I’ve been sleep deprived since April 2001, when our oldest was born. Since then, I’ve tried every “trick” in the parenting book. And nothing seems effective at “making” my
kids sleep better. They’ve all evolved into being better sleepers over time.
That’s why I’m so interested in the line of research discussed in this study. Penn State scientists found — despite common parenting advice — that parents’ EMOTIONAL response to their children at bedtime was much more successful than any specific behavioral “trick” in getting children to sleep.
As a shrink, I tell parents that babies absorb their emotional messages. Parents are often surprised when I tell them that even the youngest babies sense their emotions — but it’s true.
In the shrinking world, we’ve been struggling internally for years over the predominant theoretical orientation — Behaviorism, and its spin-offs — and the power it holds over the way we do our work. Those of us who work with very young children understand that simple behavioral and operant conditioning simply doesn’t apply with the little ones. That’s why “Ferberizing” and related approaches are often ineffective. FIRST, babies need to feel emotionally (and physically) safe. Other learning can proceed from there. But sleep is an inherently scary proposition, and often triggers resistance and regression in children. It’s a weird and scary thing to transition into a sleep state.
So the fundamental message of this research at Penn State is both obvious to me — and very reassuring — as an Early Childhood specialist. I’m eager to see what else they discover in this line of inquiry, and I’ll be sure to share it with you.
Here’s a link to some of my “getting to sleep” advice. What’s yours?
Reader Allie emailed me a couple of questions about her 15-month-old Jack*.He was an otherwise healthy boy who simply stopped sleeping a few weeks ago. After getting through a nice, regular sleep-time routine — a routine that used to work beautifully — Jack would fuss, play, and scream. Anything to avoid going down to sleep. This would escalate over the course of the night with Jack snoozing briefly here and there — but only with Allie holding him. The moment she carried him to his crib, he’d pop up, wide awake. Although she wasn’t a co-sleeper “type”, she tried it in desperation — and it only made matters worse. Mommy’s bed was treated like a big playground by Jack.
And Jack’s Dad wasn’t so hip on it either. He was of the belief that “tough love” was in order (as was Jack’s pediatrician), and again in desperation, Allie tried it with Jack. After three hours of crying (and barfing all over himself and his crib), Allie had enough. No “CIO” for this baby.
After weeks of this, poor Allie was totally blotto from the accumulated sleep deprivation. My emailed suggestions didn’t seem to get to the heart of the problem, and so I asked for more information. Turns out that Mom and Dad were having relationship difficulties on top of everything, and they just couldn’t agree on how to handle the nighttime sleep issue. They had just started couple’s therapy, and although the therapist was helpful to them, there was no time to focus on the problems with Jack. Plus, the therapist wasn’t a specialist in babies and young children.
I suggested a Parent Coaching session, so that I could see Allie for myself, get to know her a bit, and have some time to get into the nitty gritty of Jack’s situation. We spent an hour on Skype, going over Jack’s temperament and personality, as well as options Allie hadn’t thought of yet. I gave her detailed information on what is “normal”, sleep-wise, as well as developmentally, for a child Jack’s age. This helped decrease her fear that something was really “wrong” with Jack. Also, Allie was upset that Dad wasn’t seeing things exactly the same as she was. I carefully side-stepped the relationship issues, focusing on helping Allie to understand that different parental attitudes CAN WORK with children. We created a plan that both parents could agree on, with the goal of helping EVERYONE get better sleep.
The “nuts and bolts” of the plan weren’t anything fancy or unusual. But the fact that we had the time to really put our heads together to make a plan — a plan that would work for Mom, Dad, AND Jack — made it simple, but powerfully effective. And although I’m not necessarily against CIO in every case, I knew it was off the table for this family — so we worked out a different plan. I was excited to receive an emailed update from Allie this weekend, letting me know that Jack was back to his old good-sleeping self (and more importantly, so was SHE).
If you can relate just a little too well to Allie, you’ve come to the right place. I’m including a link to one of my most popular Sleep posts here, to get you started. If my sleep posts aren’t enough, shoot me an email (BabyShrink@gmail.com) or hit the “Parent Coaching Packages” button up on the top of the page to complete the form. I’ll be happy to chat or Skype with you, too, to help you FINALLY get some sleep!
*Allie asked me to keep her name, and that of her child, private — these aren’t their real names. But their experiences are real.
It’s hard to believe, but 6 weeks ago I was in agony, being awakened 6 or 7 times a night by a 7-month-old baby who seemed desperate to nurse each and every hour over night. I was at DefCon 7, or 8, or 47, or whatever the highest possible number might be for Maternal Sleep Deprivation. Worse, this is our 4th baby. My fantasies of finally getting a baby who was a good sleeper were shot to hell, and I was MAD.
