of the dyad.
Babies - Communicate. Emote. Attach.
Attach with feedings. Attach with rocking. Attach with cuddles. Attach with belonging to an adult who is your alpha, your gentle and trustworthy leader.
Dyad – Seek. Tug. Dance
Dance with compassion. Dance with connectedness. Dance with responsiveness. Dance with the partner that nature provided for you to do life with. Mama, it’s okay to throw out the rules, go footloose, and just dance in natural rhythm with your sweet baby! And if you are still struggling to find your rhythm, I would love to help you get back in step with your sweet baby and remind you that YOU are the solution for your baby, as we work together to find the root cause of the sleep challenges in your home.
Hysing, M., Harvey, A. G., Torgersen, L., Ystrom, E., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., & Sivertsen, B. (2014). Trajectories and predictors of nocturnal awakenings and sleep duration in infants. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 35(5), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000064
Shanker, S. (2016). Self-Reg Competencies. https://self-reg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Shanker-SelfReg-Rubric.pdf
Shanker, S. G. (2013). Calm, Alert and Happy. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/shanker.pdf. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.