I came across an article by Hand in Hand Parenting’s Patty Wifler – Getting Young Children to Sleep Through the Night and I want to respectfully challenge a few assumptions therein that I feel may make our parenting more stressful and anxious. Don’t get me wrong: Hand in Hand has been doing wonderful work helping parents parent gently and set limits. Hand In Hand is of the mindset that children’s behaviors come more from fears than from biology or anything else, but I see fears as just one small part of a larger picture of why babies and children may wake. My take on child behavior is always equal part biology, anthropology and psychology.
Assumption 1: Most babies at 6 mo can sleep through the night. Babies should sleep through the night. If babies don’t sleep through the night, it is because of underlying feelings that need to be uncovered. “After about six months, unless your baby is ill or underweight, he is capable of sleeping through the night much of the time. Children vary greatly in how much sleep they thrive on, but by this age, most parents can hope for a good seven-hour stretch of sleep without waking. However, many children experience feelings that prevent them from sleeping through the night at least some of the time.” I hope that this won’t make parents feel that their waking baby is abnormal when the opposite is true. Nobody sleeps through the night. (Click to read about the anthropology of sleep.) We now know that adults wake multiple times and just roll over to reset the sleep cycle if we are good sleepers. Most breastfed 6-month-olds do not sleep for a 7 hour stretch, especially if they co-sleep. According to the article above, babies between 2 and 9 months average 3 wakes a night and most children are waking once a night through 10 years. Labeling a biological norm as a problem that must be remedied creates unnecessary worry for parents. Most parents do not report 6 month-olds (or even 12-month-olds) sleeping for 7 hour stretches regularly, contrary to pediatricians telling us this forever.
The field of pediatrics really took flight during a time when the trend was for babies to be formula fed. Breastfed babies do not simply wake up because they have negative feelings. They wake up because they are biologically mandated to wake to eat and check in and rouse the mother to keep them protected. Soon, babies naturally become dependent on certain sleep associations (like a breast in the mouth) even when hunger is no longer part of the equation. Waking for biological reasons is normal as is them becoming biologically dependent on physical cues or help from parents to fall back asleep. That still doesn’t mean you have to give up and do nothing while your child wakes you 3+ times a night! I agree with Wifler’s point that we can change the getting-to-sleep status quo or association by simply talking to our child about it (they read our emotions even if we think they don’t understand our words), setting a boundary and then being present for their feelings about the change to come out. In my own coaching practice I like to work with families sleep learning changes only after 9 months and not as early as 6 months. Some children still need to eat at night and they understand the changes we are trying to convey to them much better at 9mo and up. Biology and anthropology tell us that babies have visceral needs that start before and also underly behaviors and psychology. Wifler and I also agree that we should attend to our children’s needs each time they cry and that babies should not cry alone. It is so lovely that I’m not the only parenting coach who doesn’t believe that babies must cry alone. Yay, Hand in Hand!
Assumption 2: Night Waking is Caused by Emotional Distress “When children can’t sleep through the night (and there are no health or developmental issues such as a fever or a growth spurt), the cause is most likely some kind of emotional tension that bubbles up in the child’s mind during sleep.” Though Ms. Wipfler is not advocating for Cry It Out, this is the same frame of mind that allows people to say that babies need to Cry It Out because they have to release anxiety. This is like saying that the child cannot possibly be having any actual physical needs, or that the need for closeness to the parent is psychological and not physiological and must be released. I hope that parents will not read this and take it to mean that they need to manipulate the child’s environment and routine to procure some crying from hidden fears out of an otherwise happy child. While some children (especially tots and older kids) can definitely have sleep disturbances due to emotions and fears, we tend to see that come up when a child suddenly has worse sleep.
Fears are not the main reason for waking in children who regularly wake, in my personal and professional experience. Again, we all wake biologically and some children take a very long time to learn how to roll over and sleep again without gaining full consciousness. We can teach them gently and gradually to fall back to sleep with less and less help from us. The reason kids don’t fall right back to sleep certainly could be emotions but more frequently, it is because they don’t have the sleep association the body believes they need. I really do not see it as fear or an emotional issue that must come out into the open. In order to sleep, they are trying to recreate a usual way of being in sleep, a simple belief that things need to be a certain way. An attachment. Attachment to parent, parent help and even to items is psychologically normal and usually healthy, not pathological. Wanting to be safe through forming keeping attachments is ongoing for humans and won’t be fixed with a nightly cry. (The Buddhist perspective of letting go of attachments is an adult thing and even Buddhists suggest that we must learn to have healthy attachments before we learn to let them go.)
