My boy was never a great sleeper. Our 15-month-long experience was consistent: no matter what adjustments we made, he woke up quite frequently.
Some months, he woke up every hour. And some other months he woke up every two hours. This is pretty much the summary of the entire thing. :) His maximum stretch was 4 hours, which happened, I guess, just once or twice.
I started learning about baby sleep long before I had him. I knew all about the neurology of sleep and how emotional regulation is a big part of it.
But had we been doing something wrong?
Burning with doubt, we spoke with a sleep consultant I deeply trusted – one that's rigidly against sleep-training.
I am an avid enemy of sleep-training.
As I wrote here in an extensive article on how babies fall asleep, just like body temperature and blood pressure, sleep is regulated by the hypothalamus. Imagine unborn babies. They can fall asleep in the womb all by themselves.
Sleep is a behavior. And like most behaviors displayed by children, it's prone to be controlled by parents. Before the baby has a chance to try and fail, we rush to teach them how to sleep. What can anyone say? We are parents and we love to teach.
But sleep is not teachable. Children's sleep requires training just as much as their blood pressure does. Their body already knows how to sleep.
Let's get back to sleep in the womb.
Unborn babies fall asleep without assistance because they live in an extremely well-protected environment with little to no stimulators or stressors.
The womb is the perfect environment for sleep: it's warm, it has a soothing sound and a rhythm, and all of our needs are met without an effort. We never feel hungry, or tired, or overstimulated in the womb. That's why our hypothalamus can do its job with no interventions.
But life in the world is nothing like that. It's filled with stressors and stimulators. Our nervous system needs help getting to that sweet spot where we peacefully drift off to sleep.
Sleep doesn't require teaching. What requires teaching is self-regulation.
Imagine how much self-regulation you do right before you fall asleep:
- Do you apologize to your spouse for snapping at them earlier that day?
- Do you ask for a comforting hug?
- Do you need your body to be in that exact position?
- Do you turn a few book pages to empty your mind?
- Do you text your mom because you haven't called her in a while and now you just can't go to sleep because of guilt?
All of these are actions that we take to bring our sympathetic neural activity down and parasympathetic neural activity up. We have to close all of those open tabs one by one in order for our bodies to fall asleep.
For children, it's not much different. Even tiny babies accumulate a lot of stress during the day on top of all of the neural development they go through. They, too, have to close their tabs, but unlike us, they don't know how.
Here's where our parenting comes in.
Now back to my own experience. Although I applied all that I knew, I just couldn't help my child sleep for longer stretches. What was the problem?
After a long and well-resonating consulting session, we just knew: sometimes, there are no problems.
Our analytical mind looks for a cause and effect pattern, but sometimes, there simply is not one.
Expert opinion showed us two things:
- We did what we felt was right and that's why he is the happy kid that he is. We never stopped responding to his needs. We provided space for emotional discharge. We placed compassionate boundaries when necessary. And that's all that we could have done to help him sleep better.
- Our baby has an active mind, that's just the way he is. He has a busy cortex by nature. He loves to explore and learn so much that he has too many tabs to close when it comes to bedtime. All we can offer him is more opportunities to calm down his cortex during the day.
And we have to go from a baby bed to a toddler bed. :) But that's another story.
Even before this sleep consulting session, we'd been making progress for the last month.
Our boy now sleeps for longer stretches and is able to put him back to sleep by closing his eyes and adjusting his body.
But progress came along only because his body was ready.
We had realistic expectations of him and supported him to build better self-regulation skills when the right time came.
We were tolerant of his strong emotions as we coached him for progress. He cried at times, but he cried in our compassionate arms. He had the space to express his emotions and when they settled, he sheltered under our love.
We'll just keep doing whatever we've been doing. We'll just pay more attention to calming his busy little mind during the day.
Wrapping up this week's letter, I'd like to offer some ideas from mindful parenting that can help us during bedtime. You can also find a full new article on mindful parenting in the articles section down below.
1) Non-judging acceptance: "His body is not able to fall asleep at this moment. I accept this. I will keep supporting him. This is hard for both of us."
2) Empathy: "He doesn't keep waking up to push my buttons. I wonder what's wrong with him. Poor little one, I bet he wants to go back to sleep just as much as I do."
3) Compassion for self and child: "How can I help him? How can I ease his pain? I am doing my best but if I fail, I can try something else. This is not my fault."
4) Emotion coaching: "You can cry in my arms. I will safely contain you and all of your emotions. And when you calm down, we will gently move on with our life, together."
Finally, an excerpt from the book “Everyday Blessings” by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn gives us some food for thought. Is it easier to empathize with our kids when their needs align with ours? What if when it's the opposite, just like when our child wakes up at 3:00 AM?
“Why is it so hard sometimes for us to see our infants as fully feeling, fully experiencing beings? Why is it okay to let them “cry it out” when we would never ignore the cries of a friend or a lover or even a stranger? What might we be resisting, or protecting ourselves from, when we distance ourselves from a baby’s distress?
One thing we may be protecting ourselves from, of course, is more work. It’s much more labor-intensive in the short run to parent moment by moment in responsive ways. Tuning in to a child’s body language, trying different things, being sensitive not to under-respond or over-respond, holding, comforting, crooning, all take time and energy. More often than not, they can also interrupt our sleep, literally and metaphorically. It is certainly easier to empathize with our children when it also meets our own needs. The real test for us comes when it feels as if their needs are in conflict with ours.”
🥄 Nurturing my favorite moms and dads
Here is an article I recently posted on the blog. I'm also sharing the sleep article from a past issue for those who are interested to read more about sleep this week.
What would mindful parents do? 5 qualities of mindful parenting: Although there are no strict guidelines for mindful parenting, there are some qualities of it that we can incorporate in our parenting right this day. Here are the 5 qualities of mindful parenting.
Why do babies fight sleep and how brain knowledge helps: Brain and sleep knowledge helps you become a better parent at bedtime. Here is a guide for understanding why your baby cannot fall asleep like an adult.
That's it for this week! ❤️
If you've enjoyed this letter, consider sending it to another parent. It always makes me very happy.
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Until next Saturday!
Love, Basak (founder of Apparent)