And I have realised there is a common theme to these questions. They are all based on the assumption that a child needs to learn to sleep properly. As if sleep were a skill, like riding a bicycle, or skipping, that can be taught.
But there is a problem with this assumption. And the problem is not about sleep being challenging to learn, or about the many contradictory ways that a parent can teach their child to sleep.
The problem is that sleep is not a skill. It is not something that can be taught.
Sleep is a biological function. It is something all human beings are pre-programed to do. As well as all animals. Just like, say, digestion.
It is a biological necessity for every human being to sleep, just like it is a biological necessity for every human being to digest their food. And as parents, we don’t think to ask ‘How can I teach my baby to digest?’
We reach weaning, or teething, or a tummy bug when nappies suddenly look quite different, and we don’t panic that they have forgotten how to digest and we will have to go through the process of teaching them all over again.
Instead we hold them, we hug them, we rock them, we massage them. We soothe them and reassure them in whatever way we know.
What if we approached sleep in the same way?
It is no more our job to teach our babies to sleep, than it is to teach them to digest. Our job is to merely to help remove or reduce the things that tend to disrupt sleep so that our babies can get on and do what they are programmed to do. *
And the things that tend to disrupt digestion are very similar to the things that tend to disrupt sleep. Stress, illness, teething, worry, fear, emotional upset, pain. In other words, anything that causes levels of adrenaline or cortisol to rise.
Because adrenaline and cortisol are major inhibitors of melatonin – the sleepiness hormone. In adults, just as in children, they stop us being able to fall asleep, or to stay asleep.
So instead of asking ourselves ‘How can I teach my baby to sleep?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘How can I soothe my baby? What behaviour can I do that will minimise these adrenaline and cortisol levels?’
And for most babies and toddlers this will probably involve having their parents close to them. It might involve being held, being rocked or being sung to. It might involve extra bedtime stories, or a massage at bathtime. It might involve the reassuring familiarity of bedtime rhythms and rituals.
In short, the most effective way to ‘teach’ your child to sleep, is do to anything that helps your child to feel loved, connected and safe. Biology will do the rest for you.