My baby boy is 6 months old, and we do all we can to make sure he is happy and healthy. We realize how important good, uninterrupted, restorative sleep is – both night sleep and daytime naps – and I wonder how you might respond to the philosophy of Dr. Marc Weissbluth (“Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”), who advocates letting a baby over 4 months cry up to one hour for naps and an unlimited time for night so the baby learns to self-soothe and fall asleep unaided. (This is of course assuming that the baby’s needs have been met – he’s fed, comfortably dressed, appropriate room temperature, fresh diaper, no diaper rash or other obvious injury/discomfort, not ill, no coyotes in the crib, etc.)
Weissbluth suggests that when a baby needs sleep but wants to play or cuddle, we are robbing him of sleep if we constantly go to him. Sure enough, I feel like I’m hindering my baby’s efforts to put himself to sleep rather than helping at all. As soon as he sees me, he immediately wants to be held and nursed, even if he just ate. The problem with that is if he does fall asleep on me, I cannot put him down asleep – he wakes up and cries – and he does not sleep on anyone for more than 15 minutes or so (clearly not restorative sleep). We have done this for hours during the day in an effort to get him to take a nap when he was obviously tired.
Sometimes I believe he simply cries because he is overtired (perhaps from missing the previous nap) and needs to blow off steam before settling down. I never leave the room while he’s crying, but he typically starts once I’m out of sight, leading me to believe he just wants more play time. He typically nods off after a few minutes, but there are times when the crying goes on longer. I’ve been very torn between allowing him to relax himself and going in and rescuing him, even if it meant a missed nap, which is clearly not in his best interest. Any advice would be appreciated.
(This was a comment on my post 7 Reasons To Calm Down About Babies Crying)
Sleep specialist Eileen Henry responds…
“7 Reasons to Calm Down about Babies Crying” is a great article. And my experience with parents is in line with Janet’s. In the eight years that I have been working as a sleep consultant, I have yet to meet a parent who can leave their baby to cry. Even the parents I meet who do the “Cry It Out” method or “Ferberize” end up going to their child at some point and offering some form of support. Sitting in the next room, listening to the child suffer and having that fight with the parental brain is a doomed scenario…
However, our parental brain still holds obsolete instinctual drives that tell us to “stop the crying” at any cost. Even though we may intellectually know that all is well (we have the shelter part of our basic needs down — there are no wolves at the cave door), the intense urge to follow the impulse is still there. We can have a head full of rational knowledge and still have great difficulty convincing the heart to sit back and listen to our beloved baby suffer.
Good news…you don’t have to.
Your reader above raises some very good points and familiar concerns. Once we know all of our child’s needs have been met, now is the time to satisfy the authentic need for sleep…but how do we support our child in their efforts to settle in and get a good, uninterrupted, period of sleep? As this mommy knows, the best way to raise a successful sleeper is to allow the child to learn how to go from sleepy to asleep on their own. And at 6 months of age, “On their own…but with a little help,” might be the ticket.
As mentioned in 7 Reasons To Calm Down About Babies Crying, the parent’s emotional state is key. I put this first in the list of ways to help our children through any disturbance. Since my program, Compassionate Sleep Solutions, is strongly rooted in Attachment Theory (or Regulatory Theory, as I like to call it), the first order of business is to offer soothing from a “self soothed” emotional state. To best help our child emotionally regulate, we must first make certain we (the parents) are emotionally centered.
The second thing I recommend is to try to distinguish between struggle and suffering in the child’s cries. Since struggle is inherent in all development, we can be confident that our child can develop a healthy relationship with struggle by allowing them to have their struggles.
If at any time you hear what sounds like suffering, by all means go in and offer soothing and comfort to your child. We will always respond to suffering, but we can do so without “rescuing” or “fixing” the child’s sleep.
Infants may have many wants, but until they are verbal (and arguably even then) we will never know what they truly want. But if we are certain that sleep is what they need, we do not want to rob them of this wonderful time of rest and rejuvenation. I find over and over that acknowledgement, empathy and compassion can be most powerful in helping our children through their learning struggles and inevitable suffering in this life.
I am reminded of what Thich Hhat Hanh refers to as The 4 Aspects of True Love. And true love is a deep and continual practice of compassion.
- Is true presence…”Beloved, I am here.” We do this in the care giving routines and rituals of the day. We do our best to be mindful and present.
- “Beloved, you are here and I am happy.” We do this having already established a strong and healthy attachment and bond.
- “Beloved, you are suffering and I am here.” We do this by offering acknowledgement, empathy and reassurance.
The fourth aspect is said to be the most difficult for the adult human. It is because we have fear and pride. Perhaps we have fear that we will not be helped and are therefore too prideful to ask, or perhaps we have been trained to only think of the other:
- “I suffer…help ME.” We satisfy this as parents every time we sit in a RIE class and share our experience, struggles, parental guilt and fears. We do this with our mommy sisters, partners and husbands. And at every age we can be honest with our children by modeling humanness…”Sweetie I know…I hear you…this is hard for me, too.” Because we also know what loss and grief are made of. And we know that no one can fix it…and no matter how painful it is…the feeling is meant to be felt.
Eileen Henry, RIE™ Associate
Compassionate Sleep Solutions™
(Isn’t this the best photo ever?! It’s by Sellers Patton on Flickr)