As a sleep consultant the questions I get asked very often are along the lines of whether or not sleep training will be harmful. Will it damage my child psychologically? Is it safe? Isn’t it unreasonably cruel? Won’t it cause stress?
For good reason, we want to know that everything we do for our child is in their best interests. We cannot bear the idea of doing something that will be harmful to our child.
Believe me, I was there and I was concerned about the same things.
However, that was before I was educated.
What part of sleep training do we feel might cause psychological damage?
Let’s take a minute to break this down for a second: What is it about sleep training that makes us feel it is traumatic for our child or our baby – or for the parents?
I’ll bet it goes something like this:
- Will I have to let my baby cry during sleep training?
- Will my baby experience separation anxiety if I leave him to cry?
- Will I have to leave her in a dark room where she could feel abandoned?
- Will I be able to comfort my baby?
- I won’t be able to handle hearing my baby cry.
We all feel these things. It’s okay. It is perfectly normal and expected.
Why do we feel these things?
Because we are biologically programmed to feel this way. You’ve carried your baby inside you for 9 months. She is part of you.
We experience a kind of separation anxiety ourselves when we are away from each other – almost like a physical pain. She is practically like an extra limb. When we’re not together we can feel a bit lost.
A parent’s overwhelming need to protect their offspring is all-encompassing. I’ll bet we can all attest to this evidence from the moment we become parents. This desire is at its strongest when our children are at their most vulnerable i.e. newly born up till toddlers.
It’s understandable that this enormous sense of responsibility will be at its most powerful after the birth of our first baby. We feel we need to be at our magnificent new baby’s beck and call from the moment that first little breathe is drawn.
It’s no wonder we might be reticent at the thought of leaving this new love of our lives for longer than a few seconds at a time when he might need our reassurance, our love, our warmth and our security. Heaven forbid he feels abandoned – even for a minute. What if he experiences long-term abandonment issues? Brain damage? The worries are never ending.
Let’s dig a little further: Why do babies cry?
Crying is the only means of communication allowed to a baby before we start seeing smiles and before words start being used.
They will cry for all sorts of reasons:
– Wet/Dirty nappy
– Need to burp
– Need for Attention
– Pain (sore tummy, teething, etc.)
– Over-tired or overstimulated
IMPORTANT: A good sleep training schedule will take into consideration all these above needs BEFORE baby goes down to sleep.
Therefore, the crying we are all nervous about will be the type of crying coming from our baby once all his basic needs have been taken care of. So, if we have to really think about it, this crying is likely the discomfort of experiencing a form of change from what he is used to. It’s different. It’s uncomfortable.
If he is used to eating himself to sleep, or being rocked to sleep, or has been sleeping in bed with mommy, etc., then he will be a little grumpy about being put down to sleep in a different environment. Wouldn’t you?
It is very important for parents to understand that this short period of wakefulness (potential discomfort) before baby falls asleep is the very necessary opportunity he needs to help himself learn to fall asleep independently. Not only this, it is an essential tool to learn how to self sooth.
Do you think he is experiencing fear when he cries like this? Remember, he is only being left for a few minutes at a time. There is no way he is feeling fear. He’s just saying: : “Oi! What do you think you’re doing? It’s me in here!” Then once he is given the opportunity he realizes that actually he’s pretty tired, and if he just closes his eyes for a little while… zzzzzzzzzz.
Trust me! As long as the below needs are met, he WILL be ready for sleep. He WILL fall asleep on his own:
- He is healthy.
- He has a full tummy.
- He has had enough awake time.
- He is clean.
- He is not over stimulated or over-tired (Important!).
- He is not under-tired – putting a baby down before he is ready to sleep will only cause frustration for him (also VERY important!).
- The environment is conducive to good quality sleep.
I would never tell anyone to leave their baby crying for long periods of time. It is important that baby feels secure and knows that mommy or daddy are not far away.
When we are at this phase of teaching our children to fall asleep independently it is NOT a case of putting your baby into their crib or their room, closing the door, and leaving them till the next day. That is not the reality of what I recommend or what parents typically do.
For those who might still be feeling a bit cautious, just speak to your paediatrician about whether sleep training is okay for your child or not. You will see it isn’t controversial among the scientific community or the medical professions. We’re all in agreement that adequate sleep is essential to the health and well-being of everyone in the family unit, and that teaching your baby some independent sleep skills is safe and effective, whether it’s week five or week 55.
Why bother? Why even think about sleep training?
The parent of an infant would have the answer to this immediately. “It’s because my baby is not sleeping and therefore I am not sleeping and everyone is absolutely exhausted!”
So many of the parents who come to me for help are miserable. Isn’t this supposed to be a time in my life that I relish? Am I not supposed to be besotted and loving every second? Instead, these parents are desperate and urgently need help creating more order in their lives and indeed, more sleep – for EVERYONE!
Most new parents are bewildered that this time in their lives can be so hard. Shouldn’t babies and children just go to sleep when they are tired?
Enter Sleep Training!
I need to point out that falling sleep is a learned skill. While we are all born with the ability to sleep, it takes some skill and good habits to be able to achieve restful and restorative sleep.
Children learn HOW to fall asleep by how they are taught.
How habits form?
Going back to our inherent need to protect and comfort our children at all times, one can see that once we start feeding our babies to sleep and once we start sleeping with our babies in our beds, etc. this is what they believe is their norm. This is what WE have taught them.
If this method works for you when your little one is a baby, then that’s great. If it works for you when he is age one or three, then great. The problem arises when you realise you can’t be there every second of every day to feed your child whenever he or she needs it – or to rock them to sleep and be with them while they sleep.
For every human being – young or old – one of the most crucial elements for developing good sleep habits and learning to stay asleep is having beneficial wind-down routines and self-settling strategies.
For most of us adults these techniques are so second nature we don’t even have to think about it:
For me, once my day starts winding down, I put my work away and enter into a quiet and calm part of the day. This quiet involves preparing and enjoying an evening meal, a warm bath and some calm family time with relaxing activities. Then into my bed with comfy pyjamas, a full tummy, blankets that are just right, time to enjoy some relaxing reading, then lights out with the knowledge that it might take a little time to settle into sleep.
Newborns and children are the same and it’s up to us to teach them.
Start as you mean to continue
I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial it will be for you and your baby to start incorporating good sleep habits as soon as possible. You will be so grateful you did.
Healthy sleep promotes cognitive development, regulation of emotions, management of behavioural outbursts and fosters healthy sleep hygiene.
There will be habits a newborn develops – and that we develop – but with proper guidance (as soon as possible) you can prevent these habits from over-taking your new born’s sleep. Supporting and guiding your child through these gentle sleep training lessons is absolutely safe.
There is no evidence of psychological damage or any long-term harm resulting from a great sleep routine. The benefits, in fact, far outweigh the small and short-lived discomfort from making a few changes.
For a newborn entering into this new, strange world, they require support, assistance, love, reassurance, and guidance. If we respond to their needs in a balanced way they will feel supported through the challenges they are dealing with. This helps them to understand that they don’t need a crutch to fall asleep for a nap, bedtime, or after a middle of the night waking.