What does it feel like when sleep is working in a family? This is a very satisfying time when babies, toddlers and parents are all getting restful, rejuvenating and dependable sleep, when both bedtime and nap are peaceful, relaxed, serene and certain. Although this may sound like a dream, sleep that truly works can become a part of any family’s daily and nightly reality.
Alex phoned me for a consultation about her nine-month-old baby Olivia.
“I don’t know what happened. Things were going so well. I would nurse Olivia to sleep, and she slept for four and five hour stretches. Now she is up every hour or two. It feels like I have a newborn again.
Suddenly everything we were doing has stopped working. I nurse her to sleep, and as soon as I start to lower her into the crib, her eyes pop wide open, she bolts upright and screams. Once we finally get her back to sleep, it starts all over again. Nothing is working anymore. Help!”
This is a familiar sleep scenario that I hear in one form or another almost every week, although it’s not always about nursing. Sometimes the linchpin of a baby’s sleep routine is rocking, sitting or lying down with her, walking, strolling, or patting. Whatever the mechanism, what used to work doesn’t anymore.
When I spoke with Alex, her voice became low and hushed. This part of the call always feels a bit confessional. “I know I’ve done it all wrong.” My response is: “No, you did it just right – but for longer than necessary.”
Simply put, Olivia was sleeping (and awakening) like a newborn because Olivia was being responded to like a newborn. Although Olivia didn’t need to be nursed to sleep anymore at this stage of her development, Alex never changed the routine, so it was all that Olivia knew. But with nine months of experience under her baby belt, Olivia is smart. She is ready to apply all she has learned about her parents and her world to learning how to sleep on her own with less of Alex’s help.
Infants are the best learners on the planet.
In the beginning (birth – four months) feeding and sleep form a symbiotic relationship. Falling blissfully to sleep during or after feeding happens naturally. The experience also serves as a critical element in establishing secure attachment, which occurs organically if interactions with the mother or caregiver are emotionally attuned and connected.
The quality of this connection can be realized whether we co-sleep or crib sleep, and the healthy bond is created whether we bottle feed or breast feed. It is the quality of the connection more than the quantity of connections that cements the bond. I want moms to relax with newborns because mom’s emotional state is a key factor in helping her infant to soothe and regulate.
No matter how a newborn is doing sleep, it changes, and more ability and comfort with “falling” is realized as development unfolds. Going from sleepy to asleep on their own doesn’t have to be realized in the first weeks of life. If they fall asleep in our arms on occasion, it is no big deal. It is an incremental process that they learn on their own.
Infants learn exponentially, especially from repetition and routine. Children build on what they have learned over time, and they apply their learning from one experience to the next. Home is a familiar environment, so that makes for rapid learning.
For nine months Olivia has watched Alex come and go. She has learned that every time Alex leaves the room or the house, she always returns. Olivia started crawling at six months and now has her own experiential process of coming and going. Alex noticed right away that Olivia moved out and into the world with joy and curiosity. This is because Olivia has trust in her parents and her environment. Already pulling herself up to a standing position, Olivia has gained some experience with falling, and this will help her in falling to sleep because it means letting go, which takes trust and some experience to know that it’s safe and even pleasurable.
Olivia recognizes her house, her bedroom and her crib, and Olivia knows where sleep happens. She also knows she is safe and comfortable in her crib. In fact, a wonderful thing happens to Olivia many times a day in her bedroom. Over and over throughout the last nine months, she is reunited with her mother as Alex comes and attends to Olivia’s needs.
Most importantly, Olivia understands her emotional environment. She knows she is loved and cared for. With all her senses she knows how love looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds. It is the same way she will learn language — through immersion. She is immersed in the language of love.
Because Olivia has an understanding of consistency and can safely let go, she is now ready to learn a new consistent approach to sleep. After our consultation Alex feels prepared with the new action steps she will take to change sleep. Her relaxed confidence will be Olivia’s greatest support in learning new and improved sleeping skills.
On a follow-up a few weeks later, Alex said: “As you recommended, I endeared Olivia to a lovey. I chose a bunny with a cloth attached and told Olivia this story:
It was time for the bunny to fall asleep and sleep in her own nest all night long. If the bunny needed help, the mommy bunny would hop in, give her baby bunny a kiss and hop back to her own nest to sleep.
After Olivia’s nap, we did a dress rehearsal of the new bedtime ritual. I talked Olivia through the process and told her, “Tonight I will put you and the bunny in your crib to fall asleep and sleep all night long.”
I then showed her what coming and going looked like in this context, slowly coming and going from her room. “Then I am going to leave so that you can relax and sleep. I will come and go, and I’ll help you fall asleep on your own. Olivia sat in her crib wide eyed and watching.”
Alex came and went and offered Olivia the love, empathy and support she needed in learning a new skill. She replaced nursing with alternate soothing methods, which Olivia came to recognize and appreciate in the place of nursing. Alex used her voice, her touch, her warmth, her trust, her respect and emotional connection– all of which created their bond throughout the last eight months– to soothe and reassure Olivia that she could let go, fall asleep and return to sleep in the night when she woke.
And the mommy bunny and baby bunny slept in their nests happily ever after.
Eileen Henry is the author of a new book The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming The Cry. She is a RIE® Associate and and works with families all over the world as a Child Sleep Consultant, a specialty she pioneered. Her unique program not only transforms sleep but the entire parenting experience. “My goal is to co-create the best emotional and physical environment for sleep success for your entire family.”
(Photo by Masaru Suzuki on Flickr)