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How to Ask Smarter Questions than "Does s/he sleep at night?"

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Sooner or later, comes that moment for every parent when his own wellbeing and the baby’s wellbeing seem to clash. It looks like we can only choose between two vicious cycles:

- Vicious Cycle Number 1: I respond to my baby’s needs, accepting the suffering from being sleep deprived, with negative effects on the whole family

- Vicious Cycle Number 2: I ignore my baby’s signals and I deny her the comfort she needs, compromising her trust in me, with negative effects on the whole family

When we face these two options, looking for experts comes naturally. Experts who can show us the right path and save us from that ‘dark forest’ that our parenting experience is becoming. And we find them. So many. There are countless experts ready to show us The Right Path and teach us how to put to sleep our baby in a proper, easy and quick way. Every expert suggests his interpretation of the only Right Path, therefore we found ourselves to choose not only between two vicious cycles, but among a million of ‘parenting parties’. And we start asking ourselves questions like “Am I in favour or against the Estivill method?”, “Do I do attachment parenting?”, “Am I a tiger mum?”, “Am I an helicopter-dad?”

The only way to escape this maze made of useless and damaging questions is simple: let’s forget once and for all about the existence of a Right Path in parenting, a method which works for everyone and solves every family’s issue quickly and easily. Let’s instead focus our efforts in discovering step by step Our Path, unique, hard and extraordinary.

In order to do this, we need to arm ourselves with knowledge (no shortcuts: real facts. Science) and courage (no second-hand wisdom: learning by making mistakes. Experience)

Sleep: some science

There are two aspects of brain functioning and brain development which can help us choosing in an informed and conscious way how do we want to deal with sleep: 1) What do babies remember? 2) How do we learn to sleep?

In this post we try to sum up the most important aspects of both fields.

Babies’ memory

We don’t remember our first three years of life, but we don’t even forget about them (we have already talked about infantile amnesia). Since birth, experiences repeated daily become habits and start to form the base of our expectations. If every time a child cries and someone responds to his requests, recognise the need and actively tries to solve the problem, the child will start to find this process normal and to expect that something similar to these events may happen every time he expresses discomfort.

In other words, repeated interaction (the way we are usually together) shape not only our relationship, but also the little person which is already developing inside our baby. These early habits are the beginning of a sort of “user manual” for life, which the baby is going to use forever.

We can imagine the chapters:

  1. What to do when you are scared

  2. What to do when you are tired

  3. What expect from people

  4. How to express love

  5. How to get what you want

… and so on, with every strategy we use daily to navigate our life.

We almost never realise it, but we have been using that life user manual (updated every night) since we were born. So, if you have been asking yourself why you can’t ask for help before it’s too late or trust who loves you, the answer is probably in there (the scientific name of the user manual is procedural memory).

To summarise, even though we don’t remember our first three years of life, repeated interactions will strengthen becoming implicit habits and expectations. A child won’t be conscious about it, but he will be influenced during his whole life.

Learning to sleep

We tend to think that sleeping all night is an essential stage in child development. It’s the first thing that every stranger asks about our newborn and every child who hasn’t reached that stage yet is considered spoiled. A problem. But maybe we should reconsider things.

A baby reaches the stages of natural development when she learns actions for which her brain is programmed. Smiling, rolling, crawling, walking are examples of abilities that a child will develop eventually. Parents, at the most, can support and encourage the natural unfolding of events.

Sleeping all night is not part of these actions for which we are naturally programmed. The ability to sleep all night is linked to our culture, just like reading, writing and driving a car. Only in recent years we have been adopting the habit to sleep all night long (often in separated rooms) and work all day. This doesn’t mean it’s something negative. On the contrary, learning to sleep all night is very helpful to the baby and to his family. But it’s something to learn in time and with efforts. It’s unlikely that this can happen by itself.

Even adults wake up at the end of every sleep cycle, which lasts around 90 minutes. The child doesn’t need to learn to sleep all night, but to go back to sleep at the end of every cycle. The way a child can learn how to do this depends on the circumstances.

If the baby usually sleeps in a cave, next to a fire and her tribe around, these are going to be the circumstances that will let her go back to sleep peacefully. (If the fire is off, it will be necessary for her to stay awake and use strategies to survive). If the baby sleeps by herself in her room, in pitch dark, in a crib next to a soft toy, these will become the signals to go back to sleep peacefully. (If the door is open instead, and she can hear shouting, it will be appropriate to stay awake and give the warning screaming).

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s important to remember that the baby’s priority (unfortunately for us) is not sleeping but surviving: the baby will do everything possible to get the quantity of nutrition and contact he needs to feel safe and protected. He needs to know that he is safe before learning other useful skills (like sleeping all night in order to be more active during the day… and to have happier and more patient parents!). As an older child needs to be able to sit at a table before learning to write, a baby needs to feel safe way before learning to sleep all night.

Unfortunately for us, from the baby’s point of view, being alone in a dark room doesn’t help providing that nutrition and sense of security needed to let himself go. So the transition between the first phase, where parents respond to every single movement of their baby to ensure his safety, and the second phase where the baby slowly and gradually acquires autonomy, is less smooth than what we would like to think.

To summarise, sleeping all night is a skill that has to be acquired with effort and patience. In our culture, most of us have to learn to sleep in in circumstances not ideal to support a gradual learning of night autonomy. So let’s help our children learning this difficult thing, by getting informed, observing and supporting them step by step.

We won’t avoid interrupted nights, but we will avoid the frustration and the feeling of doing something wrong if our baby needs attention during the night.

After all, we are parents during the night just like during the day. And who knows, maybe all this positive energy in the air will let the baby fall asleep sooner.

Outro line to be added.