Sleep Solutions for Every Baby

This is my fourth post in my evolving series on infant sleep.

I have at least 100 journal articles on sleep saved on my computer, and I’ve been dutifully slogging through them, trying to systematically summarize the effects of different sleep training methods or otherwise. But… yawn. I myself didn’t get enough sleep last night. And besides, I keep coming back to all of your many comments – your stories about how sleep works in your house and why you like it that way. They remind me that the best parenting philosophy is the one that makes sense to you, the one that gives you a framework within which to guide your interactions with your child, and the one that makes you love your job as a parent. I’ve come to realize that we can’t talk about sleep without first acknowledging our diverse philosophies on the subject. I’d like to discuss that a bit more in this post, and my next post will be chock-full of the science on cosleeping and sleep training.

Photo Credit: Lori Cole

Sleep is so personal, and yet, it can so often feel like someone is telling us that we’re doing it wrong. This topic triggers such strong emotions, from guilt and shame to defensiveness and judgment. If you haven’t experienced this, take a look at the conversation on blog posts like this one and this one. It is actually kind of embarrassing that we are so darn hard on each other when we talk about infant sleep. Why is that?

Me? I’ve been feeling paralyzed in my writing about sleep. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope, every step a word that could make another mother feel judged or feel angry, or worse, stop reading, ending the conversation. The thing is, I really don’t want to stir up more controversy around this issue. There is enough of that. When the conversation about sleep starts to feel confrontational, my heart literally starts to beat faster, and not in the way that feels good. I hate the thought that my writing might offend or alienate another parent. That parent is undoubtedly loving, responsive, and nurturing and feels strongly that she has found a way that is right for her. I know that if we sat down and had coffee together, we would find that we have a lot in common and learn something from each other.

A pediatrician recently told me that she always asks parents at their baby’s 2-month appointment what their goals were for their baby’s sleep and offers advice if needed from there. I thought that this was a wonderful way to approach the topic. She’s probably heard just about every possible answer to that question, and I have no doubt that she handles the discussion with sensitivity and support and without judgment. That’s something I think we all could learn from. It’s something I’ve been working on myself.

Really, it comes down to this question: What are your goals for your baby’s sleep? Do you want to have a snugly cosleeping relationship with your baby for the first few years of life? Do you want your baby to fall asleep in his own crib? Or something in between? If you and I have different goals, then it is really hard for us to discuss sleep without stepping into that territory that feels judgmental. Is it impossible? No, I don’t think so. But I think that we need to accept that there is no one “right” way and that not one of us is perfect. Most babies adapt readily to the sleep environment in their home, as long as it is consistent. I can tell you with certainty that we fret about it much more than they do.

Whether you want your baby to cosleep or sleep in a crib vastly changes the landscape of sleep in the first few years of your baby’s life. This choice – either way – may reflect a strong cultural or philosophical belief around what babies need and how parents should provide it, or it may simply reflect a respect for who this one little person is and what he needs. Ideally, mixed into that is a recognition of each parent’s needs and expectations and of how sleep choices may affect the rest of the family. That we choose different ways of sleeping in our families reflects all of these things, but it does not reflect a difference in the amount of love and care we each have for our children.

If you choose to cosleep, what kind of sleep can you expect for you and your baby? If you choose to have your baby sleep in a crib, what can you expect? What can you do if things aren’t going the way you had hoped?

The research on infant sleep can help us to answer these questions, but so can telling our own stories. After all, in our own homes, we each have little sleep experiments going. Of course, we have absurdly small sample sizes, a serious shortcoming given that babies are all so different. We also began our experiments already having significant biases about what would work for our families, and we are very emotionally invested in the results. Still, our stories are essential for understanding the range of solutions found to work in families, particularly because they include nuances that are never described in the scientific journals. But we need both – we need our anecdotes, rich in detail, emotion, and nuance. And we need science – which will tell us what happens with the average baby under a given set of sleep conditions.

I’ll get to the science in my next post, coming soon – I promise! I just wanted to take this moment to thank you for telling your stories here. They have helped me to lose the judgment of other ways and the defensiveness of my way. They have helped me to grow a much more inclusive view of infant sleep and to be thankful for all of the thoughtful ways in which we parent.

Check out other posts from my infant sleep series:

About these ads

24 thoughts on “Sleep Solutions for Every Baby

  1. Such a thoughtful post…sleeping solutions like breast or bottle feeding is really a parent’s personal choice and I agree there is no room for judgement here. Asking a parent what their goals are given their situations is a perfect way to open the conversation.
    Parents need to learn to read the cues that an infant gives so that they can encourage sleep and avoid meltdowns. I have my preferences but I do not push them on anyone.

  2. Sleep training assumes that sleep is something that you can train, and I’m not sure if that is true. The way I see it, sleeping through the night is a milestone like crawling or walking, and that is very hard to train too. I think that the only thing you can do is to make the circumstances ideal for a baby to learn to crawl, walk and sleep. So for sleeping in my opinion that would be some sort of ritual so that it’s clear that it is time to go to sleep, but then if a baby doesn’t fall asleep don’t put any pressure on it but just have him or her try again after a while. If I can’t fall asleep the last thing that works is to try harder. Learning to sleep is just a much bigger deal than learning to crawl and walk because it affects our sleep too.
    I think the reason people think sleep training works is because at some point children are ready to fall asleep by themselves and sleep through the night and that may coincide with the sleep training. (this is how relaxed I would like to feel about it all the time, but that sure is hard after a bad night’s sleep…)

    • Most of the controversy about sleep training IME is about its effect upon the baby’s physiology and/or psyche, not whether it works, because the efficacy of sleep-training methods is pretty well established, with the usual caveats about no method being 100% effective, etc. I’m sure Alice will go into the science in a future post. The fact that babies as young as a month old can be trained to sleep through the night (though I think doing so at that age is a very bad idea healthwise, and would never recommend it!) is evidence that it’s not merely a baby reaching a developmental milestone coinciding with the parents’ decision to sleep train.

    • I agree with Esther, I think it is well-established that sleep training works to improve infant sleep – there are controlled trials that show us that, so we know it is not just a coincidence. See my latest post. I actually hate the term “sleep training,” because it always triggers that “you train a dog, not a child” comment. I think of it more as helping the baby learn to sleep on her own, and there are many ways to do it. The method that you mention has actually been tested. It’s called “positive routines with faded bedtime” or something like that. There’s one study that found positive outcomes, albeit with a small number of kids 18-48 months. I didn’t mention it in my latest post because it was tested on such a small number of kids and well, my post was already too long, but it is interesting. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2797970
      It would be nice to see more studies of this strategy. I suspect it wouldn’t work as well with infants but might be a good bet for toddlers/preschoolers.

      I agree that you’re never going to get a baby that’s not tired to go to sleep, and it is silly to try. It is key to be tuned into baby’s cues and do your best to set baby up for sleep with a soothing, predictable routine. Then, I think IF it is your goal to have your baby go to sleep on her own, you need to allow her to give it a try. You might be there to offer support if you think that helps, but you have to give her a chance to try it herself. She might surprise you! One thing I know is that when BabyC was little, if she got into that over-tired state, it was next to impossible for her to fall asleep. I don’t think we should assume that just because the baby cries a little as she’s learning something new that she isn’t ready to learn it. My baby cried the first time she got her diaper changed and when she rode in the car. We didn’t say, “Oh, we’ll just have to wait until she’s more mature before we change her diaper or take her in the car.” We did our best to support her, and she learned that these things were not the end of the world and could even be enjoyable!

      Thanks for the continuing discussion!

      • Thanks for your reply! I never thought of the fact that almost everything you do (like having a predictable bedtime routine) is called sleep-training. I agree that you have to give a baby a chance to figure things (like falling asleep) out for himself, but I just don’t want to have my baby cry for more than a couple minutes, so so far he’s not falling asleep by himself.
        It’s very interesting that your post from today shows that both sleep-trained and control children show the same sleeping behavior when they’re older. I guess there’s more than one way to success.

        • Oh, I believe there are endless ways to healthy sleep:) That’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this. I actually think the research is a little muddy in this regard, though. Almost every single sleep training study I read stated in the introduction that sleep problems are persistent – that preschoolers that have sleep problems also had them as infants, implying that we should fix them as infants to avoid later problems. I haven’t seen real empirical support for this, though. The two studies I cited in the latest post found similar sleep patterns in the intervention and control groups at 2 years, but it is not as if the control families took a vow to not do anything in the way of sleep training in the intervening time, so we don’t really know what is going on there. Anecdotally, I have heard from many many parents who say that they coslept or otherwise avoided sleep training and that their preschooler sleeps great now, so I’m inclined to believe that most kids really will sleep well eventually, whatever type of “training” or nontraining we do, and others will have difficulty sleeping no matter what we do.

  3. I have just found your blog and am finding this series on sleep so helpful and thoughtfully written!

    I am a first time mom of a 3 month old, and right now he goes to sleep with a pacifier after nursing, and frequently cries 2-3 times after we say “goodnight” when his pacifier falls out until we come replace it. He also prefers us to be in the room with him until he falls asleep. Though this hasn’t become a “problem” for us yet, I really want to support my son in learning the skills of self-soothing to allow him to be more independent and self-sufficient which I believe ultimately leads to confidence. Yet I also want to ensure that we have a strong attachment and that I’m not causing him any psychological (or physical) damage. I also want to be sensitive to his developmental and emotional needs and ensure I don’t have unrealistic or extremist expectations. All this is complicated by contradicting advice and judgement (silent and otherwise) from a variety of other mothers (including my own) whom I respect. Parenting books of differing philosophies also muddy the waters. I’m personally strongly influenced by Dr. Montessori, Magda Gerber, and Emmi Pickler. However I have also been reading Dr. Sears’, American Academy of Pediatrics, “Babywise”, Steiner, and reading about Ferber (but haven’t actually read his book). They all have differing advice!

    It is so helpful to find a thoughtful, less-biased, scientifically-based resource. Thank you. I look forward to your next “installments”.

    • Thank you, it really means a lot to me that you find my articles helpful. It has been a lot of work to write them and to know how to present research in a balanced, helpful way!

      It sounds like you and I share many of the same parenting philosophies. I love Magda Gerber’s approach, though I have only recently learned about it. I also have both Sears and Ferber on my bookshelf, and the two guys don’t agree! I really believe that you have to find your own truth, and that truth may be different from child to child. Personally, I want my child to have the skill of self-soothing, but in hindsight, I do think that the way we got her there (basically the Ferber method at 3 months – though just for falling asleep, we didn’t expect her to sleep through the night) may have been too stressful for her. I believe that there are more gradual and gentle ways to support an infant learning to sleep. With the next hypothetical baby, I would work on gradually introducing the idea of self-soothing in a supported way from a much younger age. Of course, I know the next one will be totally different, and after all my research, I’ll still be at square one trying to figure him or her out!

  4. I think one thing that seems to be missing in our culture is the discussion about sleep when people are pregnant for the first time. When I was pregnant, no one, including the doctors and baby courses, ever mentioned to me that a baby needs sleep just like a baby needs food. And they sure didn’t mention it may not come naturally. Courses about baby sleep for expecting parents are non-existent. Sleep deserves as much thought and research and training for the parent as learning what the baby needs physically and nutritionally. I think we are all missing out by not discussing it more.

    • Yes! You are so right. When you are pregnant, everyone warns you that you won’t get much sleep for the next few years, but there is not a lot of talk about how to support healthy sleep for your baby or identifying goals for your baby’s sleep. I know I just assumed that I would figure it out as we went, which is a healthy attitude, but I would have benefited from knowing more about infant sleep from the outset. The problem (or blessing?) is that there are so many different opinions on it – I think a parent-to-be or new parents really needs to define her philosophy and then find advice from a knowledgeable, experienced person that shares her philosophy. If you just buy the first sleep book you see in the bookstore, you could end up with any number of takes on the subject!

  5. Pingback: Infant Sleep Research: Cosleeping, Self-Soothing, and Sleep-Training | Science of Mom

  6. Pingback: Advice for My Pre-Child Self « a hectic life

  7. Pingback: The Cry-It-Out Controversy and My Family’s Sleep Story | Science of Mom

  8. Pingback: 6 Little Secrets of a Sleeping Baby | Science of Mom

  9. Pingback: Helping Babies Cope With Stress and Learn to Sleep | Science of Mom

  10. I am grateful for your writings, your thoughtfulness and gentleness, and science to “back up” your conclusions. I stumbled across your blog like so many other readers who are trying to sift through SO MUCH research about baby sleep! Like any mom, I hope to find the best approach to sleep train my baby so that we can all sleep through the night. It’s not just about my sleep but also for the well-being of my growing baby who needs rest in order to have the energy to play as hard as he does. My 6-month-old has shown me over the past 2 months that he can’t self-soothe, so in my quest to “sleep train” him in the gentlest (but most effective) way possible, your blog has provided me the most comfort. I would find it hard for any parent to feel judged by anything you put in your blog. You’re very accepting of what different parental methods are, but confident in your own practices. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your approach and your information. I was able to help my son self-soothe this weekend with a little crying it out, but I didn’t stress about it as much because of your posts. Thank you.

  11. What an interesting series! I am a social scientist and statistician, and I am trying to decide what to do regarding sleeping for my little 4 month old, who also loves bouncing to sleep (preferably from rapid deep knee bends but an exercise ball will substitute at times). I can’t thank you enough for these research summaries and your accompanying thoughtful commentary. Your thoughts here make me wonder what qualitative research is out there to complement the quantitative studies on this topic. I’ll keep reading and see if that’s something you bring in.

  12. This is a great series of posts–very informative and very comforting, although I still don’t know what to do with my daughter! I don’t suspect that I’m ever going to stumble across a website with a magic Little-E decoder-ring, though, so we’re just going to have to muddle through like everybody else. What we get hung up on, time and again, is the advice to help babies learn to self-soothe by putting them down when they’re sleepy but not unconscious. I don’t know what’s different in the brains of all of the babies for whom that is possible, but when one puts THIS baby down before she’s unconscious, she immediately begins wailing–sometimes it looks like panic (“I don’t know HOW to fall asleep, Mum–don’t leave me here all tired!”) and sometimes it’s obviously fury (“Nooooo how could you ARGH you evil witch!”), but either way it’s very, very, very far from “soothing” to anyone, and it doesn’t stop. I’ve tried, at “naptime” (a fiction in our household) to put her in her bassinet and sit beside it with my laptop working, offering presence and occasional words of comfort; she cycles up to hysteria, drifts down to silent, and then starts over. Over and over. Until the chance is lost and it’s time to feed her again. Everybody’s so big on how critical the put-them-down-sleepy step in the process is, but I haven’t yet found any advice anywhere on what to do if it genuinely can’t be done. Have you read anything I haven’t seen?

    • I feel like you just described my baby. I, too, am struggling with what to do about my 4 month old’s sleep issues because putting her down sleepy but awake results in immediate screaming that only escalates. I’ve tried letting her cry and it only results in getting so upset that she’s hoarse the next day.
      I just wondered if you ever found anything that worked??

  13. We are trying to get our 10 month old to shift from nursing to sleep to self soothing, your blog has been very helpful, I’m wondering what advice you have regarding how long is too long of a crying period…..what is the longest period you would allow your baby to cry?

Please join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s