A Second Look at Sleep Training

"Now that you have made it to the Big Bed let me teach you how to keep your stay." "Okay."

“Now that you have made it to the Big Bed let me teach you how to keep your stay.”
“Okay.”

Three years ago, we were first time parents to a chubby and adorable 7 months old Kana. She was one happy always smiling baby, a bubbly chatter and a wonderful eater. She still is. But she was never a great sleeper. I recall that month was about when we decided to “sleep train” her. I wrote about it here.

Fast forward to a year after that, we were thrilled to find out that we were pregnant with our second baby, Mila. Along with the joy of a new pregnancy, the thought of having to deal again with baby’s sleep came notoriously bugging. Honestly “sleep training” is not a favorite part of parenting for us, or for any parent, I believe. And the mere thought of having to go through it again…was already painful. I remember we were so perplexed by this matter that we spent the entire pregnancy and the early months of postpartum researching about “Baby’s Sleep”, interviewing almost all the parents we met (I can’t believe my fellow mom friends were THAT patient with my asking them the same questions every single time, big thanks ladies if you are reading!). And of course, we prayed much and hard about it too.

With every book and article on baby’s sleep that we read, we were 90% convinced that sleep training was once again going to be one of the best gifts we could give our baby. “Giving your baby the gift of night time sleep” as one book puts it. But apparently God had a different opinion. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we could not do Cry-it-out with baby Mila. She made it known immediately that she was a fierce screamer, one that would scream so much to the point of voicelessness before gasping for breath, and would continue to do so until she was picked up. With such baby, you know you don’t argue.

So we were forced to do whatever worked (nursed, rocked her to sleep) and keep our peace. But I could not shovel away the worry that our rocking, nursing the baby to sleep would encourage a bad sleeping habit, or worse, inhibit her ability to “self soothe”. Nor could I reconcile what I had read and believed with the reality we were experiencing.

There must be a way, I thought to myself, an answer, an explanation to how a human baby would or should sleep, and I was determined to find that out.

All that while, I must admit, my research and reading was heavy on the “sleep training” side of camp. And I did find a lot of valuable insights there. But because I didn’t think it was ever going to be the answer at that moment, I decided to look at the opposite camp and what they had to say. As I browsed through articles after articles, I came across many things that I had never considered before. Here are some insights I wished we had found and considered when dealing with the family’s sleeping issue three years ago:

1. When it comes to human baby’s sleep, what is NORMAL?

All the while, we had believed that the normal was a solid and uninterrupted sleep through the night, that it was the ideal goal we needed to achieve soon for a healthy and thriving baby. We had also come to believe if a baby was not yet sleeping through the night by a certain week of age, the baby was running a “sleep problem” and was risking anything from future academic performance to healthy body weight.

But can it be that our belief was wrong? Many anthropologists think so.

Science argues that it is actually NORMAL, for young infants to be waking up every few hours, for a number of reasons. Firstly because young infants have tiny tummy and need to be fed frequently, secondly because their young brain are still figuring out how to get their lungs to breathe properly, it is common for young infants to have breathing pauses (they may stop breathing for a few seconds before resuming again gasping for air), it is in their best interest that they keep waking up every now and then, think of it as nature’s way of protection to ensure they do not “forget to breathe”.

In fact, waking up in the middle of the night is a NORMAL human behavior in toddlers and even adults. It’s just that adults go back to sleep almost immediately that they are not even aware of it. It is also normal for young children to keep changing their sleeping pattern, you can have a great sleeper for a week and a horrible one for the next, and before you know it things start getting better, again.

Those are the normal, they are not “sleeping problem”.

2. Can babies learn to “self-soothe”?

We were convinced they NEED to learn that, the sooner the better. And it was our role as parents to give these babies the opportunity to learn and to trust that they can do it, often by allowing them to cry until they fall sleep.

What we did not know was, young babies are neurologically unable to easily switch from “wakeful breathing” to “sleep breathing” until they are about 3-4 months old. In order for the brain to build a neural pathway to establish self-soothing ability, they need external stimulus. In other words, babies’ brain learns best how to fall asleep with the help of their caregiver (by rocking, swaying, bouncing, or nursing to sleep).

3. Does solitary sleep provide the best sleep for everyone, especially the baby?

We thought it does, because if we sleep in the same bed or room, I would be jolted awake at every sighing or grunting the baby made, and I believed she would be awaken too by my slightest body-and-bed-sheet-friction.

