It’s 2:00 AM, you’re sleeping peacefully in your bed, and you suddenly wake up; not entirely sure why, but as you start to gain awareness of your surroundings. You become aware, to your horror, that there’s someone in the room with you! You hear the sound of their voice, and they whisper those four words that chill every parent to the bone.
“Mom, I can’t sleep.”
Fear of the dark usually starts to show up around the 2 to 3-year mark. As preschoolers’ minds mature, their memory gets longer, and their imagination develops. They’ve almost certainly taken a spill on the playground or had some kind of traumatic incident by this point, so they’re aware there are things out there that can hurt them.
They’ve also probably seen a few movies or been read a few books that touch on a couple of spooky or eerie elements, even if they’re geared towards children. Where the Wild Things Are, for all of its charm, gave me a serious case of the willies when I was a preschooler.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous (although if your preschooler tends to leave Legos lying around, you might argue to the contrary.) But for preschoolers, there’s no history to draw on to assure them they’re safe and secure after the lights go out.
So my first and most important piece of advice when you’re addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this…
Don’t slough it off.
Fear of the dark can be a tricky landscape to navigate. On the one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something frightens our kids. But, on the other, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire.
This is why I’m not a big fan of “monster repellent” or nightly closet checks.
Consider this scenario: You’re concerned, rationally or not, that there’s an intruder in your house. You mention it to your spouse, who hands you a can of pepper spray and, looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyways, I’m headed out for the night! Have a good sleep!”
I mean, you might not file for divorce on the spot, but you’d consider it, right?
So when we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so you’re all good,” it’s not nearly as soothing as you might think.
It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as, “Yeah, there’s absolutely such a thing as monsters, they’re scary as hell, and they do tend to live in kids’ closets, but I don’t see one in there at the moment, so... y’know. Sleep tight!
So that covers what I consider to be the wrong way to handle the situation.
How about some advice on the right way to handle the situation?
As I said earlier, dismissing your little one’s fears as irrational or unfounded isn’t all that helpful, so ask some questions when they express a fear of the dark. Digging into their concerns is beneficial in a couple of ways.
First, it lets them know you’re taking them seriously, which is very reassuring.
Second, it also helps you to assess what it is about the darkness that frightens them and allows you to address it.
For example, if they tell you they’re seeing things moving around their room, it might be caused by shadows. Headlights from cars driving by can often shine enough light through curtains or blinds to throw shadows across the room. Coupled with a preschooler’s imagination, that can create some seriously intimidating scenes. In that situation, a nightlight or blackout blinds can be a quick, effective solution.
Tip: Go for Both! They both have multiple benefits when it comes to preschoolers sleeping habits.
If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm colour. Blue lights may look soothing, but they stimulate cortisol production, which is the last thing we want at bedtime.
Getting a device like the Hatch Baby Rest can help your preschoolers sleep in multiple ways. Setting the night light to a dim red colour can help with melatonin production, soothe some of these new night time fears and the Hatch can be used as a time-to-wake-up device (plus as a white noise machine which I always recommend).
Blackout curtains also have multiple benefits when it comes to sleep strategies. The darker the room the better it is for your child's sleep. Try SleepOut Blackout Curtains; they are made of material that completely blacks out the light, it also helps to eliminate environmental noise from outside, and they help to regulate the temperature in your kiddos’ room. They are a phenomenal product! Use the code ToTheMoonSleep10 for a discount on your purchase.
You're going to have to dig for information.
Now, that’s a bit of a Utopian scenario. As you’re likely already aware, getting a clear, concise answer from a preschooler about anything is tricky. To a preschooler, “Paw Patrol” is a reasonable answer to “What do you want for lunch?” So you’ll likely have to work with slightly more obscure information, but we’re showing concern, which goes a long way here.
For many preschoolers, bedtime is the only time of the day when they’re left alone. They’re either playing with friends, hanging close to their parents, or being supervised in some way, shape, or form by a grown-up.
Bedtime is also the only time they’re exposed to darkness, so you can see how the two things together could easily cause some anxiety.
Spend some time together in the dark.
So the obvious (and super fun!) way to ease some of that apprehension is to spend some time together in the dark. Reading books under a blanket with a dim flashlight is a great activity.
