Despite the vast world of parenting advice wanting you to believe it so – we do not birth robots that fit neatly into discrete little boxes and categories of needs and behaviours.
Despite how society wants us to label our children to be good, bad, or otherwise when we bring a child into the world we realise, usually quite quickly, that it would be impossible to classify them with arbitrary labels. Just like every adult, every baby is unique unto themselves.
The moment we realise this, we begin to unpack the cultural conditioning we are unaware is influencing our parenting choices.
When it comes to sleep we’ve been led to believe that all babies are the same. That all infants can be “taught” to sleep , and that this ‘skill’ that must be taught as early as possible.
Yet, with a little understanding of our evolution, biology and neurology it becomes evident that teaching a baby to sleep is not the answer. Instead if we attune to the child in front of us we begin to learn exactly what it is OUR child needs when it comes to sleep (hint – it always begins with connection!).
The current zeitgeist has failed to take into consideration that all babies are individuals; they all have different sleep needs. There are infants that thrive on 9 hours of sleep and those that prefer to clock in a good 20 hours in the first few months of life, some that prefer a cat nap to take the edge off and some that would happily doze all afternoon – and neither of these are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Whether it’s the subtle way cultural messaging seeps into our beliefs or how we compare our child to those of friends and family, we’ve forgotten one important thing – every child arrives into this world with their own essence and the magic of motherhood begins when we strip back all the white noise and get to know OUR baby. One of the greatest skills to cultivate as a parent is that of curiosity – what is my baby or child communicating with me? What do they need at this moment?
The Importance of Temperament
We’re all born with a unique essence or what’s known as a temperament. It sits somewhere on a continuum, rather than falling into neat little measurable traits; from spirited to easy going, from slow to warm to confident, from flexible to rigid. Chat with any mother of multiple children and she will describe this when she tells you how very different her own wombs gifts truly are.
Our temperament affects how we approach everything in the world – including sleep!
Perhaps you know adults who struggle to sleep most nights, or conversely those bordering on narcoleptic and can find sleep easily while riding a bus along a potholed road.
The more easy going among us can transition between being awake and being asleep more quickly than those of us who have a more sensitive disposition and need things in our environment to be just right to find slumber. So why then doesn’t society make the same connection between infants and their ability to find sleep? Why do we continue to prescribe a one size fits all solution?
What is Temperament?
Temperament is an infant’s disposition and essence. It is their innate programming that affects how they respond to the world around them. It dictates whether they perceive stress more keenly and how much co-regulation they require from us.
What is important to point out is that there is no right or wrong, or good or bad within temperament traits. As Dr. Shefali would say, there is only what is. And what we bring to the table as conscious parents, is unconditional acceptance of our child’s temperament. We don’t try to change or tweak it. Rather we flow with it, we attune to the child in front of us and provide the care and nurture they need – especially when it comes to all things nighttime parenting.
The Nine Different Temperament Traits
Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess developed a theory of temperament in the 1950’s-70’s and found that temperament is affected by 9 different temperament traits those being
1.Activity – the energy level and degree to which an infant is active or inactive
Does the child need to be in motion and struggle to sit still or do they prefer more sedentary activities and staying still?
2. Rhythmicity – the infant’s natural patterns – predictable or variable.
Children who are more predictable develop more regular schedules and those who are more variable tend to remain unpredictable in their patterns & sleep.
3. Initial Reaction – the tendency to approach or withdraw from new situations.
Children who are more open tend to explore more and are more open to other people. Those who are more hesitant are more uncomfortable in new environments and around people they don’t know.
4. Adaptability – the ease to which an infant adapts to change in their environment.
Adaptable children accept changes in their environments and routines. Whereas those who aren’t tend to be highly resistant to change and will let those around them know they are with lots of tears and emotions.
5. Intensity – the strength of emotional reaction.
More intense children will have stronger emotional reactions to both positive and negative events. Whereas less intense children can appear to cruise through most events not showing much fluctuation of emotion.
6. Mood – The overall quality or tone of the infant’s emotional state, positive or negative.
Children with more positive outlooks are easier to please and have “easier” relationships with others. Those with more negative outlooks tend to be harder to soothe and more disagreeable with those around them.
7. Distractibility – How easily they focus and switch between one stimulus and another
Children who find focus are able to block out distractions easier than their counterparts are more affected by noise and distractions and struggle to focus.
8. Attention Span – Ability to stay with a task
Children who can hold attention for longer are those who become immersed with the activity in front of them. Whereas those with shorter attention spans seem to become disinterested quickly.
9. Sensory Threshold – how reactive to sensory stimuli our children are.
Children with a high sensory threshold may not notice the sensory stimuli around them and are more comfortable with it. Those with a low sensory threshold become quickly irritated and bothered by sensory experiences (such as light, touch, taste and smell)
From these nine temperament traits Thomas & Chess characterised three different temperament types:
- EASY GOING & FLEXIBLE
These are our little cruisers with a happy disposition. They eat and sleep regularly and are adaptable to new situations and people without distress.
This group represents about 40% of our babies/children.
- SPIRITED & INTENSE
These children find sleep harder and tend to have irregular rhythms and routines. They’re more easily affected by changes in their environment and situations and may be fearful when they encounter new people. They may cry a lot and have a hard time adjusting to new routines.
This group represents 10 % of our babies/children
- SLOW TO WARM & CAUTIOUS
These are the children we label shy and they struggle with new situations and people. Change really affects these children and they can become withdrawn and fussy and thrive on predictable routines.
This group represents 15% of our babies/children.
What does this mean for infant sleep?
As you read through the nine temperament traits and three temperament types, did it start to become clear that it would be impossible to lump all of our babies and children into a single routine or expectation for sleep?
