Babies and Sleep – The Third Way

Written by Marion Rose PhD

Babies and sleep is such an emotionally loaded subject.The choices we make about our baby sleeping are based on some of our most core beliefs and are connected with some of our most primal feelings.

The parenting actions we take are based on three things:

1. Our core beliefs about being human – what we need, and why we’re here;
2. Our own experiences as a baby and a child;
3. The information we have available to us.

When we think about our baby and sleep, these become:

1. Our core beliefs about sleep, closeness, intimacy, needs, and feelings;
2. Our experiences as a baby. Where did we sleep; how our parents got us to sleep;
3. The parenting paradigms we have come across as regards sleep.

You might want to take a moment to think about this for yourself:

1. What do you believe about what babies need in terms of closeness?

  • What are your core beliefs about intimacy, needs and feelings?
  • We can usually discover these pretty quickly – one way is just to get a blank piece of paper or your journal and just start writing a stream of consciousness response to the question.
  • Another is to simply look at your life and how your relationships look, how much your needs are met, and how you are with your feelings.

2. Take a few moments to reflect on your first year as a baby.

  • What do you know about that? Where did you sleep? How were your feelings responded to?
  • How did you get to sleep?

3. What parenting paradigms have you come across as far as sleep goes? And which ones resonate most with you right now?

I deeply accept each and every person’s choice about their parenting actions. I know how important and deep those answers to question 1 and 2 are.

My passion is to share information about Aware Parenting, so that those of you who haven’t known about it before, have it available as the third choice.

So this third choice gives you another paradigm to add to your answer to question three!

Why do I call it the third choice?

Because in parenting, it often seems like there are two broad choices with babies and sleep.

One is to accept that babies need to wake up lots in the first year or two, and to put up with it and make the most of it.

The second is to help them self-settle, become independent sleepers, and sleep alone.

The choice parents seem to need to make is between having sleep for ourselves, and giving our baby closeness and secure attachment.

And of course the truth isn’t as clear cut as that, because there are many shades of parenting.

However, Aware Parenting offers a clearly different option, a different set of beliefs, options, and practices.

From an Aware Parenting perspective, we NEITHER need to believe that babies need to wake up several times a night after 6 months, and NOR do we need to try to help babies self-soothe, self-settle, or sleep alone.

With Aware Parenting, we can have both secure attachment for our baby, and sleep for us.

We can both get our needs met!

How, and why, is this third option possible?

To answer this, we need to dig deeper, to the beliefs underlying this approach. 

From an Aware Parenting perspective, babies need three things in order to be able to sleep:

1. They need to feel tired. (This means observing their cues)
2. They need a sense of connection. Aware Parenting is a form of attachment parenting, so one of the core beliefs is that babies need regular closeness to become securely attached, and particularly when they go to sleep, as sleep is about leaving one state to move into another state.
3. They need to feel relaxed enough to sleep. To be relaxed, they need two things.
i. All their needs need to be met. If they are feeling lonely or hungry, they will not be able to sleep (unless we help them repress these feelings);
ii. They need to be fairly free from uncomfortable feelings (unless we help them repress these feelings). 

And this last point, being fairly free from uncomfortable feelings, is the magic extra part that I had my “aha” about.

Because, another core belief that separates Aware Parenting from other parenting paradigms is about babies and feelings.

In Aware Parenting, babies are sentient beings and feel all the core feelings that adults feel (apart from the ones we learn to feel as a result of learning judgemental thoughts, like guilt).

They feel wonder and delight, curiosity and excitement, interest and fear, shock and frustration, agitation and sadness, grief, loss and rage.

And despite our most valiant actions as parents, all babies will have moments of feeling uncomfortable feelings.

Even during birth, even if it is a lovely calm birth, they will feel some uncomfortable feelings.