Some hide and seek with the lights out is tons of fun as well, just as long as you clear any tripping hazards out of the area you’re going to be playing in. (It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.)
Shadow puppets are a great time, even though I’m personally terrible at them. Hide-and-Clap is a classic, but if you’ve ever seen The Conjuring, you’ll know why it might leave you with nightmares as opposed to your preschooler.
A quick Google search will load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like, then let them choose one.
This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix!
But stay respectful, calm, and consistent. After your little one’s fears have been addressed and they’ve learned that the darkness is more fun than frightening, you’ll start seeing more consolidated sleep and fewer visits in the middle of the night.
One last little tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is an excellent way to ease them into a dark setting and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier.
Two birds, one stone.
Parenting level: Master.
I’m guessing we all know what I’m referring to here and that I’m not using industry jargon when I refer to a “False Start,” but just in case, let’s define it before we go any further.
Unless you’re very lucky, I mean exceptionally lucky, you’ve experienced one of the false starts firsthand. You put your little one down for the night. They close their eyes, nod off, and then wake up again in about 20-30 minutes. So that specific situation is what we’re referring to here.
The reason it’s essential to distinguish between this scenario and the regular old “nighttime wake up” is because different things cause them and therefore have different solutions.
A nighttime wake-up is similar, obviously, but occurs after baby’s been asleep for at least an hour or so.
Nighttime wake-ups are usually the result of either hunger or a baby’s inability to string their sleep cycles together. Suppose your baby’s over six months of age and had a full feed before bed.
In that case, hunger likely isn’t the culprit. Suppose they’re unable to string their sleep cycles together, well. In that case, that’s another conversation altogether and a great reason to hire a pediatric sleep consultant. *Wink wink*
But false starts, as I mentioned, are a different animal and can often be solved relatively easily. So the first step, as with any problem, is to identify the cause, and when it comes to false starts, here are the three usual suspects.
What are the causes of false starts?
If your baby’s uncomfortable, there’s a good chance they won’t sleep well, as is the case with anybody of any age. Teething, gas, reflux, or even being too warm or too cool can cause babies to wake up quickly after they first settle. You can likely find temporary or permanent remedies to the first three by talking to your pediatrician.
As for the temperature issue, I have a really handy guide to dressing your baby appropriately for different temperature nurseries that I’d be delighted to share with you. Just fire me an email, and I’ll send it your way, free of charge.
2. Lack of Pressure
There are two things that help us fall asleep. One is our circadian rhythm, which signals our brain to start producing melatonin when it gets dark. And homeostatic sleep drive, which is the body’s natural urge to sleep as we spend time awake, exert ourselves physically, heal from sickness or injury, or experience exciting or stressful situations.
Given how quickly they’re developing, babies’ homeostatic sleep drive builds up much quicker than in the average adult. (A big part of why they need so much daytime sleep.) But as they get older, that pressure accumulation starts to slow down and requires more time awake between naps to build up to the point where they can fall asleep and stay asleep at bedtime.
If your baby takes a long time to fall asleep when you first put them down for the night and seems active and happy during that time, low sleep pressure could likely be the cause. It may be time to either drop a nap or reschedule their naps to allow that pressure to build up appropriately before bed.
This is where things can get a little challenging because, contrary to popular belief, over-tiredness doesn’t look like a more intense version of regular tiredness. Instead, over-tiredness causes cortisol secretion at the time when we want it the least and actually causes babies to get quite energetic, making it difficult for them to get to sleep. So, in this case, you might want to move bedtime up by 20-30 minutes.
And that’s the rub because, as you might already have noticed, we’re now dealing with the same symptoms we had in the earlier scenario. Instead of baby not getting enough awake time before bed, they’ve actually had too much.
So two completely opposite causes result in very similar symptoms but require opposite solutions, which makes it challenging to know which course of action to take to remedy the situation.
How do you know which scenario you're dealing with?
So, how do you know which scenario you’re dealing with and implement the proper fix? Well, I have a great little scheduling table that I’d be happy to share with you (once again, just send me an email), or you could try the trial-and-error approach.
If you do, though, I strongly suggest you start by moving bedtime up. Overtiredness is a vicious cycle once it takes hold. Baby doesn’t sleep well, which results in short, fitful naps the next day, which leads to insufficient sleep at night, and on and on it goes. So it’s much safer to move bedtime earlier and see if that solves the problem.
Hopefully, one of these solutions takes care of your little one’s false starts. But if the problem persists, it might be time to consider some one-on-one help from a pediatric sleep consultant, and it just so happens that I know a great one living in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. :)
Book Your Free 20-Minute Sleep Evaluation to chat with me more about what's happening with your little one's sleep and I can explain how I can help and which program is best suited for your family.
Erin Neri - Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
The biggest challenge you’ll face when you’re teaching your baby those precious independent sleep skills is the minute you put them in someone else’s hands for the day.
Combining sleep training and daycare can be challenging, I won’t lie to you. You’ve powered through some hard nights and refused to give in when your baby tested your willpower. But, now that everything’s finally running smoothly, you need to put your trust in someone else to keep things in order.
Personally, when I faced this situation for the first time, I felt like my head and my heart was going to explode. I had spent so many sleepless nights, hours reading sleep stuff that didn’t work, and cried so many tears of frustration, and I was terrified they were going to screw it up. I was going to have to start all over again.
All this hard work and determination to get my little one to sleep independently? Entrusted to someone, I don’t even know? Not on your life.
But here’s the good news. This is absolutely achievable. Sending your little one to daycare will not sabotage their sleep so long as you take the time to work with your daycare provider.
I’ve got some great tips to help you do that in a way that will make this as easy and conflict-free as possible.
So... first of all, have you already decided on your daycare provider? If not, then keep reading. If so, you can skip down to the next section.
Choosing a Daycare Provider
Here are a few sleep-centred things to keep in mind when deciding on a daycare provider. None of these are deal-breakers; they’re just a few things to consider.
Ask them what their approach is to naps.
Do they put kids down at a specific time?
Do they allow individual nap times, or is it all kids together for a specified duration?
Ask to see where they’ll be sleeping.
Is it a fully-lit room with several other kids or a semi-private space where they can keep things dark?
Can you bring your own white noise machine? It can be super helpful to provide the same white noise machine that baby’s accustomed to at home.
My favourite white noise machines are made by YogaSleep. They are made using sleep science and have been around for a long time. They have a smaller travel version that may be perfect to send to daycare with your baby.
Can you bring one of your child's sleep sacks from home? Having that familiar smell of her sleeping environment and that cozy feeling from her own bed can bring a lot of comfort your baby when it comes to nap time at daycare.
My favourite Sleep Sacks are made by Woolino. They are made from a special wool that allows your baby or toddler to use the same sleep sack all-year-round. They come in various patterns and sizes that will grow with your baby. Use the LINK and the code TOTHEMOONANDBACK10 to get a discount off your purchase.
Is your daycare team capable of accommodating specific requests regarding baby’s naps?
i.e. Will they allow your baby to cry for a few minutes, will they hold off on offering sleep props if you ask them to?
Communicating with baby’s caregiver
So, once you’ve decided on a daycare provider, or if you already have your little one in a place you’re happy with, what can we do to ensure everybody’s pulling in the same direction on this sleep issue?
Let them know how long you’re comfortable with baby fussing. Most care providers will default to a no-crying approach unless instructed otherwise.
Ask them to avoid sleep props.
Be specific about what you consider a sleep prop. For example, ask that they refrain from using pacifiers, rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, or whatever you’ve established as methods to get baby sleeping that you think they might become dependent on.
Be respectful of their limitations.
Daycare providers look after a lot of kids at once and are often required to follow some overarching safety rules, so don’t be surprised if they can’t accommodate every request you throw their way. Keeping an eye on several little ones at the same time usually means no white noise machines and no dark rooms. However, it doesn't hurt to ask for these things to be implemented as there are benefits for all the children involved.
Above all, maintain open communication. Let your daycare provider know you’ve been working on your baby’s sleep issues and where you’re at with the process. Remember that they want your little one to sleep well almost as much as you do. A well-rested baby who goes down for naps without much fuss is a daycare provider’s dream come true.
A few random tips
Regardless of the particulars of your baby’s situation with their sleep in their home away from home, here are a few tips that are likely to come in handy...
If you haven’t started sleep training yet, start on a Friday night or whatever day is farthest away from their next day of daycare. The first couple of nights are usually a bit of a roller coaster, and baby’s likely to be a little out of sorts for the first 48 hours.
It’s best to get at least three or four nights in before going to daycare. However, if there’s a care provider who can help you out for a day or two, consider asking them to sit in for the Monday and Tuesday, so baby’s had a good amount of time to get accustomed to their new sleeping arrangement.
Don’t “ease baby in” to their new situation.
Once you’re ready to start sending baby to daycare, start off with the same schedule you want to end up at. If they’ll be going every weekday, send them every weekday right off the jump. Please don’t send them for a day the first week, two days the next, and so on. They’ll adjust quicker and easier if you get them used to their new schedule right away.
Babies are usually capable of distinguishing between different environments.
Habits they learn at daycare won’t necessarily transfer over to sleep in the home, so if your daycare provider allows them a pacifier or rocks to sleep, don’t worry too much about it. Baby should still be able to understand that it’s not the same when they’re at home.
However, it can make the whole process a whole lot easier on everyone if things are as consistent as possible between all of your baby's sleep situations. There is less likely to be any confusion if the expectations are the same both at home and at daycare.
Different schedules at home and daycare are OK.
In the same vein as the last point, it’s not the end of the world if their nap schedule at daycare doesn’t sync up with the one they have at home. But, again, it’s a definite bonus if you can make it work, but it’s not essential.
You will want to follow your baby's awake windows as closely as possible as much as possible while they are at home. Nap times may vary a little between home and daycare but you should aim to maintain your bedtime schedule as close to the same awake windows every night as you can. Keeping that last awake window before bedtime the same each night is going to help to make sure baby isn't overtired for bedtime.
If baby starts falling asleep on the ride home, try to keep them awake. Putting them to bed early is better than offering a catnap after 4:00 PM. If baby does fall asleep, wake them up when you get home and let them get some more awake time before bed.
All in all, there’s no reason why daycare and sleep training can’t work together.
Just keep in mind that your daycare providers are your allies in this mission. They have a vested interest in your little one being as happy and well-rested as possible, and they obviously want to keep baby’s parents happy too.
Maintain open lines of dialog, be respectful and patient, and accept that they can’t always tailor things to each child as much as they would like.
Keep up your bedtime routine, stick to your schedule as closely as possible, keep baby away from those sleep props, and things will fall into place, I assure you.
Happy Sleeping, Erin
Erin Neri - Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
It's time to “fall back” the clocks!!
This can be a dreaded time for parents of young children because with this,
comes an adjustment that does not happen immediately.
This is because children tend to be more structured in their bedtime and wake up around the same time each morning and that is why people usually can see a greater effect on children when the time changes.
However there are some things you can do to help make the transition
to the new time go a little smoother.
My recommendation is to leave your clocks alone Saturday night.
Wake up Sunday morning, have breakfast, then go around your house and change your clocks. Psychologically, it will feel much better for everyone if you wait until Sunday morning to change the time.
My best advice for children to help them with the change is to split the difference
with the old time and the new time.
How does that work?
I get it. I really do. After all, I’m a mom too.
The absolutely uncontrollable and primal impulse to stay close to your baby is so deeply rooted in our DNA that it’s almost frightening sometimes. I’m sure evolutionary defensive instincts are what’s at play in this phenomenon. But it feels more like love to me. I just love this little human to the point where I want to be in contact with them 24/7, 365.
And hey, baby doesn’t seem to mind, and there’s just something so beautiful, so maternal, about sleeping next to your baby that it almost seems crazy not to.
Or at least that’s how some of us felt until the first week or two of co-sleeping. Then it was more like, “Listen, I love you; you love me; that’s established. But I can’t sleep next to someone who hasn’t yet figured out the etiquette involved in sleeping next to another person. And jamming your thumb in my eye at 3:30 A.M. is just simply outside of the lines.”
I have spoken to plenty of parents who co-sleep and who swear by it. Some of them even have more than one kid sleeping in bed with them.
Power to them. If they enjoy it and they’re doing it *safely, I say co-sleep your heart out.
But I’ve spoken to more than a few parents who are big on co-sleeping but are still being woken up by feet in their face or thumbs in their eyes several times a night and want to know if sleep training will get their little ones to stop squirming or waking up fifteen times a night to nurse. Which, for the record, your eighteen-month-old does not need to do.
I really wish I had a more satisfying answer for those parents because, as I say, I sympathize entirely. I understand wanting those two best-case scenarios to live in harmony.
Sleep next to your baby but have them not wake you up repeatedly through the night. That would be magical, no question.
Unfortunately, it’s not really all that likely for a couple of reasons.
One, toddlers are often very animated sleepers. It’s just a fact. They twist and turn and readjust themselves a thousand times a night and often end up entirely on the other side of a queen-sized bed with their feet towards the headboard.
Two, your baby thinks you’re just the greatest. When they wake up in the night and see you lying next to them, they get excited. They want you to interact with them, so they try to engage with you. Unfortunately, since they’re still unaware of societal norms, they don’t know enough to lie on your shoulder and quietly whisper, “Are you awake?” So instead, they do it by jamming their finger in your ear or slapping you on the forehead. It’s not polite, but man, it’s effective!
So why can’t sleep training alleviate this?
Simply put, because it’s not a sedative. Sleep training is all about teaching your baby the skills to fall back to sleep on their own when they wake up in the night. That’s a slight simplification, but at its core, that’s what we’re doing.
We’re not doing anything that will get your baby to fall into stage 3 sleep and stay there for a solid 11 hours. That’s a job for Ambien, and there are obvious reasons why we’re not going down that road.
So while it’s possible that you could see some success in your child’s sleep habits by teaching them independent sleep skills, you’re not likely to see the same kind of results you will if you get them sleeping in their own bed, in their own room, without any distractions.
Leery about giving up the snuggles
For those who are leery about giving up those magical cuddles in your bed, I have a suggestion that has helped my own family and many of those I’ve worked with. Set aside fifteen or twenty minutes every morning after your kids are out of bed and well-rested, and bring them into your bed.
Cuddle them, play with them, sing some songs, play-wrestle, whatever their hearts desire. You can both still enjoy the closeness and familial bond that comes with sharing a bed without creating any associations that might mess with their ability to get to sleep at night and without waking each other up.
If you’ve already been co-sleeping for quite a while and have decided it’s time to reclaim your bedroom, but your little one has other ideas, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’ve worked with families to get them through this exact scenario with tremendous success, and I can help yours too.
Book Your Free 20-minute Sleep Evaluation and let's get your family sleeping.
*Always follow all *Safe Baby Sleep Guidelines.
Erin Neri - Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
As of October 2022, I have completed a new certification called the Integrative Feeding Specialist Course. This means that I am now a Certified Integrative Feeding Specialist, on top of being a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant!
This comprehensive educational program is designed especially for sleep consultants to expand their breastfeeding knowledge. It is the first program of its kind to combine breastfeeding knowledge & sleep dynamics!
As a Certified Integrative Feeding Specialist and Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant:
Not ready to wean? You don't have to! We can find the right solutions for your baby, whatever your goals may be.
Many parents believe that getting a good night's sleep simply isn’t possible for them until their baby is weaned. As a Certified Integrative Feeding Specialist and Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, I can assure you that it is entirely possible for the two to coexist.
Let's find your perfect solution today!
I can’t remember where I saw it, but I distinctly recall Matthew McConaughey talking about the simplicity of raising a baby, saying, “They eat, they crap, they sleep, and if they're crying, they need to do one of the three, and they're having trouble doing it. Real simple”
While I agree with him to an extent on the first part, I vehemently disagree with the second one. Any of those three elements can be caused by many factors, either on their own or in combination with others. Identifying the problem may be simple, but determining the cause is a much trickier ordeal.
When it comes to sleep, so many factors might impede your little one’s ability just to lay their head down and go to sleep when they’re tired. Hormone levels may be out of balance, they may be in some kind of physical discomfort, too hot or too cold, they may be overtired or not tired enough; the possibilities can seem endless.
