In an effort to not write an essay, I have made this post in to a two-part series. Part 1 will outline the more research-based elements of sleep training, whereas part 2 will focus on our personal experience with using a gentle sleep training method.
The one thing I had promised myself I would never do, I am now doing: sleep training. Gasp! Shock! I know the arguments lash-outs moms putting other moms down because of the well-intentioned decisions they made about their own families debates surrounding sleep training and why it is good or not good. This was most definitely one of the hardest decisions we have ever made. I was always on the side of it not being good. I just didn’t think it could fit with the attachment parenting lifestyle that we had adopted. But, after 16 months of co-sleeping and nursing to sleep, with neither of us getting the quality of sleep we needed, something had to change. I started doing research and as a family, Papa Mermy and I made the conscious decision that sleep training, or “sleep learning” as Alice Callahan, PhD, terms it over at “The Science of Mom” was the right way forward for us. Knowing now what I know of sleep and sleep training in its various forms, I can honestly say that this was the best decision for my little guy. Does it mean I get a bit more sleep? Sure, but that’s never been the driving force. I am a research-oriented person and once I started learning more about sleep and its importance for little ones, I felt that it was my duty to ensure that I allowed my son to pursue independent, good quality sleep and thereby thrive in his development. I know there will be those who will disagree, but to put it politely, our family, our rules #sorrynotsorry. As our family motto states: This is a no-judgement zone.
Importance of sleep, especially for babies
As my blog title clearly indicates, I’m indeed a tired mama. The “happily” stems from finding joy in all manners of motherhood, including being tired and sleepy and exhausted. However, too often it is forgotten that sleep is an innate human need. In fact, sleep is hardly valued in our society. Foregoing sleep for working longer hours, or engaging in social activities is seen as being far more respectable, and socially acceptable, than going to sleep early. But, let’s consider this: sleep deprivation is actually used as a method of torture around the world. Yet, we self-inflict this very thing on our selves due to societal pressures and questionable mores.
To understand the effect of chronic sleep deprivation on mothers, see Mia Scotland’s article here. Here, I will briefly outline the importance of sleep for babies.
Let me start by saying that infants, young babies, do NOT sleep through the night, normatively. They sleep their version of “through the night”, which means waking to nurse every so often, and as parents, we must absolutely attend to their needs. However, there does come a certain point when the baby will nurse at night because he or she has become used to doing so rather than actually needing it. In our household, we definitely adhered to the Attachment Parenting philosophy of attending to Baby Mermy’s needs through the night irrespective of whether he could go to sleep without nursing or not. In hindsight, we had created in him a dependence on nursing to sleep through the night and, in many ways, tricked convinced him that he needed to nurse in order to sleep. Around the 14 month mark, I realized that this was a problem when I started researching and learning more about early childhood development. And that’s when Papa Mermy and I started to seriously discuss what we could do to empower Baby Mermy to sleep on his own, without a crutch, whatever form it took.
Here’s what I learned through all my readings: sleep is critical for a baby’s growth and development. Simple and commonsensical. But, how many of us file that point away because we are unsure of how it fits within the parenting paradigm we have chosen? As parents, we don’t want to see our children cry or go through any stress or difficulties and, with so much being written about sleep, both good and bad, it makes it extremely difficult to decide what we should do. Although there are short-term effects of a good night’s sleep, the major benefits of sleep are not realized until much later in our children’s lives, so how can we willy-nilly decide how to help our children sleep? One thing we do know for certain is that comforting our babies and responding to their needs is a good and necessary thing. Unfortunately, too often we stick to that philosophy for their sleep, and, as was in our case, ignore all other literature that notes the importance of being able to sleep soundly through the night, both for children and ourselves. Perhaps, it would be better to fuse the two philosophies and find a common ground between them.
In short, babies need good quality sleep for numerous reasons. According to the book Nurtureshock, “children get an hour less sleep than they did thirty years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD and obesity” (Bronson and Merryman, 42). The National Sleep Foundation notes that even a loss of 30 minutes of sleep for a baby can prove to have detrimental effects. A valid point raised by them is that often drowsy children don’t behave like adults when they are drowsy: they get hyper-active rather than slow down, mirroring symptoms of ADHD. This then makes it difficult for parents to know when their child needs to go to sleep, often resulting in over-tired children. Alice Callahan, PhD, over at The Science of Mom notes through well conducted research that sleep is necessary for a baby’s learning process, “maturation of infants’ brains and consolidation of their memories”, their demeanour, and growth. As such, Papa Mermy and I felt that our constant interference, as innocent and well-intentioned as it was, via sleep crutches, was actually hindering Baby Mermy from getting a good night’s sleep. Constant night awakenings when he no longer needed to eat throughout the night were preventing him from experiencing high quality sleep. I highly recommend checking out these and other sources to learn more about the importance of sleep for developing minds. Learning from them is what convinced us to finally help Baby Mermy learn how to sleep on his own.
Of course, some families never have any difficulties at all with their children’s sleep; that certainly was not us. Baby Mermy was always a happy baby regardless of the amount of sleep he had gotten the night before. However, he could not sleep longer than 90-120 minutes before waking up and needing my assistance, via nursing, to go back to sleep. This continued for approximately 16 months of his life, minus a month where he somehow slept 5 hour stretches (no idea how that happened or why it changed). As he got older, he started waking up fussier, more stressed out, not rested. Looking into it (i.e. googling it in the middle of the night when I was up for the 5th nursing session of the night), I realized that these were clear indicators that not only was he longing to sleep through the night without the constant awakenings, he was showing that he was ready to do it on his own. Once I realized this, Papa Mermy and I started discussing what method we would follow to help us help him learn to sleep (cry-it-out was NOT on our list). After all, as participants in the Attachment Parenting system, we must listen, and respond, to the needs of our children.
My next post will discuss our personal experience with sleep training, what we did, how we adapted, and what we learned.
Have any of you sleep-trained your little ones? What motivated you to do it?
United in diapering,