Do you hop into bed, close your eyes and fall asleep easily? Or does your busy brain take a while to switch off, as you think about all the things you need to do tomorrow?
Do you need a certain environment or triggers to help you fall asleep – a darkened room? A warm drink? Do you read or listen to music or a meditation? Do you snuggle up to your partner?
Now, imagine being all snuggled up enjoying a cuddle and relaxing in your partner’s arms. Then, just as you are dozing off, he or she bumps you awake and says, “get over to your own side of the bed, we need to self –settle or we will create bad habits?”
We all have sleep associations, we don’t bat an eyelid about our own quirks or needs around what helps us sleep. Yet, with even a very young baby, there is pressure to ‘teach your baby to self-settle’ – to fall asleep without any help from you.
‘Self-settling’ has become the holy grail of sleep training. One of the main reasons, apart from the sheer convenience of having a baby who falls asleep without help, is that once your baby can ‘self-settle’, they will put themselves back to sleep without disturbing you if they wake during the night.
This is rubbish – apart from the fact that you are growing a little person, not simply managing an inconvenience – many babies who happily fall asleep after being put into bed wide awake will call for help or reassurance if they wake during the night. They don’t have the brain structures to physiologically ‘self soothe’ yet, and they won’t develop these for several years.
There are many reasons for babies waking, from hunger or discomfort to separation anxiety and, just as your baby needs food to grow, they also needs the stimulation of your touch to help the development of their nervous system, their brain, their digestive system and for emotional reassurance. These are all legitimate reasons for your baby to signal that they need you, day or night.
Why does ‘self-settling’ matter (actually it doesn’t).
Another reason given for placing your baby into bed wide awake is that if they fall asleep in your arms then wakes and you aren’t there, they will be frightened. While this sounds logical, in my experience, most babies simply wake and call out. If you are normally responsive (and you don’t have to be perfect) your baby will trust you to come so they won’t be frightened, at least not for longer than it takes you to come and soothe them (we can all wake from a scary dream with a startle). And what if you do let babies cry themselves to sleep in the first place, are they any less frightened?
A study by Wendy Middlemiss at the University of North Texas, showed that babies who were left to cry while undergoing sleep training (falling asleep without comfort from parents), released high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And, even when these babies fell asleep without protesting (after three days of crying to sleep), their cortisol levels remained elevated. This means that although sleep training had achieved a ‘self-settling’ baby, the infants were still distressed.