However, as a child sleep expert, I can tell you that light is one of the most prominent causes of fractured sleep in our little ones. Exposure to blue light has been shown to decrease baby’s feelings of drowsiness, increase the time it takes them to fall asleep, reduce deep sleep, and affect their ability to stay asleep.
Over time, our bodies began secreting hormones to help us sleep when it started to get dark (melatonin) and to provide stimulation when it got light (cortisol).
This all worked pretty beautifully right up until a technological breakthrough that, quite literally, changed everything. In 1879, the world was introduced to the electric lightbulb, and before long, we had access to light at all hours and in every room of the house.
“Wait,” you may be thinking, “What about candles? People didn’t live in the dark until the lightbulb was invented!"
And you’re absolutely right, but the big difference between fire light and the light from electric lightbulbs is the wavelength.
So, as the lightbulb became more accessible, and as the filaments evolved, we started swapping out the long wavelength red or yellow light from candles for the short wavelength blue light from electric bulbs.
Why does that matter?
Well, to take it back to our ancestors again, the light we get from the sun during the day comes directly down through the atmosphere, which means it’s not being refracted, which results in short-wavelength or “blue” light. So when your little one asks you why the sky is blue, that’s a big part of the answer.
When the sun starts to set, it refracts off the atmosphere, which stretches out the wavelength, creating red light. So, again, a big part of the reason the sky turns red during sunset.
So our bodies and brains evolved to recognize these cues from the sun and started secreting those hormones at the appropriate time of day to either help us wake up and get going or to settle down and go to sleep.
But once we brought blue light into the house, you can see how our brains started to get confused. Our eyes started picking up “daytime” light well into the night, our brains kept secreting cortisol to keep us alert, started blocking the release of melatonin, and sleep suddenly found itself fighting an uphill battle.
Fast forward about a hundred years, and we see the invention of the television, which emits a ton of blue light. Not long afterwards, computer monitors, LEDs, smartphones, and tablets became a favourite pastime for our little ones, which can have a massive impact on their sleep.
Still, others have shown that exposure to red light, while much less inhibitive to sleep than blue light, resulted in similar or slightly less melatonin production than if baby just slept in the dark.
A red light in the nursery isn’t likely to help improve your little one’s sleep, assuming they’re already sleeping in a dark room. However, suppose you need a light in the nursery for diaper changes or nighttime feedings. In that case, the red light is absolutely, positively the way to go.
Some other light management tips that will help your baby sleep better at night include:
Let me just say, in closing, I love technology! I love the convenience that my phone provides, I watch what I consider a reasonable amount of TV, and I think that adequately managed tablets offer a great source of free entertainment and educational opportunities for children.
I’m not trying to suggest that you should throw every blue light-emitting device in the trash and go back to candlelight in the house. However, as long as you know the facts about how the light from these devices can affect your baby’s sleep. Then, it should prove relatively easy to make a few modifications and create rules around their usage so they have almost zero impact on a long night of sweet, restorative sleep for your whole family.
Want more tips for getting your little one to sleep through the night? Then, head over to the home page and grab your Free Download to my 7-Tips To Get Your Little One to Sleep Through The Night.
Erin Neri - Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
Let’s be real here. When we get right down to the heart of the matter, this is the question you really need an answer to, am I right?
Your baby is regularly waking up sometime during the night, and when they do, they start to fuss, they need you to soothe them back to sleep somehow, and the disruptions to everyone’s sleep are leaving the entire family exhausted, baby included.
Now, I’m not going to tell you there’s a simple “one-size-fits-all” solution to this problem because, after all, I’d have to find a new line of work if there were.
But I am going to tell you that there’s almost always a single cause for a baby or toddler not being able to sleep through the night, and it’s the same reason in about 90% of the cases I deal with.
Before we get to that, though, let’s rule a couple of things out.
And that, I’m happy to tell you, pretty much sums it up.
If your baby’s comfortable and fed, there’s really only one major reason why they can’t sleep through the night.
Are you ready for it?
It’s because they don’t know how.
Now I know we’ve all heard the sound bites and talking points on social media. “Babies will sleep when they’re ready!” “Sleep is developmental!” “Just ride it out. It won’t last forever.” and so on. I have to admit to a little low-key rage whenever I read comments like that because…
a) It doesn’t help and
b) It tells people to avoid fixing an issue that absolutely can and should be fixed!
