The Trouble with Sleep Training
By Lysa Parker & Barbara Nicholson
The purpose of our column is to help parents become more aware, compassionate and connected with their children. With that in mind, we recently read a column by a psychologist who was addressing a question that a mother had written to him. She has a 13 month old toddler who had become accustomed to napping in her arms due to "a horrible bout of teething" and still will not sleep on her own. The toddler also woke up a couple of times a night at which point the mother nurses her back to sleep. The psychologist recommended that she put the baby down for a nap at the same time each day and teach her to fall asleep on her own- which basically involved allowing her to cry for long periods of time until she fell asleep, a technique we refer to as "sleep training." Some parents and professionals fear that if we don't teach babies to learn to self-soothe and sleep on their own that they will never learn those skills. We believe these fears to be unfounded and not based on credible child development research and only serve to weaken the parent-child connection.
So what could the conscious parent do in a similar situation? A conscious parent sees the world through the eyes of the young child and feels empathy for the child's strong emotions. In this mother's situation she seemed to have a great deal of empathy for her baby and seemed to be well attuned to her child's needs. Unfortunately many parents are made to feel inadequate or incompetent when their baby doesn't sleep through the night, that it's something they are doing or not doing that is the cause. What we have learned from our own experience and talking with child development specialists is that every child is born with different temperaments from very calm to highly sensitive. Some infants sleep through the night early on but many, if not most, babies don't sleep through the night for many months for precisely the reason this mother mentions in her question- teething! Even when a young child sleeps through the night, eventually, as they grow, he or she begins to wake up for a variety of reasons other than teething: hunger (due to growth spurts), sickness, food sensitivities, bad dreams (even night terrors), being too hot or too cold, over-stimulation from the day's events, or feeling the effects of stress or chaos in the household. There are many, many reasons! Into the second year of life, toddlers begin cutting their molars, and it can be very painful. During the day, children who are teething can be very irritated, edgy, and highly sensitive. Many parents have found natural dissolvable teething tablets to work wonders. Giving the child something cold or frozen to sink their gums into is also helpful.
It's important to know that the most fundamental of all biological drives is that of proximity. That means just as we have a drive for food, water, and shelter, infants and young children (and all mammals) have an intense drive, a biological imperative, to stay close to those they feel most attached to, their primary caregiver, for protection and security during the first three years of life. Then it gradually tapers off.
While understanding the child's need for close proximity to her, this mother could try lying down with her daughter on a small mattress or futon mattress on the floor (this way the child will not be in danger of falling off the bed when she wakes up and mother is not there). Mother can continue to breastfeed, or gently soothe her to sleep, then quietly get up and leave the room. During the day, she can mentally prepare her child, talking to her and telling her that when it's nap time Mommy will lay down with her until she goes to sleep. When she wakes up she can get up and call for her mother. While she may not have well developed language skills, she can understand much more than she can speak,and she can likely call out "mama." Parents should have a monitoring device in the room so they can hear when the baby wakes up.
When children learn to trust that their needs and emotions are responded to in a respectful, caring, compassionate manner, they will in turn learn to treat others with the same compassion. The world needs more compassionate people!
About the authors
Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker are the authors of "Attached at the Heart: Eight Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children," and are recognized authorities on attachment parenting.
For more information go to www.attachmentparenting.org
© Copyright 2010 Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker