My dad always used to say “dead man don’t need no sleep” and we would all laugh. We would laugh because we did not yet understand the depth of those words. Parenting is not a literal death but it is definitely dying to oneself in a whole new way and in hardly any other way is this more evident or more felt than in the sleep arena.
Sleep is a very hotly debated topic among parents and understandably so since of all the things in life after baby sleep is in short supply and emotions and exhaustion are running high. There is a line of thought that babies need to be trained to sleep that they are born with messed up sleep patterns that must be set straight by their parents so that they learn “healthy” sleeping habits. To sleep-deprived parental minds and bodies, nothing makes more sense than that. I mean how can it possibly be that waking every few hours is healthy? How can it be that someone can’t wait to eat until later? How can it be that day is a better time to sleep than night? And doesn’t it make sense that a baby must learn what is healthy and right? How else do they know to sleep when it is dark? Plus every other internal signal doesn’t seem to line up with ours and it has to some time, right?
Following this line of thought leads right to many well-meaning parents letting their infants “cry it out” under the instruction of well-meaning doctors and so-called baby experts as well as hundreds of articles and books telling a parent that if they do not “teach” their children to have “healthy” sleep patterns then their children never will, and it will because the parent(s) did not stick with the short term emotional consequences of crying it out. What many people do not understand is that attachment with an infant begins with not only his or her physical needs being met but their emotional needs also being fulfilled. When an infant cries, it is because it is the only way they have to communicate their needs and wants. Many times for an infant, needs and wants are one and the same, like the need/desire to be close to a parent. Infants have absolutely no concept of time, meaning that when that infant has “only been crying for 5 minutes and if it goes longer than that then I will go comfort him/her” it means nothing to them. They do not feel the difference of being left for 5 minutes or being left altogether, as the feeling is the same; they feel abandoned and afraid that their needs will not be met.
Baby trainers often state that it is important for an infant learn to pacify itself, but an infant, like stated before, has no way of understanding that they are supposed to comfort themselves. They have no tools to do that. Leaving an infant to himself will in fact do just that; it will teach him to take his emotions and, instead of expressing them, it will teach the infant to internalize all that anger need and fear. The infant will come to an understanding that their wants/needs will not be met and that they must fend for themselves. When this happens in an infant, many people believe that the sleep battle has been won and that the parent has been victorious. What they do not understand is that they may have won the battle but they have lost the war for trust.
I firmly believe that someday as a parent I will want my teenage son to talk to me about serious things in his life. I will want him to feel confident that I am there to listen even if all he needs to do is cry. I will want him to explain to me what is going on in his life and I want to be the kind of parent who responds with empathy. I also believe that trusts starts in an infant. My son’s trust started from the first several nights after his birth when he cried all night long. Not once did his father or I put him down. We walked, we soothed, I nursed him, and then we did it all over again. My son woke of 5+ times a night until he was almost a year old. Don’t get me wrong, I felt like a zombie, I wanted sleep so bad some days I thought I was going to throw up. But here I sit. My son is almost 2, he has been asleep since a quarter to 8. He may join me later tonight in my bed or he may sleep through the night, it depends on what his needs are tonight. It is possible to survive those infant days, and really in the long run, they don’t last long.
Jasmine is a co-housing, home birthing, missions minded, community living mama with a passion for fierce writing. She blogs.
Photo used from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peasap/2561252071/