Sleep deprived? How to know if sleep training is for you

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Mum and baby co-sleeping. Photo: Courtesy

I was at the market last week and one woman was complaining how tired she was because her baby keeps waking up at night. Two other women jumped at the opportunity to tell her why she should sleep train her child.

“I have never slept with any of my children in my bedroom,” one said. “I enjoy my sleep.”

My curiosity was piqued.

The second woman went on to explain to the sleep-deprived mom how she trained her baby to sleep through the night. She let her cry for several nights till she learnt to sleep on her own.

“But it’s not easy. The first night she cried for two hours. The next night for around 40 minutes. By the third and fourth night she just complained a little then slept, ” she said triumphantly.

“How long does all that take,” sleep-deprived mom asked.

“Around 10 days; but after that you will sleep like a queen,” the first mom told her.

I saw the scared look on her face.

I have tried sleep training my baby by letting him cry himself to sleep, the goal being to teach him to self soothe so that when he wakes up in the night, he doesn’t have to cry out for mummy. The goal of all sleep training is to teach children to fall asleep by themselves and to soothe themselves back to sleep when they awaken at night.

My one try at sleep training caused so much emotion in one night that hubs and I decided that method was not for us. We (read I) could survive two years of interrupted sleep. Even when I have felt like falling off the wagon and letting my 15-month old cry herself back to sleep, hubs will not let me.

“Just pick her up,” he says. And thankfully, the two of us have mastered the art of nighttime feeds with little sleep lost; although some scientists say 8 hours of interrupted sleep is as good as 4 hours of continuous sleep. See the story. 

So I accepted that my children may not learn to sleep through the night until they are ready to do so themselves because I do not have the heart to let them cry themselves to sleep or ignore their wailing at night. Just when I am feeling like a lesser mom for lacking the discipline, today I came a post by Milk Meg , a blogger and lactation specialist. She points out to research that shows that frequent night waking is a protective factor against SIDS. Apparently, babies are not supposed to sleep in long chunks, unless of course they are choosing to do so.

She also points out that the night waking helps establish and keep up milk supply. “Research shows that babies take up to 20 per cent of their milk volume at night. For some women, especially in the early months or if you are going to be separated from your baby or toddler during the day, these night time feedings will be crucial for keeping up your breastmilk supply.”

But if baby is well fed, dry, warm, she doesn’t need to wake up for a night time feed or two, I tell myself. She is just waking up because she is spoilt crazy. She just wants to drive me crazy. May be I ma the one who lacks self control as a mom. I consider ignoring her night wakings (or sending her dad over to give her water) till she learns that nights are for sleeping, not cuddling and feeding.

However, Meg notes that babies also wake up for pain relief, comfort, to get an increase in the immunological components in breastmilk, to help them cope with their developmental milestones and the changes in their brain due to this, if they are scared, cranky or bored.

She believes that the best time to night wean an unwilling toddler is around 18 months when the child starts to communicate more. At this point they are developmentally ready to negotiate and understand what you are saying so you can negotiate over night time weaning with less stress and frustration.

Did I feel like a lesser mom because my first born eventually slept through the night at 18 months when my peers had been enjoying their zzzzzzzs since their babies turned six months and discovered ugali? Yes.

Do I get cross at my daughter when she wakes up for the umpteenth time in a night just to feed for what, 40 seconds? Yes.

But I know when she fusses or cries in the night, I will pick her up and breast feed her because that is what feels natural to me. That’s what my instincts tell me — baby is crying, pick her up.

I will soothe her to sleep by the breast no matter how many articles tell me that is bad practice and bad for her teeth. It is something we both enjoy to do and I think I should thank the oxytocin for the fact that I am out in less than 60 seconds after hitting the sheets.

baby and mom

Human babies are born developmentally very immature compared to other mammals. They need the frequent attention to thrive. Also, babies cry and fuss to seek comfort and attention from their caregiver. Developmentally that need is as legitimate as their need for food. And they are small only for so long.

However, self soothing is also a natural skill that children eventually learn to help them go back to sleep at night without needing a parent’s intervention. Sleep training helps hasten this natural learning process for babies and because they are struggling with the learning, they cry.

Falling asleep is a habit and skill that all kids can learn. The question is when is the right time to teach it.

Dr Alice Calahan of Science of Mom says: “When babies associate something like feeding, rocking, or bouncing with their transition to sleep, they often expect those same conditions when they wake during the night. All of us wake during the night – babies and adults alike. We check our surroundings to make sure everything feels right, and if it doesn’t, we go on alert. When Baby C was bounced to sleep, she woke 45 minutes later and everything felt wrong – she wasn’t bouncing anymore! She called for help, and, being good, responsive parents, Husband or I came running to see if she wanted to nurse, to change her diaper, to shush her, and then finally, to bounce her again so she could go back to sleep – often only to wake again 45 minutes later to repeat the whole process. This was not a very restful night of sleep for any of us.

When a baby knows how to self-soothe and falls asleep independently, she wakes in the night, checks her surroundings, and finding nothing to be alarmed about, she goes back to sleep without needing our help. Babies that have this skill of self-soothing have been shown to get a full additional hour of sleep during their longest nighttime sleep period and an average of 45 additional minutes of total nighttime sleep. They wake during the night just as non-self-soothers do, but they are less likely to cry out for help and more likely to roll over and go back to sleep. We often hear BabyC wake around midnight, but she rarely sounds distressed or calls for us. We listen as she practices her current favorite word, “app-uu (apple), app-uu, app-uu,” for a while, gradually quieter, until she falls back to sleep on her own.”

I am teaching my daughter gently to self soothe by always not rushing to her side whenever something goes wrong. I want her to get back on her feet and keep walking. But responding to my baby’s cries, feeding her when she starts to fuss, rocking her colicky body till my feet hurt– this is what comes naturally to me. It leaves me exhausted and sleep deprived sometimes but I am okey with it. That is why I am a mother. I will not rush her to stop doing what babies do.

If you have chosen to be the attached parent recent research is on your side. Letting babies get distressed has been shown to damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. Scientists are now saying that babies grow from being held. An article in Psychology Today says leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.

“Babies don’t self-comfort in isolation. If they are left to cry alone, they learn to shut down in face of extensive distress–stop growing, stop feeling, stop trusting,” write authors Henry J.P and Wang S in a study on the effects of early stress on adult behaviour.

Another author, Schaunberg. S, in a 1995 scholarly article on the genetic basis for touch effects asserts: “When mothers stop touching their infants, DNA synthesis stops, growth hormone diminishes. Physiologically, the baby goes into “survival mode.” Our ancestors carried and held (all the time) and slept with their babies, maximizing growth. Our ancestors breastfed their babies on demand.”

He continues to say that breastfeeding to sleep and waking to be cuddled are all developmental phases for a baby. At a young age, a child needs the comfort to feel relaxed and safe enough to fall asleep.

Another blogger, Breastfeeding Mama Talk, says: “Of course children sleep better after sleep training.  They quickly learn that no one is coming for them. They learn to stop crying because they learn that no one is going to comfort them.”

My  son doesn’t need me to help him sleep. I did not believe the first time he slept through the night. It felt like a miracle. Soon we had another milestone – we were watching TV when he told me he was tired and wanted to go to bed- this chap who always fought sleep tooth and nail wanted to leave us watching TV and go to bed.

These days we tell him its bed time, tuck him in and switch off the lights and off he drifts into sleep. Even when sleep doesn’t come immediately, he will talk to himself or his toys until he finally dozes off; no drama.

They grow up. So enjoy the night feeds as your special ritual, and the cuddling as a time to do that which nourishes your little one, mind, body and spirit.

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