Dear parents: No, you haven’t “screwed it all up” on sleep.

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

There's time to work about sleep. The idea that you can make irreversible mistakes is a myth. Take a breath. You've got this.

“Hi, I’m calling about getting some help with sleep for our 4-month-old…We’ve been… um…nursing her to sleep and picking her up when she cries. I know…we have all kinds of bad habits and I’m worried we’ve really screwed it all up.”

As a sleep coach, this is a very typical call that I get from parents (even those with very tiny babies). My heart bleeds for them. Barely out of the gate and they’re already sure they’re failing at parenting.

The notion that you’ve already irrevocably ruined your child’s chances of sleep and, well, life success by nursing or rocking her to sleep at 4-months is just patently false.

But all the books say, “the earlier, the better.”

Yes, they do and it’s surprising since virtually none of the research on sleep training (via crying-it-out) has been conducted on babies younger than 6-months. Most of the research has focused on older infants with diagnosable sleep problems. Parenting advice seems to reason that, if it works for these infants, why not use it before sleep problems start?

The problem is that this advice ratchets up parents’ expectations for what’s normal and achievable for an infant and then makes them feel worried and incompetent when it doesn’t turn out the way the book said it would.

It’s not all about you and what you are (or aren’t) doing. It’s important to understand that there are many moving parts to sleep. What you are or aren’t doing is only a small part of the picture.

Sleep follows development. Sleep develops as the brain develops. The ability to disconnect from the waking world and settle into sleep takes skill and abilities that come online gradually over time. Your baby can only do what he/she can do.

Development can be bumpy. The first two years are full of regressions: periods of behavioral chaos that precede some big developmental leaps. The dreaded four-month regression results from one of the biggest bursts of brain development your child will have. Everything goes topsy-turvy as your child’s brain re-wires itself for the next stage. Even babies who were champion sleepers at 2- or 3-months may start waking a lot. Major regressions happen at 8-, 10-, 12-, 18-, and 24-months, with some smaller ones in between.

Self-soothing isn’t something that can be forced. Think about what you do when you’re really upset: you go for a walk, you talk to yourself, you talk to a friend, you scan Facebook until you feel better. All of these options require a vast set of higher-level skills of thinking, attention, and mobility. For babies, the ability to manage distress is completely and totally dependent on what’s available in their tiny little toolbox of skills. The younger the baby, the smaller the toolbox. Calming down once really upset requires that a baby can divert their attention and do something physical (typically sucking) to relieve the distress. That’s it. That’s all they’ve got in the absence of parental help.

Plus, these few tools are only accessible when distress is at a manageable level. Claire Kopp, noted developmental scientist, says that “levels of discomfort must be relatively low in order for infants to be able to manage discomfort on their own.” More distress than that outstrips what the baby’s available skills can handle. The younger the baby, the smaller the window of tolerance for distress. Beyond this threshold, babies need help with calming down.

Temperament may be the most important factor in whether your baby sleeps or not.

Research increasingly shows that some children are just wired to be more alert and attuned (and vulnerable) to the environment. As a result, they have a lot more trouble with sleep. “Good sleepers” are likely just wired that way. They have the ability to tune the world out and turn their attention to sleep. “Terrible sleepers,” on the other hand, get easily bothered or distracted by sounds, textures, temperature, which prevents them from being able to sleep without a ton of help. In fact, children with alert/intense temperaments tend to need more help with regulation across the board. Overlooking temperament as a contributor to sleep problems inaccurately places the blame on parents.

It may be something physical. Blaming nightwaking only on behavior sometimes means that important (and fixable) culprits can get overlooked. Silent reflux can cause physical pain and affect the ability to sleep. Snoring or mouth breathing can indicate that the child has difficulty breathing and may need to be evaluated. Low iron stores can result in altered sleep patterns, and in older children, can be related to Restless Legs Syndrome, which can cause discomfort and impair the ability to settle into sleep. Sleep training in the presence of physical problems can set parents up for failure. If a child isn’t feeling well, working on sleep from a purely behavioral perspective may not work.

YOU get to decide what’s a “problem”

There is no objective standard for sleep. Even though there are sleep “norms,” there are wide variations between individual babies and families. There are also lots of ways for getting good sleep. If it feels sustainable for you, and your baby seems to be doing well, then that’s all you need to know.

You also get to decide when it’s not working for you anymore, and at that point you can work to make a change.

It’s not a tightrope, it’s more like riding a bike.

Advice can make you feel like “one mistake, and it’s all over,” but parenting isn’t that treacherous. It’s not a tightrope where one slip-up has disastrous effects. There is room to make mistakes, fall down, and course correct. And, dear parent, a tip from someone with grown children? You have a lifetime of mistakes and repair in your future. The parenting road is long…pace yourself.

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