Just before I fell pregnant with my oldest child, I worked at an early intervention centre. We primarily saw children with sensory regulation difficulties: babies that found settling difficult, children who struggled with feeding, weaning and eating - all the difficulties you typically find in those first few years of life.
As part of this role I was helping families with young children who struggled with sleep. Children who struggled to go to sleep at night. Children who woke regularly through the night. Children who needed to be rocked, bounced, or carried in order to sleep.
Parents used to come into the centre exhausted, frazzled-looking, desperate and asking for ways to help get their children to sleep through the night. And I would kindly and compassionately give them all the theory about how we fall asleep, how we stay asleep, and what we need to sleep. But as good as my intentions were, I had no real concept of what they were going through.
As much as I knew the theory, I didn’t understand what it was like to be sleep deprived, to be chronically exhausted, to go to sleep with butterflies in your stomach every night not knowing how many times you would be waking and for how long.
And then I had my first born. And wow, has it been a learning curve for me? He has never been, and at 5 years old now, in many ways, still is not a good settled sleeper. And believe me, I threw the book at it in terms of theory when he was young. I tried everything that I had in my arsenal of therapeutic interventions that I had ever recommended to other parents.
Knowing what I know now, in retrospect, I’m pretty surprised I never got throttled by a seriously sleep deprived, desperate mother to whom I was imparting all my ‘wisdom’.
I hope to share with you, some of the theory behind sleep, but also, how I managed those particularly sleep deprived years so that as a family, we all came out of them, to some degree maintaining a little sanity.
As humans we use our mothers or primary caregivers as regulators. We all need to learn how to sleep. We all need to learn how to self soothe, and regulate ourselves, and go to sleep. In the womb babies have natural wake-sleep cycles but they have the regular drum of their mother’s heartbeat, the sound of the pulsing of blood in their mothers veins, the muffled hum of their mother’s voice to help them settle. They have the warm, tight, comforting cocoon space of the womb.
Then, at birth, when they enter the world, they are met with a barrage of sensory experiences. There is suddenly light and dark. There are loud, clear noises. There are faces peering down at them, new smells, the feeling of touch. And your baby needs to learn to regulate through that all. It is not something they can simply do. It is something they need to learn to do. And they learn to do it by having you for regulation. And so, in the early months, your infant is most effective at signalling to you it’s needs. Babies cannot soothe themselves and so they signal to their parents when they need soothing.
A unsettled baby at night is signalling to its mother or father that it needs help to soothe. It is signalling that it is uncomfortable, or wet, or distracted, or over-aroused, and cannot go to sleep without help. As parents, we pick up on these signals and help our babies soothe. We will continue to do this until they have learnt to regulate themselves; to sooth themselves back to sleep.
The truth is that most of us wake three to four times a night but put ourselves right back to sleep before we have even registered that we are awake. We have learnt to regulate ourselves to do this. There was a time when all we could do was signal but for most of us, we have learnt how to soothe ourselves and regulate ourselves so that now, as adults, we do it automatically.
So what does that mean for us as hopeful parents; wishing our child will sleep through the night?
The first thing to understand is that sleep is not a milestone. Sleeping through the night is not something that we achieve and are then able to do. It is more like a response to our lives. In some ways it could be considered a reflection of what is happening in our daily lives. Because of this, to really help your child develop good sleeping patterns, you need to look at their life as a whole.
This is not only true for our children. Being able to fully self regulate and go to sleep as the norm pretty quickly flies out of the window when as adults we are excited or stressed or worried, when we are unwell or haven’t exercised enough. It’s no wonder then that our children struggle to manage these things too.
A child’s regulation and state of arousal is dependent on every sensory experience that happens to them through the day. Some sensory pathways are more regulating than others. Whole body, gross motor play, where your child climbs and jumps and rides and crawls, is going to be more modulating for your child. While more arousing sensory input like visual and auditory input (ding ding! Think screen time mamas and papas) is going to rev your child up and make deep regulated sleep more difficult.
My eldest was such a bad sleeper that he could swim independently by the age of two years simply because I took him to the pool almost everyday to give him as much modulating sensory input as I could in the hopes that it would improve his sleeping.
Thinking about all the things included in your child’s day is necessary when trying to achieve a good night’s sleep. And these things will change and grow as your child develops. Being aware of what is included in your child’s day and it’s correlation to how your child is sleeping in an ongoing process.
The second thing to take note of is that children who want to be held, or rocked, or sung to, or driven around (yes, we did that one too) are not being naughty and manipulative. They are simply trying to soothe themselves to sleep. Often, when we are so exhausted, and our babies are exhausted, and we feel like we can’t face another night, we implement strategies like this to get our little ones to sleep, knowing full well that it is a temporary fix and won’t solve the problem. And that’s ok too. You have to do what will work for your family each step of the way.
As a young therapist I would have cautioned parents against doing this type of thing but the truth is, you do what you have to do and make a plan to pick up the pieces when you have the capacity. I spent a lot of time rocking my very sturdy little boy to sleep. I was told an uncountable number of times by well-meaning advisors that I was making a rod for my own back, but its all I could do to get my child to sleep and he was exhausted. And I was exhausted. When I was ready, I started keeping a sleep journal. This was possibly the best thing I could have done for my boy and for my own sanity.
I used my phone and recorded every time he woke, what I did to put him back to sleep, and what time he went to sleep again. At first it was a pretty heart breaking read, but what it allowed me to do was to start making changes in a controllable and measurable way. I could track the things that worked and the things that didn’t. I could gently train my son to have positive sleep associations without either of us feeling like he was being abandoned or neglected.
And I could get a clear idea of what was actually happening. Sometimes when your child is screaming in the middle of the night it feels like you have been up for about three hours and the reality it is more like fifteen minutes. Other times, when you switch into zombie-like state, you don’t even realise how many times you’ve been up and you can’t understand your level of exhaustion.
Knowing exactly what is happening helps you to navigate your way through it in a more scientific and measurable way. Not only is this far more effective, but it also helps make things feel more achievable. With this plan, I slowly substituted the driving around with rocking. Then the rocking with patting and singing. After this the patting and singing with gentle humming. It was a gradual process but I could see the improvements over time. Not night by night for sure, but definitely as a whole picture.
This is a process that worked for me; that worked for us. And that is the last point that I would like to make. You have to do what works for your family.
There is so much controversy around sleep and sleep patterns. And, because I guess sleep deprivation can make you so desperate, people feel so strongly about how sleep difficulties should be managed. What I have learnt, both as a therapist and as a mother, is that you have to be true to yourself, to what you feel instinctively is right for your child and your family. To sleep train or not to sleep train? To co-sleep or to sleep apart? These are highly personal decisions and depend on so many individual factors.
The truth is that we make decisions based on our individual capacity and our own needs as a family. No one else can make these decision for us because no one else is living our personal narrative.
If you accept that sleep is an ever-changing process throughout our lives and not some elusive golden trophy, if you are as scientific and measurable in your approach as possible, and if you are true to your instincts as a parent with your own individual capacity as you can be, you are not doing anything wrong and with time, your child will learn to sleep.
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