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Infant Sleep and Parental Self-soothing

A typical day in the life of my Inbox

Email Subject: Help with crying

…she bolts upright and screams.

From: Aaron and his ten-month-old daughter:

She was a good sleeper for about six-months. Suddenly everything we were doing has stopped working. My wife nurses her to sleep every night. And now as soon as we start to lower her into the crib her eyes pop wide open, she bolts upright and screams. Once we finally get her to sleep, it starts all over again – NOTHING is working anymore. HELP!


Cut to: Four days later after Aaron’s ten-month old is on her way to learning the developmental skill of falling asleep without being nursed or rocked to sleep.

Email Subject: She did it!

I held her in my arms as she cried. I did what you recommended and centered myself with my breath. It was so hard. I acknowledged her and empathized how hard it was and how I could see her trying to fall asleep. As I held her in silence I focused on my breathing. As I looked into her face, she took a deep breath and let out a little sigh. It was amazing. It was as though I watched her become whole again in my arms. I put her down, told her she could sleep now and I walked out of the room. I then watched her on the monitor. She started to cry a bit but it was a low level, complaining cry. She grabbed her bunny and rubbed it on her face and started babbling. She slowly drifted into sleep. Seeing her do this has given me a new confidence in her and in myself.  

Along with the Educaring Approach (RIE), Attachment Theory has majorly influenced my program The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming the cry

A typical day in the life of my phone consultations: Our most common parental fear is revealed.

Parent: If I let my child cry in the struggle to self-soothe and sleep – then my child will feel abandonment, neglect and trauma.                                                                                       

Staying present to the cry, without giving children what they are crying for, is the hardest thing we do as parents and the biggest block to sleep-learning. We don’t train our infants and toddlers to sleep. But they DO train us to respond. And they do it with their cries.

To learn the skills of becoming an autonomous sleeper, there is a period of un-training for both the parent and the child. As the parent learns what to do instead of “putting the child to sleep”, the child un-learns their reliance on the sleep crutch (that which fixes the falling of falling asleep).

This unlearning, for a period of time, can increase what developmental neuroscientist Dr. Allan Schore calls “affective tension”.

Dr. Schore captures the difficult job of the mother perfectly in this passage from his book; Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self.

Possibly the most crucial and difficult aspect of mothering consists in permitting the child to bear increasingly intense affective tension. In order to perform this parental regulatory function, the adult must not only mirror the infant’s distress state, but then “go beyond the mirroring” to “deal with distress” rather than be overwhelmed by it. To do this the parent needs to sense and then regulate his/her own as well as the child’s affective state, a particularly demanding emotional task.”

Permitting our child to “bear increasingly intense affective tension.” What does this mean? We allow our child to experience increasing levels of crying. And as the levels of tension (crying) increase and decrease, we come and go and we respond and soothe without reacting or rescuing.

What I Teach

Even while learning how to sleep we can deepen connection with our babies, support secure attachment and support the child’s drive toward autonomy.

How can my baby feel secure if he is separate from me?

Because of the secure bond, your baby (five-months on) can feel safe in separateness. Your baby is smart. She knows you are coming back because there has never been a time in her life that you didn’t. And good news, she can’t make up a story about you NOT coming back. Unlike grownups, babies have no narrative or story to either bolster or deny their experience.

I teach parents how to go beyond mirroring and become their child’s emotional anchor.

The father in the example above regulated himself to help his daughter self regulate. This, in short, is regulatory theory. We regulate the self, to support the child by both mirroring and “going beyond” mirroring. We show our babies what self-regulation looks like and feels like. As we do this in ourselves we support our children in learning to regulate and self-soothe.

We can allow ourselves to be affected by this without getting swept away by our own emotions. We hold on to the self to remain present with the child’s experience.

The normal infant needs to be able to sense that her mother is struggling to tolerate her projected distress without major disruption in her own maternal function. The mother will be unable to avoid giving the infant slight indications of the way she is affected by her infant and it is these indications which allow the infant to see that the projected aspects of herself can indeed be tolerated.”

To allow our children to see that the projected aspects of the self can be tolerated is both beautiful and extremely difficult. As a person with a tendency to “overdo my emotions” this has been one of the greatest struggles with my own development as I support my children in theirs.

Here is the deal: We are ushering our babies toward increasing autonomy (toddler, adolescent, adult). Self-regulation and self-soothing is a lifetime pursuit. Life does not stop with the ability to sleep through the night. To calm/soothe the self we must quell the story we attach to our feelings/emotions. To anchor the self in the now we must become firmly grounded in our own autonomy. Because right here, right now, is where infants and toddlers live. By regulating our emotions we are better able to see the child’s perspective and less likely to project our experience onto the child’s experience.

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