A Securely Attached Baby and a Restful Night’s Sleep – Just a Dream?

Publication of two new Australian books has brought babies’ sleep into the spotlight.  But how do babies sleep and what choices do parents have?

There are two main opposing theories in the world of babies and sleeping.  On the one hand is the belief that older babies and toddlers need to wake several times at night for nutritional reasons.  Parents (usually mothers) are encouraged to accept and enjoy frequent night waking for the first year or two.  With baby in the bed with them, this is perceived as being easy.  On the other hand, controlled crying is based on the belief that babies need to learn to sleep alone from a young age, by being left alone to cry for successively longer periods.  Controlled crying advocates say that this prevents later sleep problems, and lessens post-natal depression.

In between these two main perspectives, parents may find particular sleep strategies for their babies, which may involve jiggling and rocking to sleep, dummies, or encouraging thumb sucking, or clutching or sucking a blanket or a soft toy. 

Most parents see these two main options as their only ones – either put up with frequent waking, or leave the baby to cry alone.  Not surprisingly, this can be a difficult choice, and distraught parents often turn to controlled crying because they are desperate for sleep.  Jenny, a mother of two, was exhausted waking every hour to feed her 15-month-old.  Thinking here was no other way, she tried controlled crying for a few nights but felt very distressed listening to her son cry alone.  She thought there was no other way.

Like many parents, she was heartened to hear that another approach offers restful sleep and secure attachment; a way to ensure a night’s sleep without leaving a baby alone to cry.  This is called Aware Parenting, and rests on the central premise that babies are sensitive beings who are acutely affected by what happens to them (in the womb; during birth; and after birth, by unmet needs, over-stimulation, frightening events, and developmental frustration).   Babies are also born with an inbuilt ability to release such stresses.  Not by “comforting” with rocking and singing, nor by being left alone to cry, but by crying whilst being held in loving arms.  Within this framework, all babies need to express their feelings, (even those whose every immediate need is met). 

Four days after Jenny stopped feeding her son to sleep and instead sat with him whilst he cried, he slept through the night for the first time.

A baby can heal from stress, and he can also learn to repress this healing mechanism.  When a baby needs to let out his feelings of distress but is prevented from doing so, he soon learns to distract himself using the same method his parents use.  When upset, he will search for the breast or bottle, will suck his thumb or dummy, will clutch onto something, or will move or seem to need entertaining.  These actions appear to be what the baby really needs, but are generally accompanied by a “spaced out” or vacant look.

These habitual ways of repressing feelings are called control patterns, and are a way of understanding frequent night waking.  When a baby acquires a control pattern, he represses his feelings frequently during the day and night.  Although he does not cry, he is not happy during these moments, but in a state of dissociation.  With time, and as more stressful events are experienced, the tension in his body and psyche accumulate. 

With feeding, rocking, and singing, the baby moves into a lulled state enough to fall asleep, despite inner tension.  Endorphins are produced by a baby’s brain when he sucks.  This means that after breast-feeding, vigorous movement and regurgitation are prevented.  However, when he re-enters light sleep, his tension enters the fore again and he wakes up.  This is one explanation for why a baby fed, rocked, or sung to sleep wakes up more often at night as he gets older.  Even though his stomach is bigger and can hold more milk, he wakes more frequently as the store of feelings accumulates.  As an older child, he may tend to eat when upset (if fed to sleep), move a lot when stressed (if rocked to sleep), or seem to need constant entertainment (if sung to sleep).  Like Jenny, many parents come to Aware Parenting when their toddlers are waking every hour or two at night, or sucking on the breast for much of the night. 

With controlled crying, the baby is left alone.  He experiences extreme stress, particularly if very young, because he has no concept of time and no understanding that the experience will ever end or that his parents will ever come.  First he cries out, as part of the stress response, with an increased heartbeat, and the production of adrenaline and cortisol.  After a period of time, where there is no escape from the situation or the pain, dissociation kicks in.  He dissociates both from feelings that emerge from being left alone, as well as from any feelings that he was already experiencing.  He does this through clutching onto something, such as a blanket or stuffed toy, or sucking on something, like his thumb.  His heart rate and blood pressure go down, and endorphins are produced, nature’s painkillers, which reduce emotional and physical pain.  Eventually, the baby stops crying and becomes still, apart from sucking or clutching something.  From the outside, it may look like he is feeling calm and has learnt to be independent, but a closer look at the vacant look in his eyes indicates a baby who has dissociated.  Like a baby in an orphanage who never cries but lies alone in a cot, or a prehistoric baby about to be found by a predator, this response is adaptive because it protects him from pain.  However, it is likely to result in latter difficulties such as nightmares or night terrors, fear of the dark, bed-wetting, and insecure attachment.   Other symptoms related to dissociation include withdrawal, head banging, self-rocking, emotional non-reactivity, and regression.  Although advocates of this method say that babies sleep through the night, it is more likely that the baby wakes several times at night when his feelings arise, but has learnt there is no point to calling out for help, and will continue his clutching or sucking until he goes back to sleep again.

With Aware Parenting, a parent learns that releasing stress is an important need for her baby, which she can help him with by simply holding him in her loving arms.  No longer looking for all opportunities to stop any crying, she aims to differentiate between hunger, physical discomfort, the need for learning/play, and a need to release.  When her baby is upset but has recently been fed, is being held, is a comfortable temperature, and has a comfortable digestive system, she holds him in her arms.  The crying he does is healing, because the closeness gives emotional safety, catecholamines are excreted in his tears, and the movement releases associated physical tension.  Afterwards his body is relaxed and he is calm.  Unlike the dissociated baby, he makes eye contact and is very present.  When he shows signs of tiredness, such as yawning, rubbing eyes, or cuddling up, his parents simply hold him.  If already calm, he will fall asleep, and if he has some tension to release, he will cry in arms and then fall asleep.  With a relaxed body, he simply wakes when he has had enough sleep, or when he is hungry.  In practical terms, this means that by six months of age, most babies brought up in this way will wake once at night to feed or will sleep through.  When parents are practising Elimination Communication, the baby may stir at night when he needs to eliminate, and once given the opportunity, will fall straight back to sleep simply with closeness.

Having practised classical attachment parenting with my daughter for the first three months of her life, and Aware Parenting from then onwards, I experienced some of the differences between these two styles of parenting.  At first, I would feed her very frequently, particularly before sleep, unless I was bouncing her on my lap to sleep.  She fed many times, and also vomited many times a day.  She never came close to crying.  I enjoyed this at the time, and would have continued to use that method had I thought it was most optimal for her needs.  When I started Aware Parenting, she regained her ability to sleep in my arms without rocking or feeding, and slept more peacefully and for longer periods.  Most of all, after each cry she would gaze into my eyes with a look of Buddha-like presence. 

With my son, I started Aware Parenting from the beginning.  Now nine months old, he wakes once at night or sleeps through, depending on when his last feed was, and how much stimulation and crying in arms he has experienced that day.  (He also often stirs once when he needs to wee, so I wake up to put his little potty under him).  When he has cried in my arms less for a few days, his smiles get smaller and less frequent, he makes less eye contact, and his little hands clench sometimes when he is feeding.  When he has “caught up” with his crying in arms, his smiles light up his whole face and are offered many times a day, and he gazes in my eyes for long periods.  His hands are relaxed, and his sleep is restful.

It is never to late to start Aware Parenting.  Babies, toddlers and children can begin to heal from stress – for babies this is through crying in arms, for toddlers and young children, crying, tantrums, play and laughter are all methods of healing.  The less tension a baby or child holds in his body, the more calmly he sleeps, as do his parents.  So restful sleep for both isn’t just a dream after all!

Three different ways of looking at crying

From a classical attachment parenting perspective, a baby will never need to cry because his parents will read his cues before he gets to the point of crying.  Here, all crying means an unmet need.  If a baby is crying and the parents cannot stop him by feeding, rocking, or wearing in a sling, he is said to have colic or to be a “high-need baby”.

From the controlled crying lens, crying is an unnecessary habit.  From this viewpoint, the baby is trained out of his crying and so learns to be independent.

From an Aware Parenting point of view, there are two reasons for crying; the first is to communicate an immediate need; the second is to release stress – but only when held in loving arms.  When a baby is given the opportunity to heal in this way, he is relaxed both day and night.

Does a baby need closeness when he goes to sleep?

According to classical attachment parenting, yes – the methods to get a baby to sleep involve closeness – breastfeeding, rocking, or walking in a sling.

In the context of controlled crying, no – babies need to learn to self-soothe and become independent from a very early age, otherwise they will never learn.

From an Aware Parenting perspective, a baby simply needs closeness to get to sleep.  If he is “up to date” with his healing from stress, he will fall asleep when tired without feeding, jiggling, or rocking.  If he is tired and is upset, this means he has some healing to do; and once he has done this, he will fall into a calm sleep.  Babies need closeness, and they sleep for longer if they have this need met, so co-sleeping is recommended.

How often do babies need to feed?

In classical attachment parenting, babies’ nutritional needs are compared to other primates whose young are carried.  The milk is said to be low calorie, requiring short feeding intervals.

The controlled crying advocates say that once a baby has slept a certain length of time at night without needing a feed, he can sleep at least that length of time from then onwards.

Aware Parenting’s founder, Aletha Solter, has this to say about frequency of feedings, “The anthropological data indicates that each indigenous culture has adapted its nursing pattern to the climate and the mother's work schedule. There is no reason to assume that this was any different in the past. The reality is that human infants can thrive whether they are nursed frequently or at intervals of several hours.  Claims that the "natural" feeding pattern of human infants is similar to that of other primates are not convincing to me because other primates have completely different nutritional needs. Unlike human infants, they must use considerable energy to cling to their mothers. On the other hand, human infants are busy completing their brain development during the first year after birth. The myelination of the nerve cells requires a diet rich in fat, so it's good for human infants to get the hind milk (which is high in fat and also takes longer to digest, as stated above).  Therefore, longer, fuller, and less frequent feedings enhance the brain development of human infants better than short, frequent feedings.” (2006, personal communication).

With Aware Parenting, mothers are encouraged to look for hunger cues and to distinguish them from cues that indicate the need for stress-release.  Feeding on both breasts at each feed makes this process easier.  With increasing age, the time between feeds usually increases, although very hot weather and growth spurts will affect this.

To be published in a forthcoming issue of Kindred Magazine www.kindredmedia.com.au