Why do we think differently about sleep?
There is a common anecdote often shared in circles of attachment-style parents. It seems to speak to those of us that question the very popular idea that training babies to sleep is a modern parenting necessity. It goes something like this: when a baby is developmentally ready they will learn to swallow food, walk on their own or begin talking. We don’t train them to walk, we just know and trust that when they are developmentally able, all being well, it will happen. So why do we think differently about sleep?
Everything in its own time
Just like any other milestone for our infants and toddlers, sleep will come when our child is ready. We, humans, have a highly evolved coding embedded in our DNA that, combined with environmental triggers, allows us to miraculously mature and grow into larger and more complex humans.
It’s a common question – are they sleeping through the night yet? With both my first and second child this was a question that if I heard it asked I would tune in and listen closely. I assumed that if babies were sleeping well at night it was due to some magical formula that a parent had discovered and was applying with great success. I had no idea at that time that it is largely genetics at play.
With my first child, I was parenting on my own and had no idea what I was doing, especially when it came to sleep. Every kind of sleep scenario occurred over the first few years culminating in a six-year-old who would go to bed in his room but always ended up in mine by the morning. By the time he was seven, I had re-partnered so we gradually negotiated a different system in which he stayed in his own bed all night.
With the second baby, there was a completely different set of circumstances. Whether it was because I was over 40 or in a different state of being (most likely the latter), my pregnancy had been hard and I’d experienced ongoing issues with gestational diabetes, pelvic misalignment (pubic symphysis) and severe reflux. I had been sleeping sitting up for the last three months of it and I was absolutely exhausted. This initiated a set of events that left me struggling for sanity.
Firstly, I had a quick birth whilst lying on my back (which I’ve come to realise is definitely not the optimum position for the opening of a pelvis). Following that, my milk didn’t come in very well and I did not receive sufficient postnatal support to know how to respond to that situation.
We also had some family members come to stay from overseas two weeks after the baby was born, I was in a relatively new partnership and it was his first child so that was our first meeting. It was like hello, nice to meet you, here’s your first grandchild!
Additionally, we travelled overseas and moved house within the first 6 months of her life. I was also given what I now know to be advice that was not conducive to a healthy and happy breastfeeding experience by the health professionals I had contact with at the time. They advised me to feed every three hours and only use one breast per feed. This can interfere with milk production and disconnect your body from the natural cues your baby gives it to determine milk supply… little did I know.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
So by the time she was four months old I had a baby that was waking hourly and I was completely desperate for sleep, and therefore severely depleted. I employed a consultant and she told me to get her on solids as she was literally starving. She also showed me how to sleep-train her. It wasn’t ‘crying it out’ entirely but it was a form of “controlled crying”. Three nights later she slept from 7pm to 7am without making a peep. I was relieved and felt I had found my salvation. And in some ways, I had. It was the best I could do at the time.
The big HOWEVER though, is that actually what I had trained my daughter to do is to stop calling out for me during the night. Research has shown that babies wake several times each night and that when and how a baby sleeps well at night like most developmental milestones is largely a function of genetic factors. When babies wake and have learned not to call for their primary carer (a natural mammalian response based on the fact that they are born so under-developed) huge spikes in cortisol occur which can affect the way an infant’s brain develops.
The Trauma Link
Maybe it was the difficult pregnancy or the lack of support for breastfeeding, maybe it was the sleep training, or maybe it’s just personality: my daughter is the most anxious of my three children. I often wonder (and yes, it is in a mum-guilt kind of way) if I contributed to her sporadic sense of unease. Based on the research (and my experience with number three since then) I fear that I may have unwittingly subjected my daughter to some fairly pervasive early life trauma. Thankfully, we have provided her with sufficient attachment and security since then and consciously helped her build confidence. She is much older now, and a remarkable child.
You see, trauma, unlike the way we often think about it, does not always arise from a severe event. For a sensitive and highly aware child (like my daughter) trauma can occur around something that as adults we may perceive as a very minor event. The best description I’ve heard of this was in a podcast interview of Dr Gabor Mate in which he explains it simply and clearly. If a person who is not particularly sensitive is poked on the shoulder it might not be a big deal, but if that person had a burn or an injury on that shoulder and it got touched even gently it may be experienced as excruciating pain. That’s what it’s like for sensitive people – something seemingly inane can be experienced as very painful and potentially leave a deep emotional wound.
The reason I know this description is accurate is that I was (and to some extent, am still) one of those ‘sensitive’ people. Though you might call me an empath, or ‘passionate’, or perhaps simply ‘too sensitive’ it has also allowed me to become the writer that I am today and left me with a powerful ability to understand people. Although this is at times challenging, it is also a blessing I cherish and am incredibly grateful for.
With my third child, I was in a vastly different place both as a parent and geographically. I also had a very different birth, was exposed to different information and influences, plus (and potentially most importantly) I was able to access far higher levels of support for breastfeeding and attachment-style parenting practices. As a result, I have breastfed on demand and have slept alongside him since birth. He is the child that everybody comments about – he is an extremely happy boy.
One of the reasons that sleep training is so pervasive in Australia and America is that these are places where women and carers often need to return to work when babies are young. It is an economic imperative. This puts so much pressure on families to get babies sleeping ‘through the night’ earlier than perhaps they naturally would.
One of the key areas that must change on a societal level is prioritising this very precious time in our lives, and the primary carers uniquely crucial role in that baby’s life and healthy development. One way we can do that is by creating flexible work options for carers of young babies. This is something we all must do better with. We must value care, on a cultural level.
No silver bullet
I don’t want to suggest that there is one thing that works for everyone. There just isn’t. And if you are considering co-sleeping or bed-sharing there are a few safety concerns that are crucial to consider. You can read more about those here.
Ultimately every person, every family, every baby has there own path to walk with this. I just want to say that for us, and for me and my current toddler, allowing myself to sleep alongside him has been a god-send for us both. We get more rest. We are more attuned to each other. My sleep cycles and his are mostly aligned so when we do wake it is at better times for my sleep patterns and his. Again, this is evidence-based stuff. Do your own research. Decide for yourself. I’m not an expert on your reality, nobody is but you.
Most importantly allow yourself to hear the mounting evidence that takes us back to our very human roots – more in the West than anywhere else we are forgetting that babies and infants all over the world are carried, sleep with their families in one room, or on one sleep surface, and remain generally attached to their parents in baby carriers whilst they are very young.
Where to Get Support
One place here in Australia doing ground-breaking research and clinical work in this area is the Possum Clinic. I highly recommend you start there. Secondly, I know of a great book written by an Infant Mental Health Specialist – Beth Macgregor and Child Development Specialist Anni Gethin. You can find the details here.
The other group working in this area that also has a very active and supportive online community is the Beyond Sleep Training Project. They are doing great things in this area right now. You can join their group on social media and get answers to your questions from this fantastic community anytime.
This is an issue that ties-in to maternal and infant mental health as well as the health and wellbeing of our children in the future. I hope you find what works for you and yours, whilst still honouring that precious reality.
Alena Turley is a founder, mentor, ethical content creator and mother of three based on Sydney's Northern Beaches. She is equal parts loved and fired up to support mums in making deep and lasting changes inside and out. We at the Soul Mama Hub acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands upon which we live, learn and create and invite you to feel deeply and tread lightly.