PostCan You Avoid Stressful Sleep Training and still Get the Sleep You Need?

By Angela Braden

Originally posted at Psychology Today

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Should you condition your baby not to cry, or use clever nudges that keep baby secure? There is a way!

Many books and baby sleep consultants advise to condition your baby to not cry out for your attention at night and for help going down for naps. Conditioning means the parent ignores their pleas until they no longer bother cry out. But when distressed, all mammals instinctually cry out! And they should, because signaling their feelings helps build the social-emotional systems of the brain that form their foundations almost entirely in the first 3 years of life. Award-winning scholor, Dr. Allan Schore, who The American Psychoanalytic Association has described as “a monumental figure in psychoanalytic and neuropsychoanalytic studies.” explains an important aspect of this development:

The now well-established principle that the right hemisphere is in a critical growth period from the last trimester of pregnancy to 2.5 to 3 years of age suggests that the experience-dependent maturation of the right hemisphere is the primary developmental task of the first 3 years of life. (Excerpt taken from Schore’s book, The Science and the Art of Psychotherapy.)

“The primary developmental task of your baby’s first 3 years,” in other words, is to build the social-emotional scafolding for interpersonal interaction and relations! As Schore specifies that since the right brain is the seat of social-emotional functioning:

The dynamic forces of brain development, the unfolding of critical periods, the impacting of attachment by epigenetics  and lived experience are occurring within this foundational socio-emotional developmental period. The attachment relationship occurs in the nonverbal bodyworld between the infant and the primary caregiver. (discussed in Lesson 3 of the Smart Baby Sleep System).

And what conditioning a baby to sleep alone by ignoring cries really do? Conditioning-based “sleep training” shuts off the child’s voice. It just eliminates the communication of baby’s need, not the need itself. (For more info on what’s biologically natural for infants’ sleep.)

If the idea of ignoring natural baby communication as their social-emotional capacities are developing life-long foundations seems wrong, I have good news for you! Despite what some “sleep experts” say, you don’t have to do it! With an eye toward brain science, psychological development, and infant mental health, we can approach the challenges of parenting in the early months and years differently, whether it’s with naps, nighttime, or just being put down during the day. There is a better way than behavioral conditioning!

Instead of breaking baby of a “bad habit” as they say, of needing to be with you when they are distressed, you can work sensitively and respectfully with your baby to gently create the desired changes (which is what *you* decide together, not some arbitrary idea from a stranger of what your baby “should” be doing!). When changes are needed, here are some strategies I use in my consultations at Science Mommy and what I’ve detailed step-by-step in the Smart Baby Sleep System online course:

Security is job one.

First, and foremost, keep your baby’s security intact by keeping his communication of his needs in full force. This empowers your baby to gradually accept the desired change you are nudging toward. Because the parent-baby connection leads to optimal brain development, embracing your instinct is a critical first step in ensuring a healthy first year of life for your baby. Never betray your inner voice.

The neuroscience secret that will guide you to trust your instincts’ scientific validity is this: your baby’s brain is largely unfinished at birth, with brain cell connections forming at the speed of 1.8 million per second throughout the first year. These rapidly forming brain-cell connections shape structures of critical significance, particularly in the right hemisphere, as Dr. Schore has detailed in numerous academic volumes, which is predictive of future mental health. The emotional processing and social parts of the brain form first in infancy. These circuits hold elements of our very humanness—the ability to sense others’ intentions and feelings, to feel empathy and compassion, and ultimately, to thrive in intimate relationships, etc. And all of this development happens in direct response to your loving interaction with your baby. Because of this responsivity dance, you never want to stifle communication through behavioral conditioning. Your baby’s distress communication, or as the scientists call it, “signaling” is the only way you can gauge what I refer to in the course as your baby’s “comfort baseline.”

Note your baby’s “comfort baseline.

This is where your baby currently feels safe and secure. This is not what your baby wants (as in “he just wants his way”), it’s what he currently needs. This may be nursing all the way to sleep, or sleeping beside you or another warm body, or being nursed every time he wakes at night—all perfectly normal. When you decide to move away from your baby’s comfort baseline, and you’ve determined it’s an age appropriate goal (make sure!), map out baby steps (pun intended) from his comfort baseline. It’s critical that you start there though, in working toward your goal, or his security can be shaken and he’ll be too stressed to actually adapt.

