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Sleep is not a skill

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Sleep is not a skill

newborn baby
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toddler sleeping on back with hands behind their head

How can I teach my baby to sleep?
When will my toddler learn to settle herself?
How can I help my son learn to sleep on his own?
Can I teach my baby to sleep through the night? 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.

Sleep is not a skill

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 you can teach. 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?’

When we reach weaning, or teething, or a tummy bug when nappies suddenly look quite different, we don’t panic that they have forgotten how to digest. We don’t plan 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; not as a skill, but a state that parents can support?

Our job is not to teach sleep

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. Babies can then get on and do what they naturally do.*

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. This is 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.  

Sleep skills for parents

So, instead of thinking of sleep as a skill for babies to learn, instead the skills we need to consider around sleep are our skills in calming our babies. We could ask ourselves, ‘How can I soothe my baby? What techniques can I use to minimise these adrenaline and cortisol levels?’

And for most babies and toddlers this will probably involve their parents being close to them.  It might involve holding them, rocking them, or singing to them. They may need extra bedtime stories, a massage at bathtime and the reassuring familiarity of bedtime rhythms and rituals.

In short, the most effective way to ‘teach’ your child to sleep, is to embrace techniques that help your child to feel calm, loved, connected and safe.  Biology will do the rest for you.

*N.B. What babies naturally do is not necessarily to ‘sleep through the night’, and there are good reasons for this.  For more information on what normal sleep looks like for babies and toddlers, for the science behind infant and toddler sleep, including what can affect sleep, as well as support and evidence-based ideas on how to maximise sleep in safe and helpful ways, then find a BabyCalm sleep workshop near you. ​

Alexandra Harris

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Babies, Baby sleep, Toddler sleep, Toddlers
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