Parents are given so much conflicting advice on children’s sleep, it’s no wonder the whole family is sleep deprived.
Baby sleep advice is so polarized it’s enough to baffle a tired parent. It’s not just heated Internet battles, either—even experienced and trusted experts argue over sleep. My partner and I teach classes for new parents and constantly see people trying to piece together the clashing advice.
Last week a mom told the group her doctor recommended she “close the door and don’t go in ’til morning” to train her baby to sleep, while another told her the exact opposite—to soothe and feed the baby on demand through the night. She’d done a hodgepodge of both and felt more hopeless and confused.
One expert will swear by a sleep method, and another will not only disagree, he’ll tell you the first way is psychologically damaging. It instantly becomes an ideological debate. No matter which side they pick, parents are made to feel that they are at fault, like they’ve sacrificed something important.
How did sleep—a basic, natural part of life—become so controversial?
It’s not a new issue. Baby care manuals from the early 1900s had strict guidelines for getting infants to sleep, saying things such as: “all rocking and patting, or giving of a pacifier…ought never to be allowed” or else the baby will be spoiled. The manual popular in 1900, “The Care and Feeding of Children,” says “if the child is simply crying to be ‘taken up,’ it should not be interfered with,” and “it should simply be allowed to cry it out.”
In the 1950s, parenting advice based on behavioral psychology held that actions are modified by consequences: pick up a baby when she cries and she will cry more; ignore the cries and they will go away (early behavioral research was mainly on pigeons and mice, so emotion wasn’t taken much into consideration). This was later countered by attachment research, showing the power of the parent-child relationship. Babies have an innate drive to bond, and they thrive on attunement and response from caregivers. Little babies who are soothed feel secure and safe—that is essential to their development.
The problem is that sleep advice has been divided ever since. It never found a logical common ground. We’re still talking about sleep in old-school terms—strict and structured, or responsive and soft. Science has moved on, but sleep advice is stuck in the past.
Research (and good old common sense) tells us kids thrive when parents are balanced. The best parenting style is high on warmth and high on expectations and structure. This applies to sleep, too. Kids need emotional responsiveness, but they also need us to be in charge, provide consistency and let them practice their skills.
So leaving a baby to cry alone the whole night doesn’t sound right, or even logical. And young babies shouldn’t be weaned purposefully or put on strict feeding schedules—research shows nursing at night is natural and essential to successful breastfeeding.
But as babies get older, too much helping and soothing gets in the way, because it overshadows their emerging abilities. Most of the exhausted parents we meet are over-helping. They’re rocking older babies into a deep sleep and tiptoeing out, only to repeat the whole ritual a few hours later; or lying down with kids at bedtime (even though they’d rather not), missing alone time with their spouse and repeating the drill when the child wakes at 3 a.m.
A mom recently described her middle-of-the-night, hour-long bouncing routine with a one-year-old. Like many, she had developed back problems as a result. These are all well-meaning parents trying to do the right thing, many identifying with “attachment parenting.” Many feel guilty for wanting a full night’s sleep.
That’s a clear sign it’s time to change how we talk about sleep. Sleep is not rocket science—it’s innate and universal. Human beings are built to sleep, as long as the environment and habits are right. Most babies can sleep pretty well after six months, when their circadian system has matured (even though some might still feed at night, they can go back to sleep without much fanfare).
There’s no reason for attachment to conflict with this, and why would it? They’re both natural processes. The key is understanding what attachment really means: being attuned to a child’s needs, but also giving her space when she’s ready to master a new skill (such as sleeping). One of the goals of attachment, over time, is independence. When parents over-help, babies get hooked on sleep habits they don’t need. Those habits overshadow the child’s own skills and sleep gets worse instead of better.
It’s not that parents are “too attached,” it’s that we keep recycling an inaccurate definition of the word.
We know to help without helicoptering during the day. If your toddler is about to take her first step, would you swoop in and pick her up, just because she looks wobbly? If your son is struggling with a puzzle, would you put all the pieces in for him so he doesn’t have to be frustrated?
Same goes for sleep—if we do something for our babies that they’re capable of doing for themselves, we take away their chance to grow and progress. Kids will always need our help getting cozy, having the right routine or talking through fears of the dark. But if we expect them to sleep independently, then once they’re comfortable we have to step back and let them be in charge of falling asleep.
My partner and I love to catch parents when babies are little so they can fade their help gradually—pause before rushing in and discern normal baby noises so they don’t jump at every peep—hopefully avoiding the over-helping dilemma altogether.
Often we see parents at a crisis point, though. They have a 9-month-old who wakes every two hours, or a 20-pound toddler they bounce to sleep on a yoga ball (you wouldn’t believe how many we’ve met). Changing such an entrenched over-helping pattern usually means the baby will protest and cry at first.
This is where the attachment-versus-crying debate sparks flames. But again, our job as parents is not to make our kids happy at every moment, or to take away all their frustrations and make everything easy. A little struggle is okay. It’s our job to acknowledge difficult feelings, to hang in there and let our kids know that we’re with them and to let them do what they’re capable of.
Let’s unswaddle this tightly-wound debate. The argument itself is making people tired. The goals of the two sides (good sleep, good emotional health) are not only compatible, they feed each other. If we keep these goals in mind, we won’t scare parents into thinking they’re going to do it wrong. And we’ll all be able to do what we’re biologically programmed to do—get a good night’s sleep.
Heather Turgeon is co-author of the new book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age. Follow her on Facebook @TheHappySleeper.
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