I know my baby needs sleep but how can I support the tears?
When you have a sleep association between nursing, rocking, bouncing and sleeping or anything else in fact, it starts to interfere with your baby’s natural ability to self soothe which ultimately interferes with sleep! You must first teach the skills for happy sleep and apply the positive connections. Balance the schedule, improve the environment and practice emotional wellness during the day, before moving towards eliminating the associations you don't want at night! By helping your baby find another way to sleep, trading one association for another and shifting their comfort zone slowly, you can promote healthy sleep without assistance and support any tears!!
If you're ready to jump start by trying to letting baby fall asleep in your arms without any movement, make sure you've put in the foundations for at least a week up front. Be prepared to support the tears, she will likely cry, pleading with you to just start rocking or bouncing her and do whatever it takes to get her to sleep the old way. The crying will make you think, “This isn’t working. She won’t stop crying. I’m clearly not helping her.” Be patient, you are helping her!! You are teaching her that crying is an acceptable way to express emotion and that you are supporting her and loving her. You are helping her with emotional wellness and loving her through the tough times. Your success as a parent is not related to your baby’s cries, you are not failing by teaching her important life skills. You do not need to rescue her and fix the emotion every time. You are setting limits and showing her a new way of falling asleep.
Letting her fall asleep in her own crib, while sitting next to her helping or giving her space is the next step. It's not as hard on her as it is when you choose to leave her all alone to figure it out for herself. Babies who are stressed with parental support show lower cortisol levels then babies who are stressed without any parental support. Your baby’s crying doesn't mean that your presence in the room is meaningless! By being there with your baby to provide love, comfort and support through the tears and emotions, and giving them brief periods of time to work through it, always supporting and encouraging efforts, shows them you will not abandon them when they feel sad and upset, that you will support them no matter what and that you accept them just the way they are! Crying or no crying, the message is the same, you will be there!
Sending an early message to your child that you will not reject them for feeling sad or angry but rather you will listen to them, embrace them and help them through it, builds stronger emotional connections and relationships. You must be careful not to reinforce the crying or the behavior you are trying to eliminate in very young babies. Supporting emotion and showing empathy is not the same as providing the behavior you are trying to extinguish. Confidence and encouragement is also important! Remember, you are simply setting limits and safe boundaries for your baby, not disregarding their feelings or expressions. Recognize the different cries and listen closely, let your child know you are there by reflecting back and speaking out loud, tell your baby what you see. Acknowledge their frustration and protest while recognizing you must still help them sleep. Mirror the emotion you want to see in your baby instead, calm, confident and capable. Provide a safe space for them to feel secure and use the nursery space as the crib boundaries. Loving unconditionally is imperative to optimal development and emotional stability. Setting boundaries is very different from rejection or abandonment. Be aware of the message you send.
Many pediatricians and sleep experts advise that extinction – letting babies cry-it-out without any reassurance – is the fastest way to getting baby to sleep and results in less crying. I have not found this to be the case. Sleep work is never fun and takes a lot of patience and commitment, but combining sleep work with emotional connectedness builds the relationship during the process. When you can apply positive foundations and build from the bottom up, your baby has less stress and knows what to expect before elimiating behavior. I think we need to stop measuring our success by minutes of crying and take a close look at the babies side of the story. Your baby won't like this no matter what and will display an emotional reaction, how you chose to support the emotion is a personal choice. A more gradual approach may take longer and require more patience, but for your baby, this may help them to feel understood while accepting a new way to sleep. I believe supporting emotion may be the best option for the long run when we consider all other factors. A crying baby may be protesting, struggling to fall asleep in a new way, or frustrated by the change, but she not necessarily in distress or despair without the added factor of removing the caregiver. Without your presence another layer of stress is added to the equation. If you have a baby who will tolerate CIO quickly and settle within minutes I agree with using this method. Some babies tolerate CIO well and do not reach the level of hysterics or despair that others do. For these babies, this may be the best approach but for others CIO can exacerbate crying, increase anxiety and escalate sleep problems causing everyone tremendous stress and disconnection for weeks afterwards.
If your baby is one who escalates to this level of crying, even with support and encouragement, be prepared for a longer journey and be willing to meet your child where they are at! Pause and pace at every step, practicing each time. Some parents feel like this approach is worse by dangling a carrot in front of the baby and saying no. I can understand this view point of view, but have not found this to be the case. In life your child will see candy and have to accept they cannot have it, you are teaching them to accept limits. Babies who get exactly what they want after hysterically crying learn to express “wants” in the future the same way and will cry more often and escalate quickly for faster results. Balancing the emotional support while setting a limit and reading your baby's cues is complicated stuff! Identify the “wants” from the “needs," the emotion from the panic and providing love and support along the way. Building connections through daily practice will help you along the way.
Parenting requires deep thought and self reflection. Nothing will trigger emotion in you like the role of being a parent. Many people are reminded of their own childhood experiences and need to do a lot of soul searching during this difficult time. Hit the “pause” button when you can and ask yourself what you feel and why? Try to avoid going to that emotion place yourself and separate your emotion from your baby’s emotion. “You can cry and it won’t upset me, I am your rock and will anchor you when you are ready to calm down.” This is your mantra for helping your child. “For now I will hold a space for you and wait patiently while you work through your own feelings.” When we let our babies know that we hear them and acknowledge their emotions, they’ll probably keep telling us over and over again how they feel and hope we will respond differently, be prepared for the test and know your baby may test you for a while longer! Just like when you are venting or upset about something and very passionate or emotional, you may need to talk and talk to get it off your chest. Your baby needs that too, emotion isn't bad it’s just hard to feel helpless with your own baby. Let them feel, help them accept emotion as a normal part of being human and teach them that sometimes life is hard and you will help them through it!!
Every baby is different, and temperament must be considered when responding, but I truly believe that most babies benefit from a gradual approach with more parental support and positive associations. If your baby doesn’t know what to do before you take away their safe sleep tools, they feel lost and alone. Give them the tools first and set them up for success. Make sure they are happy in the crib outside of bedtime and okay with you leaving them during the daytime. Sleep deprivation causes everyone to feel emotional and stressed, the challenge is to get through the next few weeks with the least amount of stress possible while finding some extra strength and patience to let your baby learn and accept the new way of managing sleep.
Minimizing stress is the goal while nurturing on a deeper level. Your baby’s response is not within your control and crying is their way of showing you that they recognize the change and don't like it. Stay the course and support your baby while slowing down the process when you feel they are getting overwhelmed. Listen to your baby, respond and respect their needs and be aware of the messages you send and the consistency you provide. Confusion slows down the process and there will always be curve balls along the way. Expect a few challenging nights and have your thoughts and emotions in the right place before you begin!!