No matter what our temperament, when we consider the nuance of every individual on the planet we see that a one size fits all approach to sleep is taking us far far away from what our children really need – which is for us to get to know them and their needs!
We may begin to realise that our particular child needs to run and jump out their spirited energy before bedtime while others require more closeness, calmness, and gentle movement to transition into a sleep state.
Orchid vs Dandelion Kids
Another way of thinking about temperament was added to the literature by Thomas Boyce, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of California.
Boyce spent nearly 40 years studying the human stress response, especially in children and was particularly interested in the differing temperaments of the children he met and treated. Like Thomas & Chess he created his own classification system having noticed two broad types of children at either end of the spectrum of temperaments. You may have heard of these terms as they become more popular in current literature – Orchids and Dandelions.
“Every child born into this living world is a wonder of absolute singularity, an exquisitely unique organism with a complexity that we can only glimpse and estimate. We must therefore greet every new birth with the humility and awe that is borne of our overpowering limits and terrible constraints. I have never examined a newborn infant without muted reverence for its glistening newness and unfettered promise.”Thomas Boyce
He describes how most children are like dandelions and have a relatively resilient temperament and are able to thrive in a wide range of environments, much like the hardy and adaptable dandelion plant. These children tend to be able to adjust to changing circumstances, are not overly sensitive to stress and changes in routine and able to cope well with life’s challenges. Dandelion children may not require as much support or attention from their caregivers as those with more sensitive temperaments and are the ones who find the transition from awake to sleep much easier.
In contrast, orchid children are those who have a more sensitive temperament and require more nuanced caregiving to help them thrive. These children are highly responsive to their environment, in both a positive and negative way.
Orchid children are deeply affected by stress, changes in routine and disruptions to their daily lives. But, with positive, responsive and attuned caregiving these children have the potential, much like the Orchid plant, to bloom and flourish. These are the children who find that the liminal space between wake and sleep is difficult to cross and need a lot more support to bridge that threshold.
Other labels given to Orchid children include High Needs Infants (Dr Sears) or Highly Sensitive children (Dr Aron) but all these labels speak to the same kind of child – one who simply needs us a little more than others.
“Orchid children are not weeds to be pulled, but flowers to be nurtured”Dr Stuary Shanker
Does your child need more support to sleep?
Babies are unable to regulate their own emotions when they’re born and require closeness and co-regulation due to their immature brains; regulation comes with the development of a prefrontal cortex which isn’t fully online until we’re in our mid-late 20’s.
Those children with a more sensitive temperament, our Orchids, tend to struggle more with regulation on all levels: physiologically and emotionally. These children just require more from their parents.
So imagine an Orchid child in a culture where parents are told to pursue independence as early as possible, advice which is the polar opposite of what these children (and any children) actually need. These parents are met with more struggles at bedtime, more resistance to finding the edge of sleep and more fearful associations with nighttime as they persist in trying to fit their child to the paradigm.
“Parents face many practical struggles because of the intensity of the needs of their little orchids. Work and productivity are expected in our culture, and this can create added pressure on parents and children, especially when it comes to sleep.”Tracy Cassels
How to help our sensitive children find sleep
There is no denying that having a baby who struggles to find sleep, wakes often and rises early, as is the biological imperative of an underdeveloped infant, is a challenge. What is clear is sleep training while distressing and unnecessary for all infants is particularly so for more sensitive children who are more hyper aware of abandonment, need even more coregulation than their peers, and feel stress much more acutely and fully during the separation that comes with sleep training.
Sleep training works against an infants’ biology, neurology and physiology. Orchid babies may just be the canaries in the coal mine speaking up on behalf of all babies and children – saying NOT THIS!
So how can you support a baby who comes into this world wired a little more sensitively?
- Review your expectations:
When you understand your Orchid child needs more support to fall asleep you can reset your expectations around independent sleep. Knowing that there is no quick fix for these children, that closeness and coregulation is THE way to support them at night will allow you to stop fighting against a culture that is screaming at you to do otherwise.
- Stay Close:
Remember this: you aren’t doing anything wrong as a parent, our Orchids are just wired to wake more frequently. These children also find sleeping alone more difficult due to the increase in fear and anxiety that comes with separation. Cosleeping, a side car cot or family floor bed can really help fulfil the Orchid child’s needs for closeness and attachment through the night, while also offering more rest and sleep to the caregiver.
- Create a calming environment:
These children are hyper aware of their environments, they are acutely sensitive to hot and cold, light and dark and tactile differences in their environment. It can help to consider making the sleep atmosphere one that is calming and relaxing, and this includes your expectations and approach and your own nervous system response to all things sleep.
- Make changes slowly:
Change triggers the nervous system in our Orchid children, so any transition will take longer to adapt to than their more easy going peers. Changes should be approached incrementally with closeness and co-regulation still at the forefront.
Let’s tend to our children as we would our garden
“Once you accept your children’s basic nature, you can contour your style to meet their temperament. To do so means letting go of your fantasies of yourself as a certain kind of parent and instead evolving into the parent you need to be for the particular child in front of you.”
Dr. Shefali Tsabary
By understanding temperament and the unique essence of our child we’re reassured that there is no one right way to approach sleep or any other facet of parenting.
It shines a light on the fact that anything resembling one size fits all advice is missing the mark when it comes to understanding how different every child is. It shows us that our children need us to attune to who they are, who they came into this world to be, and to work with them to find a way to become the fertile soil from which they flourish both day and night.
It asks for us to work with them rather than against them, it tells us that our child will never be or do the same thing as anyone else’s – and how beautiful is that notion! If you want to learn more about Why identifying your child’s essence is the key to conscious parenting I wrote more about it here.