“Sleep is not always a problem to fix. There is a large part that remains a mystery.”
That comment from sleep specialist Eileen Henry nails the reason I find it far more challenging to help parents with sleep issues than I do all other aspects of parenting. Sleep is deceptive and ambiguous, and I am infinitely more comfortable with clarity. This is also the reason I often ask Eileen -– always fearless and gracious — to respond to parents reaching out to me with sleep questions like this one:
We have a 15 week old, and she has started to scream and arch her back and refuse to nurse when she’s tired and needs rest. She will scream at bedtime for a couple of hours sometimes and only stops when she’s brought from the bedroom into the living room, which makes me think she’s not in any kind of pain. It is exhausting and heartbreaking to see my baby so upset, and this reaction to bedtime has crept into the whole day — every nap and every time she’s set down she protests. Her naps are often very short, and she is not eating much during the day. I suspect she associates nursing with being put to sleep.
Everyone is telling me to help her learn to self-soothe and go to sleep on her own etc.
MY agenda is to get her to sleep, or even just put her down, so that I have a little break, and so she’s well rested. Its feeling like a battle already, my agenda versus her needs/will.
I was wondering if you could shed some light on this. Is she too young to be really throwing a tantrum? I feel like she’s telling me she needs to be close and I should be giving her what she needs rather than trying to get her to do what I want.
Aww. You are doing everything right. She is too young to be having a tantrum. She is not manipulating her environment or you. She is just waking up to you and her world.
It isn’t you. It is her brain. It is good news. She is waking up to a new stage of development. She is transitioning from newborn to the first stage of infancy. It looks like smiles, greater interaction, and greater awareness. Her brain is organizing. That is the good news.
The bad news is this: It trashes sleep. Or, at least, disrupts it.
More good news: It is temporary. She will move forward.
More bad news: Another stage of development will disrupt it ahead. Or not.
Sleep is not always a problem to fix. There is a large part that remains a mystery. And although humans love a mystery, we are not so fond of the one that leaves the unanswered question: When do we get some sleep around here? Yikes. That sends shivers up my tired spine.
She will sleep. You will sleep. Animals know how to sleep. She can learn the one skill it takes to sleep:
And she can learn the supportive emotional condition to be an autonomous sleeper:
2. I am safe and even content in separateness.
No hurry. No worry.
When you take her into the living room, it can have just the effect you describe. I call that a brain reset. It really does reset the brain. I recommend that if parents find themselves going down that rabbit hole (arched back and intense crying), just change environment. Walking outside (depending on where you live and the temperature) is a wonderfully soothing reset. Give her a moment to soothe and then go back in the bedroom. Do a short sleep ritual and see if she might be calm enough to settle into sleep.
Yes, you can help her learn to self-soothe. And yet her brain is just now coming into the ability to do so. At this age it is an incremental learning and therefore we take an incremental approach.
Your agenda is a worthy and loving agenda. And you will have what you wish. She just needs to settle into her new and improved brain.
I recommend for now just holding her close and easing off a bit. Naps are all over the place at this stage. If we get into this emotional state of “chasing the nap,” it will only frustrate you.
The incremental approach that goes with developmental ability is this:
- You are working toward your baby learning the skill of “falling” that it takes to fall asleep.
- You are working toward 100% of her sleep being done this way by the time she is between 5-6 months.
- This means by this age she can go from sleepy to asleep in her sleep place without you fixing the falling for her.
- She can have three naps a day falling asleep in this way without you nursing, walking, or rocking her down.
- She can learn how to do this for all of her sleep over the next few months.
- There is no rush really. (Go ahead. Take a deep breath. This will help both of you in self regulating and self-soothing.)
- She can learn this and still have a feeding or two in the night at 4-5 months old. This is called a focal feed. This feeding is based on the authentic hunger and need for food in the night at any given age.
Isn’t she remarkable?
So are you.
I hope this helps you relax. You will not miss some magic window of opportunity. The window opens slowly and over time.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
(Photo by Björn Rixman on Flickr)