HOW DO I GET MY BABY TO SLEEP?
Getting baby to sleep with Babybrains®’ L-O-V-E approach: Learn through Observation, Validate through Experience.
For most of us parents, there comes a time when our wellbeing and that of the child seem to be incompatible and we seem to only have a choice between to vicious cycles:
- Vicious cycle 1: I respond to my child and suffer from severe and prolonged sleep deprivation, with negative effects on the whole family life.
- Vicious cycle 2: I do not respond to my child and I deprive her from necessary comfort undermining her trust in me, with negative effects on the whole family life.
When we are faced with these suboptimal options, we tend to look for the experts that teach us The Way we can get out of this parenting dead end. And we find them. We find many of them. We actually find so many experts describing The Way to quickly fix any child’s sleep patterns that we don’t know which one to pick. So the choice goes from being one between two vicious cycles to one between several “parenting parties”: We start asking ourselves question such as “Am I a Gina-Ford Adept, an Attachment-Parent or a Baby-Whisperer?” The amount of stress, frustration and conflict this generates might be reflected in the number of results Google gives back when we type in “baby sleep”: 171 Millions!
The way out of this painful madness is simple: let us forget about rules that work for everybody: if they existed, the issue would be closed, as everybody would have already adopted them a long time ago. Let us stop looking for The Way and let us figure out our unique way.
Sleep: some Science
There are two aspects of brain functioning and development that can be particularly useful in informing our choices in sleep habits: 1) What do babies remember? 2) How do humans learn to sleep? We will try to give a brief summary of these two aspects below.
Although the first three years of life are not explicitly remembered, they are not simply forgotten either. Starting at birth, repeated experiences become habits and they are at the basis of expectations. If every time the baby cries, someone responds to her call, acknowledges and addresses her needs, the baby will start finding this normal and will expect a response to always follow an expression of distress.
In other words, your repeated interactions with your baby (the habitual ways you have to respond to her) do not only shape your relationship with her, but they begin to form the adult person this little creature will become. These habits are the beginning of a sort of inner “User Manual for Life” she will forever use. You can imagine the chapters of this user manual:
- What to do when your are scared
- What to do when you are tired
- What to expect from people
- How to express your love to people
- How to get what you want
…and it goes on, with all strategies we use every day to get about life.
We are largely unaware of it, but we have been using the same manual (updated every night) since the day we were born. So if you wonder why you are never able to ask for help before it is too late, or why you find it so difficult to trust that people love you, the answer is probably to be found in that manual (a.k.a. implicit procedural memory).
In summary, although no conscious memory of the first year of life will be retained, repeated actions will consolidate into implicit habits and expectations. These will influence the child’s behaviour throughout life.
We tend to think at “sleeping through the night” as an important natural milestone. But maybe we need to think again.
Natural milestones are achieved when the child acquires skills such as smiling, rolling over or walking, things that every healthy human on the planet learns to do. Our brains are hard-wired to acquire the ability to smile, roll and walk, and if we only let our baby get on with her life and do her little experiments, she will naturally figure out how to perform all of these actions. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy baby, there is nothing we need to do for her to start displaying these behaviours.
Sleeping through the night however does not figure anywhere in that list of innate predispositions. In fact, sleeping through the night is a cultural skill, similar to reading, writing and driving cars. It is only in our culture that we tend to sleep in separate rooms, for a very long stretch of time at night, and be active and productive for a very long stretch of time during the day. This does not mean that sleeping through the night is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a very useful skill to acquire. However, this skill needs to be learnt with patience and effort.
In fact, as humans we all wake up at the end of each sleep cycle, which lasts approximately 90 minutes (more on thise here). What a baby needs to learn, is how to fall back to sleep at the end of every cycle. The way a baby learns to do this depends on the circumstances she is brought up in. If the child’s usual setting at night is a cave with a log fire at the entrance and the presence of the rest of the family around her, these will be the conditions that allow for a new sleep cycle to begin. If the child sleeps alone in her own room, in complete darkness, in a cot with a teddy bear, these will be the cues that allow her to relax and fall back into sleep.
Having considered this, it is important to remember that the baby’s priority is survival: she will do whatever she has to do to get the amount of nutrition and contact she needs to feel that she is safe and secure. She needs to establish that before she can spend any energy on learning something new and enjoying independence. Exactly as a pre-school child needs to be able to sit up and hold a pen before she can start practice writing, a baby needs to feel secure before she can healthily start working on her sleep patterns.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of a newborn, being alone in a dark room provides neither the nutrition nor the sense of safety and security she needs to fall asleep. Hence, the transition between the newborn first phase, in which parents respond to each and every movement of their child, to the successive phase, in which the child gradually acquires autonomy, is likely to be less smooth than ideal if we sleep in separate rooms.
