These are feelings and beliefs parents experience daily by as they’re introduced to the sleep training cultural norm.
“I’m guilty of rocking my baby to sleep.”
“I often nurse my baby to sleep, which has caused bad habits.”
“I’m a first time mum; I didn’t know any better and now my baby has all of these unhealthy sleep associations I can’t undo. I just want to do what’s best.”
“I’m ashamed to say my baby doesn’t have a routine. I feel like I am letting her down every day for not teaching her healthy sleep habits How do I fix this?”
“I know my baby needs to learn to self-soothe but I can’t stand to hear him cry! I rush to him straight away and scoop him up. I’m just too weak to go through with it.”
“I started reading this book by a well-known baby sleep whisperer and just a few pages in, I was feeling like I’ve done EVERYTHING wrong! I am so overwhelmed! I never realised I shouldn’t cuddle and pick up my baby so often.”
These are all statements made by parents (including me in my early days) which I’ve heard many times over the past few years.
After typing this, I feel like I need to go and rinse my mouth with mouth wash; the absolute rot foisted on new parents about their care and approach to their baby’s sleep makes me physically ill.
The worst part is knowing most of the mainstream advice about babies sleep offered to new parents is based on lies – lies that have been peddled for over 100 years.
You can read more in Baby Sleep ‘Tamers’- Recycling the Same Bad Advice Since 1913.
I don’t care how unpopular an opinion it might be right now; history will show this sleep training culture has deprived our babies of the nurturing care they need on a mass scale.
We’re damaging human relationships from the very beginning.
And for what?
Sleep? There are documented studies showing sleep trained infants under the age of six months don’t get any more sleep than their non-sleep trained peers. We also know the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is increased if mothers and babies sleep in separate rooms for the first 6-12 months, which is more common with sleep training methods.
It has also been shown sleep trained infants and toddlers wake just as frequently at night, even though their parents report they don’t. This disparity is damning.
Parents are no longer in sync with their children.
They no longer know what actually goes on in the night for their baby or toddler.
This breakdown in relationship shouldn’t be underestimated.
The sleep training proponents love peddling out studies to show there’s no difference in secure attachment between sleep trained children and their non-sleep trained peers, but there’s still more at play here.
Sleep training sets the tone for parenting choices and approaches later in a child’s life.
It sets a combative scene. Parent versus child. Us versus them, where there’s a winner and a loser.
It’s about power play, where the parent holds the power, makes decisions about how things should be and then runs with those choices regardless of how successful they are and where the child is at developmentally.
It is the forerunner to all of the ‘tough love’ decisions still held dear in society today.
Sleep training is the very first foray into rewards and punishments and placing conditions on love and attention.
It is based on a compliance model that seeks out ‘good’ behaviour and demands that true feelings be masked.
What are we scared of?
We need to ask ourselves: What are we afraid of? That we might raise children to become adults who are so fully loved and nurtured they enter the world as their true selves, and not cookie cutter versions of what society tells them to be?
Is that it?
If we don’t mould them and shape them and remould them again, any time they step away from the narrative, might they just grow up to be ground breakers and movers and shakers who know their value as unique human beings?
Are we so fragile from generations of distant, prescriptive, hard line parenting that at the first hint we’re being too human, too in touch with our inner feelings and attached, we recoil in disgust at our own nurturing behaviour?
Is that why these baby sleep bibles and sleep training whisperers we hear from in the first weeks after birth feel so very wrong on a visceral level, even as we bow to them as ‘right’ and ‘correct’?
Maybe it’s not so much we’re looking for this advice, but that it is given to us by the most trusted and ‘knowledgeable’ of sources. From your baby’s doctor and child health nurses, and from your paediatrician and midwives, this advice seems to be so factual and reliable.
The sleep deprivation hurts but if a trusted professional tells you your baby’s development is also suffering from lack of sleep, who are you to deny this?
What if you are at the very fringe of sanity, or even over that edge, and the only way you can seek the care you require for your mental health comes with the caveat you must ‘teach’ your baby to sleep alone?
What if you refuse to comply and, instead of a real alternative being offered, you are told to come back when you are willing to compromise? It’s your mental health or your baby’s need for night time parenting. Which do you choose?
Society is in turmoil when we cheer a mother on as her crying baby ‘protests’ himself to sleep but angrily swoops on anyone who dares suggest it’s okay to pick up babies and soothe them in arms, or on breastfeeding mothers who offer a breast to comfort their infants.
When I can’t write a post telling mothers they don’t have to sleep train and there are other ways, without being accused of shaming and judging those who sleep train, I know I’ve hit a raw nerve.
A baby’s ability to sleep will depend on many factors, such as age, health and even developmental phase. But babies and toddler always have and always will need night-time nurturing.
There is no number of cuddles that will ever be too much.
You will not look back at your grown children wishing you had kissed them, held them, nursed them or soothed them less; you might, though, wish you had done it more.
Parenting our young babies and children in a nurturing, responsive way often feels right deep in our heart and soul but in this current climate, it is far from easy.
It’s hard not to doubt yourself and your baby – no matter how right it feels – when you are worn out, touched out and over the persistent crying.
This hostile society often chooses these vulnerable moments to tell us we’ve got it all wrong and, when we are ‘ready’, we can ‘fix’ it.
What if we decided not to stand for this anymore?
What if we, as parents, demanded better support at this time in our lives?
What if, every time someone tells us we need to train our babies, we challenged them to step up with an alternative?
What if we asked those ‘well-meaning’ friends and family who tell us to leave our baby to cry to come and hold the baby while we shower or nap when the baby sleeps, or to provide more practical assistance and much-needed emotional support and validation?
What if health professionals looked beyond pathologising normal infant sleep behaviour? What if they worked with families to investigate adult sleep hygiene, support networks and health interventions that allowed parents to continue parenting the way their child needs to be parented?
What if babies and toddlers who exhibit behaviours outside the biological norm were supported through their struggles, while professionals helped families explore all options for conditions that might exacerbate their normal wakeful behaviours?
What if, when we see or hear a desperately vulnerable new parent reaching out for affirmation and support, we met them right where they are? And what if we helped them see the incredibly important work they do every day and nurtured the exhausted nurturers until they felt as though they could keep going?
We need to see an enormous shift in society’s attitudes. The way to achieve it is to take ownership of the role we play.
How can I help?
Maybe it is simply a matter of nurturing loudly and proudly. Nurse your baby, soothe your baby, smooch your baby, wear your baby and pour every ounce of love you feel into that little soul, for all the world to see.
You can rally for better leave conditions and protections, roster flexibility and access to quality childcare.
You can demand respect and recognition for the value of the unpaid work done every day and every night in family homes.
If you are a health professional, take time to look at your repertoire for support. If sleep training is currently your go-to or your go-through for your clients, then it’s time to reassess and broaden your approach.
You can also reflect on your interactions and gauge whether or not you are supporting a culture that discourages nurturing behaviour. If you are, work to improve your skills.
If you are a person with influence and power in the parenting world, it’s time to step up and own your responsibility to change.
Your words can change the lives of people who are vulnerable and desperate, and you can change their children’s lives.
You can choose to speak up for better supports for families and call for change from the current ‘fix-it’ model.
Even if you think sleep training was the ‘best thing I ever did’ or ‘it saved my sanity’, you can still recognise that it is better for parents not to reach the point where they need sleep training to ‘save’ them.
We can make this shift. It is already underway and the momentum is building.
I am not a single voice. I speak for many who demand better support for very tired parents and their babies.
We can and we should do better.