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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, run, 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 a pair of 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  “falling” in the process of surrendering to sleep. Crutches used longer than necessary 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, 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. If we have used sleep crutches to prevent this falling the falling sensation is unfamiliar and disorienting.

Fixing this falling at night feels different. During the daytime, it is much easier 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. It feels faster and easier to just give in and hand over what we know will get the family back to sleep.

It can be helpful for parents to know that although it is harder in the night to NOT fix sleep – it is NOT harmful.

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 Ph.D. writes about 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.

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.” Over time these build resilience and confidence in our children. 
  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 later in life.

Callahan goes on to ask the following very important questions.

  1. Given this framework, can we predict what type of stress response sleep training produces in a baby?
  2. 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?  

My entire sleep program is in favor of “cry-reduction.” Yet, the reality of learning, growth, development, and life is this – there is no way to completely eliminate the tears that are inevitable in this human experience.  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.

  • What I do offer are tools, skills, and strategies to reduce the crying. Unfortunately, in an effort to reduce crying parents can unintentionally increase it.
  • I offer crucial listening skills that will help you in discerning struggle from suffering for YOUR child. You are and always will be the expert on your own child.
  • I guide you to a place where sleep becomes the side effect of a calm and regulated nervous system.
  • When the family finds this type of restful sleep – sleep becomes “no big deal.” Children are confident in their ability to let go and surrender to sleep.
  • Sleep becomes a value of self-care, self-respect, and self-love.

Our children will leave our homes with a basic understanding of what is in our human power to nurture and ensure our wellbeing.

  1. Quality relationship – good love!
  2. Quality sleep – good sleep!
  3. Quality nutrition – good food!
  4. Quality downtime and relaxation time – good play!



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