A parent’s responsibility: The mindset shift that’s key to successful sleep training
“I’ve tried everything and I can’t get him to go to sleep….”
“I couldn’t make him sleep, no matter what I did…Nothing works!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard one of the above phrases…
They’re variations on the same theme – and they all reflect, either consciously or subconsciously, a fundamental belief that so many parents have that it is somehow their responsibility to get their child to go to sleep.
However, I’m here to tell you that this isn’t actually your job.
This may seem like an odd thing for a sleep consultant to be saying; surely it’s our job to show you how to get your child to sleep?
Not exactly… Our job is to help you to support your child to learn to fall asleep on their own.
For a start, let me say that I’m not talking here about newborns; in those very early days it is absolutely our role to get our newborns to sleep and we do this by almost any means necessary. Instead, what I’m talking about here is those children who are the other side of six months old or who, in some cases, are well into toddler-hood and who still struggle to fall asleep on their own.
For many, this shift should be a relief. Think for a moment about the flipside of your feelings of responsibility; the stress and anxiety, the frustration and feelings of failure. Of course you want your children to sleep well – for their own wellbeing and development, as well as the sanity and functioning of your family. However, it simply isn’t our role or responsibility to make them.
Still not convinced?
Think about mealtimes… When you serve up dinner in the evenings, your job (so to speak) is done. You’ve provided healthy and nutritious food choices, as part of their balanced diet – it’s up to them what they choose to eat from what’s on their plate.
So, what exactly are your responsibilities around sleep?
I believe that, as a parent, your job description contains the following, as related to sleep:
- Provide a safe sleep environment – with appropriate bedding and no hazards.
- Ensure the environment your child is in encourages sleep – that it’s sufficiently dark and quiet and that it’s not too hot or too cold.
- Help to prepare them for sleep – ensuring that they have a well-sustained, full tummy, that they are dressed appropriately (and won’t be too hot or cold), and support them to wind down.
Sleep is a skill and needs to be learnt
Although sleep is, in many respects, a biological need, those transitions of going from awake to drowsy and then to sleep are a skill, and something that needs to be learnt. Our children need to master this before they can hope to fall asleep independently.
It can help to think about it this way, because how do we learn a new skill? With time, practice and repetition (so…. much…. repetition!) Think about your child learning another skill – say, mastering the ability to walk or ride a bike. We wouldn’t be frustrated with our child for taking “too long” to pick that up; we’d be patient with them trying it over and over until they get it.
And what else do we do?
What’s our role as our child works on and, eventually, masters this new skill?
Our focus is on being there for them – gradually withdrawing our involvement and allowing them to do more of it for themselves along the way. We don’t step in to do the thing – or expect to learn the skill – for them. This wouldn’t work for walking or riding a bike and the same goes for sleep.
Analogies aside, how do you support your child to fall asleep?
As with when they are learning any new skill, children need our support and guidance. If they’re upset as they’re learning to go to sleep, you support them – emotionally, as well as physically. This might involve picking them up, cuddling them, staying in the room, patting them or even feeding them. The key thing however is that you are doing these things, and providing this support, not to make them go to sleep, but to calm them down so that they can go to sleep themselves. This may seem like a subtle difference, but the mindset shift is significant.
The other key thing is consistency. We see so many parents who are simply doing too much. Pick one technique and be prepared to keep doing it (and doing it, and doing it… Remember how I mentioned about repetition earlier?) So often we shift between techniques because what we were trying doesn’t seem to be working – we give our child a cuddle and they don’t calm down, so we walk them around the room. But that doesn’t do it either, so we stand there bouncing. And then we start in with the shushing or other vocal soothing.
None of these approaches are inherently ‘wrong’, but we often move too quickly between them. If you’re still carrying the responsibility for sending your child to the land of slumber, all these techniques can be relatively fraught. What we need to do is be prepared to do one thing over and over (and over and over!) while our child learns to send themselves to sleep. Try one for a decent length of time and then tweak your approach if needed.
There are obviously more factors and conditions that you can set the stage with to best support your child to learn the skill of sleep. And as so many of you will have experienced, if your child is simply not tired, or is not responsive to it, most of the other techniques you try will be futile.
However, I truly believe that this shift in mindset will set you free. I’ve seen time and again that it’s the single most significant factor in whether a family achieves success in their sleep training endeavours or not.
Rest easy… All the best for a superb sleep this summer!
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