And even if we carry them 24/7, and do everything we can to meet their needs, they will still feel uncomfortable feelings:

  • when they are in new situations;
  • when we are going through our own feelings;
  • when we don’t mirror them accurately because of our own blindspots;
  • when they are going through developmental spurts;
  • and even just in getting used to digestion, breathing and living in air, after 9 months where there was no hunger, breathing or the absence of touch.

And some babies will have more than just moments of uncomfortable feelings, especially if the pregnancy was stressful, the birth traumatic, if there was early separation, lots of stimulation in the early weeks, or if us parents are stressed.

In Aware Parenting, we can listen to these feelings.

When our baby is needing to tell us about her birth, we can hold her and listen to her as she cries in our arms. As she makes particular movements which copy her birth experience. As she arches her back, just like she did if she was vaginally born.

Babies are born with an innate capacity to heal from daily stresses, as well as stress and trauma, through crying-in-arms.

So, when our baby is still getting used to life outside the womb, and is restless in the evening, instead of repressing those feelings with feeding or jiggling or rocking or wearing down in a sling, we can simply be deeply present, hold her in our arms, stay connected in our bodies, and let her tell us all about her day, and how different it is from being in the womb.

When our baby has just been out for an outing, and seems to want to feed every half an hour, we can tune in to what she is really wanting – to release the overwhelm from her little body. Doing that feels satisfying and peace-inducing for her.

When our baby is going through a new developmental stage, and is agitated and restless, we can hold her in our arms and listen to how that is for her – how frustrating it is to want to do something so much, and not yet be able to do it yet.

When we respond in these ways, when we differentiate clearly between immediate needs and needs to express feelings, this affects our baby profoundly.

How?

Well, if we distract our baby from her feelings, by feeding her when she is upset, or jiggling her when she is upset, or distracting her with a toy, at first this seems like the kindest and most helpful thing to do.

Who wants their baby to feel uncomfortable feelings?

But the thing to remember is, just like if we are upset about something and we go on Facebook, or eat chocolate, or get busy with cleaning the house, those feelings don’t go away. They bubble up again, and again.

Those feelings will start waking us up at night. 

We might find it hard to get to sleep. 

We might start waking up early in the morning. 

We might start feeling agitated. 

We might need to keep doing those things more and more; going on Facebook 10 times a day, or reaching for a cup of coffee or piece of chocolate again and again.

Does this sound familiar?

This is just what happens with babies.

Although distracting them from their feelings looks like the kindest thing to do, what happens is that those feelings accumulate.

Each time we distract them rather than listen, (just like with ourselves), these feelings get added to the other feelings inside them.

They start seeming to need more feeding, more jiggling, more rocking, more distracting.

They start feeling more agitated in their bodies.

They start becoming less happy. They smile less, they make agitated sounds.

And remember what we said about sleep above?

They start taking longer to go to sleep.

They start waking up more frequently.

They are agitated in their sleep, moving around and kicking off covers.

They wake up earlier and earlier.

See how similar babies are to us? Accumulated feelings feel uncomfortable for them, just as they do for us.

And just as it is a relief for us to get off Facebook, and go and see a friend and tell her what is really going on, and have a big long cry as she holds our hand or holds us;

Just is it a relief for our babies to get to express all the feelings that they have as babies, coming into the world and being greeted with so much novelty and stimulation.

Remember what I said above, that babies need to feel relaxed enough to sleep?

It’s just like us, isn’t it?

Have you noticed that if you have feelings bubbling away, that if you aren’t going to listen to those feelings, you’ll need to bypass them somehow? Read a book, watch a movie, have a particular drink, do something to bypass those feelings?

And have you ever noticed, that if you then have some moments of stillness, or if you have someone with you who is really empathic and unconditionally loving, that those feelings will bubble up and out?

And have you noticed that you might wake up in the middle of the night, when the house is still and all is dark, and there’s no outer distraction, that those feelings call out to be heard?
And again, babies are just like us. When they have feelings to express, they have two choices.

Either they get the chance to express those feelings with us, by sharing all those feelings in their tears and movements as we hold them lovingly in our arms;

OR we help them bypass those feelings.

