Surrendering to biologically normal toddler sleep

“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists. … Surrender is the simple, but profound, wisdom of yielding to, rather than, opposing the flow of life.” ~ Eckhart Tolle, author

jane kilmerNo other concept has helped me more as a mother than the concept of surrender — surrendering to the pregnancy process, to the birth process with all its twists and turns, to meeting my daughter where she is at each developmental stage and, overall, just surrendering daily to all the big and small changes that parenthood brings!

So when an article about giving a small child 1 “pass” to leave their room at night was making the rounds around the parenting cyber-world a few weeks ago, it got me thinking of how much it helped me to not pick sleep as a battle and to instead, surrender to my daughter’s needs and rhythm.

It should be said that I am not a fan of behaviorism! I don’t think trying to get my child to change a behavior without first trying to figure out why they are behaving in that way is effective or caring. I felt immediately frustrated after reading the article: It stated that crying and coming out of the bedroom were reduced to 0% rates after imposing the 1-pass rule. But I want to know, at what cost? If my child is following the 1-pass rule, they would still have the same needs — they would merely be trained not to communicate them to me, similar to sleep-training methods for babies. My toddler still might be anxious, she still might need the closeness of an adult body and, for heaven’s sake, what if she already used the pass and then actually had to pee! This 1-pass rule teaches children to ignore their emotional and physical needs.

I’d rather be asking myself:

  • Why is my toddler coming to me for water, snuggles or to help fight off the monsters?
  • What is the underlying need that makes it so hard for her to stay in bed?
  • Why do babies and toddlers wake up so much?
  • Why do so many of my friends’ children have these same “sleep problems?”
  • And wait, why are we calling them “sleep problems” at all when the vast majority of babies don’t “sleep through the night” and the vast majority of toddlers struggle to go and stay asleep on their own?

Artwork by Katie M Berggren, www.KmBerggren.comWhat if what our child wants is actually what they need? And how would things change if we learned that this behavior is biologically normal? Because according to many psychologists, anthropologists and researchers, it is. Would we be more open to surrender to their normal biological needs and rhythms and give our kids what they’re asking for?

I don’t want to oversimplify the difficulty of adapting to wake-ups and tending to our children at night — it’s a huge change, and lack of sleep affects our bodies, minds and emotions so much. And I don’t want to call out desperate parents just trying to cope. If a family feels that this is what is needed for their family as a whole to survive, then do what you need to do. I just feel wary of the growing culture of “sleep experts” and pediatricians encouraging us to train our babies and toddlers to not call out for us at night as the default strategy for handling nighttime parenting.

This is what makes me the most sad — that behaviorism techniques are becoming the standard method, so much so that parents think that they are being manipulated or being too soft if they do normal and natural things like respond to their children, sleep with them or use so-called “crutches” like rocking, bouncing or breastfeeding. On a parenting forum I’m a part of, a new mother recently asked if it was bad to nurse her baby to sleep! This is how much this training culture has permeated our culture. Breastmilk has sleep-inducing hormones in it — it is made to put our children to sleep!

Surrendering, of course, will look different from family to family, but the knowledge of what is healthy and normal sleep for our children could hopefully give parents more confidence to follow their natural nurturing instincts. Then there wouldn’t be this overall pressure to control, fix or make our children conform to an adult standard. We could get creative about how to meet their nighttime needs, instead of placing the majority of the burden on them to meet our unrealistic expectations. Maybe if we accepted this behavior as normal instead of viewing it as problem, we could relax into their natural rhythm and flow and let go of the sleep battle altogether.

*Artwork by Katie M Berggren, (permission given)

Author: Jane Kilmer

Jane Kilmer, MSW, is a stay-at-home mama to her 1-year-old daughter, Adeline. You can follow their adventures in slow living and slow parenting in the city of San Francisco at Slow Living in the City.

