I’ve got sleep on the brain. I’m participating in UBC’s Rocky Sleep Study, which is testing the effectiveness of public health nurse interventions on babies’ sleep (and lack thereof). Unfortunately, we’re in the control group, so instead of getting help for sleep issues, we had to sit through a 40-minute powerpoint on basic infant safety. As second-time parents who read every child development book available in a futile quest for “the manual,” it was a waste of time.
Ah, the things we do for science.
After the presentation, a new father confided that he and his wife have also been having a rough time getting their now 8-month-old baby to sleep.
“I think we’re going to try to let him cry it out,” he said. “I mean, a bit of crying isn’t going to make him grow up to be an axe murderer or anything.”
I follow another mum on Twitter who has a son born the same day as my daughter. It is her first, my second. Both babies have had difficulty sleeping. She has decided to sleep train using a ‘controlled crying’ method. While she has noticed some brief periods of improvement, so have I. Both of us have seen sleep regressions too. I have the impression that she has spent as much time and angst on sleep as I have.
I have struggled with sleep for both my my kids too. I get it. But I am convinced that letting them cry for long periods is not the solution.
I don’t believe that kids who are left to cry will be ruined in some way, but I think the time spent rocking, nursing, shushing and stroking little ones who are struggling with sleep is good for them. A parent’s job is to help their children feel connected and safe in the big world beyond mom. When new parents fixate on getting babies to sleep now, I think it can affect long-term feelings of security if the tactics they use are too harsh.
It’s true that most babies will stop crying eventually and will fall asleep on their own. But childrearing “success” is about more than sleeping through this night or the next.
CNN had an article on a recent study that found, “babies who receive above-average levels of affection and attention from their mothers are less likely than other babies to grow up to be emotionally distressed, anxious, or hostile adults.”
Note that the study says “above-average.” The actions of mothers in the study were rated on a five-point scale from “negative” to “extravagant.” Most of the mothers’ interactions with their babies (85%) were rated “warm.”
“Roughly 30 years later, the babies-turned-adults were interviewed about their levels of emotional distress. The adults whose mothers had displayed “extravagant” or “caressing” affection (the two top ratings) were much less likely than their less-doted-on peers to be anxious. They were also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions, and psychosomatic symptoms.”
Parents who let their babies cry can be very warm and affectionate in the day. They are careful to check that diapers are clean, bellies are full and other basic needs are attended to. But notice that the study showed that it was the “extravagant” and “caressing” interactions that were correlated with emotional security in adulthood.
Our babies need us not only to care for them, but to delight in them. It’s hard to do when you’re being woken up every hour or two all night long or when it can take an hour to put a baby to sleep for a 40-minute nap. But the time is not wasted. It isn’t just about getting them to sleep this night, but about providing an emotionally secure foundation in adulthood.