Sleep is one of the most challenging aspects of being a parent. When we become parents, we may notice that our newborns often fall asleep relatively easily, often in the middle of feeding or right afterwards, but as time goes on things can get harder. That’s the point where we start doing things to help them sleep. We might rock them or shush them. We might carry them in a sling, or take them for a walk in their pram. We may continue to feed them to sleep with a bottle or breast.
Even as children get older sleep remains a challenge for many families.
My own daughter fed to sleep easily. Then when she was about two months old she went through a stage where she didn’t want to feed to sleep, so when she started to get tired I would pace the room with her until she fell asleep. My husband was there to support me at the time, but I panicked thinking about how on earth I would be able to spend half an hour each naptime pacing the room by myself when he returned to work. I was going to be exhausted!
Turning Into The Tears
When I read about the idea that babies may need to cry before sleep to process feelings, I suddenly had a light-bulb moment. I realised that all these things that I was doing to help her sleep were actually serving a very different purpose. My motivation to bounce or feed wasn’t because she needed any of these things; it was based on my urge to stop her from crying.
Of course, babies communicate their needs through crying, and it’s our job as parents to read our baby’s cry and decipher what needs to be done to help. Coming immediately when our baby cries is essential to building trust and making sure our children are fed, warm, comfortable, and healthy.
However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.
Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.
This is what Hand in Hand Parenting calls “Staylistening.” It means being there to provide the safety and connection a child needs to share their feelings. When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.
When I first started listening to my daughter during her evening cry, I felt anxious, and I wondered at first whether I was doing the right thing. I was soon reassured when I saw how relaxed she looked when she had fallen asleep after a good cry. She looked as if she had been doing some baby yoga or meditation, and sometimes she even smiled or giggled in her sleep! She fell asleep much more easily than if I had been pacing the room with her in my arms.
When, as parents are taught to do, we find time-consuming ways to keep our babies distracted from their feelings until they fall asleep, those feelings build up over time, creating a backlog that can get in the way of staying asleep. This may be why your baby wakes more frequently as they get older, or why your toddler still can’t sleep through the night. In particular, most children carry fears about separation, which arise at bedtime, and then bubble up once or several times in the middle of the night.
These feelings can’t be shushed away or rocked away. Even sleeping with your child in the same bed doesn’t necessarily relieve her of her fears of your absence. But releasing those fears will eventually build your child’s “sleep confidence,” that feeling of close connection that’s needed in order for her to sleep well.
Here are a few tools to help your child process the emotions that get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
- Staylistening to your child’s crying and meltdowns whenever they occur, without trying to distract or avoid the emotions can be really helpful. Children naturally try to release the feelings that get in the way of their sleep. Even a good cry over a very small thing like a broken cookie or a sandwich that was cut “the wrong way” during the day can be a powerful healing interaction between parent and child, and improve your child’s sleep.
- Playlistening—lots of warmly connected physical play that elicits laughter while your child is in the more powerful role (no tickling please!)–is also helpful. Laughter is another way that babies and children release stress so they can naturally regulate their own sleep. Setting up just ten minutes of affectionate giggles in the evening can have powerful results. (Yes, really! Go ahead and rile the kids up before bed!)
Being there for our children’s deepest feelings isn’t easy. That’s why we recommend Listening Partnerships, where two parents take turns talking and listening to one other about how parenting is going. When we get to release our own feelings about sleep, we are in better shape to help our children with the big feelings that cause them to wake. Often our present day difficulties relate to our own past hurts, so it can be helpful to talk about what sleep was like for us as a child, and how our parents treated us.
Trusting A Child's Natural Ability to Sleep
As we learn these tools we can simply connect and trust our child’s natural ability to fall asleep and sleep well. Listening to feelings communicates, ‘No matter how upset you feel, I’m here for you.’ This reassurance is just what our children need to sleep the night through.” Here’s how it can work:
For most of the day my two year old daughter had seemed upset, crying a lot over small things, letting things get to her that normally wouldn’t, and getting very frustrated when she couldn’t do things by herself. I tried to help her feel better by listening and playing, but I wasn’t really feeling like I had much to give and found myself getting annoyed and frustrated by her and her brother fighting every time I turned my attention to something other than them. We were all tired after coming home from a camping trip and I didn’t feel like I was able to listen or set limits well with either of my children.
In the evening after dinner, I had some time alone with my daughter as my husband and son went out for a ride. I could see that she was tired so asked her to come with me and get ready for bed. She refused, another clear signal to me that she wasn’t feeling good, as usually she is happy to rest. I felt more able to listen to her at this time, as the chores for the day were done, and I was more relaxed. I could also see what a hard afternoon my daughter had experienced, and I was willing to offer her some empathy, and try to help her out. So I set the limit, that yes, it was time for bed, and she started crying as soon as I got her nappy and pajamas out.
We were sitting on her bed, and I gently moved closer with her clothes, her crying got more intense and she started yelling at me to “Go away Mum!” and screaming in a kind of hoarse, frustrated yell.
It was quite intense, but I got the sense that this was what she needed to do to release all the upset, so I trusted the process and went with it. When she asked me to go away, I would shift my position a little further along the bed away from her, to respect her request, but I also told her, “I’m not going too far away because I love you and want to stay close when you are upset.”
She cried really hard for quite a while, her screaming requests alternating between, “Go away Mum!” to “ I need a cuddle!” This indicated to me that she was working through her upset, and that she really didn’t want me to go away at all.
I focused on listening to her with my heart, not my head, and not being offended by her yelling at me to go away, knowing she didn’t mean it. I stayed with her, offering support and love, as all her yucky, hard, painful feelings poured out. I could see she was working hard, and letting so much go, and I began to feel a sense of pride, knowing that she was doing what she needed to do, and I was there to support her in the way she needed me to.
Her raging lasted about 45 minutes, and gradually subsided into large hiccupy sobs for a few minutes. I was able then to help her into her nappy and pajamas.
Then she took a few deep calm breaths before looking right into my eyes, having a little giggle about something then falling asleep. She slept the whole night through (often she was waking one or two times) and was much more peaceful the next day. ~ Lyra L’Estrange, Certified Instructor in New South Wales, Australia.
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Tried everything to get your child to sleep? Our Helping Your Children with Bedtime and Sleep self-guided course gives you new, workable strategies and tools to understand and connect with your child before bed for better sleep.
Kate Orson is a former Hand in Hand Instructor, originally from the UK she now lives in Basel, Switzerland.