What Really Works to Help Babies and Toddlers Sleep

When you are sleep deprived it seems like every book and supportive friend claim to have all the answers on how to help babies sleep through the night.  While their intentions are good and sometimes you find a great fit, this anecdotal and opinion-based information can be very confusing.  It can also create a lot of unnecessary doubt, guilt, and fear.  New parents already have enough of these big feelings.  I was one of these parents. I had a lot of friends who followed strict parenting ideologies and shared ideas about how babies and children should sleep.  While this information didn’t fit what I know about early childhood and attachment, I still heard their voices in my head when I was trying to make choices about how I wanted to parent my own daughter around sleep.

With a history in infant mental health and early childhood development, I wanted to learn more facts about pediatric sleep.  I also wanted to learn how to help lighten the guilt and fear that so many parents face when it comes to parenting their children around the delicate issue of sleep.  So, I began studying with Dr. Angelique Millette.  In graduate school, I focused my studies on nonverbal communication between infant and parent and how these early experiences affect attachment and development of self.  I worked as a clinician for many years but found that in my spare time, I read about development and attachment rather than pathology.  When I met Dr. Angelique Millette, I found a way to combine my interests and have a career that lights me up.  Being a sleep consultant combines my passions for infant mental health, attachment, and postpartum mental health.  I am happy to share what current research is saying about parenting children around sleep and hope that it helps you establish healthy sleep habits for your family.


Parental Cognitions and Self-awareness

We are a generation of parenting styles and mommy wars.  We are constantly inundated with ideas about how we should be parenting.  Dr. Meggan Hartman, who focuses her research on maternal identity, found that the presence of parenting ideologies is creating delays in maternal identity and increasing maternal shame. One of the things I see most in my practice is parental self-doubt.  And, one of the secrets to helping children develop healthy sleep is having positive thoughts about how we are parenting.  Dr. Douglas Teti found that this is especially true when it comes to how we are parenting our children around sleep. When we believe our children will feel abandoned or that they are just being stubborn, kids picks up on this.  They also pick up on our self-doubt. They are great scientists and are always collecting data, especially when it comes to our nonverbal communication/behavior.  Having self-awareness of our own needs versus our children’s needs also plays a huge role in their sleep success and the development of secure attachment. We can ask ourselves, “Does my child need my help right now, OR do I need to fix whatever I believe he is feeling?  Does this fit for my family, or am I second-guessing myself?”


Emotional Availability

Emotional availability means that we are able to attune to what our child needs.  This means we are also aware of what we need and the difference between the two.  We are able to accept our needs with compassion and non-judgement and be able to know when we are projecting them onto our children and when our children really need extra support.  EA means we are able to regulate our own feelings and able to help our children regulate their experiences.  It also means knowing when to give children space.  It is so easy to fall victim to over helping our children.  When our child first reaches for a toy, we want to hand it to him.  We get very excited, and so does he!  While it is perfectly good and natural to facilitate learning, we want to pause and observe if our action is helpful or intrusive.  We want to give our children the time and space to feel a sense of self-mastery and confidence in their abilities.  It can be a messy dance and a lot of observation of self and baby to decipher our needs versus theirs. Tuning in to our child’s nonverbal communication will tell us what it is they need.  This is what helps create positive sleep associations and healthy sleep patterns. What is important to note here is that when parents are sleep deprived, research is showing us that being emotionally available is more challenging.  Introducing a sleep strategy can improve parents’ functioning and increase their emotional availability, thus helping their children sleep.


Boundary Setting and Consistency

Setting boundaries can feel rigid.  However, we want our children to be able to trust what we say.  When we set boundaries but do not follow through, it can be very confusing for children.  Again, children are constantly collecting data about our responses and behavior.  The truth about developmentally appropriate boundaries from a kid’s perspective is that they feel safe. For children to trust the process, the process and our responses need to be predictable. One of the things I see happen most often in my work, is intermittent reinforcement.  Simply stated, this means that we parents struggle with sticking to the plan, most often because of our own discomfort with our children’s experiences/feelings or our self-doubt.  Hearing our child struggle to learn something new can bring up a lot of insecurities.  There is so much pressure with our generation to be the perfect parent, and it is easy to second-guess ourselves.  When we start to second-guess ourselves, our children can sense that.  Setting appropriate boundaries and confidently sticking to them is another thing that leads to healthy sleep habits.  Children develop a positive association to safe boundaries and know that their parent has their back.  They can relax and sleep!


Confidence and Finding the Right Fit

Parenting children around sleep has best results when the method sits well with your parenting philosophy, your child’s development, and your child’s temperament.   It also has to be realistic for your family.  If you choose a method that does not feel good to your mama soul, your child is going to pick up on this and say, “Hey, mama is not that into this; I am not sure I should be.” We also want to make certain that it feels like the right time for your family to make changes.  Ideally, life is a snooze fest when we are making sleep changes.  For instance, we don’t want to shift sleep if a child is adjusting to a new school, or you are going to Disney World in 2 weeks. Developmental needs directly impact how parenting your child around sleep is going to look.  Some developmental milestones can even lead to sleep regressions, which are actually quite normal.


Bedtime Routine

When you are looking to make sleep changes, start with a consistent and cozy (you want this to be a snooze fest too) routine. When daily routines feel familiar, children feel safe enough to relax into sleep.  Dr. Douglas Teti has looked at this specific topic a lot in his research and found that consistent/predictable bedtimes with emotional availability from parents are key to helping children fall asleep.

In summary, consistency and experiences that help children feel relaxed/safe/confident are keys to healthy sleep habits.  Thank you for taking the time to read today.  I am happy to answer questions.

You can reach me directly at candy.beers@gmail.com or visit my website at https://candybeers-kim.com/.  Happy sleeping!

Candy Beers-Kim Candy Beers-Kim, M.S., R-DMT has always had an interest in early childhood and infant mental health, specifically interpersonal neurobiology and attachment.  Candy offers In-Home consults in Richmond, Roanoke, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville, VA. She offers Skype consults to anywhere with internet. Candy is available for lectures and classes both via internet and in person. She is a member of the Virginia Association for Infant Mental Health, Virginia Postpartum Support and is a Lactation Educator.