Children and sleep. It’s always a topic that gets people going, with opinions and advice being bandied around to ‘fix’ whatever sleep problem parents are experiencing. Let’s face it, we’ve all been asked ‘Is he good?’ about our tiny newborn – which basically means ‘Does he sleep?’ And obviously, babies who don’t sleep are ‘bad’ - and this labelling continues through to toddlers who don’t sleep either.
Tonight’s Panorama (Sleepless Britain) was no exception.
Before I go any further, I would like to say that this post is in no way referring to those children who have a recognised, clinical sleep disorder. What I am talking about is children who sleep like normal children, who are being let down by out-of-touch advice and techniques. I’m also going to focus on the younger children featured in the programme, as that’s the age range we cover.
Let’s address some of the points made by the programme one-by-one:
1. The sleep clinic
To start with, the visit to the sleep clinic that showed several babies and toddlers in attendance. Normal babies and toddlers do not have sleep issues. They sleep the way that children are designed to sleep – to wake often for milk and to check they are safe. Yet research has shown that almost 50% of parents of 7 month olds think that their baby has a sleep problem. Almost 50%. Do these babies have a sleep problem? No.
So what is the problem? Parents that have no idea what is normal in terms of baby and toddler sleep, that have a constant barrage of rubbish thrown at them by (some) family / friends / peers / health professionals / child ‘experts’ / tv programmes. And what are these people basing their advice on? Certainly not the wealth of recent research that is coming out of dedicated child sleep labs. And why is this? Because it doesn’t sell. It doesn’t make money. Parents want quick fixes. Your child isn’t sleeping? I can fix that! Give me 3 days and your ‘problem' will be ‘fixed’ (worth noting though, that in actual fact the problem isn’t fixed and often comes back months down the line, and needs to be ‘fixed’ again).
2. Controlled crying
Unsurprisingly, this (along with gradual retreat) was the solution offered. Yes, controlled crying ‘works’. But how does it work? Contrary to what the ‘experts’ would have you believe, little Jonny is not going happily to sleep once he doesn’t cry (which typically happens after three nights of crying - two nights on this evening’s Panorama). A study that measured the stress hormone cortisol found that while the babies were crying, the level of cortisol was high (and it has been suggested at a high enough level to be toxic to the developing brain). When the babies stopped crying, the level of cortisol was measured again. The levels of cortisol were as high as when the babies were crying. They had just stopped vocalising their distress.
If we recall the NSPCC advert from years ago that moved many parents to tears, that showed a baby that stopped crying because they knew no–one was going to come. Yet doing the same to ‘teach’ a child to sleep is perfectly acceptable.
3. Manipulative toddlers
Apparently these children ‘want their own way’. A statement like this shows a complete lack of knowledge about the immaturity of children’s brains – specifically, the lack of development in the neocortex that allows for rational, logical (and manipulative) thinking.
To be able to attempt to get their own way, that child would have needed to be able to undergo a complicated thought process whereby she thought about cause and effect and analyse the likely effect that a number of actions would potentially have on her parents. Toddlers are simply not capable of this level of rational, logical thinking. Put simply, they are not capable of manipulation.
4. Sleep is something you have to teach
Apparently you have to teach your child to go to sleep. Again, this is nonsense. Just as you don’t need to teach your child to sit, crawl, walk, climb, talk (the list can go on and on), you don’t need to teach your child to sleep. All children, left to their own devices, in the right conditions, will go to sleep. And they will learn to go to sleep on their own without support from mum or dad. But we just expect them to do that at a far younger age than they’re capable of.
5. It's ok to leave your child to cry because they cry at other times
They compared leaving a child to cry to another situation where they cried but it’s necessary. Like VACCINATIONS. I don’t even know where to start with this one. In fact, I was utterly horrified by it. There are plenty of situations where children cry – but in the vast majority of those situations, parents COMFORT their children. Imagine if I took my 3 year old for her preschool boosters, and when she cried because it hurt (which she did), I plonked her on the floor, walked out, and said ‘This is for your own good. I’m not comforting you.’
What are we teaching our children when we happily comfort them in other situations when they cry, but we treat sleep (at nighttime, when they feel alone and threatened anyway, a time when they need us most) as a situation where leaving our children to cry is totally fine?
6. Evidence that leaving children to cry doesn’t harm them
From my understanding, the lady was comparing controlled crying and crying it out, and stated that research had shown no difference in outcomes between the two (which isn’t really surprising, seeing as they’re pretty similar).
But there has also been research (and it is an ongoing field of research) that has suggested that leaving children to cry can be damaging. Should we not be doing all we can to try to avoid potentially damaging situations / actions, especially when there is such focus on adult mental health at the moment? How can an adult be mentally healthy if their mental health is potentially damaged during early childhood – at a time when their brains are going through a massive leap in development and laying down pathways to do with emotional regulation and stress management? It’s also worth remembering that although we have no categorical research that says it is harmful - no evidence of harm is very different to evidence of no harm.
7. The mum struggled with it
Why are we taught to ignore our instincts? We are biologically designed to comfort our children when they cry. It is a physical bodily response that we have no control over. It makes me incredibly sad and angry to see a parent upset because her child is crying, but she feels that she should ignore that biological impulse because she needs to ‘teach’ her child.
8. The dad said he was given advice about diet and food, but none about sleep
And this is the root of the problem. As I said before, we are so far removed from the world of babies and toddlers, that we have no idea what their normal sleep looks like, and we place adult expectations on them. Expectations that they cannot meet, because they are children, not adults.
