But what if my baby really does need me to sleep?
Recently a client sent me an article circling facebook that takes a stance towards attachment parenting and what is considered "normal" for babies and toddlers in the sleep department. As most parents can undeniably agree, newborns need constant care and attention the moment they enter the world and are no longer dependent on the womb that once gave them life. Now, there is an infant who needs every ounce of your emotional and physical attention.
In today's world it is also undeniable that outside pressures gently (or not so gently) nudge the mother (or both parents) that the only way to create a strong bond is through that of attachment parenting. A mother should be breastfeeding, babywearing, and bedsharing if she truly wants to create a secure attachment with her baby. Each cry, fuss, and wakeful moment of her baby should be met with a cuddle, skin on skin, feeding, pick up. The desire to meet their infants needs comes strongly and almost always naturally in the first few weeks. Both parents can experience a euphoric high post partum that gives them the ability to push through the exhaustion to marvel at the miraculous life they brought into the world.
As the "euphoric" high wears off and a few more weeks pass by it is not at all uncommon for both parents to begin feeling the true effects of sleep deprivation. Along with the exhaustion comes new territory of being parents and the stress this puts on your relationship with your partner. This newness becomes magnified by the sleep you are both not getting. The baby may not be quite as easy to put to sleep anymore or as willing to drift off to dreamland like they once were. They begin to become more aware of their surroundings and the idea of object permanence. In other words, they know you are around and then realize you leave. Night sleep and day sleep are still completely unorganized and take time to evolve over the first 6 months. Many parents feel defeated and as if they are doing something wrong. It's often between 6-10 weeks that parents are reaching out to me desperate for some sort of help, and many of those messages come through in the early morning hours (go figure). A mother may have had a different idea of what this whole "motherhood" thing was going to look like (fathers, too) and now they are full on exhausted. "We can't keep doing this", "I'm not sure how we're going to make it another month this way"...these are cries from parents I hear all the time.
Let me preface this next bit by saying there is no right or wrong way to parent. Each family finds what works for them, and sometimes the reality looks much different than what mom and dad dreamt about. Please do not get me wrong, I am not against Attachment Parenting, I am simply suggesting each family find what works for them. Accepting the reality versus what you envisioned is sometimes really hard to do. It's hard to accept when a breastfeeding relationship is infinitely harder than what was imagined. Sometimes a mother who was determined to breastfeed believes she is a failure when nursing doesn't work out. Despite the hours she spent trying to get baby to latch just right, or the indescribable pain, cracked bleeding nipples, and pure frustration. When you thought you would co-sleep but it turns out that just doesn't work for one spouse, or even the baby for that matter. Speaking as a mother whose children are not even remotely co-sleepers, trust me, not all children can co-sleep. My point is, somethings work for some families and not for others. What might have worked with one of your children, may not work for the next. Attachment Parenting is wonderful if it works for you. But, if the shoe doesn't fit, find a new one.
I continue to learn from so many professionals who have dedicated so much time to researching newborn and infant sleep, development, PMAD (perinatal mood and anxiety disorder), and so much more. Recently I was intrigued by Leslie Butterfield, Ph.D, and her lecture on PMAD. I am a mother myself. I work with many mothers who are fighting their own battle with different perinatal mood disorders. Dr. Butterfield highlighted maternal sleep and attachment which is something not commonly discussed by mothers, yet a very real issue for some. The poorer maternal sleep patterns, the more problematic maternal bonding can be. Disturbed and interrupted maternal sleep at 12 weeks is commonly associated with a negative impact on maternal and infant attachment. In other words, the mother can feel less accepting and less tolerant of the infant needs and behaviors when she is not getting sleep. The longer a mother is awake at night providing care to her child, the lower her own attachment to the infant can become (Tikotsy, et al; 2012). Poor maternal sleep is associated with less joy and an increase in emotional negativity (anger, irritability, anxiety, depression). All new parents are sleep deprived, period. There is no way around it. Babies wake up frequently, they need to eat, be changed, and comforted. The question is whether or not what you are doing and how you are handling the lack of sleep is working for you. There are some mothers who are superhuman and little sleep does not bother them. I am not one of those mothers. I am a mother who struggled with PPD and nights were dreadful. I started feeling resentful towards my children who would not let me sleep. I had the idea in my head that I am their mother, if I am struggling this much at night to take care of them, what kind of mother am I? I knew something had to give because what we were doing was not working.
Every so often someone will question why sleep training is a must or what the benefits are. I always explain it definitely isn’t a must it’s simply about what works for your family. If a mother chooses to co-sleep, nurse on demand, put baby back to sleep every couple of hours, rock them at all hours and can still function the next day that's great. But MOST aren’t okay doing that because biologically we can not survive and THRIVE with little to no sleep. I believe our children need us on demand to eat, be changed, co-regulate, but at a certain age a child NEEDS sleep and needs to be taught the skill of sleep. Some parents will argue each time a child wakes up it is because they truly need the response from a parent and to be comforted. When in my professional opinion I feel babies need to be taught the skill of sleep just as we teach them many other skills. Once a child is sleeping well they can begin to thrive developmentally, socially, and behaviorally. Attachment parenting can be wonderful but it can do the complete opposite for other parents. Without enough sleep, and by responding to every peep of your child it can break the attachment between a mother and child and she can begin to feel detached or unable to bond. The same goes with a fathers bond with their child. Attachment parenting can vary from family to family.
Sleep is a learned skill, not a skill we are born with. Some babies get the hang of it from the start while others take much longer and need so much help. Without gentle sleep coaching, bad sleep habits can carry with them into adulthood. In which case it becomes almost impossible to “learn” better sleep habits. I strongly believe parents can give their children the gift of sleep. A child who wakes up through the night crying out endlessly because they need mom or dad to put them back to sleep for the tenth time, is a child who is struggling to sleep. Giving them the skills and helping teach them to sleep independently is a wonderful gift! A well rested child has confidence and can thrive once they are getting the adequate amount of sleep they need for their developing brains. Can you imagine if every night you woke up crying 3 or even 10 times a night? You would feel pretty awful the next day. If someone came along and gently helped teach you to sleep and you then slept through the night and woke up rested, you'd be pretty thankful.
I've spoke with many families who chose not to sleep coach their children because what they're doing is working for them. That's great! I will support each family in the way that they need and I will encourage them based on their goals. If what you're doing now is not working for you, then something has to change. There is nothing wrong with you if you are feeling detached, frustrated, exhausted, or like you are staring down a dead end. Humans need sleep and without it we begin to decline in other areas. Relationships suffer, and most importantly mental health is at risk. If you thought you were going to be the breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, awake all night mom and it's not working for you, in fact you're feeling like you're on a sinking ship, it's OKAY to reach out for help. It's okay to take a step back and rethink how you want to approach things. It's okay to admit that you are feeling defeated. And if you are that breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, awake all night mom but it's working for you, then you do you Mama and share some of your super powers with the rest of us.
Being a parent is so hard. It's okay to admit we all need help, especially in the sleep department.
(Gentle Sleep Coaching is NOT a method of leaving your child to cry it out. I work hard with each family to learn about their child and what will work best for them as they coach and comfort their child to become independent sleepers. Your child deserves to sleep WELL. I work with families who also choose to co-sleep, and wish to continue a co-sleeping relationship but are needing more restful sleep. I support families to achieve their goal, whatever that looks like for their family as long as it's working for them.)