Help a baby sleep – The Aware Parenting Approach
“I want to meet all my baby’s attachment needs and yet I am desperate to sleep more than two hours in a row…. Can my nine-month-old really be hungry every hour through the day and night?” A tired mum asks. This type of question arises frequently in my Aware Parenting practice. The article explains why some babies wake up frequently and seem to need feeding many times through the night.
Aware Parenting is a type of attachment parenting which carries the usual recommendations; closeness day and night through baby carrying and co-sleeping, breast-feeding when baby is hungry, and sensitive care to all of a baby’s needs. Differences between Aware Parenting and other attachment parenting styles leads to dissimilar perceptions of some baby behaviours, (including sleep and waking) and leads to different responses.
Babies are acutely affected by daily stress, over-stimulation, and trauma. All babies experience some stress and over-stimulation, even with the most attentive attachment parenting. Babies are also born with an inbuilt ability to heal from these, with the loving support of their parents.
Aware Parenting distinguishes between two reasons for a baby’s crying. The first is to communicate an immediate need, and the most optimal response is to meet that need, whether it be for holding, food, protection from over-stimulation, and so on. The second reason is to heal from stress or trauma through crying in the loving arms of his parents. Here the most optimal response is to check that all his immediate needs have been met, and then to calmly hold the baby whilst he cries. As he does so, his tears and sweating release the stress hormones in his body, and his movements let go of physical tension. For example, a baby releasing some birth trauma might arch his back as he dissolves the tension accumulated whilst moving down the birth canal.
Newborns are particularly vulnerable to over-stimulation, as they experience many new things every day – not only visual stimulation from new people, places, lights and shops, but noises from telephones, washing machines, and cars. Babies are also highly sensitive to the emotional states of their caregivers and siblings. They accumulate tension from prenatal stress, birth complications, early separations, family stresses, holidays, house-moving, frightening events, loud noises, physical discomfort, and before developmental milestones such as learning to crawl. The amount of crying a baby needs to do depends on the amount of stress he has experienced as well as his level of sensitivity. So we can do all we can to protect him from stresses by aiming for a relaxed pregnancy, calm birth, early bonding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, a baby-moon in a quiet home, carrying him in a sling when we are in a stimulating environment, and avoiding holidays and house-moving for the first several months. This will reduce the amount of healing he needs to do.
Most other parenting approaches state that our job as parents is to stop all crying, and do not acknowledge babies’ needs for emotional release. When a baby is crying to heal and we as parents repeatedly do something other than just hold our baby and be present as he cries, the baby soon learns that crying is unacceptable. He will learn to do things to stop himself from crying, which are called control patterns, and these control patterns are usually in place by six months of age.
If a parent thinks that the baby is hungry, or values comfort feeding, the baby will soon learn to ask for food when he is upset. He will seem to need feeding many times throughout the day and night, with the amount of feedings increasing with age. Other parents will respond to a crying baby with movement, by rocking, jiggling, walking, or driving in a car. These babies will learn to move when they are upset, will rarely be still, and as toddlers and children may often move and be hyperactive. If parents think the baby needs to play, and wave toys in front of him, he will soon learn to ask to be entertained whenever he is upset. Other babies will find their own control patterns – such as sucking their thumb, or clinging to a soft toy or blanket. These may develop into nail biting or other nervous activities as the child grows. A baby given a dummy will suck on it whenever he is upset, and as a child may put things in his mouth to stop the feelings coming out. These control patterns continue into adulthood, although they often change form. As adults we may do many things to stop ourselves feeling; through eating, drinking, smoking, moving, watching television or surfing the Net, and tensing our muscles in repeated patterns.
What does all this have to do with babies sleeping, you may ask! A baby who does not have the opportunity to release daily stress and over-stimulation will accumulate tension in his body. The amount of tension will increase steadily over time. A baby who feels agitated in this way will not be able to sleep unless he is given the opportunity to cry in arms, or given a control pattern to help him temporarily feel calm enough to sleep. Since babies’ sleep is cyclical, he will soon enter a more light sleep. If he was given a control pattern to go to sleep, the tension in his body will wake him up so that he can cry to heal. Whatever control pattern the parents use to get their baby to sleep, they will usually repeat each time he wakes up. As he gets older, he will accumulate more and more tension, which means that going to sleep will become more and more difficult, and he will wake up more frequently, seeming to need whatever was done to get him to sleep in the first place.