9. Tablets and TV
Yes, tablets and all-hours kids’ TV probably aren’t helping, but I also feel that it is an easy demon to point the finger at. Parents are tired. They work all day. They need a babysitter so they can get stuff done – and that’s ok. Instead it’s used as another stick to beat parents with, another thing to make them feel guilty about. I used to stay up till all hours reading books when I was younger (my mum has numerous photos of me asleep in bed with a book on my face) – and you didn’t see anyone demanding that my books be taken away.
When bedtimes are stressful, we (parents and children) approach bedtimes stressed. Is it any wonder that children resist falling asleep when they are experiencing such distress? Night times are already scary – and I say that as a 36 year old woman who hates sleeping alone at night. We are biologically designed to fear the dark – it’s a survival strategy that is a hangover from our cave-dweller, hunter gatherer origins. If I don’t like sleeping alone, and my overactive imagination conjures up all sorts of things when I lie in the dark and hear a strange noise – why should I expect any different from my children, who don’t have my (supposedly) rational adult brain?
And this is something else I considered while watching this. Are we seeing older children with sleep problems because of what their experience of sleep was like when they were younger? Is sleep for them a threatening area? Is it something to be scared of? And is this because of the kind of sleep environment they were exposed to when younger?
There are other options
So why aren’t other workable alternatives besides taking the tablets away and leaving their child to cry being offered to parents? The young toddler being left to cry because she was exhibiting totally normal toddler behaviour actually reduced me to tears. For the child, but also because parents go to places looking for help and this is the same old crap that keeps being pushed on them. Leave them to cry. Don’t let them manipulate you. And it’s utter rubbish. This is decades-old advice that is now being shown by modern research to be detrimental to children’s emotional development. And programmes like this just fuel these attitudes.
If I am advocating not ‘punishing’ children to get them to sleep, and not ‘fixing’ the problem, what am I suggesting? To be gentler. To go back to how, as a species, we are designed to sleep. With children in family beds – or if that’s something the family aren’t comfortable with – a family bedroom. Making bedtime a positive time, without threats and punishments. Making bedrooms a positive space to be in, not a negative space. Having a strong bedtime rhythm also works well for young children – but it’s important to remember that it is just a pattern of things that signify bedtime. Not a time-based, strict routine that doesn’t allow for any variation or account for any individual differences that may need to be adjusted for that day (a later get up, a longer than usual nap).
If we look at how other (non Western) cultures sleep, we see family beds and family bedrooms. We see babies and toddlers fed to sleep, rocked to sleep, carried to sleep. We see parents that stay with their children until they fall asleep. But in our society, many people have it in their heads that these are ‘bad habits’ that will ‘create a rod for our own backs.’ Who wants a 16 year old that still sleeps in our beds? Who wants to still be feeding / rocking / carrying a 12 year old to sleep? Not us! So we ‘break’ those habits. But instead of making our lives easier, we make them harder. These cultures don’t do these things because they want to make their lives harder (or because they want a teenager in their bed). They do them because they know that these are brilliant ways to get children to sleep. Put simply, they work. And guess what – they don’t have teenagers in their beds. And they aren’t still rocking / feeding their tweens to sleep either. Their children transition out of needing these things at their own pace and do so perfectly happily.
Dealing with lack of sleep
Panorama stated that lack of sleep was the biggest problem for parents. I totally agree. It’s what most people contact me for help with. And before anyone cries ‘But you don’t know what it’s like!’ Believe me, I do. My children were (are) not ‘good’ sleepers. So how do I manage? How do I get enough sleep?
My children (who turn 6 and 4 this week) have always slept with us. I was a reluctant bed sharer with my first – he wouldn’t sleep anywhere else, and I was petrified because ‘it was dangerous’ (I now know better, and know that – done correctly and following safety guidelines – it is as safe, if not safer, than having your baby in a cot). So petrified that I kept it a deep, dark secret and spent many hours trying to get him to sleep in his cot.
I fed and rocked him to sleep, then transitioned to lying with him while he fell asleep. As he got older, he would start the night in his bed then come through to our bed when he woke. And the latter has been the pattern since then. Last week, without any intervention from us, he stayed in his bed all night. And has done so for the past week. My 4 year old starts in her bed and comes in with us when she wakes. I could spend my time taking her back to her bed and trying to get her to stay in it, by bribing her or punishing her – but the result would be that we would all get less sleep. And I do not deal well with little sleep.
And that’s a huge part of our solution – I have to manage my sleep as well as my children’s. If I stay up late watching TV, and then they wake up in the night (as they always do), and I’m more tired the next day – that’s not their fault for waking, but mine for not managing my own bedtime better. If I’m really tired, I have been known to go to bed with my kids.
Having my children sleep in my bed doesn’t mean I’m a pushover, but it does mean we all get more sleep.
I recognise that my family bed approach isn’t for everyone. Not everyone has a big bed or wants their octopus child next to them at 3am. And I’m not suggesting this as a blanket solution for everyone. But what I am suggesting is that we need to start making positive, gentle, respectful suggestions to parents to find solutions that work for them but don’t cause distress to their children.
The answer is not to ‘fix’ our children’s sleep, but rather to educate parents about normal child sleep, lower parental expectations to a suitable level, and inform them about alternatives for managing their family sleep.
The Infant Sleep Info Source (ISIS) is part of Durham University, and offers evidence-based, realistic information about biologically normal baby and toddler sleep:
Prof. James McKenna is one of the foremost sleep researchers, and runs a mother-infant sleep lab at the University of Notre Dame:
Mother-Baby behavioural sleep laboratory
Both BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm run sleep workshops which aim to educate parents on what is normal and help families find gentle, respectful solutions that will help them to manage their sleep situations:
Sarah Holmes, Consultant at BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm Jersey, and Director of Marcomms at CalmFamily CIC.