Good Sleepers Are Made, Not Born
by Eileen Henry
When Leslie Peters took time off from work for the birth of her first child, worries about her ability to care for the baby were few. Her library of magazines, journals, and books covered every aspect of parenting. Her medical practice had given her years of experience guiding other families through the early years of life. Eight months after the birth of her son, Dr. Peters, a pediatrician, called me.
“He hasn’t slept well since birth and it seems to be getting worse,” said Dr. Peters. “I nurse him to sleep, he wakes 30 minutes later, and needs – needs – to be nursed back to sleep again.”
The pediatrician described a typical night. Dr. Peters put her boy to bed at about 8 p.m. Two hours later she or her husband had gone into his room as many as four times. Exhausted by the time she went to bed, she struggled to stay put while her boy whimpered and wailed. By 1 a.m. she gave up, brought the baby into her bed, and allowed him to nurse at will until dawn.
“My husband is sleeping in the basement and I have to go back to work in four weeks,” said Dr. Peters, crying. “This can’t go on.”
The pattern was one that had become familiar during the five years I have worked as a consultant on child sleep. Dr. Peters, like most of my clients, was struggling to cope with the trio of troubles that plague parents of newborns: a child unable to sleep independently; a parent who cannot get the rest required to maintain personal balance; and a fear that there was no end in sight. No less familiar was the desperation.
“My name is Laura” was all that another client could say before starting to sob. “Last night I was up for three hours trying to comfort my nine-month-old. He screamed the entire time and I felt completely helpless. I have a toddler to care for as well. I’m losing my mind. I can’t go on like this. Please help me.”
Parents everywhere fret about the sleep of their infants and toddlers. Such concerns are not limited to people with children. Pregnant women are inundated with horror stories from friends and family members scarred by sleep deprivation. These woeful tales often end with the coda, “Pray that you get a good sleeper.” Even the unwed are vaguely aware that dating may put them on the slippery slope to a life of crying babies and sleepless nights. On the subject of child sleep, society offers many myths and a whole lot of bad news.
The good news is that parents need not be hostages to the sleep habits of their infants and toddlers. I have coached hundreds of mothers and fathers on how to help their offspring achieve the Holy Grail of child sleep: consistent naps and “sleeping through the night.” Am I a magician? Of course not. I am simply a student of the interactions between parents and children around bedtime. And my “studies” have taught me that good sleepers are made, not born.
“Making” a good sleeper can start before the birth of a child. Step one is to take sleep seriously. Healthy development of a baby’s body and brain relies on getting a lot of sleep. Scientists theorize that sleep problems during the formative years can cause permanent changes in a child’s brain structure.” My own mantra is “sleep is not negotiable.”
Good information is invaluable. With the exception of a handful of physical and brain disorders in infants, there is no such thing as a “bad sleeper.” Feedings at odd hours will likely be the norm for the first four months of a child’s life. This is flipside of the joyous formation of an attachment that will last a lifetime. The freedom to see through the fatigue and relish the bond building grows if a parent can shed sleep-related fears. The sooner parents know that they will be able to guide their child to consistent sleep, the more they can enjoy the journey.
“Until I had children of my own, I didn’t realize how little I knew about sleep,” said Dr. Peters, whose son began to sleep through the night following the third day of our work together.
During the first four months, parents can help a child to form the habits that allow for sound sleep. It is impossible to overstate the importance of establishing and following a dependable, predictable routine. Families with a consistent, daily schedule of feedings, activities, and sleep have the smoothest transitions when, as they reach the age of four-to-six months, babies are ready to begin sleeping independent of their parents for long periods of time. The transition almost always involves crying.
Crying is what most often breaks the will of parents seeking better sleep for their child and themselves. Why? Parents are hardwired to answer, not resist, the cries of a child. Instinct tells us that not answering a cry means breaking the bond. I urge people to notice that their child has different cries. Some cries are the product of suffering, which must never be ignored. But other cries stem from struggle, which is a part of development. Learning to allow a child to struggle, and doing so with compassion – I tell clients to acknowledge and empathize with their child’s feelings – is the skill that turns sleepy parents into parents of sleepers.