Baby Lead Sleep

As written by and seen on Dr. Briar, who just so happens to my wonderful, smart, thoughtful, warm, wise, compassionate mama.

BABY LEAD SLEEP...and the importance of secure attachment.

I get it. You are exhausted. You haven’t slept a full night in months since the baby was born. Welcome to parenting.

Your baby spent ten months in your belly. Unlike cows, dogs, or most other mammals our babies are not ready to get up and walk away and fend for themselves within hours of birth. In fact, Ashley Montagu, a social anthropologist, suggested that it’s interesting that humans aren’t marsupials, like kangaroos. Kangaroo babies also need their mothers after birth and would die if they weren’t able to make it up to mamma’s pouch. Our babies need us in a similar way, and if they aren’t held, kept close, and loved, as well as fed and tended to physically in every way, they to would not survive.

Consider that after ten months in utero, it takes at least a year for our babies to gain some independence, and even then it’s pretty wobbly. Even at twenty-one they can be kind of wobbly and still need us. I know we can feel crazy with exhaustion when baby is up every other hour for nights on end. But the new trend in “sleep training” as a remedy for parental fatigue is more for the benefit of sleepy parents than it is about attending to baby’s developmental needs. Babies, when given consistent routines and lots of love, will eventually develop healthy sleep habits.

I have found that in over thirty years of helping families and raising my own babies, that our babies have a lot to teach us if we can listen. Babies who have had the opportunity to sleep with parents in their earliest development often establish very secure attachments to their parents, setting foundational tone for the quality of their broader relationships for the rest of their lives. By the time they are in fourth grade and invited to sleepover parties these children tend to be eager, happy, and confident. Even earlier, when it is time to start school, these kids often have less separation anxiety. They have learned that they can trust their instincts and rhythms. They feel confident that if they should need help it is there for the asking and they presume compassion and warmth.

Putting babies in cribs and letting them “cry it out” under the guise of sleep training is a terrifying thing for infants, leaving them to feel dismissed and that they are being punished for not being ready to separate. How can a human being learn to be separate if they don’t start out with an experience first of being securely attached. We are finding out that babies who are crib-bound or left alone too early or too much eventually stop crying because they become resigned, depressed, and despondent— not because they are learning that sleep or separateness is good.

I’m not saying that babies should never be in cribs or separate from parents. But we have to carefully attend to what our children are asking for and need. Some babies are more comfortable and adaptive to separateness than other babies. What I am saying is we have to listen to them and let them lead the way. You will not ruin your child by having too much closeness with a baby who is asking for it. You will not have a child who is eternally sleepless because you didn’t sleep train them at six months.

My granddaughter is ten months old. My daughter and daughter-in-law briefly toyed with the idea of sleep training, but when they really observed their daughter they saw, heard, and felt her need for closeness with them. Some babies will sleep through the night sooner and others later, but they will all learn eventually. The question is how will they learn? Will they learn to soothe themselves because you have shown them how, by being soothing? Will they associate sleep with the love of mommy’s smell, touch, heartbeat and loving expression? Will this first learning experience set them up positively for voicing their interests, needs, and curiosity later in life, putting them on track for being lifelong lovers of learning?

I hope you can put up with the first year or two or maybe even three of your baby’s possibly extreme neediness. It really is a flaw in our design that we aren’t marsupials and don’t have pouches where we could keep our babies close until they were ready to hop away on their own. But since we don’t, we need to use our ability to be imaginative and think it all the way through. We need to consider how very much our babies need us and then listen to them and be mindful of their cues. It’s got to be quite a shock to come into awarenesses in-utero and have everything handled for us: feeding, hydration, waste, oxygen; and then suddenly be pushed into an external world where we immediately have to take over all those functions instinctively outside.

We need to give our babies a lot of credit for their capacity to begin life as “outside” babies. To ease the shock of the transition a great deal of bodily contact with us is profoundly helpful. By keeping them close to us we are encouraging them to find their rhythms for feeding, playing, quiet time, and sleeping. We are the adults, and it's up to us to be resilient, strong, and loving if we want our children to evolve into secure loving well adjusted human beings. Let’s let them lead for this little while as babies. Soon enough they will have to do much of what everyone else asks and expects of them.

For this beginning time, when you are exhausted and bleary eyed, look at your beautiful baby and allow yourself to experience the miracle that they are. They are here and in your life as infants for such a fleeting moment, and they really want and need you right now. File this time away in your memory, so when they are teenagers and want you out of their rooms, out of their lives, except to please drive them to the mall NOW…you can refer back to this time and remember that you did have the closeness and bonding when they were little. Because you had good bonding during their infancy and toddler years YOU will be able to bear their need later to really separate and launch as adults.Then they really will need you to give them space and room in their “cribs.” And remember, they will come back, especially when they have been graciously and lovingly afforded the bonding they needed in the earliest months and years.