Resolving baby and child sleep problems is an emotive subject at the best of times! There are many different approaches, theories, strategies and so much debate. It can be very confusing trying to tease out which theory or approach is best for your family.
Rarely though, in mainstream sleep approaches is there deep consideration about how a baby or child actually feels in relation to sleep. There may be a passing thought that the baby may be upset or will protest when left to cry for 5 or 10 minutes alone on the first nights of sleep training.
Often these considerations are offset by the ‘magic’ claims of sleep training that within 3-5 nights the baby or child will be settling and sleeping like a real pro!!
And maybe he will… that’s what parents want to hear, and that’s a great justification for the temporary upset… well, maybe…. for some….
When decisions are made by adults about which approaches and strategies should be used to resolve sleepy issues, one big assumption is made, and that is:
We know how the child feels! And the child will stop feeling what he feels within 3-5 nights of sleep training.
I question: How can we know how a baby or child feels when they can’t tell us? Even as adults we struggle to understand our feelings and emotions, and sometimes we can know how we feel, yet we don’t know why we feel like we do… and we also know that what happened to us 6 months ago or even last year can still affect us now… and probably will still affect us this time next year!
Food for thought on feelings
I find myself telling parents on a daily basis – “I don’t know! Honestly – I really DON’T know!” we laugh because I just don’t know!! Laughing defuses tension around not knowing, and we then figure out that it’s OK not to know – because how can anyone really know what a baby or young child is feeling? And, who has the right to assume or dictate how a young child feels anyway?
So, I have come to the conclusion that it’s really OK not to know, and this is why:
If we ask the question: how does this baby or child feel? If we then admit that we really don’t know, we take the step to viewing the unique child, a child who holds his own feelings and emotions, his own special thoughts and feelings which are based on his own unique journey through life from the very start. Just like each one of us reading this article today.
We respect the unique child in our admittance of “not knowing”, which drives our curiosity for the possibilities and depth of a child’s feelings.
Feelings, emotions and sleep behaviours.
In my experience (a whole wonderful 30 years of it!) children’s sleep behaviours have much deeper meanings than what we see and experience – the observable behaviour. While some transitional behavioural issues can be due to developmental leaps, maturation or ill health, in many cases problematic sleep behaviours are an indication of the child’s underlying feelings and emotions – just like adults!
I’m sure we can all think of a time recently when stresses and frustrations have built up and we’ve lost control, cried, argued with colleagues or partners, shouted or snapped at children…or maybe we were lucky enough to have a listening ear to talk it all through.
We all have some experience of how our heightened feelings and emotions have affected our actions and behaviours.
Babies and children are the same, but because typically we have simplistic expectations of ‘good sleepers’ or ‘bad sleepers’ we make the assumption that child sleep is purely behavioural, and forget about feelings – or we just don’t make the relevant connection between behaviours and feelings.
What kinds of experiences influence children’s sleep?
Anything and everything! Any difficult or stressful experience – just like adults! The list is endless: birth experience, prenatal experiences, separations at/after birth, hospitalisations, separation anxiety, feeding difficulties, illness, developmental frustrations, new nursery or childcare situations… siblings… relationships, visitors, parties – I’m sure you can think of a few more yourself too. Sometimes just one experience like a bad day at nursery can offset bedtime settling for a preschooler, but more often stresses accumulate over days, or weeks sometimes even years for young children.
Bedtime is the time… the time when feelings come to the surface and the time feelings are most difficult to control because babies and children are tired and vulnerable to their feelings.
It’s the time when feelings are most accessible and when children are expected to LET GO… to fall into sleep; However –
It’s difficult to LET GO of mummy or daddy (because it feels scary to be alone with my big feelings),
It’s so hard to LET GO… (when mummy and daddy walk away at bedtime – why aren’t they helping me?),
….to FALL INTO SLEEP alone (when those big feelings keep coming back into my head…)
As adults it’s easy to consider the ‘problem’ behaviours, but there’s every reason now to look beyond the behaviours to the possible feelings of each unique child:
The toddler who runs after mummy as she leaves the room – a dozen times, 20 times… 50 times!
The 9 month old baby who needs to feel the comfort of his daddy’s arms to fall into sleep – or he cries hard and long!
The preschooler who demands, “just one more story…PLEASE!!!”
We all need sleep – Parents, babies and children alike – we need sleep. So, when we’re thinking about how to resolve sleep disturbances, my message is:
Let’s work with respect; let’s NOT make assumptions about baby and children’s sleep behaviours;
Let’s look deeper, admit we don’t know… and question more…. seek out the uniqueness of each child and be open and receptive to the emotional roots of sleep disturbances.
Attachment Parenting UK’s Positive Discipline course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on sleep and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.