This article in the Globe and Mail, Want Baby to Sleep? Be “Emotionally Available”, jumped out at me because I spend quite a lot of my time listening to parents tell me about their sleep woes with their babies and toddlers. The article reports on the cleverly-named "Study of Infants’ Emergent Sleep Trajectories" (SIESTA). Dr Douglas Teti, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State University conducted a three-year longitudinal study looking at how parents put babies 1-24 months to bed. He found that the bed-time ritual itself did not predict how well babies slept at night as much as the WAY the parents (all mothers in this study) put their babies to sleep. He found that more “emotionally available” mothers had babies who slept better.
It could be that this is a case of circular reasoning. Mothers who are haggard and depressed from lack of sleep are much less likely to be emotionally available. So we may have a chicken-and-egg thing going on here. Babies who have difficulty sleeping long stretches have mothers who are more tired and more miserable and less likely to be able to find the emotional resources to be available to their babies at the end of a long day. Anyone who has had a small child knows that awful feeling of desperately patting and bouncing a baby to sleep, thinking only of the blessed relief of being able to go and rest ourselves. It’s SO difficult in that context to continue to be a kind and tender and emotionally generous parent!
On the other hand, Dr Teti has a good point in saying that it is HOW we do the bed-time thing rather than WHAT we do that helps our children to sleep. I work with parents who co-sleep and parents who don’t; parents who let babies cry-it-out and parents who never let the baby make a single peep; parents who take six months to teach their baby to sleep at night and parents who take six days. I am very sure that what matters most to our children is that their parents feel confident and relaxed about the parenting decisions they make. If a parent is happy and comfortable with her/his approach to bedtime and sleep, the parent is much more likely to be able to be really consistent and the baby is much more likely to feel safe and relaxed too. The decisions we make about how we run our families need to be suited to our physical and emotional situation and based on our own intuitions and values. So how I parent will necessarily be different from how my best friend parents, even if we share a lot of the same values, because our personalities and families are different.
I believe the most important thing we can do at bedtime to help our babies fall asleep feeling safe is to TALK! When you cuddle your baby to drowsiness you say things like: “It’s night time now. Everyone is sleeping. Mummy is sleeping and your friend Josephine and her mummy are sleeping and the bunnies and the birdies are sleeping. And you’re going to cuddle up in your nice bed and sleep well and in the morning we’ll go to the park…” As you talk you keep yourself focussed on the baby, and focussed on the message which is “It’s sleeptime”.
And the sound of your voice is cosy and quiet and teaches your baby that even as your body moves away from her, your voice keeps some contact and provides reassurance and safety.