Going the “babywearing” route — responding to every need — wasn’t working — it was making things worse. So I undertook the most rigorous “Sleep Training” program I’ve tried yet. And it worked.
Now, I’m not advocating that you try Sleep Training — and by that, I mean some variation on the “Let Them Cry Longer Than You Normally Would” theme. No, please don’t take this as something I’m necessarily advising you to do. Just hear me out for a minute:
Some babies do very well with “babywearing” and co-sleeping. Mine don’t. They either get all aggravated with the extra body contact — they want to be “free” — or think sleeping with Mommy and Daddy means fun playtime all night long. It seems they want to sleep in their cribs, because they’re wonderfully well-adjusted (and much more well-rested when they finally “get it”), but they need help in “getting it”.
So I used my Shrink’s Crystal Ball and devised a perfect sleep plan just for her that worked immediately. Hah! I wish. No, seriously, I thought about her specific age (7 months), her temperament (loud and excitable, but resilient and forgiving), and our family’s needs (3 older kids who need to have a reasonably quiet house at night plus 2 working parents), and went from there. It was 6-ish weeks, with 2 or 3 of them being fairly challenging, but I am happy to say that the plan has worked fabulously well. Miss Nighttime Partier is now sleeping 10-11 hours at night.
This combination: Your baby’s age, temperament, plus your family’s needs, all get put into my formula for improving any parenting problem with your baby — not just sleep. It’s a personalized approach that goes way beyond a checklist that you might find in a parenting magazine. It’s developed for you and your family. That’s the basis for my Parent Coaching service that I’m preparing to offer online, and I’m really excited to be able to help families far beyond my little island home out here in the Pacific.
So stay tuned for more details on BabyShrink Parent Coaching, and in the meantime, comment or email me for more specifics on your little nighttime partier.
I had an amazing conversation with one of the world’s foremost infant researchers last week, Dr. Joseph Campos. He’s at Berkeley, where he’s churned out tons of scientifically rigorous studies about the developmental changes in infancy. He’s come up with some transformative ideas about babies, the upshot of one being that crawling causes your baby to become your little social partner, for the first time. No longer just a passive lump in the social world, now she’s able to start to understand some of what’s going on inside your mind. She understands how important you are to her, and seeks your emotional support, presence and encouragement as she starts to scoot out into the world under her own power. She now gets reassurance from your presence and your emotions — your facial expressions and body language — not just from physically holding her.The flip side of this is that it also causes clinginess, fussiness, and sleep problems — some of the major complaints of parents at this stage. Turns out, crawling out into the wide world is fascinating — and terrifying. Your little adventurer gets it now — that as much as she wants to venture out on her own, she desperately needs you, and is panicked that she’ll lose you somewhere along the way. As Dr. Campos said to me, the baby’s drive for independence is equally matched by her fear of it.
So to you fellow parents of 9 to 12-month-old babies out there: I know it can be a challenging, difficult stage. Your little bug seems content to scramble around the house one minute, then wails in panic the next. What used to be stable sleep habits are now in a shambles. Feeding –and nursing — has become an unpredictable struggle — and separations are exceptionally difficult. And forget diaper changes! What a wrestling match! Immmobility is the enemy to her now — being restrained in any way is bound to be a fight. High chairs, strollers and car seats are demon baby torture devices. They keep her from exploring her brave new world.
What to do? Re-think your daily tasks with this knowledge in mind. Everything will take a little longer, as your baby goes through this unpredictable (but temporary) stage. Some days she may need you constantly. But don’t worry — when you’ve finally reached the end of your rope with your little Clingon, she’ll start to feel “refueled”, and venture out again — allowing you to catch up on that laundry and email. And make sure you get some help with nighttime wakenings — you’ll need extra rest too, since you’re up again with a fussy baby — but don’t forget to reinforce the sleep routines that have worked well in the past. She’ll eventually remember what her job is, at night — and now that her memory is better, she can hold on to her internal image of you a bit longer, giving her some comfort, despite being away from you to sleep. Feel some reassurance knowing that the earlier — and stronger — your baby shows separation anxiety, the sooner it resolves. Lots of parental support and understanding help her get through this challenging — but remarkable — stage.
Dr. Campos was generous and encouraging in my BabyShrink book-writing project, and I had a blast geeking out with him, picking his brain about the amazing new developmental capacities in normal 9-month-old babies. What a great experience! Now, please excuse me — I’ve got a 9-month-old baby clinging to my leg.
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert