It's past 11pm and both Lara (26 months) and Sophia (4 months) are wide awake and here in the sitting room with us. Lara is practising running, flying and stretching (don't ask!), and Sophia is watching her and laughing. Neither of them will be asleep for a good while yet. Both will be nursed or cuddled to sleep, possibly in bed, possibly on the sofa, and then will sleep in the family bed with us.
Most adults wake up at the end of one or more 90 minute sleep cycle, if only briefly. Many get up to go to the loo, or to have a drink of water. Many have notebooks by their bed to jot down dreams or things they've suddenly remembered. No-one says they should be subjected to 'sleep training' because they don't 'sleep through the night'. Rather, their interrupted sleep is seen as normal.
So why should a baby, who has a far shorter sleep cycle than an adult, be expected to sleep for six or more hours without waking? Especially when their tummies are so tiny, and their digestion is speedier than ours.
Babies wake usually because they're hungry; because they're thirsty; because they feel alone and panic; because their busy brains are processing all the learning they have done that day and its too much; or, most rarely, because something has disturbed them.
They don't wake to annoy you; because they are stubborn, difficult or wilful; because they are manipulative, or spoilt, or greedy, or any other negative reason sleep trainers and their ilk can muster. Nor do they not go to sleep at the alloted time for these reasons.
A 14 month old is a baby. A two year old is a baby. A seven year old can even have the characteristics of a baby. THEY ARE NOT TRYING TO RUIN YOUR SLEEP OR TAKE YOUR EVENINGS AWAY!!!!
If you want your baby to go (back) to sleep, feed them, comfort them, rock them, stroke them, talk to them, sing to them. Maybe they want to get up for a while to be with you, that's not so bad is it? You are the centre of their world, you matter. They need YOU. Not a comforter/dummy/mobile/CD/night light - YOU.
And no, you are not creating 'bad sleep habits', where did that ridiculous idea come from?! You are giving your child what they need, that's your job!! They won't be coming round to you to nurse or be rocked and cuddled when they're thirty, not even when they're in their teens. Perhaps remember that now, and take all the cuddles you can, while you can!
Why does our culture assume that a child needs to be asleep by 6pm/7pm/8pm? Do you tell any adults in your home when to go to bed? Do you deny them food or drink or entertainment because you have decided it's their bed time?
Do you know people who are 'larks' and go to bed early because they wake up at 6am? And 'night owls' who would prefer to stay up way past midnight every night? We accept this as the norm in adults, so why would we not expect our children to be the same?
Lara is definitely in the owl camp, as are Steve and I. We can't expect to tell with Sophia quite yet. But both sleep peacefully until 9 or 10am usually. If Lara was going to attend school this might be a problem, of course, and we would perhaps need to tweak sleep times a bit, but I don't think we could ever imagine having a set bedtime.
For one thing it's added hassle! Why not let a child sleep when they're tired? Why is that such a controversial idea? Who decided that children would be unable to realise when they were tired, and choose to sleep accordingly? Surely it can't be that we reach adulthood and suddenly, magically recognise tiredness and the need to sleep.
Sleep is a natural state, a bodily necessity. Even a very small body must know that. Be brave and let them develop their own natural sleep patterns and habits. They will, if you let them.
Before you consider sleep training, ask yourself why you want and expect your child to sleep at the times you set. Is it to fit in with societal norms? Is it because you (and our anti-child culture) think it's good for them, or for some reason necessary? Is it because you want your evenings on your own? Is it because they have to be up and alert at a certain time, or you do?
How about spending a week, just seven days, living and sleeping according to your child's rhythms? The first couple of days may be strange as you all adjust to this new idea, but after that just sit back and observe. Left to follow their natural rhythms, when does your child sleep and wake? When do they nap?
Both of our daughters have their own natural patterns which they have fallen into. We are all happy with them, and are relaxed about it, which ensures peaceful days and restful nights for us all.
The only time we ever had a problem was for a few weeks at the end of last year when we foolishly tried to impose a semi-pattern on Lara. It was awful, and we soon went back to what was natural. I hasten to add that the only one of use who cried during that time was me!
Our natural sleep pattern is simple, when we're tired we sleep, any and all of us. When she's tired during the day, Lara will climb up onto a lap, maybe nurse, maybe not. She recognises when she's tired, and she will then sleep for as long as she needs.
At night Lara asks to go to bed when she feels tired enough, sometimes that's as early as 7pm if she's had a really busy day, more often later, much later. One of us will go and lie down with her, and may or may not get up again once she's asleep. She will then sleep in for as long as she needs to the next morning. If we have an appointment it's different, but mostly we plan life around when we wake, rather than forcing ourselves into an unnatural pattern.
Before you sleep train your child, please, please, please ask yourself WHY you think they should sleep/wake at x time. Ask yourself why you expect them to be in bed. If it's to have child-free time, ask yourself why you had children in the first place, surely it was to enjoy them and have fun with them, whatever time of day or night that may be. Is it so very important that they follow a routine (my most hated word!!), or is it more important that you have an amazing life togeher, tuned in to each other's wants and needs? And maybe, just maybe, devote some time to discovering their natural sleep pattern.
Whatever you do, please do not let your child cry it out. A child should NEVER be left to cry, the psychological and emotional damage you are (unintentionally) inflicting is tantamount to child abuse.
To get your child to sleep you could:
- Rock them
- Stroke them
- Hold them and cuddle them
- Wear them in a sling while you do whatever you need to do
- Go for a walk with them in the sling, or pushchair even
- Breastfeed them
- Sing to them
None of these things will damage your child. Controlled crying, in whatever form or guise, will. Please don't do it, whatever society/Supernanny/friends/neighbours/family tell you. You owe your child more, so much more.
May you all live together peacefuly and happily, whenever and wherever you sleep.
Natural Child Project
Australian Association for Infant Mental Health
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