25 thoughts on “Surrendering to biologically normal toddler sleep”

  1. Thank you for this. I disagree with most behavioral techniques. I find that many moms in my small circle disagree with these techniques but as a whole are less vocal about our beliefs.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Sleep training sells a lot of books and soothes the fear parents have of being manipulated by children. It seems obvious that making sleep less stressful and safe teaches kids to welcome sleep. Meet the child’s need and the need goes away! I think it is funny that adults acknowledge their own need to sleep with their partner, but then deny the same need of the most emotionally immature family members for nighttime closeness.

  3. Hi Jane, Thanks for writing about this perspective and sharing it with the world. When a child (or an adult, for that matter) is feeling disconnected from their caregivers, their emotional response to the isolation is intense. So intense, in fact, that adults have no way of grasping the child’s experience, even though we have all been that child. Anyone who’d like to see video footage of the child’s reaction (in an experiment that’s probably been repeated over million times) is invited to visit and to click on the video at the top of the page. I’ve taken Dr. Ed Tronick’s Still Face Experiment and broken it down with explanations of what is happening to the child at each stage of losing connection with their caregiver.
    Thanks again for your insights, Jane

  4. Jane– I appreciated the sentiment of your post and I love the idea of surrender. As a behaviorist, I like to clarify misconceptions about the science. You mentioned that you are not a fan of behaviorism because you don’t want to change behavior without first understanding why it is occurring. Knowing why and how a behavior is occurring is a central tenet of behaviorism. Just applying a behavioral method like the 1-pass rule is misguided and not true behaviorism. Behaviorists analyze why behavior is occurring and make decisions from there. A method like the 1-Pass rule applied willy nilly is, in fact, unethical. Just wanted to clarify that what you were describing is not true behaviorism.

    1. Hi Ashley, Thank you for the clarification. I’m glad to hear that trying to change a behavior without looking at why the behavior is happening (like the 1-pass rule) would be considered unethical by true behaviorists. My main point, however, is that I’m not interested in changing the behavior (of wake-ups or of my child’s desire to sleep next to me) at all. I’m just looking to meet her needs.

  5. Thank you for writing this, it is is exactly how I feel too. I have an 11 month old who by the books doesn’t sleep well but he has medical conditions affecting him and causing him pain so I will always respond! It’s hard to find like-minded people as I would say 90% of other new mothers feel that sleep training is necessary.

  6. I am a behavior analyst. I want to say that a good behavior analyst DOES look at the reason(s) behind WHY a child isn’t sleeping through the night. They analyze the family needs and needs of the child to come up with an individualized plan for the child and family. They should also take into account the age of the child and where they are at developmentally. I have seen many families healed by using behavioral sleep techniques. A child who is more confident in their abilities to soothe. Parents more well rested and better able to attend to the day-time (and some night) needs of the family. There are some things that biologically speaking, humans don’t need or do at night. This isn’t making babies adults, it is healthy humans – both baby and adult. E.g., pooping doesn’t typically occur during sleeping hours for babies nor adults. If it does, examining the reasons behind why it does and making some changes isn’t a bad idea. All humans wake several times during sleep. When they quickly orient to a place paired with sleeping, they go back to sleep. If they get up several times, examining why and making some environmental changes, isn’t a bad idea. Behavior techniques are complicated because they are individualized and based in science.

    1. Hi Vicky, It’s good to remember that there are nuances to behavior techniques, and I’m glad to hear that many behavior analysts DO look at why a behavior is happening (unlike the 1-pass rule). My main point is, though, that I’m not interested in changing natural behavior (of wake-ups or of my child desiring to sleep with me) at all. I’m just looking to meet her needs.

    2. Yes!!! Thank you. Individualized doesn’t mean one or the other, it means extremely specific / unique to every situation! 🙂

  7. If you were more educated about sleep methods and evidence based practices based on attachment theory and child development you would understand that “sleep training” is much more than having a kid learn to not vocalize their needs so parents can sleep at all costs. I agree, taking things away, threatening, locking doors, etc should never happen. However, there are so many gentler, developmentally appropriate, attachment based approaches and this article is very biased about pushing an opinion not offering and research based information for parents. I think it’s not very responsible to make parents feel like they’re choosing the “wrong” option if they don’t just ‘deal with’ their kids sleep issues., whether it’s explicitly stated or not that’s the message. Believe me, it’s not a simple decision to make and lack of sleep is SIGNIFICALLY understated . The effects are enormous on health, mental wellness, mood, bonding with kids, anger responses, stress tolerance, relationship nurturing, and so on and so on.

