“The word ‘sleep’ wakes up even the sleepiest baby.” – Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby
Magda Gerber’s assertion might seem far-fetched, but recent scientific studies (by Gopnik, Bloom, Spelke and others) are proving what Gerber understood more than half a century ago: our infants are astonishingly sharp and aware. They recognize repeated words, read our subtexts, sense our feelings and attitudes. Through my years observing infants and toddlers, I’ve noted that they are even inclined to resist anything they perceive to be our agenda, especially if they sense us selling it to them.
Magda recommended replacing ‘sleep’ with ‘rest’, partly because ‘rest’ is a little gentler, less demanding. Also, for many of us, ‘sleep’ can have a vaguely negative connotation, which we can end up inadvertently conveying to our children. Consider some of the phrasing we commonly use like “go to sleep”, which sounds a like a banishment, and “fall asleep”, which sounds precarious (and potentially painful).
Babies can become unsettled and resist sleep if our attitude towards bedtime is pitying, as in “poor baby has to go sleep”; when we’re anticipating a battle, “uh-oh, this is going to be trouble”; or even when they sense our impatience, “you’re tired, so hurry up and go to sleep already!” These attitudes make it far more difficult for our baby to do his or her job, which is to relax and let go enough to let sleep happen.
The most important thing to know about sleep is the most important thing to know about parenting in general: Babies are aware and competent whole people. They are listening, noticing, absorbing, primed to learn about us and life through our every interaction, no matter how subtle, whether we want them to or not.
With this truth in mind, here are a few other important – albeit subtle — things to know about babies and sleep:
1. Babies are easily over-stimulated and overtired
It’s easy to underestimate the hyper-sensitivity of very young children, but remember – they haven’t developed the filters we have. Imagine your sensory volume switch cranked waaaayyy up all the time, and there’s nothing you can do to turn it down or tune anything out. While this hyper-awareness is what makes babies phenomenal information gatherers, it also means they become overstimulated in environments we’d consider quite manageable. And overstimulation and overtiredness can mean crankiness, whining, crying, difficulties both falling asleep and staying asleep.
Being an aware baby is exhilarating, but also exhausting, and overtiredness can happen easily (I seemed to miss this often as a mom, myself). I often remind the parents in my classes how ultra-stimulating and tiring the ninety minutes we spend together each week are, even though our classes are relatively relaxed and quiet. But babies are absorbing the space, the energy of all the people, while also developing their motor, cognitive and social skills through self-chosen play. For them, it is exhausting!
Encouraging restorative shut-eye means keeping our eyes open to the threat of over-stimulation and overtiredness and catching the sleep wave early. Some of the early signs of tiredness include slowing down, a lack of coordination and a slightly dazed appearance (which actually sound a lot like me at the end of the day).
2. Babies appreciate routine and develop habits readily
Our choices as parents define ‘life’ for our babies; we teach them what to expect, and they will usually want to continue doing what they know (which makes sense, considering their new and often overwhelming world). So although sleep routines and preferences are individual to each family, they all have the tendency to become habit-forming.
One example that comes to mind is an infant I worked with who had become accustomed to sleeping while carried by her mum in a sling. The family ran into difficulties when they tried transitioning her to sleeping in a bed, because she had learned to sleep with her legs elevated, and also to fall asleep while nursing. When the parents tried to place her in a bed asleep, she would soon startle herself awake again as she felt her legs drop down onto the bed. The parents eventually consulted a sleep expert who offered them a new plan, which included placing their baby in bed while she was still at least slightly awake, turning her towards the bed initially so that she could see where she going before they placed her on her back. They then allowed her a few minutes to settle.
I’m hoping no one reading will misinterpret this as a suggestion not to ever nurse infants to sleep or allow them to catnap in a carrier or in our arms. My advice is simply to keep in mind that our choices have an impact, because the conditions we create can become habits that can then become our baby’s “needs”. While some babies will naturally transition out of some of these habits, others will find changes more difficult.
3. If changes in routines need to be made, communication and respect are imperative
As much as babies prefer the predictable and familiar, they are also capable of adapting to the changes we deem necessary, as long as our expectations are developmentally appropriate (in other words, we should not expect young infants to go all night without feeding, etc.).
I personally dislike the term ‘sleep training’, not only because it sounds unnatural and forced, but also because transitioning to healthier sleep habits is actually the opposite of training — it is more like un-training. We are respectfully un-training the children we’ve trained to be lulled to sleep by our rocking, bouncing, carrying and car rides. We are respectfully un-training the children we’ve conditioned to fall asleep (and for some only stay asleep) on the breast.
Our competent, aware babies can make these adjustments with a minimum of stress if we establish a respectful, trusting relationship by:
Developing a communicative relationship
The sooner we talk to our babies as if they can understand, the sooner we’ll recognize that they do understand. For example, when we regularly ask our baby, “Are you ready for me to pick you up?” (rather than swooping her up). And then we wait for her response and if a “yes” is indicated, we acknowledge, “Okay, I’m going to pick you up now.” We begin to notice our baby tensing her body a bit in anticipation of being picked up. Eventually, she’ll lift her arms towards ours.
Informing babies simply and honestly about changes we are making
“After your bath we’ll nurse and then I’ll sing a song while we snuggle and take you to your bed so you can rest. Usually we rock and rock, but tonight we’ll snuggle and then say goodnight in your bed.”
Supporting, accepting and acknowledging feelings (while doing just a little bit less, like holding our baby without rocking them, rocking more gently, or caressing them in their bed)
“You are upset. This feels very different, I know. You are used to rocking. I hear how upset you are. You are having a hard time relaxing, but you will soon.”
4. Sleep requires letting go
Establishing healthy sleep rhythms for our cognizant babies means creating the conditions and adopting the practices that make it easier for them to let go of their fascinating world at bedtime. Our calm presence helps them to let go of stimulation, stress, excitement and other emotions they may have stored that day (or morning). For our babies to let go, they need us to let go, which means bedtime is never a good time to express our worry, frustration, anger or engage in battles about sleep (ever tried to go to sleep wound-up or upset?).
Predictable bedtime routines that we repeat each day help babies learn to gradually let go and anticipate sleep, perhaps even look forward to it (well, that might be a stretch), as do soothing stories and lullabies.
In her book Your Self-Confident Baby, Magda Gerber shares, “A nice bedtime habit to start with our child is to recapture the day. You can say, for example, “Today we went for a walk and it rained. We came home and had lunch, etc.’ What we think is unimportant is important to a child – what she ate, where she was, and who she saw. Recapturing the day is a way of giving her security. She then carries the good feelings of the day into bed with her. You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, the present, and the future, and gives her life a connected flow…”
“The Subtleties of Baby Sleep” is included as a chapter in my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
The Rhythm of Sleep by Vanessa Kohlhaas, Deep Breath of Parenting
RIE From the Start – 2 Simple Things You Can Do to Support Baby by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
Eileen Henry’s articles (and my own) in the sleep section on this site