Keeping Sleep Positive

Photography: Victoria Gloria

By Georgina Dowden

I had an email recently, in which a first time mother of a wakeful (though normal) baby asked me the question: “Do you think we should start some sort of sleep training?”

To this mother, and to others who have asked me similar questions, I always have the same response: “The problem with sleep training is that it is often distressing for baby, and you should always try to keep sleep positive.”

What a lot of parents forget is that their baby is not going to be a baby for very long at all – they will grow into a child…

The thing about children (particularly toddlers) is that they’re notorious for a whole range of complex emotions that tend to present at night-time: nightmares; separation anxiety; fears – of the dark, monsters, of being alone…

If sleep time has developed negative associations in the early months and years, what flow-on effect is this going to have once your child is old enough to form rational thoughts?

“It’s bedtime now. Bedtime means mummy gets very stressed and angry and puts me in my cot and walks away, even though I try and call for her to come back. All I want is for her to just hold me and help me to feel safe until I fall asleep.  It also means I’m not going to see her until it’s light again. That’s such a long time… I’m tired, but I don’t like bedtime…”

Our Western society is so desperate for children to become independent as quickly as possible. “Self-soothing” is heralded as the gold-standard that all babies should achieve as quickly as possible, so that their parents can get on with… what? Their lives in a similar fashion to how they were pre-children? Seems odd, doesn’t it?

But this is what seems to hang over us. We must get our lives back to “normal” after having children. They must fit around us, we must not bend to fit around them…

So, we develop these expectations:

  • We expect them to sleep in large blocks through the night (most parents are forgiving of night waking in the first six months. Beyond this, especially as they head towards baby’s first birthday, this tolerance drops dramatically).
  • We expect them to soothe themselves.
  • We expect them to manage their emotions (even though we, their parents, often aren’t very good at managing our own emotions).
  • We expect them to feed when it’s convenient for us.
  • And we expect them to fall asleep easily, quickly, alone, drowsy-but-awake, etc.

When they don’t do these things, we become frustrated. Angry. Our patience plummets. We rock faster. Shhh louder. Put baby down in the cot, walk away and ignore her cries. We rationalise that she’s not genuinely upset or fearful, just “protesting” or “angry” – because apparently these are two emotions that parents are allowed, and encouraged, to disregard.

Sleep time becomes about control. A conflict that needs to be won, with parents who are determined to come out in first place. Baby becomes the enemy. Bedtime becomes the battlefield.

Sleep time becomes about control. A conflict that needs to be won, with parents who are determined to come out in first place. Baby becomes the enemy. Bedtime becomes the battlefield.

Suddenly, sleep time is shrouded in anxiety, and the natural urge to sleep – that should be welcomed by a tired child – becomes something scary, something to be feared, something that is automatically teamed with a set of awful actions and reactions from mum.

So how do we avoid this? How do we keep sleep positive when it really can seem impossible?

We’ve all been there – those days where we just can’t. Where we are exhausted, empty, done.

And the cherry on top of an already draining day is baby is fighting sleep. He’s looking around the room, trying to practice his crawling, flinging his dummy across the room at just the right angle that it rolls under the bed…again.

I’ll be honest, there is no magic trick to helping your baby fall asleep. There is no single “right” way to tackle bedtime.

I can’t give you a step-by-step guide that will work for every single baby. It’s all trial, error, patience and being adaptive to their changing needs.

However, if bedtime is a battle, there are a few general things you can look at.

See next page for more…

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