Last night was rough. And it’s still going. We’ve had four false starts just to get out of bed as my three-year-old returns time and again to nurse, seeking the familiar comfort he craves. He’s as exhausted as I am. It’s 8:43am and I’m relieved we could indulge in a rare Saturday morning sleep in.
As the autumn rain hammers down outside our bedroom window, I hear my husband watching the rugby and the kettle boiling in the background; I’m heartened by the promise of coffee. To be honest, the last week (or maybe the last three years) has been defined by broken sleep. I feel like a new mother as I reluctantly peel back the covers and drag myself out of bed; my legs quiver like jelly and my vision is blurred through my relentless tear-filled yawns.
My energetic toddler is suddenly all smiles as he greets his dinosaur collection, drinks carrot juice and dares us to chase him around the house in our pyjamas. Doesn’t he remember we were awake at 12:30am? Nursing at 2:45am? And again at 5am? His unshakeable happiness soothes my weary soul as he reminds me my efforts are worthwhile.
His growing confidence is fuelled by the knowledge we’ll endeavour to meet his needs come day or night.
Our family follows a different path to the mainstream; we share our bed, breastfeed, practice elimination communication, responsive parenting and gentle discipline…the list goes on. Yet, as self-assured as I am in my parenting choices I won’t discuss my current exhaustion with many people in real life. Why? Because, like most of us, I’ve been down that road before. I know what they’ll suggest: that my son should sleep in his own room, we should encourage independence and we should stop breastfeeding.
It’s been a common theme in my journey as a mother and a central reason behind why I write about my experiences; to connect with others who feel the same way. I reflect on how I felt as a new parent forging my own path into unknown terrain; alone and out of place, yet empowered and emboldened by my conscious decisions.
Most people would view my son’s recent pattern of broken sleep as a problem to fix, a puzzle to solve. But, that’s not how I see it. I know it’s normal; I trust he’s trying his best with whatever developmental, emotional or physical challenge he’s currently facing. I know he’s not attempting to manipulate or intentionally torture me.
Like many parents, I’m not seeking solutions; I’m craving support. Not sympathy, but empathy. Compassion. A warm cup of coffee. And most importantly, a reassuring pat on the back in recognition of the fact that I’m bravely following my instincts to give my son what he needs, in spite of the challenges it may present.
I often wonder why sleep has become the litmus test for a new parent’s level of success. Why are “good babies” those who sleep the longest with the least amount of support? The notion is nonsensical and goes against everything human biology and evolutionary history tells us about what babies and young children need for safe and healthy sleep.
It’s a misguided cultural expectation, which prioritizes the evolving adult-centred values of our society over the burning needs of our children.
It sends sleep-deprived mothers a dangerous message; that if her baby isn’t sleeping, in the way society unrealistically expects, she’s a bad mother. She’s doing something wrong. Or, worse still, there’s something wrong with her baby. In these moments, vulnerable parents are more easily bullied or coerced into harsh sleep training methods by friends and professionals who should know better.
Non-responsive sleep training, or the many names it goes by, has been a hot topic on my social media feed lately. I’ve watched as other brave mothers put their neck on the metaphorical chopping block and advocate for the needs of babies. They’re accused of judging those who’ve resorted to sleep training. And they’re vilified for suggesting sleep training is unhealthy for babies. But, regardless of the inevitable criticism I’ll receive, this is a conversation brave parents need to encourage, not only for our children, but for ourselves.
Society assigns labels to unpleasant practices like sleep training; it helps us disconnect from our instincts and dupes us into believing an approach is scientific, safe and official. But, if sleep training didn’t have relatively soft labels, like cry it out or controlled crying, how would we describe it? The common thread non-responsive methods share is to ignore a babies’s needs, to ignore their cries.
How can this be good advice for any parent? How can this possibly shape healthy family relationships? Or an empathetic society?
Sleep trainers inform parents that when their baby stops crying, they’ve successfully learned to “self-soothe”. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. A 2011 study measured cortisol levels (a stress hormone) in both mothers and babies when subjected to a sleep training program based on controlled crying. Initially cortisol levels in both mother and baby were synchronously elevated when babies cried; this physiological response prompts a mother to comfort her baby and promotes secure attachment.
However, over the three day study period when babies were ignored their crying decreased. With the lack of cues, mothers’ cortisol levels diminished and so too did her stress. But, how did their babies feel? Babies’ stress hormones remained elevated. In their silence, they remained psychologically distressed. Non-responsive sleep training teaches babies not to seek or expect support regardless of how distressed they may feel.
Babies may interpret a lack of parental response as evidence they’re unable to effectively communicate their own needs, predisposing children to issues with insecurity and a future lack of empathy for others. Young children believe they, themselves, are the cause of their experience. This is powerful knowledge for parents to have; how we treat our babies lays the foundation for the beliefs our kids will come to hold true about themselves for the rest of their lives. If we repeatedly ignore our babies they’ll believe they’re not worthy of attention, comfort and affection. But if we shower them with unconditional love, they’ll believe they’re loveable, valued and worthy of healthy relationships.
“Let’s raise children who won’t have to recover from their childhoods” Pam Leo
So, to all the sleep-deprived, responsive parents who feel pressured to “toughen up” and let your baby cry – what you’re doing and the sacrifices you’re making are profoundly important and worthwhile. You’re investing in your child’s psychological development as they literally form the neurological pathways they need for healthy emotional regulation. You’re attuning yourself with your baby and forming a unique bond which will serve as a platform to help them grow into successful, joyful and secure children and adults. You’re showing them you’ll be there for them unconditionally, to help them manage overwhelming emotions by providing a safe place they can return to at any time.
It’s important to make the distinction that this is not about judging parents. This is about questioning a potentially harmful practice and the relative ease with which it is recommended to sleep deprived parents who will try just about anything. Sleep deprivation is a killer, especially when we’re trying to keep up with the demands of modern life. Parenting is complex with a myriad of unique challenges and there are exceptional circumstances like post natal depression; sometimes it may be safer and necessary for a mother to leave her baby to cry. But a significant problem which needs addressing is a phenomenally unrealistic expectation about what normal infant sleep looks like combined with a culture doing very little to support new parents.
From advocating for sufficient maternity leave so that mothers can catch up on sleep during the day to demanding safe co-sleeping guidelines, our society needs to strive to meet the needs of both babies and parents. And as a community we need to care for new parents and ensure they receive empathetic and empowering support as well as realistic expectations. As challenging as it may be, if we can normalize night wakings the more acceptable normal infant behaviour will become.