We feed them or rock them or distract them, or they suck their thumb or a dummy or clutch on to something, or rub their finger on our arm, or do something repetitively to repress these feelings.

But since we come into the world ready to heal, these feelings wake babies up again as soon as they come into light sleep.

We are amazing beings.

We are constantly trying to heal ourselves, throughout our lifetimes, by allowing out old feelings, especially when we are in a situation similar to the first time we had that feeling.

Babies want to express their feelings so that they can return to their true nature, which is presence.

And that is why, just as after a big cry with your loving friend, you: 

feel relieved;

can see clearly;

don’t react to small things any more;

and have a lovely long sleep.

So your baby, if she gets to express her uncomfortable feelings regularly with you, also feels a sense of relief. 

Her body feels relaxed yet connected. 

She may well sleep with her arms above her head. 

She makes eye contact. 

She is alert. 

She is happy and interested in the world. 

She is eager to learn, and loves to concentrate. 

She sleeps when she is sleepy and wakes when she has had enough sleep or is hungry (but actually hungry, not upset!)

Being mirrored in all her feelings is deeply and profoundly satisfying for a baby.

The more feelings we can be present with in ourselves, the more feelings we can be present with in our baby.

If we have visited our own sadness, fear, overwhelm, joy, wonder and delight, then we can be present with those feelings in our baby.

If we are avoiding our own sadness, or our own joy, we are likely to find it incredibly difficult to be with those feelings in our baby.

And that is one of the core aspects of Aware Parenting.

If we want to listen to, and mirror, our baby’s feelings, we need to give space for our own.

And becoming a mother for the first time, or the sixth, brings with it feelings.

  • Our feelings about the birth.
  • Our feelings about how much support we are getting.
  • Our feelings about how our whole identity and life focus changes.
  • Our feelings about the loss of who we were and the gain of who we are.
  • All our own feelings from when we were born and were a baby being reconnected with.
  • Our feelings about how much motherhood is valued in this society.
  • Our feelings about getting our needs met.
  • Our feelings about how we combine being a mother with being a partner, being a sexual woman, and sharing our gifts with the world.
  • Having a baby brings with it many feelings for us.

The more we get support and listen to our feelings, the more we can truly hear our baby’s feelings and needs.

The more we listen to our feelings, the more at peace in ourselves we feel, and the more deeply we are connected with our true loving, connected, empathic selves – so that giving our baby what she needs is easier.

The more we are present in ourselves, the freer our baby is to express all her feelings to us.

And the freeer she is to express all her feelings to us, the more at peace in herself she feels.

Sleep comes easily as a by-product of this.

So, this is Aware Parenting and sleep in a nutshell.

Babies have feelings.

Babies need to be heard.

If we listen to their feelings regularly (ideally every day), they release those feelings from their bodies and stay connected with their true selves, present and aware and connected.

Connected with their true selves, they feel relaxed, and they can sleep when they are tired.

So, if this paradigm (that number three I talked about right at the beginning), resonates with you in any way, and you want to find out more, (because to understand exactly what to do to listen to your baby and enjoy sleep and secure attachment requires more understanding), I recommend reading Aletha Solter’s book The Aware Baby. You can also see her website www.awareparenting.com

And if your baby is no longer a baby but a toddler or older child, it is never too late to start listening to more of her feelings.

Listening to her tears when she has an apparently big reaction about something small, being deeply present whilst she has a tantrum, inviting feelings rather than repression before bedtime, helping her connect with her feelings through attachment play and loving limits, all these can help her express and release uncomfortable feelings and help her return to her connected, cooperative and contributing self.

You might want to read the books Tears and Tantrums and Attachment Play by Aletha Solter.

And remember, it all starts with you.

Your relationship with your feelings and your needs will profoundly influence your responses to your baby’s feelings and needs.

The more you can love your feelings and needs and listen to them, the more you will be able to give your baby.

What a beautiful gift for you both!