    1. Jaclyn, it is wonderful that you want to help parents strengthen their attachment. The perspective shared in this article is this mother’s experience, yes, but that toddlers have nighttime emotional needs is research-based. How each parent approaches nighttime parenting certainly varies. Attachment Parenting International promotes nighttime parenting as being available to sensitively respond to their children. This varies for each parent-child relationship, and there are so many ways to approach it. Its as important to API to support families who choose to cosleep as those who do not. For more on our perspective of nighttime parenting:

    2. And I am so glad to have this said because it is absolutely true and funny enough it actually supports everything she said. 🙂 there are TOTALLY gentle sleep aide approaches and they can certainly be done creatively and appropriately if and when parents are truly given the tools. Most of us start out with very litte to NONE of the tools we really need.

  8. Thank you!!! Exactly! My thought has been: If I tend to my child during day light hours, why should that change when the sun goes down? My daughter still needs me, regardless of the time. Thank you for reassuring me that others out there have a similar belief system. My daughter is 27 months, and we “still” breastfeed to sleep. And it works for us. Thank you.

  9. Lovely piece. I completely agree. This is how we respond to our little one too. Often people say things such as, “Oh I’d do such-and-such next time so he/she isn’t so dependent on me/boob/rocking to get to sleep.” I wouldn’t. Does my child wake more than what is supposedly “normal”? Yes. But I believe that this is healthy and normal for him, as a baby who knows his needs will be met when he calls to me. Perhaps babies who sleep close to them mums and are hiveb the breast to resettle do wake slightly more than those who sleep alone, but I refuse to see sleep as a milestone, or see a child who requires parental reassurance to calmly and quickly resettle as having a “sleep issue”. This is simply what I believe to be biologically normal. Sleeping through the night is not proof of a happy, healthy, confident baby/toddler/child.

  10. Thank you for this article. As I go through this with my 2 year old, I feel always concern why I never sleep train her or had a schedule, as the rest of my friends do. So I was always thinking That my good mother skills are not there.
    She sleeps in a big girl bed now, I run instantly when I hear her cry or call mommy in the middle of the night, it is just what I think I should do and I enjoy doing it because I feel she needs me and I love being there for her!
    It’s conforting knowing that some other families go through the same and do the same why not at the end of the day every kid is different and every family should follow what is best for them! Call it happiness!!! Thank you!

  11. I absolutely love all the night time snuggles. Feels biologically normal to me. Sadly I don’t think a lot of Mom’s have or give themselves the time to truly feel & be biologically connected to their littles.

  12. Thank you for this! I woke up in the middle of the night to nurse my oldest until he was 2.5. Now that he is almost 4 we still rock him to sleep every night and he often comes into our bed at night. Our youngest who is almost a year old wakes up about 6 times a night to nurse. Rocking both kids takes time and many people (mostly family) think we need to be more strick and tell him to stay in bed and not get the baby so much.

    We are doing what feels right to us.

  13. Totally agree with this article! Sleep is a non issue in our family – we’ve bed- shared with both our boys since they were born (4 and 1 years old) and meet whatever needs they have during the night. Which surprisingly isn’t many as they’re constantly aware we’re always there

  14. I love the article and feel the same way! I cherish the times at night with my children because there will come a day when they don’t call out for me and don’t need me anymore. The day I chose to become a mom is the day I gave up sleep at night. I also think it’s strange that people will let their children cry themselves to sleep but so many parents won’t listen to them cry during tummy time or during other activities that they need to grow physically or developmentally. Like you said…do what helps you in your home but before doing it, think of how it effects your child.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.