Family Sleep: The Struggle is Real

Family Sleep: The Struggle is Real

There are times our physiology simply does not support our philosophy.  We see it all the time in birth and parenting.  You may have very much wanted a birth with timely pain management, only to have delivered too quickly before receiving it. Perhaps you wanted with all your heart to breastfeed your baby exclusively, only to find that no matter what steps you took or professionals you saw for help, your baby needed supplementation.  This can also happen when it comes to your hopes of happily tending to all of your baby’s needs on your own.

In over two decades of supporting birth and families, I know with certainty that parenting decisions are made from a place of love and concern.  

Parents’ hearts get full of sadness and self-doubt when they can’t tend to their babies how they want.  They often blame themselves (no matter what you tell them) and are worried they are causing irreparable damage to their child’s future (they aren’t).

The scientific literature pertaining to infant sleep points to the physiological and psychological importance of tending to Baby’s needs around the clock, and most parents feel up for that challenge.  It is normal for toddlers to wake up with needs to connect at night too.  Without even sharing this literature, parents are intuitively drawn to snuggle and love on their little ones, and usually feel out of sorts when they are not able to be with or comfort their child happily when they call out.  Those cries are meant to tug our heartstrings, and they do so with great efficacy.

But what happens if you reach a dangerous level of sleep deprivation and those cries turn into unpleasant feeling triggers for you?  To put it into perspective, we do expect new parents to be very tired.  Before developing circadian rhythms, babies up to three or four months often awaken at all hours around the clock, and this is normal. Tending to them lovingly regulates their vital signs and their emotions.  It is lovely work for most people, as challenging as it is.  Most children have a biological need to receive some night parenting well into their early childhood, though the intensity of it lessens over time when conditions that nourish development are optimal for the family.

From an evolutionary perspective, new families were, before we started to live in such social isolation, nurtured and tended to by “the tribe” without worry of financial, home, and community contributions for a while (because hello, tending to a precious new citizen is honoured and highly valued work).  But now?  Most of us are left to fend for ourselves from the get go, leaving us shattered by exhaustion.  It is not that a baby’s needs are abnormal, it is the condition within which we are expected to meet them that is highly challenging.

Today’s parents are often fuelled by anxiety about the very real concerns of hearth, home, and sustenance.  Without the need (NOT a luxury) to be tended to gently themselves in the early days, weeks, months, and even years of early parenthood fulfilled, exhaustion can potentially become a serious problem for the whole family.  Friends will often chant “sleep when the baby sleeps”.  But as a mother of four and a long time family supporter, I know this is not always possible when you’re at home alone with Baby and nervous about what will happen if you withdraw your attention for a while.  Or, there are other children to tend to as well.  Or you are back at work within a few weeks of giving birth.

In a state of chronic sleep deprivation, our physical and mental health can suffer greatly, as well as create unsafe conditions for parenting.  This is a real symptom of modern parenting. The needs of Baby wear more and more upon us and we can potentially get desperate,  thinking the advice we receive to alter Baby’s level of outward demands is the only key to the “way out”.  For some parents, this will be the truth, and honouring parent choice with empathy is essential to providing true support.

But what if we took a deeper look?  Babies are sensitive little souls.  Any wise old grannie, never mind a PhD in Child Psychology, will tell you that our stress affects our little ones.  The need to be tended to not just automatically, but nurtured intentionally by an emotionally present parent, is important to little ones for optimal development.  Demanding much?  Indeed!  They don’t call parenting the hardest job in the world for nothing.  There is nothing that brings forth all our impatience and frustration at kids’ high demands as feeling overwhelmed ourselves.  So what if, instead of seeing the baby as a problem or judging parenting approaches, as a society we could simply take more compassionate care of parents?  What if we shifted our views around wanting to alter babies as seen through a societal lens forged by physical and emotional depletion? What if we could experience greater enjoyment and peace at the privilege of shaping the architecture of a brain and the empathy of a little heart if we were physically and emotionally nourished ourselves?

