“In about 95% of cases the reason a child doesn’t sleep well is…sleep props.”
They were her exact words. A very popular sleep “expert’s” unqualified statement that found its way into my inbox.
Included in the definition of “sleep props” were mothers nursing their babies to sleep and parents lying down with their children until they fall asleep. “If you let your child fall asleep while you’re cuddling” she said, “That’s a mistake”.
I’m incredibly grateful that I’m immune to scare tactics like these. And my mission is to reach as many parents as possible to let them know that this popular, yet misguided tactic-based approach to nighttime parenting is complete bullshit. Why?
Because many parents believe these words. Our culture believes them. Our society believes them. Why?
Because they’re convenient.
Because they’re profitable.
Because for some reason, it’s become more socially acceptable to let an expensive, minimalistic, cradle-come-straight-jacket shake our babies to sleep rather than gently sway and sing to them as they fall asleep in our arms.
But, the problem (for the sleep training industry) is that babies don’t believe them. And neither do a growing minority of parents.
Mothers who nurse their babies to sleep.
Fathers who bedshare.
Mothers who breastsleep.
Fathers who lie patiently beside their children for as long as it takes for them to surrender to sleep.
If we are brave enough to listen, our children tell us exactly what they need. And it’s simple.
They need us. They need connection. They need contact. They need security.
And if we’re being honest, we need the exact same things…we’ve just been taught to bury our feelings. To doubt our instincts. To deny the very customs that make us human.
We are, after all, social mammals. We’re a carrying species. We’re designed for social sleep.
It’s biologically normal to nurse a one, two, three or four-year-old to sleep (and through the night).
It’s developmentally appropriate for an eighteen-month-old to wake multiple times a night.
It’s physically and psychologically healthy for a mother to fall asleep at 7pm with her child (and as socially inconvenient as it may be, to not want to trade that for going out).
And yes, it’s hard. But, no it doesn’t make parents “sleep props”. It doesn’t make breastfeeding a “bad sleep association”. It doesn’t make responsiveness a “sleep crutch”. And it doesn’t mean our children have “sleep problems”.
It means they’re sleeping like babies, not like adults. It means they’re staying in lighter stages of sleep, as nature intended, to naturally protect them from SIDS. It means your nighttime breastmilk is a source of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that helps babies fall asleep. It means your touch is regulating their physiology, stabilizing their heart rate, modulating their temperature and stimulating their breathing. It means you’re following the path our hunter-gatherer ancestors laid out and parenting through the night in the way your baby needs.
Because parenting isn’t a set of strategies, it’s a relationship; whether it’s light outside or not. Nighttime parenting, by definition, is half of that relationship. How could different rules apply based on the setting of the sun?
Before the sun goes down, we respond. After the sun goes down, we ignore. Nonsense.
The truth is that after the sun goes down is when sleep training becomes intensely profitable. And so, those who stand to gain the most are trying to make the rules and lure us into playing the game. Only these “rules” are more like cunning traps than helpful signposts; duping, guilting and scaring vulnerable parents into fixing their babies that aren’t broken.
For me, one of the biggest surprises of motherhood has been that nighttime parenting is about so much more than sleep. In challenging my preconceived ideals about what infant and toddler sleep should look like and rather accept it for what it actually is, I was able to learn how to flow with my son rather than fight against the little person I love most in the world.
When we choose to deal in the reality our child is showing us, rather than fantasy that’s marketed to us, we’re able to identify the root of the problem. In the haze of new parenthood, we don’t need quick-fixes, we need support. We need shoulders to cry on. We need people in our lives who are willing to step up and help, instead of pressuring us into sleep training and unfairly putting the weight of responsibility on the tiniest shoulders in our families. We need someone to care for our baby while we take a shower. Someone to make us breakfast, to fill our water bottles, to run our errands, to fold the washing, to make our bed, to help us feel human. Someone to remind us that the sacrifices we are making are monumentally worthwhile. Someone to help us establish rhythms and sleep practices that care for parents without compromising the valid needs of babies.
“Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean me first, it means me too.” L.R Knost
So, don’t let others define your relationship with your child.
Use your nights to choose midnight cuddles and morning snuggles.
To respond to your child and nurse in synchrony with his needs.
To teach your baby that he can trust you to reliably respond to him.
To reassure him that he can rest in your love, not work for it.
To establish healthy emotional patterns within his rapidly developing brain that his needs matter and that his voice will be heard.
No matter what some may say, it is physically impossible to spoil your child by being responsive. Babies don’t manipulate, they communicate. So, trust your instincts. Follow your innate wisdom and believe your baby.
Let him guide you to show you what he needs, day and night.