Let Go of the Responsibility of Teaching your Child to Sleep
Updated: Mar 29
It’s 𝓃𝑜𝓉 yours...
If you are any thing like me, as a new mama you may think it is your responsibility to 𝓉𝑒𝒶𝒸𝒽 your baby to sleep. Yes, sleep is important & if your little one is anything like mine, then an overtired baby or toddler is a handful(!), but you may well drive yourself crazy if you think that it is your job to teach your baby or toddler to go to sleep. This dangerous myth is propogated by some in the multi-million pound sleep training industry. The truth is that sleep is a biological function. So why, you may ask do all of the other parents that you know swear by conventional sleep training methods?
Studies have shown that babies who are ‘taught’ to sleep using cry-it-out methods do learn one thing - they learn that no-one is coming, no matter how long or how hard they cry. As a consequence their little bodies go into a kind of learned helplessness of stillness & silence. Whilst some babies will stop crying and fall asleep quicker than others, the evidence suggests that cortisol (stress hormone) levels remain high even after babies stop signalling to their caregivers (1). When babies do learn to be quiet, this results in better sleep for parents, undoubtedly, but in scientifically controlled tests, it doesn’t make babies sleep for any longer or wake up any less overnight (2).
It is of course our role to provide our children with a safe environment which is conducive to sleep (as best we can). But there are times when the white noise is on, the blackout blinds are closed, the room is exactly the right temperature, & your little one is fed & milk drunk, with a fresh nappy & a full tummy & they still aren’t asleep after 90 minutes of back-breaking rocking, patting, shushing & nursing. You know what? It happens, it happens way more than the traditional baby books suggest & that’s ok. Infanthood, toddlerhood & early childhood are periods of drastic physiological & psychological change that there are bound to be times when your sweet babe doesn’t sleep like the self-proclaimed ‘sleep-experts’ on social media claim they should. Here are just a few possible reasons why that might be:
* A developmental leap (their rapidly growing brains just have a lot to process!)
* Teething (more often than you may have anticipated)
* Being sensitive to stressful situations around them
Whatever the reason, my point is that it is not your fault that your little one is struggling to sleep. You don’t need to sleep train, you don’t have to teach them to ‘self - soothe’ (news flash - it’s impossible to teach a baby or toddler to do this!) & you’re not responsible for 𝓂𝒶𝓀𝒾𝓃𝑔 your baby sleep in the way that mainstream society tells us they must.
There are times when there may be underlying issues such as illness preventing your little one from falling asleep, but that’s not what I am referring to here. I’m talking about the times when you are struggling to give yourself some grace, mama, because you’ve been targeted by unscrupulous, profiteering ‘sleep trainers’ filling your head & heart with nonsense ‘advice’ & self doubt. Your child will sleep, independently & ‘through the night’ (another falsehood!) when they are ready, without you doing a single thing to encourage this - if you don’t want to - just like every. Other. Human. Being. In. The. History. Of. The. World. If you do want to do something to support their sleep, I recommend the following baby sleep experts whose advice and guidance is rooted in psychological & biological theory rather than old wives tales & outdated baby books:
• Sarah Ockwell-Smith
• Pinky Mckay
• Lilahby Sleep
In the meantime, give yourself a break by giving yourself permission to surrender to the moment that you find yourself in. Is your newborn screaming with exhaustion and getting more & more irate by the minute? Change things up. Stop 𝓉𝓇𝓎𝒾𝓃𝑔 to make him or her sleep - go to the living room & put the TV on for 15 minutes. Then try again once you are both feeling less agitate. Is your toddler hysterical at the prospect of going to bed right now? Allow them and you to take a few minutes to regain a sense of calm, maybe by getting a drink or playing with their favourite toy for another 10 minutes. Yes, it goes against the advice from ‘Super Nanny,‘ but it does so because we are not robots & neither are out children. Just like us, they have their good & bad days. Just like us they may struggle to get to sleep on certain days & that’s ok. We shouldn’t feel any sense of guilt or blame on those days - we’re not responsible for forcing our children into the biological process that is sleep & any one who tells you otherwise is not rooting their assertions in empirical, scientific data.
When I stopped holding myself accountable for my son’s sleeping habits, I allowed myself to accept him completely as a whole, prefect individual with his own quirks & unique personality & sleep habits. His is a personality that I will never attempt to change or shape, because I adore him exactly as he is. I want him to know as he grows up that even if he does struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, his dad & I are going to be right there with him, day & night, for as long as we are able to be. Yes, it’s hard, but it is my heartfelt belief that anything worth having comes through hard work. So give yourself some grace, mama. You are not responsible for making your child sleep, any more than you are responsible for forcing them to act or be any particular way. When we completely accept out children as they are, we give them space to grow in mind & spirit & if we’re able to do that, can you imagine what the world will be like when they grow up? if you ask me - one that’s worth fighting for.
1) Middlemiss W, Granger DA, Goldberg WA, Nathans L. Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Hum Dev. 2012 Apr;88(4):227-32. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2011.08.010. Epub 2011 Sep 23. PMID: 21945361.
2) Gradisar M, Jackson K, Spurrier NJ, Gibson J, Whitham J, Williams AS, Dolby R, Kennaway DJ. Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. 2016 Jun;137(6):e20151486. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-1486. PMID: 27221288.