This is a scenario I’ve encountered a lot: I get a call in the wee hours from a new mom or dad whose birth I’ve attended.  They sounds shaky.  In the background, I hear a baby yelling the roof down, and possibly the sound of an adult sobbing too.  “The baby won’t stop crying.  We just don’t know what to do.”  These newborn parents are calling to be parented themselves in this moment.  I get them to breathe first and foremost, to “put their oxygen mask on”, beam love and compassion at them, and then strategize from that decompressed place. Very often before I even get to feeding or soothing troubleshooting, I am informed that, “just talking to you has made us feel so much better.”  I’m not magic.  I’m just a reassuring voice in the night.  While it is normal in our modern culture to night parent as newbies alone, in no way is this normal on an evolutionary level.  Before I hang up the phone I ask the new parents if they can call upon a savvy Grandparent, Sibling, or Friend to come be with them for a couple of nights to provide opportunities for rest and reassurance.

When our physiology (exhaustion, edgy adrenals, challenged immune system, and high cortisol levels) does not support our philosophy (to tend to all our babies’ high demands with a reasonable calm and connectedness, for example), and family/friends are not available to help, it is time to shout out for what we at MotherWit Sleep Essentials call a Critical Sleep Intervention (CSI).

Instead of rushing in to try to fix what you think might be your broken kid or lacking parenting skills, a MotherWit Night Doula will make sure you get SLEEP.  We do this in ways that honour your approach.  If you will feel best having your baby brought to you when they are hungry so you can breastfeed, your doula will sit with you to reassure you and support you.  It is often in these wee hours that our deepest fears are brought to light and dissipated in the compassionate listening your doula provides.  When Parents and Baby/ies are fed and reassured, Doula takes over care, doing the diapers, wearing, soothing, whatever is needed to keep your baby happy.  Even if baby is NOT particularly happy, your doula will provide loving support in case there are tears.

If you are happy having your baby bottle fed throughout most or all of the night so you can get a full restorative night’s sleep, or if your doctor has prescribed sleep medication for exhaustion and anxiety, perfect.  Let your worry go, and all your baby’s needs will be cared for with love and attention.  When you awaken, there will be coffee and breakfast.

Sleep is medicine.

Sometimes no matter what your want to do for your baby, your immediate need for sleep trumps everything.  It is human.  A Night Doula can fill that gap between your physiology and your philosophy.  The good news is that we have seen even just one or two nights of intensive parent nurturing and good sleep shift the turbulent tides, bringing in fresh perspective and a new lease on life.  As powerful a medicine sleep is, the far reaching healing in being loved and nurtured exactly as you are cannot be underestimated.

Sleep Well, Gentle Parents.



The Gap Between a Baby’s and a Parent’s Sleep Needs

The Gap Between a Baby’s and a Parent’s Sleep Needs

As a certified infant sleep educator, the more I develop my Sleep Essentials workshops and the more I talk about this work in my community, the more apparent it is that those who work in this field need to tread with exquisite care of the Parent Soul.  Nobody is at the receiving end of unsolicited advice more than new parents, and this can erode confidence and lead to stress.  Taking an encouraging and nurturing approach rather than one wrought with opinion and judgement keeps our minds open to what support parents are really yearning for.

Babies are primal.  Nobody has told infants that the Industrial Revolution took place and radically shifted the way human beings sleep.  They didn’t get the memo that independent sleep is something that is wanted of them because of the busy daytime work schedules of their parents and the fact that we don’t live and work tribally anymore.  Babies seem to want more from us around the clock than often feels sustainable to give.  This is their primal nature.  It has been their way for longer than we can say.

Parents are modern.  Most of us are enculturated to the relatively new 9-5 work schedule the world tends to revolve around now.  We were raised that way.  And, as culture does shape us biologically, it makes sense that parents need to fit their sleep into a 7-9 hour period sometime between the punch out and punch in, not to mention get a little space to breathe after their day job duties, whether they are working outside of the home or working in the home doing business or tending to children).

Families are tired.  Oh, are they ever tired.  As a mom of four children who glued themselves desperately to my body every time I tried to extricate my arms from our embrace, I know this well.  There were times I lay in bed with a toddler clamouring for my breast for the 14th time that night, wondering if I should “Ferber-ize”, worrying about how I was going to face the day on no sleep.  I wanted to run away from this insane feeling dynamic that appeared terribly broken, and clearly all my fault for creating such a clingy, dependent little person (cuz mom guilt).

So where does the proverbial ‘twain meet?  In this wide gap between a primal baby’s and a modern parent’s needs, where does a sane solution lie to the very real problem of family exhaustion?

There are lots of people wanting to tell you.  There are many approaches, counter approaches, studies and rebuttals, experts and proselytizers wanting to shape you with their two cents.  How do we discern the correct approach for our unique families?  How do we get our needs met and be great parents too?  What is the “right” thing to do?