If someone asked how to get a sliver out of their little one’s foot, would anyone respond with, “Just be patient. It’ll work its way out eventually. Hang in there mama! You’re doing great!”
I certainly hope not, although given some of the comments I’ve seen on social media, I wouldn’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility.
(OK, that’s the end of my rant. Back to the good stuff!)
So what do I mean when I say that babies wake up because they don’t know how to sleep through the night?
All of us, babies and adults alike, sleep in cycles.
When we get to the end of a cycle, we’re no longer in a “deep” sleep. We’re hovering right around the point of waking up, and a lot of the time, we do wake up. Us adults have so much experience falling asleep, we can usually just look at the clock, realize we’ve still got a few more delicious hours before our alarm goes off, and we close our eyes, maybe roll over onto our other side, and go right back to sleep.
Babies haven’t had nearly as much practice, and very often, I mean VERY often, they get a bunch of help when it’s time for a snooze. They get bounced, shushed, cuddled, rocked, serenaded, taken for car rides, rolled around in their stroller, or fed to sleep.
So when they wake up after a sleep cycle, which again, is going to happen regularly for their entire lives, they can’t get back to sleep again without that extra help, so mom or dad needs to get up and repeat whatever process baby’s accustomed to.
That’s the issue, and like I say, it’s the issue with about 90% of the babies I work with.
How do you address that issue? Well, that’s where things get tricky because the solution varies tremendously depending on the baby and their parent’s compatibility with various approaches to resolving the problem, but the cause is almost always a dependency on some form of sleep assistance from a caregiver.
So when you hear someone saying that babies don’t sleep through the night, or that it’s natural for them to wake up several times, that’s absolutely correct.
When they tell you that all you can do is wait it out, that’s absurd.
You can absolutely teach your little one the skills they need to sleep through the night, and I’d be delighted to show you how.
Erin Neri - Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
Before discussing attachment theory and its influence, it is vitally important to define it. There has been significant confusion about the meaning of the term since the introduction of the “attachment parenting” philosophy, but they’re two completely different things.
“Attachment parenting,” a term coined by Drs. William and Martha Sears which refers to a specific parenting approach advocating, among other things, baby-wearing, bed-sharing, and breastfeeding on demand.
The popularity of Dr. Sears’ book has caused some confusion about the differences between this parenting style and the scientific notion of attachment theory1, and because of Sears’ adherence to co-sleeping, nursing on demand, and responding immediately to a baby when they’re fussing, it’s easy to see how some parents arrived at the conclusion that disregarding these tenets by helping their babies learn to sleep independently could damage the “attachment” between a baby and their caregiver. But again, attachment theory and attachment parenting are in no way related to each other in anything other than name.
Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, defines attachment as “...a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulations and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”2
At its origin, attachment theory was developed by British psychologist John Bowlby, and greatly expanded upon and tested by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth. In its current understanding, it states that there are four categories of attachment between a baby and their caregivers: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure- resistant, and insecure-disorganized.
Children with a secure attachment to their primary caregiver feel safe expressing distress or discomfort, and will explore unfamiliar areas around them confidently so long as the caregiver is nearby. They tend to become distressed when their caregiver leaves the vicinity, but respond positively when they return.
Children with insecure attachments avoid their caregiver when distressed and minimize displays of negative emotion in their presence, presumably because the caregiver has responded to previous displays of distress and negative emotion in negative ways, such as ignoring, ridiculing, or becoming annoyed with the child. The infant learns quickly that displays of distress provoke negative emotions from the caregiver and therefore avoids exhibiting them.
Studies from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation over a 35-year period found that infants who fit the “secure attachment” criteria were more independent later in life, had higher self-esteem, better relationships with their parents and siblings, and displayed greater coping skills, social skills, and leadership qualities than infants in the other three categories.3
That’s not to say that attachment is the single most important factor influencing the parent-child relationship, but it’s certainly important.
Allan Schore, a developmental neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine defines attachment theory as, “essentially a theory of regulation.”
“Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps,” he says. “They also come from a failure to repair ruptures. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off, or maybe the caregiver hasn’t responded and needs to show the baby that she’s there.
Either way, repair is possible, and it works. Stress is a part of life, and what we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress.”
From this perspective, one could easily argue that the Sears method of responding immediately to a baby’s cries and keeping them nearby at all times could actually be detrimental to their development. Again, if attachment parenting is the approach parents feel most comfortable with, it’s absolutely their right to do so, but like any other parenting style, it has its potential disadvantages if adhered to too stringently without taking the individual baby’s needs and personality into account.
On the other hand, given all of this information, it’s easy to see how parents could look at a traditional cry-it-out approach to sleep and see it as potentially damaging to the attachment their baby shares with them. However, I want to reassure you that I will never ask you to leave your baby for prolonged periods of time without offering support and comfort. If I was advocating leaving your child to cry regardless of the length of time or the severity of their crying, it would hardly be a service worth paying for.
I greatly understand and respect your concern for your baby’s well-being, and I want to assure you that the approach we’ll be taking with your little one will allow to you stay close to them, offer comfort, reassure them of your presence, and respond to their needs while they gradually learn to fall asleep independently. I absolutely encourage you to remain present and responsive throughout the process, and will never ask you to do anything that could damage your relationship with your baby.
That’s not to say that there won’t be any crying involved. There most likely will be, and I understand how difficult it can be to allow your baby to cry, even for short periods of time, and even if you’re nearby and offering comfort and support. When our babies cry, our natural instinct as parents is to prevent it as quickly and effectively as we’re able.
This impulse to stop a baby’s crying can prompt parents to utilize whatever method of distraction or soothing has proven most effective, such as nursing, rocking, or offering a pacifier, and while that might stop baby from crying, it likely hasn’t addressed the issue that caused baby to start crying in the first place.
As Magda Gerber, noted child expert and founder of Resources for Infant Educarers [sic] said, “An anxious and irritated parent will most likely do what brings the fastest relief – give the breast or bottle. The baby almost always accepts it, calms down and often falls asleep. Of course, this is the right solution if the baby is hungry. However, if the baby has other needs (for instance being tired or having pain), she will learn to expect food in response to these other needs, and grasp the breast or bottle even though she is not hungry.”
So if and when baby cries, I wholeheartedly encourage you to respond. Check to make sure they’re fed and warm, and that all of their basic needs are met. Watch them to see if you can discern any other source of discomfort or a pressing need. If you feel confident that baby’s only reason for crying is that they’re having trouble getting to sleep, then you’re well on your way to solving this issue by helping them to learn how to fall asleep independently.
Your baby’s attachment to you doesn’t rely on being next to them at all times, or rushing to their side every time they feel frustrated or challenged. It is a product of consistent, reliable parenting, loving reassurance, and confidence that you will keep them safe, secure, and protected. Opportunities to assure , comfort, and encourage your baby will present themselves several times every day, I guarantee you, and when everyone in the family is well-rested, we’re more patient, more engaged, and better able to provide the love and support that are the true foundation of a secure attachment with our children.
I have studied the science behind my approach extensively, and if there was any evidence whatsoever that the coaching you’ll be providing your baby would, in any way, damage your relationship with your child, I would never recommend it. As Mary Ainsworth herself said in her 2004 study, “It is acceptable, from an attachment perspective, to use the Ferber method or another sleep method.” 4
In short, the only change you’ll see is how well your baby sleeps.
What Does Secure Attachment Look Like?
● In their quiet, alert state, the baby is interested in the faces and voices around them.
● Attempts to soothe the baby usually work. (Caveat: An inability to soothe might indicate either insecurity or any of a host of other possible issues.)
● The baby and primary caregiver have pleasant back-and-forth interactions.
● The baby has calm periods of curiosity and explores and experiments as they are physically able.
● The baby begins to discriminate among people and show preferences.
● The baby shows a clear preference for a primary caregiver and some wariness toward strangers.
● The baby is easily upset when separated from their primary caregiver.
● The baby is easily soothed after a separation and can resume exploration or play.
9 months–3 years:
● The child shows a clear emotional bond with a primary person.
● The child stays in close proximity to that person but forms close relationships with other people, too.
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