Children Learning To Fall and Falling Asleep


Falling Asleep

I invite parents to view the “falling” of falling asleep just like the falling that our children inevitably do when learning to crawl, walk, climb and ride bikes.

Here is a list of sleep crutches we provide to fix that falling.

nursing ~ rocking ~ walking ~ holding ~ wearing ~ patting 

Imagine handing a toddler crutches to prevent the falling in his daily waking and walking life.

Sleep crutches, although helpful at first, eventually get in the way of learning this new skill that requires a “falling” in the process of surrendering to sleep. Often these crutches thwart the growth of autonomous and restful sleep – for the WHOLE family.

The sensation of falling asleep is a physical sensation. To the grownup mind it is the cue of the body relaxing into sleep. For the infant, the falling stimulates the moro reflex or startle reflex.

The falling that happens when our children surrender to gravity can often bring tears. The same is true for sleep.

However, at night we feel differently. It is much easier in the day time NOT to hand the toddler the second Popsicle she may be crying for. However, at night our heads and hearts tell a different story. It is dark. We are wanting to get back to our own sleep. We are naturally more vulnerable. In fact all animals are more vulnerable around sleep.

The Stress of Learning a New Skill

In Alice Callahan’s Article Helping Babies Cope with Stress and Learn to Sleep , this very thorough science minded mom and PhD writes on the the kind of stress that is happening when our babies are learning this falling of “falling asleep”. I appreciate that she also calls it “Sleep Learning” rather than “Sleep Training”.  We do not “train” our children to do what they are developmentally capable of. We supply the safe space and offer the support they need in that learning. However, since sleep is so often described in this way I will use sleep learning and sleep training interchangeably.

And throughout development there are moments of struggle and even stress. The following excerpt from Callahan’s article covers the three main types of stress a child can be exposed to during development.

From The Science Mom: The Heart and Science of Parenting

  1. A positive stress response is one that is “brief and mild to moderate in magnitude” and in which a caring and responsive adult helps the child cope. Events that can cause positive stress responses include “dealing with frustration, getting an immunization, and the anxiety associated with the first day at a child care center.” The authors go on to say, “When buffered by an environment of stable and supportive relationships, positive stress responses are a growth-promoting element of normal development. As such, they provide important opportunities to observe, learn, and practice healthy, adaptive responses to adverse experiences.”
  2. A tolerable stress response occurs because of non-everyday events like a death in the family, divorce, or a natural disaster. Again, what makes this stress tolerable is a child’s relationship with a supportive adult, who can help the child adapt and cope with the changes in his life. In the best of circumstances, tolerable stress can even have positive effects [2].
  3. A toxic stress response is caused by “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.” Examples include chronic stressors such as child abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse, and maternal depression. In early childhood, toxic stress can affect brain circuitry and disrupt the development of normal physiologic stress regulation. It can also compromise immune function and cause inflammation, both of which have been linked to a number of chronic diseases.

Callahan goes on to ask the following very important questions.

Given this framework, can we predict what type of stress response sleep training produces in a baby? Is sleep training more like starting daycare, coping with a divorce between the two most important people in your life, or being raised by someone abusing drugs?  

Click here to access my newsletter on Toxic Stress

I write and talk an awful lot about crying. I am in no way trying to talk parents into believing that it is ok to let their child cry for hours on end unattended to. I am trying to raise the questions that can help us all assess what crying is part of the natural struggle of development and what crying clearly needs our help.



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