What do you think of when you hear the words “sleep training” or “sleep coaching”? I’m guessing that for a majority of you who haven’t experienced The Shuffle images of screaming, crying children left alone is one of the first things that comes to mind. I hear the same fear of tears from parents who come to me for help.
No one wants to listen to their baby cry-including me. No one wants to leave their child alone, especially when your baby is frustrated, scared, and overly emotional about a big change that they don’t fully understand. While cry-it-out methods like Weissbluth and Ferber work for some, they are just too extreme for me. I believe that there is a gentle, gradual solution that will help EVERY child sleep that involves far less tears…if any at all.
From Good Night, Sleep Tight: “Through my Sleep Lady system, you will learn when and how to put your child to bed when he is still awake—drowsy but still awake. And yes, you may well have some tears. But you will be able to respond to them, which is exactly what your heart and brain (not to mention all that attachment research we just reviewed) tell you to do. Hearing those cries can be hard on parents. It’s easier if you remind yourself that the cries are his way of saying, “Why did you put me down awake? I don’t know how to go to sleep! You’re supposed to put me to sleep. I am tired! What are you doing? Why have you changed things? This is frustrating, and I don’t like it one little bit!” This is where you have to remember that you are the coach, not the player. You are giving love and support and comfort and reassur- ance—being that secure base. But you aren’t fixing, rescuing, or doing it all for him. You aren’t erasing every scrap of frustration (even if your heart aches to) at the price of his learning and sleeping. And once you give him that safe and secure space from which to learn, from which to explore, sleep isn’t all that different from venturing out at that playgroup or chasing that butterfly. Watch your baby. You will see him work through that frustration. You will see him discover what helps him go to sleep, what feels good, what is soothing. You will see him learn to suck his thumb, or rock his body, or rub a soft blanket against his cheek. Once children gain confidence, when they know they own this skill, going to sleep isn’t so hard anymore; it isn’t so mysterious. And there’s no longer a need to cry. By teaching your child to sleep, you have not damaged him emotionally. You have helped him grow.”
The first thing most parents don’t understand is that tears happen. When you are raising a child, you will find that she goes through stages, from non-verbal to verbal. Non-verbal children cry to communicate a need, frustration, tiredness, and many more issues that they simply don’t have words for. Verbal children cry AND tell you what they don’t like, but they still use tears for a myriad of emotions that you and I can talk about rationally.
From Good Night, Sleep Tight: “When a young baby or toddler is crying, he is telling you that he wants or needs something. And that’s all his brain can concentrate on at that moment. When you calm him by helping him meet that need, his brain can focus on other things. But if you don’t respond to that need, if you repeatedly ignore the cries, it can lead to overstimulation and lay the groundwork for later difficulties.”
Know What’s Normal
As stated above, it’s perfectly normal for your child to cry when she wants or needs something. In fact, that’s how pre-verbal babies communicate. It doesn’t matter if they’re hungry, done with a toy, need a change…the result is the same: crying. The difference is knowing what is normal and what is not.
When you leave your baby to cry unattended for long period of time, you may be teaching your child to seek stressful situations, because that’s all she knows.
From Good Night, Sleep Tight: “Some research suggests that a pattern of unattended crying can actually affect the “wiring” of the brain. A baby whose brain becomes used to chaos may seek out chaotic situations later in life. Now please note that I’m talking about a pattern of prolonged unattended crying. I don’t mean that a little bit of crying will destroy your child’s psyche or prevent him from forming a secure attachment. You will not scar your child for life if he fusses (safely) in his swing while you are right nearby taking a shower.”
Know Your Child’s Limitations
From Good Night, Sleep Tight: “Naturally, we are less tolerant of crying with a newborn than we are with an older baby..”
It’s very different to let an infant under 6 months of age fuss or cry than it is to allow a 2-year-old to cry. Make sure that your expectations for your child are reasonable, and that you take your child’s age into account.
Although sleep is a skill that we need to teach our children, we also need to ensure that our baby is developmentally ready to learn, or you’ll just end up with more tears, and a very frustrating situation. Most babies aren’t ready for sleep coaching until 6 months, because the ability to self soothe isn’t fully developed until then.
Do Not Start Too Early
Choosing to sleep coach your child at the appropriate age is so important, and is part of what makes my method the most gentle and effective sleep coaching method out there. If you ensure that your child can self-soothe and is able to begin sleeping through the night (please check with your pediatrician ), everyone will have a much easier time when you begin to sleep coach.
Many times, I talk to families who are so excited because they’ve been using my sleep coaching method, “The Shuffle” on their 3, 4, or 5 month old, only to find that their baby sleeps “wonderfully” for a week, and then suddenly everything changes, the tears show up, and mom and dad are beyond frustrated.
I know that it’s tempting to get started sooner, but quite honestly, parents who wait until their child is 6 months find that their baby’s sleep habits begin to improve with little to no tears in just a few days.
From Good Night, Sleep Tight: “In A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Develop- ment (1988), Bowlby cites studies that found that nursery schoolers “who are most stable emotionally and making the most of their opportunities are those who have parents who, whilst always encouraging their children’s autonomy, are nonetheless available and responsive when called upon.” In other words, we don’t want to tie our children to us, nor do we want to cut them loose. We want that balance be- tween security and support, confidence and freedom. We need to let our children learn to deal with emotions such as frustration, excitement, and anger, and with behaviors such as sleep, to self-regulate. We can’t do this for them, any more than a coach can get out on the field and play for his team. Families I work with like that coaching analogy. A coach teaches, directs, and supports the players, but he doesn’t play the game for them, make the goal for them, swim faster for them. Even when the team loses, the coach can give strategies for doing better next time, but he still can’t play the game for them. It’s the same with sleep. We can help our children learn how to fall asleep, but we can’t keep doing so much of it for them, not beyond the newborn stage. When they have trouble sleeping, we can empathize, we can reassure, we can guide, we can support—and like the coach, we can help them acquire the skills to do it better next time. But then we have to let them do it themselves.”
Remember, your child’s tears are trying to tell you something. Before you rush to her side, evaluate her age, development, and if she’s learning a new skill (like sleep or tummy time), and realize that you can soothe through words and light touch instead of rescuing her right away. If she escalates, then please pick her up and snuggle her. No one likes to see their baby cry, especially me.