If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
As a psychologist and sleep researcher I knew a lot about mothers and babies, about crying, feeding and sleeping problems, and about attachment. However, I was not prepared for the real-life experience when our son was born. We learned some things rather accidentally. For example, we wanted to bathe him every one to two nights so he could get more comfortable with bathing. Afterward it appeared just natural to make him ready for the night. This was how we developed an early and regular bedtime ritual between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. Another example is how he learned to fall asleep on his own. We had this one evening where I would sit with him as usual watching him fall asleep. This must have been very early, maybe at 2 months. In this evening, he did not fall asleep, but was watching and babbling in a calm and cute way. For no reason, I decided to go to the kitchen instead of watching him any further. Together with my partner, I sat listening over the baby phone until he went asleep without any further interaction from us. This was how we all learned that he is able to self-soothe. After this night, we let him fall asleep alone after his normal bedtime routine using his own competent self-soothing strategies.
Other things we learned the hard way.
Due to our rough birth experience and a longer hospital stay after the delivery, we were forced to stick to strict breastfeeding and sleeping routines that were based neither on our son’s needs nor on my own. We then enjoyed a huge sense of freedom after coming home, resulting in a lot of co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand, which felt very comfortable at the time. However, after about 6 months we had developed a very challenging night-waking habit. Although I breastfed him, he would not fall asleep again. Also, he would wake up every one or two hours, leaving us all exhausted. Additionally, we were troubled by the unpredictability of his daytime naps. I could just not figure out when he would nap. So planning any appointments became a disaster.
In the midst of this distress, I happened to remember the copy of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child on my bookshelf. Although I had read some chapters before, I was surprised to find new answers to our sleep problems and a very sensitive nudge in the right direction. So the first thing we established was a good and solid midmorning nap by adding a little more energy to our morning routine and putting him down no later than ninety minutes after his first waking up. For example, we would go for a walk enjoying fresh air, nature, and close body contact through a baby sling, and then we would have breakfast, breastfeeding, and a fresh diaper before starting the nap routine. This did include some singing and rocking ritual and a cozy crib in a dark, cool bedroom without me. So step-by-step we developed a healthy nap routine.
With regard to night waking, we identified the crude feeding times through a ‘daddy night.’ Fortunately, both Daddy and our son were well experienced with bottle-feeding since the first weeks in hospital, and we always had a small supply of breast milk in the freezer. So we were able to determine two actual feeding wake-ups at midnight and 4:00 a.m. To our surprise, all the other awakenings were just for social interaction and caregiver-driven soothing! After this discovery, we went for extinction for no-feed signaling to emphasize sleep times as compared with wake times. I remember this time as very intense and hard, but also very short.
Nevertheless, it took a while to feel comfortable and secure again, especially when talking to other parents. I got the impression that ‘attachment parenting’ was a very popular opinion in Germany at the time. To my disappointment, it was often and fiercely misinterpreted as (A) the one true parenting strategy and (B) the opposite of encouraging self-soothing. This was not only in contrast with my own beliefs for I had a securely attached child despite our imperfect but good enough parenting. Furthermore, these interpretations were contradictory to the current state of research that promotes variability between infant-cued and limit-setting parenting behaviors. So I felt really bothered by unrealistic parenting goals, like ‘Never let your child cry, never let your child sleep alone, never give him a bottle or pacifier’. I fear that these opinions might put parents at risk for self-sacrifice and resulting mental problems, while children could be put at risk for regulation problems and later childhood disorders. I would prefer parenting advice—in personal contact, book, and through social media—that is evidence-based, flexible, and balanced, so that every parent could choose their own path without feeling guilty or intimidated.
In the end, our typically well-rested, calm, and attentive baby was a good reward for all the distress, and furthermore a good reassurance that he was perfectly fine. Of course, we would experience difficulties along the way (when we started going to daycare, holidays, sickness, et cetera). In these situations, we consulted the book again or got advice from Professor Weissbluth, directly. In most situations, a super-early bedtime around 5:00 p.m. [Reset, Blog Post 26] helped to compensate for a slight sleep deficit to reestablish our son’s healthy sleep routine.
When we had our second son, three years later, it was a huge relief how easy we could establish good and healthy sleep routines right from the beginning. Since we were very sensitive to signals of sleepiness, we were able to adjust our sleep routines to his needs. In the end, we needed no extinction because he never developed a night-waking habit or any other sleeping problems. He would, of course, get sometimes sleep-deprived as all babies would (because of the erratic nature of life itself), but we feel more confident and calmer in dealing with it, now.
Our most important insights can be summed up in four sentences: