Solving The Puzzle of Infant Sleep

by ParentCo. October 03, 2023

baby sleeping

In my practice of taking care of children and parents, there’s a common struggle in the first two years: sleep. “How can the babe, my partner and I all get enough? What is enough? Should we sleep train…or not?”

There is all kinds of advice out there. We hear reports of data that sleep training works and we are asked whether or not we have “the guts to do it.” We read articles that counter with concerns for neglect in the practice of the same. We read of baby whisperers and wish it were that easy.

I’m not going to give any hard and fast answers here.

We get enough “you musts” from the peanut gallery on this one. I’ve seen enough to know that whatever method parents chose, if they do it out of true love, it all turns out generally ok. If it doesn’t make you crazy, if you can make it work, t’s workable.

When presented with problems, I ask the parents I work with to feel out the needs of all the humans in the room. I then offer my thoughts from the scientific side of things.

The first months are necessarily wakeful. Little babes have little stomachs and need to wake to feed until their stomachs are simply bigger. Once we all understand that - and we let those necessary tender months pass - the question for the parents of the older sleepless baby is “What do you think your baby needs?”

We don’t talk of baby temperament much, but I was a night pediatric nurse for too long to not know that the littlest of us come into the world with their own unique needs. Some babes are content to sleep on their own without a peep. Some babes sleep best separate from the scent and stimulus of their parents. Some babes need touch, breath, and reassurance. Some just need us more.

If you throw the requirements of developmental stages into this, the algorithm becomes even more subtle. This is all ok. They are just little unique humans after all, and to imagine there is one universal solution is folly.

I then ask the parents what they need. Thing is, it’s absurd to think we come to this parenting gig clear of our own needs and wants. Some parents desire to always be close. Some parents are content to find space when it comes. This is all ok. It is human too. The problems come when the babe’s needs are still unknown, or the parent’s needs are still unknown, or sometimes, when the parent and babe need different things.

The first cases are just a puzzle. “From what you’re telling me, it seems baby needs an earlier bedtime… you to stay in the room a bit longer… to co-sleep next to your bed… to have a separate space to sleep that is quiet… to simply hear your voice when they are waking in the dark…etc.” We identify the needs and address them and keep on trying as best we can. “What I hear you say is that you want your babe to know you’re always there… you miss time at night with your partner… you want to just sleep more because you’ve gone back to work and it’s all making you crazy.”

The last case is a bit trickier. Sometime babies need more at night than parents are wont to give. So we work through it together- trying to find a pattern that gives reassurance to all. Sometimes babes need structure for sleep, and compassionate sleep training is required, but it’s hard for parents to follow through because they have their own needs as well.

When I was a young mom I was also a young farmer, working all day long in my fields in remote Montana. I had my two babies like it was my calling, because it felt like it was. I remember when I met my son I finally felt like I knew a simple love. (After a fairly complicated childhood and in the presence of an even more complicated partnership… this love was the answer) I was an attachment parent. I wore my son on my hip in the greenhouse and on my back as I harvested shallots so he came in and out of sleep fluidly, and it worked well for us.

At some point as his sister was about to arrive, it became strikingly clear that he needed more structure, and needed to sleep separately. So we set to making order out of the organic tide of it. And here is where I realized that it was hard for me to not go to him at the slightest peep because our closeness was so precious to me, and I realized that as I consoled him I really needed to take care of myself too.

Sometimes it’s enough to just know that the reason why leaving your child in the dark is hard is because your own fears of the dark, of being alone, are still right there. So, often in these cases, when it comes time for the parent of the older baby to try and make their own sense out of the organic tide of it we talk of going in to console the child and reassuring themselves as well… “It’s ok, sweet babe… I am here…. It’s ok, Sarah… it’s ok.”

I’m not saying this will be the answer for everyone. What I’m saying is more often than not when we (I) hit rough spots in parenting, it’s because we’re human. We bring our own needs to the table. It’s good to give yourself the compassion and intention you desire to give to your kids too. In the meantime it is good to know, for all of us, that when the lights go out there is someone there if you need them. So sleep. Whether close or far, easy found or hard won, it will get better and there will be other hurdles after this one is long forgotten. In the meantime it is good to know, for all of us, that when the lights go out there is someone there if you need them.



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