There is a new “gentle” framing of infant and toddler sleep “problems” that seems to be going around.  I am happy to announce that it seems to be against crying-it-out and other forms of extinction sleep methods and claims to be looking holistically at the child to get at the root of the sleep problems.  It sounds very much like what I do with families.  However, it also doesn’t and the way it differs has me worried for the families taking part.

The main problem I have with this new approach can be summarized by one of the taglines that is mentioned in it:

“If all your child’s needs are met, sleep will come.”

In a sense it’s nice because it means they aren’t looking at sleep as the actual problem (yeah!), they seem to focus on needs being met (yeah!), but my goodness, does it ever ignore a very strong reality about sleep: Sometimes it doesn’t come (oops!).

Imagine if you are a parent trying to get your baby to sleep and yet she keeps waking at night, not getting this uninterrupted time that you keep hearing will come if only you just met her needs.  So you keep trying harder and harder, doing the things these people tell you that you need to do, as if attachment is built by following rules and once those rules are met, your baby will sleep.  Yet she continues to wake.  At that point, what parent doesn’t suddenly doubt themselves and feel like they are failing their children?

Yet so many kids wake and this is 100% normal.  Heck, up the age of 3 years, waking at night is a normal phenomenon (and likely later, but we have documented normal up to age 3).  You may have the most amazing relationship and your kid will still wake.  There are tons of reasons that can range from something outside your control (e.g., sensory issues) to environmental (e.g., living in a noisier area) to developmental (e.g., she ain’t ready yet).  I’m not suggesting there aren’t times when needs aren’t met and that needs to be addressed, but that’s very different from saying that if all needs are met, sleep will come.

The other danger with this comment is that it creates problems where none may exist.  If you view a child not sleeping as needs not being met, then you will always be looking for what isn’t met and when we look hard enough, we’ll find something and treat it as something even when it’s nothing.  One of the most common concerns that comes up when we talk about attachment and needs is the idea of permissiveness.  If your child isn’t sleeping, one response parents can hear is that they’ve been too permissive in letting their child dictate the terms at night.  This fear of permissive parenting is one that families really struggle with and hits at the core of our struggle to balance attachment, love, responsiveness, and boundary-setting.

If our lens is looking for permissiveness, it’s easy to see how all these things like nursing or cuddling to sleep, bedsharing, and so on are forms of permissiveness and children are really running the show.  But what if our lens is that of biology?  Then the idea of waking and nursing back to sleep is simply called “normal”.  As is waking and nursing again.  As is breastsleeping.  As is a child getting upset if we try to wean them when they are not ready.  This gets us back to the evolutionary mismatch theory (see here) and how we actually may be creating more problems by looking at our children’s behaviour through a cultural and not biological lens.

If you are a parent who is worried about your child’s needs and sleep, let’s review a few things:

  1. Sleep can be affected by unmet needs, but that doesn’t mean that meeting them all will lead to perfect sleep.
  2. If you worry about whether or not your child’s needs are met, consider what they are. They center n both physical and psychological safety and security.  Our kids have to be fed and warm and all that, but they also need to feel safe and secure with us (the psychological).  We can do things that counter this, but rarely does this come from being responsive.  In fact, it often comes when we are not responsive.
  3. Setting boundaries isn’t inherently responsive or meeting needs. There is a mistaken belief that if we just set and hold more boundaries, we are providing our kids what we need.  However, not all boundaries are necessary or even right.  When we look at nighttime parenting as an example, setting a boundary of not nursing to sleep is not a boundary that does anything for our child.  It isn’t biological and it isn’t “helpful” for our kid (even if it helps us).  In this case, you aren’t a better parent or meeting needs by implementing it.  Boundaries are for safety and respect for other people’s space.  That’s pretty much it.  (You can read more on that here.)
  4. Permissiveness and responsiveness are different. Permissive is when we know we should do one thing, but we fear our kids’ being upset so we don’t do it.  We “give in” despite knowing it’s not best for our child (think letting our kid eat dessert for breakfast every single day to avoid him being upset over healthier food).  Responsiveness can seem like this if we hold cultural views of what our kids need instead of a biological one.  You cannot be permissive with love.  You cannot be permissive in responding to a child’s biological need or norm.  On the flipside, if you know there’s a boundary to be held and your child will be upset, remember that holding them and validating their feelings is being responsive, not permissive.  You don’t have to be harsh to avoid permissiveness.

At the end of the day, I want to make it clear that while we need to look at things holistically and consider the entirety of a child’s life when looking at sleep, we do no one any favours by making claims that are unsubstantiated and can in fact harm families.  Although it may always be worth it to look at how needs are being met (or not), linking that to sleep can be a very dangerous game that ends up not being so gentle after all.