I think I'm going to break my own rule, and I hope I can do it in a way that doesn't make anyone feel as though I'm pointing a finger at them and declaring that every single parent must do what I do in order to achieve success.
Dave and I have three kids who are great sleepers. Every single one of them has, by 4-6 months, started sleeping 10-12 hours at night. Ethan slept 5-6 hours at 4 weeks, Noah did it at 9 weeks and Isaac did it eh, somewhere around there (curse of the third child...it's all a blur). I'm not telling you this to brag; I'm just trying to give myself a tad bit of credibility for what I'm going to discuss. A lot of people seem to think that all this sleeping is pure luck. It's certainly a blessing, but it is not pure luck. I believe in teaching a baby to sleep (some call this "sleep training" but that makes it sound like an exercise at a military boot camp), and I've worked really hard to achieve good sleepers.
Before I even talk about it, I would like to clarify a few things:
1) I am explaining my own beliefs and what has worked well for my family. Having good sleep early on is a priority around here, thus I put in some effort with my babies so that I don't have to do it later. I understand that other families are more relaxed about this or that they prefer to worry about it later or that they have more stamina to stick out the getting-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night stage than I do.
2) I understand that every baby is different; some babies are difficult to figure out, some babies seem to instinctively know how to sleep well and others will not sleep no matter what anyone does. I am not declaring this to be the definitive method to force babies to sleep.
3) Sleep training involves more than cry-it-out, which is what comes to nearly everyone's mind when the term comes up. But just to be clear...I do not callously allow my children to cry it out indefinitely in an attempt to force an agenda on them.
While reading Pamela Druckerman's book Bringing Up Bébé, her recent book about how French and American parenting differs, she describes how these countries' popular attitudes on infant sleep are completely opposite. While American parents tend to commiserate over how little sleep they are getting and how their children (infants and older) are terrible sleepers, the French popular view on child sleep is that they will, in fact, sleep and they will sleep well from a very early age (2-3 months old). Druckerman explains in details about why many French parents follow this practice, (largely scientifically based on sleep research) but there was another reason that stood out to me because I completely agree:
They believe babies can learn things, including healthy sleep patterns. And not only are babies capable of learning, they are capable of being taught.
I completely agree with this, and I believe that it has been crucial to why the Spence boys are such good sleepers.
I think a lot of people believe that sleeping through the night "just happens", and that there's nothing parents can do to help this along, as though adults are (or should be) at the mercy of their babies. I pretty much believe the opposite. I believe that parents can help their baby learn to sleep well, that the teaching can be done in a gentle and loving way, that parents don't need to be at the mercy of their babies, that babies can learn to sleep well, and that it is healthy for them to do so at an early age.
What does teaching a baby to sleep well mean?
1) Parents learn to read their baby's sleep cues. Are they yawning? Are they starting to whimper? Have they been awake for a while? Are their eyes a little red?
2) Parents respond to their baby's sleep cues. At the first sign of sleepiness, put the baby down - awake - to sleep. Thus, they learn to fall asleep just like adults do.
3) Parents "pause" before responding to a crying or fussing baby in order to evaluate their true needs. Druckerman quotes a French article on sleep: "Before responding to an interrogation, common sense tells us to listen to the question...It's exactly the same thing with a crying baby; the first thing to do is to listen to him" (p.48). For example, although adults have learned to connect sleep cycles, newborns haven't. When a parent gives the baby a little time to squirm, fuss, whimper, maybe even cry a little, they are helping them learn to connect sleep cycles. Waking up and even crying, does not always signal distress or hunger. It might, but it doesn't always. It is helpful to give it a few minutes and see what the baby does. If he goes back to sleep, it was just the interval between sleep cycles. If he doesn't, and continues to escalate the crying, then you pick up the baby and try to figure out what the need is.
Why do I think it's a good idea?
1) Parents need sleep as much as babies do. There is no point in being deliberately exhausted. There is no award for "Most Exhausted Mother". If you can help your baby to sleep well, then you will sleep well, and you will be able to be a better mother. It is not necessary to neglect your own health in order to be a good mom.
2) Babies need lots of sleep. Just like adults do, sometimes they have trouble sleeping. We train ourselves to sleep, but a baby often needs help. In fact, Druckerman explains how newborns don't know how to connect sleep cycles, therefore they often cry when they wake up in between them. If a parent rushes in to the crib the second they hear a noise, the baby will have a harder time learning to connect them. We adults typically wake up in between sleep cycles, but we've become adept at falling immediately back to sleep (p.46).
3) Although babies certainly are delicate and in need of gentle, loving, nurturing care, they are capable of learning significant concepts, even if they aren't learning them consciously and by our "big word" terms. They can learn to deal with frustration or that it's okay to be alone or that life doesn't revolve around them or that they are a part of a family consisting of other people who also have needs. Babies are fairly adaptable. I know many people like to throw out the famous study that crying-it-out damages their psyche, but I question that to a degree. I certainly don't question whether it damages a child to be routinely neglected and left to cry indefinitely for long periods of time with no attempt to discern the problem. But many people use this study to declare that parents should under no circumstances allow a baby to cry for any period of time, and that, I think, is nonsense and actually lacking in common sense. To quote Druckerman again,
"French parents] have a bundle of beliefs and habits, which when applied patiently and lovingly, put babies in the mood to sleep well. [This] works in part because parents believe that tiny babies aren't helpless blobs. They can learn things. This learning, done gently and at a baby's own pace, isn't damaging. To the contrary, parents believe it gives the babies confidence and serentity, and makes them aware of other people.(p.54)
Sooo....thoughts? What were your practices and thoughts about your babies sleeping?
P.S. Since this is a controversial topic, if you leave a comment, please use your words wisely and respectfully. I reserve the right to delete a comment that I deem to be disrespectful, derogatory or inappropriate. It is possible to thoughtfully disagree with others. Thanks!