Are you a good baby?
No, that’s not a typo. It’s a real question.
And you probably don’t get asked it very much.
I was listening to a continuing education webinar today, about Infant Sleep Training Programs, and the instructor asked the audience:
“How many of you turn over and cuddle up with your partner during the night?” Most hands went up.
“How many of you wake up to have a drink of water?” Most hands went up.
“How many of you get up to pee in the night?” Most hands went up.
“How many of you can’t sleep in the middle of the night and get up and read, or get something to eat, or check your emails?” Quite a few hands went up.
“How many of you get anxious or worried in the middle of the night and wake up your partners for support?” Again, quite a few hands went up.
“In other words”, she said, “You can’t make it through the night without waking up, and most of you want some physical or verbal contact with your partners, or you require food or drink.”
“In other words, you just aren’t good babies.”
I can only imagine what the webinar participants thought when she said that.
In reality, it’s perfectly normal for adults to wake throughout the night. Most of the times we have the skills, knowledge and capacity to get ourselves back to sleep.
We can reach up for a glass of water.
We can get out of bed and go to the bathroom.
We can go to the kitchen if we are hungry.
We can turn on the light and read.
We can cuddle with our partner (if we have one).
We can text our best friends and ask if they are up.
It is also perfectly normal (and actually important) for babies to wake throughout the night.
They cannot reach for a glass of water.
They cannot get out of bed and go to the bathroom (nor can they change their own diaper).
They cannot go into the kitchen for something to eat.
They cannot turn on the light and read.
They cannot cuddle with their most important person (usually Mom) – unless she is right there next to them.
They cannot text their little baby friends.
So what’s a baby to do?
They are helpless. They are totally dependent.
They call out the only way they know how – they cry.
And they cry. and they cry, until someone meets their very pressing needs.
But somehow, in our culture, we have decided that if our helpless dependent babies wake and cry and need us in the night, they have “sleep problems”.
And if there’s a problem, it needs to be fixed.
And if we haven’t fixed it, our babies are not “good babies”, and in turn we feel that we are not “good parents”.
So, as a result of this need to fix their babies, parents feel pressured to resort to “Sleep training”, which involves, one way or the other, not responding to your babies needs for comfort during the night. Theoretically, eventually the baby stops waking at night.
The core advice of sleep training recommends:
- Do not nurse your baby to sleep.
- Do not rock your baby to sleep.
- Do not have eye contact with your baby when putting them to sleep.
- Night wean your baby (anywhere from 12 weeks to 6 months, depending on the program).
- Allow you baby to cry in a “controlled” manner.
Does it work?
Sometimes it works in a few days. Sometimes it literally takes months.
But at what potential cost?
In the webinar I watched they outlined what happens to babies during sleep training.
- The baby wakes and cries for comfort.
- The parent refuses to pick them up. They may pat their back.
- the baby panics. Their heart rate, blood pressure and temperature increase.
- Their nervous system goes into “fight/flight” mode.
- If they continue to be left to cry they then go into “freeze” mode – they stop crying.
- Their cortisol (the stress hormone) levels go up.
- Over time, if “controlled crying” continues for many days, or weeks, some of their cortisol receptors in the brain shut down, leaving them more vulnerable to stress, more prone to aggression and depression throughout their life.
The Australian Mental Health Association says:
“Infants are more likely to develop secure attachments when their distress is responded to promptly, consistently and appropriately. Secure attachments in infancy are the foundation for good adult mental health”.
And as one mom put it:
“I spent so much time sleep training my first baby, I wish I had just spent the time enjoying him.”
I know that many moms are extremely exhausted and sleep deprived. For some families sleep training has felt like a life saver. You will find lots of support for sleep training on the internet.
But, I also know that if you are convinced your baby should not wake up anymore, you will feel way more tired.
And if you are obsessed about looking at the clock and counting how often your baby wakes during the night, you will feel way more tired.
And if you feel you caused “sleep problems” because you lovingly nurse your child to sleep, you will feel more tired.
On the other hand:
If you get to a place of acceptance that babies wake and need you in the night, you will feel less tired.
If you keep your baby nearby, and don’t need to fully awaken to comfort them, you will feel less tired.
If you applaud yourself for building a strong, secure, loving bond with your baby, you will feel less tired.
And, if you know that even if you have a high need baby, or a baby who wakes frequently and who cries when you put them down, you still have “a good baby”, and you will be less tired.
But… if you are very tired:
- Lie down to nap when your baby does – even though you want to get things done. Your well being is more important.
- Remember to eat well.
- Get outside in the fresh air as much as you can.
- If you have someone who can take the baby for an hour or two, lie down and catch some shuteye.
- A 15 minute Epson salt bath can work wonders.
- If you have a partner, on the days they don’t have to go to work, once you nurse the baby in the morning, let them take the baby out for a walk while you sleep.
- It is documented that during the childbearing years women have greater “sleep resiliency” and can cope more easily with less sleep.
Remember, babies have been waking at night since the beginning of time. Mother Nature designed babies that way for a reason.
A wakeful baby is a normal baby. So are those rare babies who, on their own, sleep for long stretches at night.
Babies and sleep is a controversial “hot topic”. It is also very personal. It is up to you to do what you feel is right for you, your baby and your family.
As I always say to parents, “Listen to your baby and listen to your heart.”
That is where you’ll find your way.
PS: For further information about sleep training, the webinar presenter I wrote about is Pinky McKay.