Perhaps nothing causes more disruption in family life than poor sleep. And there appear to be more opinions about children and sleep than just about any other subject. So here’s my experience on the subject of sleep.
Parents (especially first-time parents) often underestimate the importance of getting good sleep. If you hope to be a useful and functional parent during the day, you need good sleep.
Many first-time parents are overly connected to their babies. I call it “hovering”. Babies actually need some space, but many parents are literally on top of their babies 24/7. In that circumstance it isn’t surprising that babies are unhappy when you try to separate for sleep.
Many parents believe that if a baby cries at night, he is insecure and you must rush in to reassure him and fortify his security. But after a while the opposite may occur and your baby may develop excessive and perhaps unhealthy emotional dependency on your presence at night. I believe babies need to learn to be comfortable by themselves at night. This is an important skill. Part of that learning curve is how to self-soothe and go back to sleep without a visit from Mom or Dad.
So, how do you accomplish it? You need to able to let your baby cry and go back to sleep without a visit from you. That isn’t always easy, and you won’t be able to do it unless you are convinced that he will be OK. How long you let him cry depends upon your tolerance for the crying and how strong the crying is. I can’t generalize on this point. Each baby is a little different. But by a few months of age most babies are capable of sleeping most of the night with one or two feedings at most. Many are sleeping 10-12 hours long before six months of age. Some books recommend a gradual approach, with increasing intervals between visits. I favor a more direct approach, kind of like pulling off a bandaid. After your baby cries for a while, he will settle down and think to himself something like this: “Well, my parents don’t seem to be coming in now, I’m pretty tired, I’m in my room and everything looks OK, I guess I’ll go back to sleep”.
One obvious corollary---if you want your baby to sleep, he needs to be in his own room away from you.
Once you have effectively sleep-trained your baby, he should be able to sleep anywhere. If he is tired and needs a nap, put him down and tell him you’ll see him later. Adios muchacho.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t spend a minute talking about the subject of co-sleeping. Although the term co-sleeping probably refers to the concept of parents and their infants sleeping in close proximity, for this discussion I am talking about “cobedding”, which is the main way people seem to talk about this idea. In co-bedding then, the parent and/or parents sleep in the same bed with their young infant. This subject has been in the news quite a bit lately as a number of studies have shown an increased death rate among babies who sleep in the same bed as their parents. My intent is to warn you that many experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics are strongly discouraging this type of co-sleeping because of the risk of death, primarily through suffocation. An article in the San Jose Mercury News dated July 5, 2010 reviewed the cases of 27 deaths in Santa Clara County in the past five years which a panel concluded that 15 of these deaths were directly caused by parents rolling onto their infants. You parents have to ultimately decide how you want to handle issues like this.
In a broader philosophical discussion, those of you familiar with my parenting style are aware of how important I feel boundaries are in family life. It is my opinion that the blurring of boundaries accounts for much of the bad behavior and poor development in children. For example, I believe it is very important for infants to learn how to self-soothe and go back to sleep by themselves. This is a very important life skill. I believe it is equally important that children sleep in their own rooms and allow their parents to sleep together as a couple at night. This boundary defines the primary role of the marriage unit in family structure, with the parents functioning together as a team to raise children. So I am not a fan of the family bed. This is not a rigid idea. Sometimes when a child is sick or scared they may need a Mom or Dad to lie down with them to comfort them. But in general I believe children will develop the strongest emotional skills and independence by sleeping in their own room, with or without a sibling nearby. This is a frequent theme in my daily work here at my office; parents need to work as a couple and team to raise children--this may be the single most important role model you create while you raise your children.