For most new parents, the one thing they are told to look forward to is no sleep. With comments like, “you’ll never sleep again” and “get ready, your life will never be the same” (with the hands on the hips and an eye roll for good measure). Who would actually look forward to being a parent?
In previous generations, where children were seen and not heard, once the lights went off, the parents got to clock out. Children were expected to fend for themselves, sleep by themselves, and as long as they were quiet, all was good (for the parents at least.) Parents were actually warned of giving too much affection. A government pamphlet even stated “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult.”
If we go back in time a little further, children were expected to sleep with the whole family because only the elite had the luxury of a multi-room house. There was also the necessity of feeding. Before the invention of baby formula, babies had to stay with their food source (ie-mom).
Parenting has dramatically changed in the past 100 years and now a days, most parents realize that parenting is a 24-7 job. For most of us though, life goes on after baby. We all still need to make money in some form or fashion and we all still need to cook and clean in some way. So how do we parent at night, get some sleep, and still function in the adult world?
I wish there was an easy answer to this but the best advice I have is to be creative. As in most areas of life, there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. One of the popular options out there for new parents is sleep training. If you are reading this blog, you may have already realized the dangers of sleep training or the “cry it out” method but lets revisit it for just a moment.
Let’s think for a moment about a baby’s cry and for the sake of this conversation, let’s say baby means 0-3 months old. When a baby cries, it is because it needs something. In terms of evolution, the cry meant survival. When a baby cried, it needed food, shelter, or warmth which all equaled survival. If a baby cried when it didn’t need anything, that could mean death because it could alert a predator of it’s location.
When a baby cries, it is stressed for some reason; it needs something. When a baby continues to cry, its stress levels go up. There’s a lot of good research out there about stress and how it can effect the body and baby’s bodies react the same as adults. When the body stays in a state of stress, it releases cortisol. Cortisol kills nerves including nerves in the brain and gut. According to a study published in JAMA (Aug, 11) in the first 90 days, infant’s brains grow on average of 64%. In other words, “the brains of newborns grew from about 33% of the average adult brain size to 55% off it in 3 months”! Imagine if that growth were hindered by stress.
Besides the physical effects of stress on the body, the child (and caregiver) also have to deal with the emotional effects. The supporters of CIO say that eventually, the baby will stop crying and that the parent just has to “stay strong”. In a way, they are right. A baby will eventually stop crying but it’s not because they have learned to “self soothe”. They stop crying because they have given up. “Infants can experience PTSD, toxic distress, depression and dissociation in response to crying-it-out“.
When a baby’s need are not met (ie – CIO) they learn that they cannot trust themselves or anyone around them. This can lead to huge insecurities later in life and the caregiver also learns not to trust their feelings. When a baby’s need are met regularly, they learn to trust themselves and that they can get their needs met. They become more secure in themselves and their surroundings, they sleep longer, and they grow into smarter adults.
So lets get back to night time parenting. As I mentioned earlier, there is no ‘1 solution’ for parenting your children at night. Most parents and parenting ‘experts’ agree that co-sleeping is beneficial for parents and babies. Co-sleeping is a very controversial term and in my opinion, grossly misunderstood. Kellymom.com defines co-sleeping as “sleeping in close proximity to your child. It may be in the same bed or just in the same room.” Bed sharing is a form of cosleeping where the child shares the same sleep surface. Just to be clear, there are ways to safely bed share with young children. Here is a great brochure from Attachment Parenting International regarding safely sleeping with your child.
Beyond the technical definitions, there are endless options for implementation. In our family, we have just about tried it all and different things worked for different stages in my children’s lives. The keys to successful nighttime parenting are flexibility, creativity and a whole lot of patients.
If you are looking for some resources to inspire your creativity so everyone can get more sleep, here are a few:
Atlanta Positive Parenting Support Group
Attachment Parenting of Greater Atlanta