Keep clam and get your sleep on

The Science of Stress and Sleep Training

Keep clam and get your sleep on


I have been wading through the research for over two decades now. Some of it is good science. Much of it, I just don’t know.

I am the Bill Murray of Sleep Busters…Back off man, I am NOT a scientist.

I am a science enthusiast. I love it. I can’t get enough of it. And I especially love when it backs up my already existing beliefs.

Crying that happens in the presence of a loving parent or caregiver’s support is NOT harmful OR damaging to the child’s brain.

When we come and go and offer support our children are learning that we always come back. Your baby knows you are not going to walk out of her life and leave her alone to deal with ALL of her struggling all by herself.

Adults have ways to analyze and understand our stresses. This is what our babies do not have…yet. And it is loud and clear when we are witnessing their struggles. It is never an enjoyable experience to hear your child cry at any age. And I am not suggesting that it is an easy experience for the child either. Yet, with any of the following experiences, the result on the back-end of the “struggle” can have a positive result.

  • Sleep learning
  • Vaccinations
  • New caregiver or daycare
  • Not getting a second popsicle
  • Falling and scraping a knee

Much of what inspires crying is unavoidable in this life. Everything listed here is not toxic stress. Nor is it what Alice Callahan, PhD refers to as “tolerable stress” in her article Helping Babies Cope with Stress and Learn to Sleep”. Callahan cites the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) report “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress”. It outlines 3 types of stress responses in children:

“A positive stress response is one that include[s] ‘dealing with frustration, getting an immunization, and the anxiety associated with the first day at a child care center. 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.’

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.”

Both of these stress responses have one thing in common: a loving parent close at hand to acknowledge, mirror, empathize, and reassure.

What is damaging is the third stress response. Callahan explains:

“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.”

Prolonged, persistent, pervasive and permanent stress in a child’s life is different. This can turn stress into toxic stress. (See February Sleepletter.)

If we are vibrating with our own stress and anxiety, we are not as effective in helping our children emotionally regulate. Yes, it is that simple. And although humbling to the core, YES we are that powerful in assisting our children with emotional regulation. My goal is to ease your mind, not to convince you that crying is positive and O.K. I hope this will increase your confidence. I hope it will increase your trust in your child as a skilled learner on this long road of development.

The video below “How to Make Stress Your Friend” raised a very important idea for me.

Could it be possible that our bodies have a friendlier relationship with our own stress?

YES! Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, thinks so.

McGonigal argues there is a healthy way for our bodies to prepare us to deal with stress. Caring for others also creates resilience in all of us.   

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