Nighttime parenting isn’t a set of sleep strategies, it’s a relationship


“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.

  • Avatar
    March 11, 2019
    The Royal Pools

    Keen to hear your views on how much this still applies when pregnant with #2, and #1 is still wanting this level of attention. Both during the latter stages of pregnancy, and when #2 arrives.

    Our 24mth old wakes up 4-5 times a night, and right now that level of attention is quite ok, but the future months and further appear a bit harder to be assured of the same…

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    March 12, 2019

    Thank you so much for this piece. It spoke to my heart. I have a nine month old. I started out trying to get him to sleep in Moses basket, then wooden cot then camp cot. Nothing worked. He wanted to co-sleep and we just went with it. Now we put him on a mattress on the floor big enough for one of us to slide down at anytime if he needs us. Last night he went to bed at 6pm and slept till 6am. First time. In between he has two dream feeds and just wants to feel us then he is fine and sleeps further. We put him on the floor because he rolls so much when he sleeps. I read books on sleep training and a lot of it did not work for me. I want a secure child and my baby is doing just fine without me trying some strategy.

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    March 12, 2019

    I love this article. What about a 2 year old who won’t dsy nap (except usually 2 days a week when at day care or if we go for a drive, but hus afternoon behaviour confirms he still needs the nap? I’ve tried everything from controlled crying to gradusl withdrawal, cosleeping, rewards. I can only get about 20 mins of quiet time if we read a book together. Thanks

    • Avatar
      March 13, 2019

      I feel you. It can be so frustrating to not get the quiet you want, need, or expect. You’re not a slave to your child, and if you need a helping hand, ask for it.

      However, if your baby needs you, he needs you. If you need quiet, you already know what it takes. Just read with him. Lie down with him. You don’t have to be limited by unrealistic expectations of what should be. You can embrace what is. He’ll be big so soon. Cuddle him while you can. Enjoy how much he needs you. You are the world to this one human. How many people are in the world who will love you so very much, so completely? So take all the snuggles you can get. You have a very precious gift that lots of other people would give anything to have. Snuggle your baby. Let the house go to hell. It’s replaceable. He is not.

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    March 12, 2019

    Thank you! Your posts are always such a breath of fresh air. I’m happy to parent my children both day and night. I’m happy to follow biological breastfeeding. And I know there must be other mothers who feel the same, despite all the “expert advice” trying to make it sound like something is wrong when my children simply do what they are designed to do. So thank you for being a voice for those of us who don’t quite know how to put these thoughts into words.
    Heidi recently posted…Elimination Communication Benefits – Why EC is Awesome!

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    March 12, 2019

    Just lovely, as always. Thank you for saying what needs to be said!! Thank you for being honest and brave…. I read this as I have my five year old pressed up against my back and my 1 year old attached to my breast. Cosleep for life! 😀😀

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    March 12, 2019

    Thank you. I needed to read this tonight.

  • Avatar
    March 12, 2019

    Beautiful article!
    New mothers need to be prepared to reject ideas that only suit the fast money-making lifestyle created by greedy people. Babies cannot follow it, at least without suffering.
    It is our duty as mothers to analyze and challenge a few new ideas that are actually harming our children.
    Thank you for your article!👍

  • Avatar
    March 12, 2019

    I love this post. I’ve never really cared what other people thought and thankfully didn’t feel the pressure to stop cosleeping or breastfeeding before we were ready but I know many do so I’ll share this lovely article in the hope it gives some of them the strength to do what nature intended <3

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    March 12, 2019

    Oh my gosh this article came at a moment I needed it so much!!!
    Thankyou for putting into words what’s in my heart and mind always.
    Question for you… what age do you think we start encouraging our kids to sleep on their own?
    I’m a single mum and my 8yr old son still loves to cosleep when he’s feeling bit down etc

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    March 13, 2019

    Thank you, just what I needed to read while helping my baby go back to sleep this early morning.

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    March 13, 2019

    Thank you for writing this and putting it out there! We need more stories out there about families trusting their babies and going with the flow rather than trying to control everything… thank you!

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    March 13, 2019

    I love this approach, but struggle with a few things. My husband works late. I really do want to have “adult time” with him. We’ve been trying to get our 8mo to sleep with his help, then when I go to bed I grab her to cosleep. She screams when I leave the room and I hate that, but otherwise I’d be in there so long nursing her to sleep, which used to be fine, but more recently she wakes up if I put her down.

    Im struggling to find our solution…

    • Avatar
      March 13, 2019

      My baby girl sleeps with us. If we put us all to bed, she usually falls asleep. Then we can sneak away for a few minutes before she wakes up. If I let her take her 2 naps too early, she needs a third nap around 6. Then she won’t go to bed until 10-11. I have to be proactive about not letting her sleep in late, and delaying her second nap until 3-4. Evening naps must be avoided, whatever toys, playtime, walks or baths may be needed to distract the lovey.

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    March 13, 2019

    I wholeheartedly believe in this approach. However, how do you find a balance when you’re a working parent and your relationship with your partner needs time and attention too? It doesnt happen until after our son is asleep. And that can take hours of laying with him. How can you have both and find a balance? I’d love some solid advice on this because we have baby number 2 on the way! 🙂 Thanks!

    • Avatar
      March 13, 2019

      It seems like it shouldn’t take hours. Maybe he isn’t very tired. Or maybe he misses you because of the time spent apart, and so resists sleep. I don’t know. What I do know is that my baby girl hardly gives me any alone time with her dad. We’re starting to put us all to bed, then get up after she’s asleep. Mostly, our alone time isn’t planned, but snatched in the available moment. Most of the time, we are reconciled to having her with us.

  • Avatar
    March 14, 2019

    Thank you so much for this story. My mom has noticed many new parents not holding or rocking their babies to sleep anymore. There are so many gadgets out there that allow us the least amount of contact with our baby. I’ve learnt from my mom and my daughter has thrived. She is also very independent besides what the critics say.

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    March 19, 2019

    Thank you for your blogs. It has served as a pick me up and a reminder that I am doing the right thing by bedsharing and breastfeeding my beautiful daughter. After weeks of hourly wake ups throughout the night I’m feeling so exhausted, and hearing friends discuss how they have started sleep training shakes my confidence in my decisions. But reading this reminds me that it is so right and natural to be there for my baby throughout the night no matter how difficult it is. She is 9 months old, almost walking and so happy and full of energy every day.

  • Avatar
    March 20, 2019

    Abby thank you for brilliant wisdom on this. 22 yrs ago I birthed my first child and my world turned inside out. I’m glad I searched beyond the fear of the medical world I worked in as a Nurse and discovered healthier traditions across time and culture that said yes, breastfeed, co-sleep, and be there. For a thousand reasons this is true if we are to be humans that live from love, in connection to our breath, the depth of those we love, and the incredible relationship we have with the planet. These are all rooted to this primary connection we have parent child and if we can give ourselves over to it, trusting, sensing the wonder, we can be a different human, one who remembers we’re part of the whole planetary family. To anyone scared into sleep training I say trust your heart. By holding my children close, responding, breastfeeding till our relationship naturally said it was time, I’ve watched two amazing child grow into being adults that are strong, independent, heart-based, creative, and great commuuicators who take on the world, secure in who they are!

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