We can definitely see sleep disturbances in children who are having fears and emotional issues come up that need expressing and they do need us to listen at night. We will see this come up around family changes and preschool etc. But fears are not the main reason a child who has a history of constantly waking at night is waking up. Many children are perfectly content and happy when they wake to nurse. Many wake to find the pacifier that fell out simply because the last moment they remember, the pacifier was in the mouth. Wifler says:
“Children’s systems are built to offload feelings of upset immediately and vigorously. But our training as parents is to stop them from offloading their feelings! We are taught to give them pacifiers, food, rocking, patting, scolding, and later, time outs and spanking, if the crying or screaming goes on for more than a minute. We are taught to work against the child’s own healthy instinct to get rid of bad feelings immediately. So our children store these upsets, and try many times a day to work them out, usually by testing limits or having meltdowns over small issues. If they can’t offload them during the day, the feelings bother them in the night. This is why nursing or offering a bottle to a child who wakes doesn’t keep him from waking again. In fact, as a child’s storehouse of feelings gets fuller he wakes more often, trying to have a good cry. Parents try to solve the problem by offering food or allowing the child to sleep with them as a way to pat the feelings down again.”
I totally agree that we try to stuff our children’s feelings! I also know that there are plenty of children who wake frequently at night whose parents lovingly witness plenty of emotional off-gassing in tantrums and who are present to crying and feelings during the day rather than asking their child to stuff them. These children are still often night-wakers. They simply come out of sleep cycles and need to re-initiate sleep associations. They are not progressively more emotionally distressed as the night goes on. I worry that parents will read the end of that paragraph and feel that attending to a child’s night needs is causing psychological damage. Assumption 3: Children’s Attachment to Lovey’s/ Routines are Sign of Psychological Distress The video embedded in the article talks about breaking a child of a safety item (like a stuffed animal) in order to let an underlying fear come through with crying. In my experience, many children learn to sleep away from mom by using a stuffed animal as a transitional object. The transitional object is eventually grown out of. In that case it does assuage a fear. It is my belief that some children need night safety items or gradual transitional objects even if they feel safe to express their feelings during the day. Night and dark are anthropologically scary.
There are many other opportunities to talk about the underlying fears associated with being in a room separate from parents which don’t involve taking away the lovey. My daughter (4 as I write this) doesn’t usually wake because of fears (or even nightmares). Most of the time her body is just waking at the end of a sleep cycle, she’s in good spirits. She doesn’t need to wake me. When she can find her stuffed animal, she hugs it and falls immediately back to sleep. When occasional fears or emotions come up for her, we talk about them during the day, she has normal emotional outbursts and I play compassionate witness to them. She may even wake up at night and wake me up to cry about a fear. When she was a baby, she was a constant night waker until we focused on some sleep learning skills. She was a night waker partially because she had the booby-to-sleep association. She had plenty of other opportunity to offgass emotion and fears. I have worked with sensitive children who cry constantly, lovingly witnessed and respected, not stuffed. They were night-wakers too. Again, my point is that most waking, for children who regularly wake, is not all about fear. Therefore you do not need to worry that your child is experiencing unending hidden emotional distress if you have a child who is a frequent night waker. And we do not need to provoke a cry by removing something that makes the child feel safe. I have not seen that removing an object and letting the child cry suddenly feels safe, though children can certainly learn to live without certain sleep associations and will eventually need less over time with your help.
If there is a sleep association that keeps the child needing you in the middle of the night (to find the missing pacifier, to give your breast), you can make those changes gently and gradually with boundaries simply because the change will help everyone sleep and not because you are worried that the sleep association is covering up an insidious and hidden fear. Yes, it would be way more profitable for my parent coaching practice to tell people that their children are having an emotional problem that must be dealt with through behavioral intervention. I love helping parents and children learn to sleep. But being stressed out that your children might be stressed out really won’t help the sleep process. I promise. I hate to say that the moms I work with who are the most stressed out that there could be something “wrong” are the ones who have the most trouble implementing a solution and they also have children who have the most trouble sleeping. We really need to chill out about sleep, but there is an entire culture alive to keep us anxious and feeling like something is pathological about your child’s night behavior. I prefer to start from a place where night waking is seen as normal and ok- and then make changes by setting boundaries and then, being present to the child’s feelings about change.
I have a PDF of sleep learning tips for breastfeeding and co-sleeping parents. A business coach once told me to call it “15 Reasons Why Parents Are Sabotaging the Baby’s Sleep.” Woah! I am so tired of scare tactics from sleep trainers! That kind of language is ugly and unethical, in my opinion. Instead, I call it 10 Awesome Ways to Help Your Baby and Toddler Sleep Now (FREE PDF):
It’s yours for free because everyone deserves to sleep- it just doesn’t always come easily! To download these tidbits, sign up for my mailing list at the middle right of the homepage www.savvyparentingsupport.com Love, Moorea P.S.
I also have a great online comprehensive sleep program here: My Sleep Savvy Online Programs and I am available to help you privately if needed moorea @ savvyparentingsupport.com
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