Helping Your Baby Sleep with Love and Compassion

Mother watching sleeping baby

Is your baby not sleeping through the night? That’s normal. It’s less common that a baby does sleep for long periods without waking, but norms don’t tell you what your baby needs. Babies’ needs differ.

A compassionate approach to parenting seeks to understand and meet needs—your baby’s needs, certainly, but also your own needs. Part of the challenge is separating your real needs from those cultural assumptions you have acquired from the people around you.

If you are experiencing enough disruption in nighttime sleeping patterns that you want to know how to help your baby sleep, I hope this helps. I have been there, and I remember how it felt.

Helping Baby Sleep

In cultures where there is less anxiety around the idea of how and where babies sleep, it would make no sense at all to give advice on helping baby sleep. Having read about babies’ sleep in other cultures (see Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting without Borders below), I’m convinced that this is only a topic among North American parents because of a cultural anxiety that was introduced by an adult need to control children.

Nevertheless, you start where you are. If you already have sleep issues to deal with, you may need tips to help your baby sleep.

Start with your baby’s needs. Hunger, warmth, calm. Hunger and warmth are easy enough needs to meet most of the time. Calm can be more elusive. Create a calming routine with calming associations. All of the senses can contribute: sound (sing a lullaby), smell (most likely the smell of you), sight (darkness will probably help), touch (soft pajamas, soft blanket, sheepie), and maybe taste (breastfeeding while falling asleep).

For a great list of practical suggestions based on decades of experience with parents, see Ask Dr Sears, “31 Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep.”

Also consider your own needs. You may be tired. You may need to trade off with another adult just for a while. Don’t take your frustrations out on your baby, though. Don’t make sleep an issue for your baby just because it is an issue for you.

If you don’t have your baby yet, start by letting go of assumptions that could cause problems. Read Parenting without Borders, so you will have a point of reference when doctors, your parents, and other well-meaning experts offer you advice on sleep and other aspects of parenting.

Co-sleeping or Family Bed

Again, in the context of family sleeping habits around the world and through history, it is strange to have to justify family members sleeping next to one another. It makes more sense to me to ask why some believe babies should be separated to sleep alone, since that is uncommon anywhere else in the world. The usual answer is that it will make them more independent, but research doesn’t show this result from separate sleep.

If we sleep better with our babies and if our babies sleep better with us, we should be sleeping next to one another. It makes waking in the night much easier and shorter. Everyone wakes in the night. How we handle that now can shape how our children handle that in their future.

You do need to remove risk factors, such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, water beds, sofas, and heavy bedding over the baby.

If you or your spouse have any of the risk factors, or if you don’t sleep better with your baby, don’t. A bassinet next to your bed can still give you the convenience of closeness that a separate nursery does not.

Will They Remember?

Human epigenetic memory of being stressed as a child can be passed on and will be encoded in the genes of the stressed person. The new field of behavioral epigenetics studies how and to what extent this happens. I have yet to see a study on the specific epigenetic effects of babyhood stress on an adult, but I don’t doubt it will come.

The simplest point to remember is: a stressful experience as a baby will have a effect. What effect? The science is out, but don’t believe those who tell you that a baby won’t remember being left to cry, so it doesn’t matter. The stress your baby feels now matters now and it can matter long into the future as epigentic memory can be passed on to future children and grandchildren.

When you meet your child’s needs with love and compassion, they learn to meet their own needs without the stress of worrying about the absense of your comforting presence.

Ask the Experts about Sleeping Babies

Christine Gross-Loh, “Sleep Time: Keep Our Babies Close or Give Them Space?” in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents around the World Can Teach Us (2013).

“Where should your baby sleep? Wherever he sleeps best.”

Ask Dr Sears, the website of the Sears family of pediatricians, gives quick answers to common sleep issues.

“Sleeping with Hayden opened our hearts and minds to the fact that there are many nighttime parenting styles, and parents need to be sensible and use whatever arrangement gets all family members the best night’s sleep.”

Image ©  | Dreamstime.com 

3 thoughts on “Helping Your Baby Sleep with Love and Compassion

  1. I agree that whatever works best for you and your baby when it comes to sleeping comfortably. If sleeping together, without risk factors of course. I don’t think I agree that babies will remember things or be effected by them in the future unless the situation is abusive and continuous. I don;t remember anything from being a baby

    • Carol, epigenetic memory isn’t necessarily a conscious memory. It’s more like cell memory. It’s also an emerging area of science, so I expect it will take a while before we understand it very well. The Discover article I linked above is from May 2013. My daughter studies genetics, so I’ve been hearing about it for the past year, but I really started to grasp what they were talking about when I heard Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma and An Eater’s Manifesto) on Science Friday a couple of weeks ago for a piece called “Can Plants Think?” which sounds crazy (and IS a little edgy), but it the science accumulates to show that plants maintain a pain memory and response despite people saying “no brain, no pain.” So, this made me think of how I hear people say that babies don’t feel pain. If a plant with no brain remembers pain, how would a baby NOT remember pain (epigenetic memory, not conscious memory)? Anyway, I think it’s an interesting area to explore.

      Michael Pollan’s interview was based on his recent article in the New Yorker, “The Intelligent Plant.”

  2. Pingback: Co-sleeping Basics | ecobabysteps

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