A bonus of getting older (there aren’t many) is a more acute awareness of where our talents lie, and also our limitations. For instance, there are many parenting issues about which I feel confident and capable of offering advice – however, sleep isn’t one of them. Although I can certainly help with the basics, I find sleep problems a bit too thorny and complicated. (Granted, I knew far more before my third baby arrived, a high energy boy who fought sleep with a vengeance.) So, when Anna e-mailed me about the difficulties she’s having with her infant son, I decided to place her in the best hands possible and turned to RIE-trained sleep specialist Eileen Henry.
I was wondering if you could give me some advice on one thing.
We have a wonderful six-month old boy, who we are trying to raise according to Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber’s thoughts. Ever since he was really small he would lie happily on the floor while we were nearby if he needed us. He is really relaxed and can engage in various activities on the floor for a really long time. But the nights are what trouble us. He used to be a great sleeper, probably not really our doing, but he would fall asleep all alone, and only woke up for quick feeds, then went straight back to dreamland. About two months ago something changed (and honestly we could not think of a reason), and he has had troublesome nights ever since. He is hard to wind down, but now it is more than that. He is *very* upset if we leave him in his bed in the evening and will not fall asleep unless we are talking to him, sitting right next to his cot. We have tried to decrease our presence gradually, but it does not work – he starts screaming. And, when he awakens in the middle of the night, he needs us to go sit there and talk to him. Sometimes he does it over and over for a very long time. I am really worried, because after a night like this he is obviously very tired. And then there are nights when he sleeps right through without a stir.
I would be grateful for any advice,
Congratulations, it looks like your child has successfully mastered one of the important developmental skills of becoming a successful, autonomous sleeper — he is capable of falling asleep on his own. Now that you have observed this and experienced this, how do you hold on to it during all of the changes that will come along and challenge this innate ability?
At six months of age your child is now in the second stage of infancy. And at this stage it is quite common to see a disruption in sleep patterns. The first thing you will want to address is the “when” of sleep by making sure bed time is adjusted to fit the needs of a six-month-old. Whereas the newborn generally goes to sleep between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. by six months that time becomes closer to 6:00 p.m. and possibly as early as 5:30. The window of sleep for the 6-10 month old child is 6:00-6:30 p.m. to 6:30-7:00 a.m.
The biggest issue in the discipline of sleep is “how” sleep is done in your home. Since I consider sleep to be a health and safety issue, it is best that the parents are in charge of this realm. Now that your child is more aware of your role in his life and has a complete understanding of who handles all of the complaints in his world, he may start to develop his own opinion as to how HE wants sleep to be done. His current opinion is that he wants you to stay in the room, talk to him, and watch him fall asleep. He wants what all of our children want at one time or another, and over and over again. He wants you to fix it for him. And since you are well versed in the RIE philosophy, you already know that the more we do for them, the less they are able to do for themselves. Sleep is no different.
I can see that you have tried to ease yourself out of this picture, and when you do so he cries. The cry is what I help parents with the most when it comes to sleep. Struggle (crying) is inherent in ALL development. Our children will cry in their struggles with gross motor development and fine motor development. In learning to walk they will fall down and cry. They might even throw stacking cups across the room in frustration and cry. They will try to communicate with us verbally and throw a fit when we don’t understand them. The young child’s brain is miraculously designed to not only handle these disturbances but actually expand due to these disturbances.
It is okay to let your child struggle in his efforts to fall asleep and return to sleep. He is already doing it in all areas of development, and he can handle it around sleep as well. And to do this the parent must distinguish between struggling and suffering. Struggling we let happen. When our child is suffering, we show up with love, compassion, empathy and reassurance. Whether our child is 4 months, 4 years or 40 years old…we will always attend to suffering. We attend to it… we don’t fix it for them.
Talk to your son. Tell him how sleep will be. Tell him that you will sit with him and then you will leave the room for him to fall asleep.
Acknowledge: I hear you crying.
Empathize: This is hard. I know you want me to stay.
Reassure: I am near. You can do it. I will come if you need me.
The separation anxiety your child may be feeling around sleep can be the same that the infant feels in the waking hours. And in RIE we are honest, “I am going into the other room now. I’ll be back.” And we leave with confidence, knowing that we can all have the necessary feelings associated with separation. And it is followed by the satisfying feelings of a warm reunion. We come to them…we are present…and then we go. Over and over again, this is the pattern. And when we can bookend the separation with what Magda Gerber called “100% Wants Nothing Quality Time”, this creates the best possible preparation for separation and a reunion worth waiting for.
With warm regards,
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Compassionate Sleep Solutions™ http://www.eileensclasses.com 303.953.0203
Good news… Eileen has offered to advise others with sleep issues here, too. Eileen, thanks!
Anna is sharing her RIE parenting journey here: Every Moment Is Right