Sleep deprivation is one of the hardest parts of being a new parent. Or an
experienced one. Or being a person in general. I would guess that most parents
are trying a "crying it out" method because they are tired and other things they
have tried haven't worked. I think that's because we are placing 21st century
values onto an infant who is obeying instinct and maybe we don't understand that
instinct. We have to understand that the way we do things is a new
idea...but the babies we bring into this world don't know about the way we do
things. They are programmed to do things that normal, vulnerable human babies
have been doing for all time.
Human babies are really vulnerable. If you've ever seen what baby elephants or
horses can do at birth, you know that they can walk shortly after birth, and are
running soon afterwards. Why can't humans do that? Well, if we waited until the
brain was mature enough for our kids to walk, never mind run, the baby's head
would be too big to come out safely. We don't need to run to stay safe. Our
gestation period is designed to make sure that our kids arrive in the world with
their future intact-- our kids arrive in the world when it's safest for the
brain to come out.
children arrive in the world as the most neurologically immature primate of them
all, and remain the most dependent on a caregiver for the longest period of
time. Our kids can't keep themselves warm, get food, walk, speak, or reason.
They can't manipulate us and they can't consciously choose to make you look like
a bad parent.
What do we know about their sleep patterns? Well, they need to be near a
caregiver-- mostly mom. It makes sense if you think about it. This immature
baby, with little in the way of self-preservation skills, needs to hang out with
the source of food and warmth, with the person who is most likely to wake up to
meet the needs that they express in the middle of the night. There are beautiful
videos of moms and babies who are almost totally in sync in terms of sleep
cycles, showing them waking at about the same time several times during the
night, with mom responding to the baby and the baby, who rarely cries, getting
their multiple needs met.
Normal babies sleep during the day and are up at night. That is normal and
expected and nothing we can do to change that. The predators that hunt humans
hunt at night. Instinctively, that means they should be up and night and
sleep when the threat is less. That also means that parents need to sleep
when the baby is sleeping to avoid all the great things that go along with sleep
littlest kids are not crying for any other reason than to communicate
displeasure with something. And it gets our attention. So much so,
that I think kids develop a parent- specific pitch that affects us more than any
other person listening to that same cry. Smart plan-- it keeps the kids
safe and lets them know that their parents are there and meeting their needs.
Sleep training techniques that suggest that you allow children to cry to learn
to soothe themselves have never been shown to do anything good for children.
They may get the kids to sleep, and therefore help the parents sleep, but they
have been associated with attachment issues, behavior problems and
anxiety. There is no emotional, social or intellectual benefit to the kids, nor
has it ever been shown to help us develop into healthy adult sleepers.
There is a phenomenon called "learned helplessness" that comes from some
experiments that showed that if you ask enough and never get what you need, you
stop asking. You learn, in the case of a crying baby, not that
you are "soothed" but that nobody
is coming. That's not something, I imagine, that most people want
their kids to learn, no matter how tired you are. And ask yourself-- can you
soothe yourself? I'm 40 something and I'm pretty sure I can't without
shoe shopping or an episode of True Blood. I see commercial after
commercial for Ambien and Lunesta, so I'm pretty sure the adult population has
sleep problems. Plus, as an adult, we can get up, read, watch TV, get on
Facebook, get warm milk, or call a friend. People who don't feel safe in
their environment, like those suffering from depression will often say they
can't sleep, or can't stay asleep.
What can our kids do if they can't sleep, if they don't feel safe in their
environment? They can't take medication, read, watch TV, or do anything
like we can. My advice, if the kids are crying, is to go in and comfort
them. Nurse them if you are nursing. Snuggle and enjoy.
hear all the time "OOOOH don't do that, once you give in, it'll never stop."
Sure it will. In fact, there are going to be days when your children are
going to be embarrassed to be seen in public with you. Their childhood will be
over before you know it. Enjoy your time with them while it lasts.
Jenny Thomas, MD, IBCLC, FAAP, FABM