Sandra, a second-time mother, always fed her baby to sleep. For the first several months, this seemed to work. However, once her baby was six months old, he was waking five times at night. By the time he was a year old, Robert was waking as many as ten times a night. Each time she would feed him back to sleep. Although co-sleeping, Sandra was feeling exhausted and very stressed during the day caring for her two children. Robert never really seemed happy – when he was not feeding he was agitated and “whiny”, and when he was feeding (which he did many times in the day), he seemed spaced out. Sandra rarely felt connected with him, and he hardly ever made eye contact. Searching for answers, she came across Aware Parenting, which resonated with her. She began to distinguish between his need for food and his need to release. At first she felt overwhelmed, as he had a year of crying to catch up on. As he continued to cry in her arms, he began to sleep through the night, be much happier, calm and alert during the day, and the intimacy between them re-emerged. Now Sandra has a third baby and has been happy for him to cry in her arms each evening. “I just wish I knew this with Robert – the new baby sleeps so soundly and is so calm and happy. It has made such a difference for me too, I feel an inner peace knowing that me being there with him as he cries is giving him unconditional love for all of his feelings.”
How does this help us understand other sleep issues? Parents who practice controlled crying often say that their baby sleeps through the night. A baby left to cry alone soon learns that there is no point in crying (babies in orphanages rarely cry) – A baby cannot heal when left alone to cry but feels terrified, losing trust that there is anyone there for him. As he repeatedly wakes in the night, he finds his own control pattern, which may be clutching on to a soft toy or an edge of blanket, or sucking his thumb. As an older child he may develop a fear of the dark, night terrors, or will resist going to bed. Aware Parenting advocates never leaving a baby alone to cry. In addition, all babies need closeness to fall asleep, and this continues for the first several years.
To practice Aware Parenting we first need to distinguish between a baby’s needs. More details can be found in “The Aware Baby” and in my article Reading the Cues. In brief, hunger sensations arrive gradually and are indicated by squirming and grunting, only becoming cries if these first cues are not noticed. A sudden full-blown cry is unlikely to be hunger. A hungry baby will generally latch on easily and concentrate on sucking. If he comes on and off, and is agitated, and the milk supply is coming, he may need to cry. If he has a full feed on both breasts and begins to cry soon after finishing, he may have some crying in arms to do. If, through the day, a parent responds to her baby’s cues, her baby will cry when he needs to release stress, feed when he is hungry, play when he needs to learn, and sleep when he feels tired.
Babies often release stress in the late afternoon or early evening, which is when the stimulation has built up, and the tiredness means that they cannot hold in their feelings so easily. A baby who is simply tired and has released all the stress he needs to will simply show signs of tiredness such as yawning, rubbing his eyes, or cuddling up, and will go to sleep in arms or lying down next to mum or dad. He doesn’t need anything except closeness to get to sleep. A fussy or whiny or agitated baby is telling us he has some tension to release. Parents who talk of their baby “fighting” sleep are really describing a baby whose tension is making it hard for him to sleep. A baby whose cues are responded to accurately remains connected with his needs, he knows when he is tired and when he is hungry and when he is upset. A baby fed to sleep or jiggled when he is upset will begin to lose the ability to trust what his body and feelings tell him.
We can all be heartened to know that babies can catch up on their crying. If control patterns are already in place, parents can still help their babies heal later on. Children still continue to release stress, and can also catch up on any crying they were prevented from doing as a baby. Children also have tantrums to help release tension. So if an older child does not sleep, or wakes up frequently, or very early, a cry before bedtime will also help him feel calmer. Most behaviour that parents don’t enjoy, such as unwillingness to cooperate, biting, hitting, shouting, and swearing, indicate that a child has some healing to do. So when a three year old is not happy with the food you cooked, the pudding you offered, and the choice of pyjamas, a parent can respond not with more fixing or with anger, but with loving closeness and a “no” to more requests, which is usually enough to help the tears flow. A conflict between siblings before bed can be welcomed as it helps them cry away the hurts of the day with our warm support. We can adopt a position that is neither permissive nor authoritarian, by noticing when our child is upset and helping him express his feelings.
Babies who are given plenty of support to cry when they need to release stress sleep easily and calmly. They are also aware, enjoy closeness as well as time to play alone, and are happy and contented. As toddlers they are able to concentrate and be gentle with other children, pets and their parents. As children they love to learn and cooperate, enjoy intimacy with parents and friends, and are a joy to be with. The whole family is given the gift of restful sleep and harmonious connection.
Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby (revised edition). Shining Star Press
Solter, A. (1998) Tears and Tantrums. What to Do When Babies and Children Cry. Shining Star Press
Solter, A. (1989) Helping Young Children Flourish (Two to eight years of age). Shining Star Press
For more information about emotional release in babies and children,
See Aletha Solter’s website at www.awareparenting.com