Exhausted? Should you sleep train?
Are you torn?
On the one hand you need a good night of sleep, because you know how sleep deprivation can affect you so negatively, and how healthy it is for your baby to have long stretches of deep sleep.
On the other hand, you worry that if you do some kind of sleep training method, it is in deep opposition to a connected parenting style.
If this is the boat you’re in I TOTALLY GET YOU! I’ve been in it three times.
So often, parents find themselves between desperately needing sleep and desperately not wanting to harm the relationship with their child.
The consequences to each choice seem to be dire. Like, if I do sleep train my baby, I’ve somehow forever ruptured the connection between us and caused some gaping hole in their psyche, and in the unconditional love that I want to give them.
Whereas if I don’t sleep train my baby, maybe I’m letting my baby down, and not giving them the skills and tools that they need to learn to have a proper night of sleep.
I think we are given such conflicting messages on this:
Is sleep supposed to come naturally?
Is it just our industrialized society that has conditioned us to think that babies should sleep through the night, but actually they shouldn’t?
Is it a survival mechanism that evolution has put in place for a reason and we should respect it?
Is it night time parenting and getting up frequently just normal and we’re crazy to think otherwise?
Or is it over-indulgent and happy-clappy to think we should be getting up and nursing on demand throughout the night and we’re letting our baby down when we don’t set firm limits and teaching them proper sleeping skills?
When I was a first time mom, I was confused. I would nurse my baby to sleep and sneak away quietly… and pretty soon nursing wasn’t enough… I’d have to rock him for HOURS.
It was a nightmare. Quite literally.
I found myself a shadow of my former being. My whole body was sleep deprived to its core. It was affecting every area of my life, most alarmingly, my PARENTING! I began to feel resentful of my baby. (There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a torture element.)
If you can relate, I have good news for you. I have a few tips that will help you get on your way to the sleep you and your baby both need.
And the judgments on this topic can just GO AWAY. All of us want healthy sleep for ourselves and our children, and we all want a connected relationship with them. It’s just a question of how each of us gets there.
- START WITH GOOD HABITS
As much as you can in the “fourth trimester” (3-4 months) at least, baby’s sleep shouldn’t be on a routine or scheduled because that’s a recipe to drive you mad. Go with the flow, BUT start to develop good sleep habits. And you do that by avoiding “crutches”.
There is an important pause or gap before a baby is fully asleep that you can utilize in the newborn phase. Yes! Nurse your baby to sleep, hold your baby, use a pacifier. BUT… once they are sleepy or have fallen asleep, try putting them down on their sleep surface WITHOUT resorting to using the “crutch” again if they wake up again. Don’t be SO delicate and careful when laying them down. Let them flutter their eyes and look around, let them become aware of their new surroundings, and doze back off. That slight disconnect between the falling asleep on the crutch, and the actual falling in the bed is what loosens the possible steadfast need for the crutch later on. Practicing this is much easier in the newborn stage.
- MAKE A PLAN
If your baby is past the age of 4-6 months, and you’re finding that they are getting up very frequently to nurse, they need to be rocked, worn, or pushed to fall back to sleep… and you are waking up in the night to do those things, it may be time for you to MAKE A PLAN.
Making a plan is critical to making any kind of habit changes in your life and especially with your children. In the middle of the night, in the throes of exhaustion, it’s all too easy to just stick them on the boob, or revert to what is easier.
So you’ll need to make this plan when you are awake and preferably with another adult or even a professional.
I turned to Batya Sherizan, aka “Batya the Baby Coach” (scroll down to take the baby sleep quiz). She helped me regain my sanity and make a plan. Her approach is holistic, gentle, and takes in account the baby’s eating patterns AND your family’s unique needs and timing, which is critically important because there is no one-size-fits-plan.
- SUPPORT YOUR BABY ALWAYS
The key is to provide real support to your baby. Leaving a baby to cry alone in a dark room suddenly is abandonment and neglect, and the baby experiences it as extreme stress. Research has shown that cortisol levels do not go down for the baby even after the crying subsides. The mother’s cortisol levels do go down, because we are so stressed to hear their cries, but we interpret the end of the crying as the baby has learnt to self-soothe and now they are ok. What has in fact happened is that the baby has given up, feeling that the adult will never come for them, and they feel super stressed and they shut down to preserve energy.
If you have already done the crying out method, please don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to rekindle connection. This isn’t meant to shame or guilt anyone who has gone through it. I have certainly let my babies cry on many occasions. But just letting a baby cry it out for nights on end until they learn to self-soothe is not a method that supports child development or the baby’s brain. We need to be there to support them.
Having said this, crying is likely to be involved. There is usually crying involved in any challenging deep learning curve. It’s hard! It’s frustrating! You’re baby might REALLY want you to pick them up and nurse them like you always used to, and that’s ok. It’s a great opportunity for us as parents to learn to listen to the crying, to support it, and to still hold a firm limit.
And, to clarify, I am not advocating against night time nursing. My youngest is 18 months old, and I still nurse her once a night. It’s absolutely fine and even important to provide care during the night. But when a baby wakes out of pure habit, that is what we want to address.
- BELIEVE IN YOUR BABY
You will have to set boundaries eventually, and you’ll need to be committed to your plan. This is where I detect a split between the Attachment Parenting and RIE Parenting schools of thought. I totally believe in that full-on, continuum attachment concept in the beginning, but I don’t believe that sleep deprived, angry, resentful parents are good for anyone, especially our children.
What I do believe, is that babies are capable to sleep through the night eventually, or at least wake up less often and more predictably. But they need adult support, facilitation, and empathy.
- TAKE THE QUIZ
Having trouble getting your little one to sleep and not sure why? You feel like you’ve tried everything – but you still know something is missing? CLICK HERE to take Batya’s Baby Sleep Quiz and find out!