In summary, sleeping through the night is a cultural skill that needs to be acquired with patience and effort. In our culture, we happen to be learning the skill in circumstances that are not ideal to facilitate the gradual acquisition of night-time autonomy. Hence all disappointment and frustration.
But what can we do about it?
Sleep: some Fun
Once you have considered the facts of how your baby’s memory works and how sleep functions, we can start using Babybrains’ L-O-V-E (Learn through Observation Validate through Experience) approach (more on this here) to establish a new sleep routine that is more compatible with everybody’s needs. Just as a children and scientists do, we can start by observing reality as it is, trying to be as objective as possible.
Once we have established our starting point, on the basis of what we know and what we have observed, we can define our achievable target, the arrangement that does the best possible job at meeting our baby’s needs and our own.
Finally, we can devise the strategy that will allow us to achieve our goals. Crucially, we need to be willing to commit to our strategy and try it out for a little while, we need to be able to take on board the effects of our strategy on our child and on ourselves, and we possibly need to fine-tune, modify or even abandon our strategy (you can get help for this! More on this here).
Below is an example of how you could proceed. The exact actions might not apply to your particular case, but it is the approach and the procedure that you can export and apply to your unique case.
Learn through Observation:
For four- six days, keep a diary of your baby’s sleep pattern (get in touch to receive Babybrains® sleep-pattern observation tool). Things that you can note on your diary are:
- Time she falls asleep.
- Time she wakes up.
- Way she falls asleep (on the breast, in your arms, in her cot, in the pram, in the sling).
- Way she gets up (with a smile, screaming, calling you, fine on her own).
- How you feel when she falls asleep.
- How you feel when she gets up.
Once you have managed to step back and observe for a while, it is very likely that you will see a pattern emerge. For instance, your baby might tend to fall asleep easily and peacefully most of the time, a part from 7pm, when you feel exhausted and you would like to prepare dinner for yourself and your partner. At 7pm, when she is supposed to go to sleep, she will not let go of the breast and if you unlatch her, she will scream and not be settled, until your partner comes home and rocks her to sleep.
Knowing about sleep-pattern learning, you might now realise that it is only understandable that she feels less safe and secure in the evening, when you are less ready to give her milk, contact and cuddles, as you are exhausted, and you are focussed on preparing dinner.
Knowing about babies’ memory, you might now feel particularly motivated to establish a routine that does not require daily crying before bedtime.
Combining this knowledge with your unique family requirements (if you are Italian or French, as it is the case for my husband and me, a quiet adult dinner might be all the way up there in the list of your priorities), you can define your goal. You could come up with goals such as
- More peaceful evenings, or
- Baby asleep before our dinner, or
- No screaming, or something else.
Let us imagine that your goal is to enjoy more peaceful evenings. You can now think about what you could modify and come up with a few strategies:
- Strategy A: put baby in the sling and have her fall asleep on me while I prepare dinner
- Strategy B: focus away from dinner and pre-set sleep times. Enjoy cuddles/feeds with baby until partner comes home. Take turns with partner in rocking baby to sleep vs. preparing dinner.
Your regular observation has allowed to you notice things you might previously have neglected in the fuzz of your busy daily routine. Your informed reflection has allowed you to define some achievable goals and to come up with two valid strategies that might allow both your baby’s and your own needs being met.
Validate through Experience:
When you have your strategies, it is time to see if they work. At this stage, it is particularly important to keep an open mind and approach your experiments without being so fixated on the outcome that you cannot learn from what you are experiencing.
You could start by trying out Strategy A: After a good feed, you put your baby in the sling while you start preparing dinner. With a bit of luck, your strategy works and the baby quickly falls asleep, enjoying your contact while you are busy mixing ingredients and setting the table. By the time your partner comes home, Baby is fast asleep and you can easily transfer her into her cot. The two of you can have a relaxing adult dinner.
Success! L-O-V-E has worked. Both of your goals have been met: the baby is getting loads of contact, so she feels safe and secure, which makes her peacefully fall asleep. At the same time, you and your partner have some quiet adult time.
You not only have your peaceful evening now, but you also feel a strong sense of competence and achievement: Using science, adopting a problem-solving attitude and being ready to experiment, you have managed to transform a challenging situation in a very happy and peaceful one.
There is only one more thing you need to do now: don’t get more attached to your strategy than to your family’s wellbeing. By all means, enjoy your quiet dinners and carry on with your strategy as long as it works for you. However, should your back start hurting, or should the baby start waking up when you transfer her to her cot, or should your partner start missing the opportunity to spend some time with the baby, make sure you remain ready to reconsider the situation, applying the L-O-V-E approach again.