In my work with new parents the number-one stress they report is sleep or rather the lack of it. Dealing with a baby who is not sleeping at night is by far the most common challenge for new parents, which is all the more difficult for sleep-deprived parents who are coping with the pressures of getting to work or minding other children.
Also, sleepless nights are not just for parents of infants. They can occur at any time in the first few years of a young child’s life. When their baby first sleeps through the night at about 12 weeks, parents may think they have the problem cracked, only for sleep problems to emerge at six months or even later.
The problem is made worse by the fact that expert advice in the area of getting babies to sleep is often contradictory and confusing. The confusion can be traced to two opposing philosophies of parenting that are advocated by different groups of experts. Some experts advocate a very ‘baby-centred’ approach, while others advocate a more ‘parent-centred’ approach. It is the conflict between these two models that leads to the confusion for most parents so it is worth looking at them in more detail.
Attachment parenting advocates tuning closely into babies’ needs and making sure to follow their lead in feeding and sleeping. It specifically advocates feeding children on demand and responding to your child’s schedule. The approach recommends that parents spend a lot of close time with their children, learning to connect emotionally and to respond to their needs. Practically, this often works by parents carrying their children with them most of the time, and allowing the baby to share their bed at night.
Over time, children move on at their own pace and advocates of this approach argue this is the best way to build securely attached and content children and for parents to get the most out of parenting.
Advocates of routine-based parenting argue that a good routine around feeding and sleeping is the best way to help children settle in the long term. They suggest parents as quickly as possible establish a routine about when the child is woken in the morning, when they have their feeds and naps.
Parents are invited to establish the routine by distracting a child when they want to be fed at a time outside the routine, by waking a child at the same time each morning and putting them down at the same time each night. Most controversially the approach recommends the practice of controlled crying for babies over four months whereby children are left to cry for periods of time to help them settle at night.
At the heart of the difference between the two approaches are deeper value differences about what is important in parenting. Routine-based parenting values independence in children – the goal is to help children learn as soon as possible to do things for themselves. On the other hand, attachment- parenting values attachment and emotional connection with children – the goal is to help children be emotionally secure by being there to support them at every step of the way. Both philosophies have advantages and disadvantages for parents, but the truth is that what works for some may not work for another. Some children naturally respond to a strict routine. Other babies can be more idiosyncratic or fussy and have a more demanding temperament – sometimes a strict routine does not work as easily for them. Equally, some parents are happy to practise attachment parenting and to respond to their babies’ needs all the time, while other parents need to create a routine as a way of coping with the demands of a small child (as much for their own sanity as well as the babies’ needs).
In reality, many parents practise a bit of both methods.
The key is to find an approach that works for your baby and which you as a parent are happy with, and the first step is to be self-aware and honest about your own needs as an individual and as a parent. If you are finding your baby’s current sleeping pattern very stressful, then there is no point in continuing in the same vein until you become burnt out. Now is the time to make a decision to seek more support and to evolve a routine that better meets your needs.
Equally, if you let your baby sleep in your arms and take him into your own bedroom and this is working for you, then there is no need to put yourself under pressure to get your child into a routine or to sleep in their own cot, just because this is what everyone is doing or what you think the experts recommend.
The second step is to tune into your baby’s needs. Carefully observe your baby’s sleeping and feeding patterns so you can begin to discern what his or her natural responses, patterns and preferences are. You might notice a natural routine around feeding and sleeping that you could build upon.
Most of the best approaches to establishing sleep routines suggest a flexible and responsive approach that is sensitive to the baby’s as well as the parents’ needs.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.