“Nudge” and repeat.

Take the first step away from your baby’s baseline and listen—with your instincts turned on—to your baby’s reaction. That may mean if you are nursing to sleep, you take the nipple out when he’s drowsy, but still awake, but quickly press his check against your chest so he can hear your heart beat. If your baby accepts this nudge, go on to the next step in your mapping from his comfort baseline. In this case, you may end nursing while your baby is satisfied, but still awake, then continue to hold or rock to sleep. Eventually, you may place your baby in his crib before he’s all the way to sleep, if this is your goal. Remember, becoming distressed is going to happen and he will signal. It’s what happens next that matters. If your baby signals distress after your first step, give in—give him what he needs—and simply try again the next time. Repetition is what gets you to the goal, not conditioning. And your consistent, positive response is what keeps his security intact along the way. It may take weeks of repeatedly asking, nudging—until your baby accepts the step. Now his comfort baseline has changed: He’s okay with it!

If you’re taking a step/nudge during the night, and your baby gets too distressed, he will become wide awake. This messes with his developing circadian rhythm and he’ll then be more likely to wake again at that same time(s) on subsequent nights. This is why sleep trainers say you can NEVER give in, because the only way it works is if the baby learns she will NOT “get his way.” (This is conditioning—what scientists do to rats.) But when your baby is comforted and stays calm, it becomes a habit to sleep through those wakeups.

This approach is different because it works within your baby’s tolerance. It takes longer of course, but its real, sustainable progress. Think comfort vs. stimulation. Being upset is very stimulating; stimulation is counterproductive to sleep. Be patient and gentle with yourself and your baby.

Before you nudge:

The Smart Baby Sleep Course details how providing the right environment for your baby to sleep within what we sleep specialists call “the sleep window” can work wonders itself. The sleep window is that magic snippet of time in which baby is primed for la la land and will drift off peacefully (in the right environment). Perhaps you’ve seen your baby’s sleep window open—a glazed look, a yawn, or some agitated movements (depending on age)—but by the time you finished that bite of food, changed the diaper, and swaddled, that window had slammed shut on you! One missed window can set in motion a vicious cycle of “overtired”, short naps and more disturbed night sleep. Going by a strict schedule can be problematic too, because every night and every nap is different, (particularly in the first six months). You usually end up with a baby who’s overtired or under tired at the “scheduled” sleep time. To avoid this you have to find your individual baby’s ideal wake time. Simply put, the wake time is the single most powerful determinant of when your baby will need to sleep again in order to sleep best. Knowing the wake time will help you stay ahead of overtired like nothing else, because you’ll be ahead of those tricky sleepy cues too (some babies are just hard to read!).

You may not need to do anything about your baby’s sleep!

After implementing the first 2 of the 3 pillars of my Smart Baby Sleep System, you may be happy with how your baby sleeps!  If co-sleeping is working for you, especially, there’s probably no need to (although I do recommend “the nudge” for some co-sleeping needs, like baby sleeping a few feet away). Only when the current sleep arrangement is not working for you, do you need to change it. It sounds obvious, but I hear all the time from parents struggling to make their baby’s sleep conform to some unrealistic ideal, when they themselves didn’t even have a problem with the wakings that were occurring, or would be just fine sleeping with their baby (put in place safe bed-sharing guidelines if you do—see cosleeping.nd.edu).

The first year with your baby should be a joyful, precious, and peaceful time. Don’t let behaviorist ideas or sleep training mandates take that away from you. There is so much that can be done to prevent future challenges and make immediate improvements in your baby’s sleep, if you choose to. Approach your baby’s first years with an eye toward protecting optimal brain development and bonding and you and your baby will reap the rewards for the rest of your lives.

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*I intentionally used the male pronoun for the baby in this post, because studies indicate parents are less tolerant of normal infant sleep in their male babies. This is a mistake. Boy babies need just as much affection and stress regulation as baby girls, sometimes more.