Western society’s parents are being misled – told that infants and toddlers should ‘sleep through the night’. Contrary to this belief, it’s completely normal for newborns and infants to wake at night, and often! They don’t have the capacity to sleep for long stretches, nor should they be made to.
New parents may worry that something’s wrong with their baby or wonder how baby can sleep longer. Some parents seek out ways to ‘sleep train’ their baby. These methods lead to stressful night times fraught with crying. It’s only in our culture that this practice has taken hold, yet it’s not based in evidence or science. It’s not babies that need to be trained. Their sleep is not a problem that needs to be fixed.
Let’s take a look at an infants’ and toddlers’ developing brain to fully understand how ‘sleep training’–particularly ‘self-soothing’–is harmful to young children’s development.
At birth our brains are ¼ the size of an adult brain – basically very underdeveloped and premature when compared to all other mammals. The three sections of our human brain are: 1) reptilian – responsible for basic processes and the fight/flight response, 2) mammalian – responsible for our learning about nurturing, caring, loving and where we experience our strong emotions like separation distress, fear, and rage, and 3) neocortex – responsible for thinking, rationalizing, reasoning and talking. This is the newest part of the brain.
Infants & toddlers spend most of their time in the lower section (reptilian) and middle section (mammalian) parts of their brain. This is significant because it’s in these areas where they first learn about trust and safety. By meeting their early needs, parents are supporting their infant in developing these parts of their brain. Infants can then learn to trust their parents, trust the world, and not be afraid. Every loving, supportive, nurturing interaction a parent has with their baby helps them to build their brains – from the lower to the middle sections.
“A significant discovery in neuroscience, that they have zeroed in on, is emotion, as being the pivotal player, the main factor in the development of the brain, the development of relationships, attachments and even the attachments between neurons, because attachment is also between cells, right at the very basic, basic level.”Dr. Gordon Neufeld
In babies the neocortex, the newest part of the brain, is incredibly underdeveloped. What does this mean for the child? Since the neocortex functions to think, rationalize and reason, these abilities for an infant are virtually non-existent. Therefore, when experiencing emotions, infants are without the capacity to handle them (termed emotional self-regulation). They feel emotions strongly, but unlike an adult, they can’t regulate them.
For example, as an adult, we may look away from a horror scene on TV, change the channel or leave the room (fight/flight response). With our developed neocortex we have the capacity, when we wake from a scary dream in the night, to rationalize, ‘oh, it’s a dream, go back to sleep’. But what happens when we attempt to train a baby to regulate their emotions, ie. ‘self soothe’ or ‘self-settle’? These terms, including ‘controlled comforting’ or ‘spaced soothing’, are misleading because they imply a gentle calming process without stress. Not so for the infant! No matter whether these methods involve a few minutes of separation/crying, or picking up and putting down, the child is not soothing herself.
Self soothing is a behavior that grows once the child’s brain is developed enough. Self soothing can’t be taught. It is not a skill.
Separation from a parent is stressful. It’s currently recommended that infants, for at least the first 6 months, sleep in the same room with parents, within arm’s reach. Research conducted with nursing mothers & babies who bed-share has proven there are numerous benefits.
Bedsharing has been around since there have been mothers and babies. Again, contrary to our culture’s beliefs, it’s actually a biological imperative for babies and mothers to sleep together in the night. The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it safe for babies to sleep with their mothers?’, but ‘Is it safe for babies to sleep alone?’ For more information, read the research on safe sleep practices and learn nighttime and naptime strategies for the breastfeeding family from La Leche League’s 2014 publication ‘Sweet Sleep’.
An infant’s cortisol (stress hormone) level rises with prolonged separation & crying. Current studies on sleep training show that cortisol levels in a baby left to ‘cry it out’ remain high even after the infant stops crying and appears to be calm. High levels of cortisol are toxic to a child’s developing brain. Since babies can neither fight nor take flight, a third response is triggered, which is to freeze. Dr. Sears calls it the Shutdown Syndrome. Basically the child shuts down in order to preserve life.
When crying isn’t met with a responsive parent coming to care for them, the infant stops crying. Does that mean their need is gone? No. They learn that their calls for support go unanswered. So, they simply give up and shut down.
What CAN parents do then? Providing nurturing responsive care during their infant’s early years will support their ability later on in life to ‘self-soothe’. Parents help their infant’s capacity for emotional self-regulation to develop. Parents are like engineers building the basic architecture in their child’s brain. Remember emotion is the pivotal player in the development of the brain.
“Science is helping us to understand how love and nurture by caring adults is hardwired into the brains of children,” notes Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer in the foreword to The 1001 Critical Days.
As the parent, you are hardwired to respond to your baby. So, pick up your child, hold, cuddle, nurse, wear and soothe them as much as they need, for as long as they need. Your nurturing is never too much, nor does it ever create a bad habit. You are responding to needs, not manipulation.
Being there for your child, night after night, helping them go to sleep can be exhausting, but it’s what parents do. This is how you can help your child to develop, and to develop great sleep habits too!
Babies need parenting at night, but we need our sleep too! Here are some tried and true tips from other parents on how to get the most sleep without compromising baby’s nighttime needs:
By Debra Woods
Debra Woods is a seasoned birth and postpartum doula who has cared for more than 750 childbearing families. She is also a childbirth and parenting educator.
Mother to one son, who was born at home, she is passionate about women becoming fully informed about birth in order to make the best decisions for themselves.
She loves helping families with their newborns, offering guidance and support so they can experience a smooth adjustment into parenthood.
She currently teaches the Childbearing Society’s Postpartum Circles and the Home Birth Workshop.