Sleep is important to parents and children. Parents often become obsessed with sleep, because sleep deprivation deeply affects our mental and emotional state. Parents might even feel panic around loss of sleep. Night parenting is often the hardest time to parent. Every family will develop their own ways getting children to sleep and the sleeping plans throughout a wakeful night. Every family is different, and every child is different too. Even a “good” sleeper can have a “hard” night. Falling asleep is when your body is so relaxed that eyes close, hands and feet are at rest, your mind is settled, breathing, snuggling into a state of inner self, and calm. Sleep for the very young, is a kind of separation. Babies learn sleep connection and security even while asleep.
So, how might parents nurture sleep?
If you are a family with two adults, take time to talk. Talk this through when it is not bedtime or middle of the night wakefulness. Have a plan that seems right, even if the plan may change. Maybe the plan is that one parent changes the diaper and the other nurses the baby. Tell your baby the plan too. Talking to babies is done in the simplest most clear and comforting way. A baby may hear, “Daddy is changing your diaper, and Mommy will nurse you. “ A single parent might say, “Time for a clean diaper and then time to nurse.”
The first three months, most babies wake often and need to be fed. Often babies fall asleep while feeding. As babies get bigger, they wake less often. Nursing or bottle feeding babies helps them to calm or regulate. This is called co-regulation. Sucking and being held tell a baby they are safe, and secure. Your grown-up nervous system is essentially and necessarily settling baby’s nervous system. As babies grow bigger, both co-regulation and a baby’s self-regulation expand in exciting ways. Be mindful of how you help sooth your baby during the day and during the night. Do you have other ways to calm your growing baby in addition to nursing or feeding? Notice your baby exploring his or her way through emotional problem solving too.
Because it is time to sleep, keep the lights very low. Move slowly and softly through wakefulness, as the message is sleep-time. You might feed, rock, swaddle, pat, shush your way with baby back to sleep. Sometimes babies cry as they learn to fall asleep. You might say, “You are crying and it’s time to sleep.” You’ll feel what is right for you and your baby. Remember to breath! Breathing deeply can calm you so you can calm your baby. This is co-regulation.
Tell your baby it is night -night time.
Create a routine around sleep. Routines inform babies about what is now and what is next. Knowing this information settles a baby as they will learn to predict the sleep plan, and in essence, become a partner in the plan. Start the routine before you are too tired. Sleep routines can take a long time. Your plan might include feeding, bathing, pajamas, reading a nighttime book, rocking and a nighttime song. Choose stories and books with down energy and not up energy. As babies grow bigger, able to roll from back to tummy and back again, provide loveys or transitional objects like blankets or stuffed animals as part of the sleep ritual.
Touching is an extremely important part of attachment and regulation. Infants and toddlers may enjoy back rubs, skin to skin, and patting. They may want to hear and feel your presence to help them relax. You might say, “You’re all done nursing and now it’s time for backrubs.” Notice your baby’s comfort or discomfort with touch. Do they prefer light touch or a deeper infant massage? Different babies have different preferences within their sensory nervous system!
Babies need time to explore their bodies and their world not in the arms of another. Make sure your baby has daytime opportunities to use their eyes, arms, legs and core. This time also helps babies feel comfortable in their bodies at bedtime.
Babies seek connection. They need their grown-ups; new babies need parents to help them settle. Infants are not designed to do this alone… even though some temperaments settle more easily… having a sensitive baby that requires more assistance is not a “problem” baby… just a different nervous system that needs more help to learn how to calm.
Observe how your baby experiences being seen and soothed by you. Observe your baby’s competence in self-regulation. Notice when your baby feels safe and secure. Take time to slow (settling yourself) and enjoy your baby. Delighting in your baby nurtures the bonds of attachment during the day and even during wakeful nights!
Carol Castanon, Executive Director