What was oblivious to us was the fact that human babies are wired to be NOT wanting to sleep alone. Obviously, human species would have long been wiped out had their babies slept alone in the dark without any protection from the wild predators out there. It is the most natural thing for young children to be alarmed at being left to sleep alone, something that many cultures around the world understand as co-sleeping is, and has since long been, the norm for majority of people across the globe.

Also, young babies have no concept of object permanence (meaning they do not know yet that things still exist even though they are out of sight) so they can not yet understand that their caregiver will come for them in the morning.

4. What is the absolute number of hours for sleep to qualify for “sleeping enough”?

15-20 hours for newborns, 12 hours for toddlers, 8 hours for adults? Maybe.

The truth is, nobody knows how many hours one must sleep enough. Scientists have only come to know how many hours of sleep people are getting at. And these numbers, as well as what time is the ideal bedtime, vary from culture to culture.

5. Whatever happens to those parents in “non-sleep training” cultures, because we don’t read about sleep-deprived-zombies-populated countries in the news?

When I said I was asking every parent that I met for wisdom on baby’s sleep matter, my first sources were the senior generation; my own parents, parents in law, aunts. I had always been very curious to know what had happened to everyone’s sleep during our babyhood. And of course, they were horrified when they learned about this thing called “sleep-training”.

But weren’t they sleep deprived? Well, they didn’t think they were, or at least they didn’t remember. And it puzzled them just as much why this topic about baby’s sleep is so big a deal now for us modern parents. They assumed babies would wake up frequently at night because they needed to feed frequently, so they co-slept to make the waking and feeding easier (bottle-fed babies seemed to be sleeping in longer stretch they said). They didn’t count how many hours of sleep they or their babies got or should get, and they had access to help with the house chores and child care be it from domestic helpers or extended families.

It is worth noting, however, that their generation’s average number of children per family was far higher than that of ours now. But aside from the large number of children per family, their narrative seems to be that which is still widely retained across cultures in Asia.

So that’s it.

When we understood what was normal and what in fact was NOT a problem, it put things into perspective and it alleviated many of our anxieties and guilt. Most importantly, it helped us to keep a realistic expectation. Instead of expecting to have uninterrupted 8 hour sleep through out the night, we planned for a lifestyle where everyone in the family can get the best rest possible.

Of course, modern society has evolved and the demand of modern life is no longer as friendly on families with very young children. And it is not the intention of this post to justify or to judge any sleep training method or the absence of it. But understanding and finding the sweet spot of both baby’s sleep pattern and the needs of the family will serve everyone well. For our family, with Hubby working a normal office hour and me staying at home with a 3 year old and 1 year old – the eldest is not schooling yet and we are without full-time domestic helper, we found that co-sleeping, baby wearing and nursing to sleep work best for the time being.

If we were asked to comment about whether to sleep-train or not sleep-train our baby, we’d say had we known so much three years ago, we would have given it a longer time before concluding that nursing to sleep no longer worked for the baby and that she would only be sleeping well if she could self-soothe. But it’s also true that each choice has its fair share of upsides and downsides.

When the eldest was successfully trained, she slept at 7.30 PM on her own and we had plenty of time for lots of good things: quality time with spouse, pursuing hobby, reading good books and a more structured daily devotion among many others. But it was difficult to hear her wail for one hour for days, and there were also nights when she would wake up a few times in the middle of the night and needed us to comfort her back to sleep. Early bedtime also meant we had to be home early.

She was back to our room at 17 months old, after sleeping in her own room for 9 months. We had just been back from holiday and she refused to go back to sleeping alone. When we attempted to re-train her, she jumped out of her crib (don’t ask me how, to this day I still don’t know how she did it, and yes the bar was her shoulder high). We have been co-sleeping again since.

Now that we have 2 kiddos in the big bed, we usually black out too once the girls are asleep. This means less time for us to communicate as a couple. We do make effort to keep ourselves awake and spend time together after the kids are asleep on weekends, but the free night time we used to have was a gone luxury. Nevertheless, we are spared the pain of having to make the baby cry to sleep. And with everyone getting their rest, I guess we are happy with what we’ve got now.

All said and done, the decision to sleep train or not sleep train a baby is a decision we should make with this goal in mind: best rest for EVERYONE in the family. And we will be better able to decide when we are well informed.

For further reading on natural infant sleep and co-sleeping, you may want to check out:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201302/normal-human-infant-sleep-feeding-method-and-development

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-levine-cosleeping-bedsharing-global-20160916-snap-story.html

(excerpt from the book “Parenting Without Borders” on sleep matter, by Christine Gross-Loh)