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Getting your baby to sleep

September 27, 2010

Question from a Blissborn mom:

I am assuming you didn’t let your kids ‘cry it out’ at night.  Did you use a sleep method?  Or were you just lucky and they slept?

Answer:

I didn’t really use any method for sleep for my kids; I just went with my instincts, which were to keep them close. Each of them slept between me and my husband until they were about three, then moved onto a mattress on the floor at my bedside and stayed there until they were asking for their own rooms.  My 5-year-old is still there, but my daughter (now 10) wanted her own space when she was that age, so I’m ready when he is!  I love having them close and hearing them breathe at night.  We never have to argue about going to bed — they don’t mind a bit.  My husband and I have found creative ways around the obvious problem with always having kids in your bedroom.  It hasn’t caused any trouble for us (but we both agree on co-sleeping — or at least he doesn’t disagree too much).  Read this article explaining the scientific defense of bed-sharing by James McKenna, MD.

The main thing I tell people when they ask me for sleep advice is to do whatever it takes to reassure your children that they’re safe and loved and all their needs will be met.  Without that, the problems will be endless — way beyond sleep!

Sometimes we have to let them cry (like if you’re feeling you have to have a break OR ELSE!), but as a general rule I think it’s important to respond with love and reassurance every time they need you.  Even if you want your baby to sleep in her own room, she will want to know you’ll always be close by.  She’s too young to understand that you still exist when she can’t physically see and touch you.

When they are little they are helpless and I think they know it instinctively, so their cries are not just about sadness or physical needs. They are about the threat of a bond being broken — the bond they depend upon for their continued existence.  They can be very upset by being left alone — scared that they’ve been abandoned — and some part of the subconscious mind can easily conclude that means death is imminent. I just hate the thought of it!  I’ve done a lot of work with people whose abandonment issues messed up their relationships and their lives, so I’ve tried really hard to avoid that with my kiddos.

I have a theory about why the ‘cry it out’ sleep methods get kids to stop crying:  Like all baby animals, they have a deep instinct to lie quiet and still if their caretakers seem to have left.  If you’ve ever seen a baby deer left by its mother, it is frozen, even when discovered. Baby birds do the same — they only peep if they think their mother is coming. Being quiet is the instinct that kicks in to avoid being found by predators.  Once babies un-learn that someone is there to protect them, they rely on that instinct.

My mother tells a story handed down to her by her grandmother who was a full-blooded Cherokee.  The grandmother said that when she came to live with my great-grandfather in ‘white’ society, she was shocked to see the women leaving their babies unattended.  It broke her heart.  She attributed all of their fussiness, digestive problems, sugar cravings and tantrums to this.  She said Cherokee babies never cried.  Never! (I found this hard to believe but my Mom says she challenged her grandmother on it and her grandmother swore they just didn’t cry — I’m sure sickness or injuries were the exception.) And she said they didn’t have all those other problems with fussiness and digestion either.

What was their secret?

These babies were always with their mothers, every minute of the day and night, and the mothers kept their babies in constant physical contact until they began to crawl.  She said that as a result, the bonding among parents and children and throughout the tribe was profound.  The mothers nurtured that bonding, and that was the glue that held their societies together so tightly.

The ‘crying it out’ philosophy is so strange to me because it views crying as a problem to be solved, and in my opinion it’s just a symptom, a message given in the baby’s first language.  Emotional and physical distance may be what’s causing the crying, and the experts who recommend even more distance are really missing the point and creating more problems.  Parents may get more sleep, but at what price?  Long-term, I think it damages trust and bonding, and without those, how can we have harmony and maintain our authority with our kids?  What does it take to rebuild trust when it’s lost at such a young age, during the child’s imprinting process of “the way the world is”?  I subscribe to the philosophy that if the kids are doing something we don’t like, our job is to love them more (not withdraw love in an attempt to control them or teach them).  Relationships solve problems much better than rules do.

Anyway, our bodies are chemically and physically wired to sleep at night and be awake during the day.  Given time, patience and love, your baby will slip into a natural rhythm that matches yours.  It may take a while for her quickly-changing body to adjust, but sleeping on the circadian rhythm is as natural as breathing, and her body will naturally tend toward this, especially if all of her emotional and physical needs are being met.

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