Did you know that the way you construct your parent-child relationship can influence your child's sleep?
Sleep is a behavior. It can get affected by everything from what we eat to what worries we have. Taken into account the number of bodily systems that are involved in putting us to sleep, sleep is one of the most complex behaviors of the human body.
A behavioral intervention such as sleep training is not the best approach for improving sleep because it looks past this complexity.
For us to be able to go to sleep, our nervous system has to be ready. During sleep onset, multiple systems in our body talk to each other. For instance, we need to be physically safe, feel tired enough, and be relatively free from the day's stressors. In short, we have to be ready to "close our tabs."
Sleep is an iceberg we only see the top of. If we look deeply enough, we can find room for improvement in our parent-child relationship that will help our children sleep better.
Here are 5 questions we can ask ourselves:
1) Do I promote healthy independence?
Sleep is a state of separation from the parent. Babies are born fully dependent on their parents but as they grow, they start showing signs of independence. We can observe our children for these independence signs and offer them the space to put their developing skills into action.
Let's say we have observed that our baby can roll. What we would normally do is provide a suitable environment (i.e., a floor mat) to let them roll more to explore this new skill. We would provide the secure frame, but let them freely work on their skills within it.
The same goes for emotional independence. Sometimes, our babies might need less emotional support from us than we think they do. For example, they can be okay with "just" being held while we are used to nursing them to sleep.
The way we respond to their emotional needs should always be attuned to what they actually need, not the highest level of support we can provide. It's an intuitional process that depends on the way the parent views the child.
Sometimes, as we expand the independence zone of our children, they might feel uncomfortable. This is a healthy development step as it leads to more tolerance and resilience. For instance, if they are used to being rocked to sleep, being steadily held for a change might make them feel awkward for a bit.
In this case and in similar cases, our kids can cry and they have every right to. While offering our presence, we should be mindful of not suppressing their feelings. This is often described as "containing" our children's emotions, which moves us to the next title.
2) Do I accept all of their emotions?
How cool are you with your baby's crying? You know how we occasionally feel the need to vent. Our children have a need to discharge their emotions too.
If we are sure that our children are not disturbed by a factor we can fix (such as hunger, discomfort, coldness, etc.) we can let them express their emotions in our compassionate presence.
Let's imagine our kids as a bowl of boiling water through their strong emotions. Let our role be the cool container. We can wrap our coolness around our children's boiling emotions, let them sit there for a bit, and when the time comes—when their emotions calm down—we can gently release our containment.
The containment here doesn't have to be physical, of course. Sometimes kids, especially toddlers, might reject being touched when distressed and we can respect that, offering some silence or emotional validation instead.
I see that you're uncomfortable with this. It must be really hard for you. I'm here by your side.
If your first impulse is to get your child to calm down, you're not alone. Most of us have a tendency to "fix" our loved ones' difficult feelings. But in these situations, what we actually need—our children and us equally—is to be seen, understood and be free to express our emotions.
3) Do I place compassionate boundaries?
Our child needs our calm, compassionate guidance. Bedtime is no exception.
Observing our child's sleep cues, taking them to a calm space to help their bodies transition to sleep, and deciding on the duration of the bedtime routine are some of things that require our guidance.
Within this pre-sleep interaction, boundaries should be crystal clear but we should also create a space for independence. How? For instance, we can decide on the number of books that we will read, but our children can pick the books (if they want).
Another example: when we sense that our child's sleep needs are getting more visible and it's almost time to drift off, we can limit their activity by saying:
We can't fetch new toys anymore. You can play with the toys that are already in your bed.
You can move anywhere you like as long as you stay in your bed. I won't let you leave your bed because I can't let you get any more tired tonight.
Our reading time for the day is up. We can cuddle and sing a song now. Which song do you want to sing?
4) Do I understand their temperament?
We are used to saying that all kids are different but we often miss a fact: children's temperament affects their sleep. Imagine you and your partner. How different are your personalities and how different are your sleep habits?
Some children have a busy mind and they have a harder time saying goodbye to the day's activities. Some kids are too independent to be told that it's time to go to bed. Some kids have a harder time with independence and they need more support through bedtime.
Understanding our children's temperament helps us set healthier expectations of their sleep. By doing activities and building a connection that will balance their needs (for instance playing physical games during the day if our child has a busy mind or providing extra closeness if our child is having a harder time exploring independence) can eventually help them transition to sleep better.
5) Am I patient with progress?
This might end up being a longer journey than you expect. But in a healthy parent-child relationship, progress does come, sooner or later, as our children grow.
Keeping our relationship in check and achieving the healthy interplay between dependence and independence, boundaries and freedom, emotional discharge and regulation will support our child's development, and eventually their sleep.
What's left to us is to be patient. Know that frequent wake-ups or difficulty in falling asleep is not our fault and there is no cookie-cutter formula that's going to assure healthy development and good sleep. Patience and giving our children a responsible, nurturing and, consistent relationship is the best strategy!
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