Let us look at different sleep approaches.  There are classic sleep training methods, which are about conditioning a baby to stop crying out for their parents when it is time to sleep.  While the intention is to fulfill a biological and psychological need for more family sleep, the approaches are rooted in Behavioural Psychology.  It makes very logical sense.  If your baby cries for you after a certain time, you know they aren’t hungry or wet, it may just be a cuddle or nipple “habit” that motivates the “calling out” behaviours.  In which case, habits can be changed.  Methods are implemented over time, generally involving some to a lot of crying from your baby in protest.  But for a good many parents,  the few nights of howling and distress (as much as they hate it), feel worth it for the sake of more sleep for everyone, more family harmony, and a sense of shaping good sleep “manners”.  Of course that sounds appealing!

The shadow side of some sleep training approaches?  They are often sold as something necessary and expected to do (or else Baby will be spoiled), mired more in cultural biases than scientific evidence, create more family stress than we anticipate, and according to some studies, have a low long term efficacy rate.  Despite possible misgivings at letting their babies cry-it-out, parents will often resort to anything that might work, and sleep training is logical.  Not a parent in the world can be blamed for wanting to try something that could work.

We have the Attachment Parenting approach, which is rooted in Developmental Psychology, and is all about heeding that natural call for connection babies have around the clock well into early childhood.  Proponents refer to the difficult biological implications of the unmet distress in a rapidly growing little brain and advocate not allowing babies to cry it out as a means of learning sleep hygiene.  When looking at the workings of a baby’s brain and their reasoning capabilities (or lack thereof), it also makes perfect sense why we would NOT want to discourage attachment and the tending to a baby’s cries rapidly in the night.

The shadow side of a fully baby-led attachment approach within a culture of social isolation?  Babies will, left to their own devices, very often nurse or want cuddles multiple times throughout the night well into toddlerhood. While it may be developmentally normal and security building, if the family is chronically sleep deprived, this is a remarkable burden upon relationships and health which can ultimately detract from that security.  “Our culture is messed up, not our babies.” may be true from a sleep evolution perspective, but it doesn’t solve the problem of meeting the family’s crucial need for more rest to function in today’s very real world.

With all the information out there, it feels damned if we do (have babies who don’t cry for us but who may be in cortisol driven “shut down” rather than “self-soothe” mode after nights of prolonged crying it out) and damned if we don’t (having babies who cry to be rocked, cuddled, and nursed multiple times at night when we have to work the next day, maybe ‘til well past the age of two, rendering everyone frustrated, exhausted, and edgy).

What the heck do we do?!  


Firstly, education and preparation while still pregnant or in the early days of parenting is one of the best ways to get ready for the reality of an infant’s sleep needs.  Dissonance occurs when our expectations don’t meet our reality.  So understanding how Baby’s brain functions at different levels of development is very helpful, as well as things you can do to create wonderful sleep associations for Baby right from birth. Advice to take whatever information you like, leave the rest, and do what feels right for your family is an approach you might want to look for when seeking your educational resources. Making informed choices feels empowering, and that’s a good feeling for new parents.

In this wide gap between the needs of primal babies and modern parents, MotherWit Sleep Essentials stands with Empathy (this is one of the three “E”s of our GoToSleeep Principles). Why?  Because it’s vulnerable there.  We know with certainty that every parenting decision made in regards to sleep is and has always been done with the utmost care and concern.  This will always be assumed.  People who sleep train their kid aren’t harsh or callous any more than people who are nursing 10 times per night aren’t pushovers raising an adult who will still be in their bed until college.  Parents fear being all those things and yet none of them are true. We know well that constant battle between the heart and mind and witness it as an expression of your tender parental love.  We have been there too.

So how can we help? By not judging you, for starters.  We take a compassionate look at the sleep needs of a family holistically, checking in on things like diet, stressors, routines, levels of self-care, emotional well being and the home layout.  With this information and “making changes” coaching, we create customized strategies that promote better rest which include cool things like shaping neural pathways with multi-sensory input.  By respecting and caring deeply about a baby’s primal needs AND the modern parent’s needs, we have learned that balance and flexibility are the keys to unlocking sleep potential.

MotherWit Sleep Essentials provides information on the science of infant sleep and support for the art of parenting.

Sleep well, Gentle Parents.