Play, Express, Sleep, Eat, Repeat
The basics of sleep for babies and toddlers have been so over complicated over the years, centuries in fact, that very little truth remains. Moreover, it has become inundated with a list of “must do’s” that seem to simply add to your “to do list” and achieve very little.
I am sure that you are familiar with this:
One: Feed baby after waking, but not before sleep.
Two: Have some appropriate play
Three: Watch for signs of tiredness.
Four: Get room ready
Five: Wrap baby just right
Six: Lay baby in bed sleepy but not awake
Seven: Add any necessary sleep aids (white noise, dummies, music etc.)
Eight: Leave room
Nine: Return if baby is upset, pat and reassure but don’t pick up. Pick up baby only if severely distressed, calm until settled and lay back down.
Ten: Leave once quietened
Eleven: Repeat steps nine and ten, until baby is asleep
Twelve: When baby wakes, leave them if they are happy. Once retrieved, repeat steps one to twelve.
Not only does this read like the most tedious step by step list ever, it also doesn’t assist with the natural relationship a baby has with sleep. Nor is it meeting their very natural, biological needs.
The extended formula above is often distilled down to the basic formula of “play, sleep, eat, repeat.” Which, I personally think is fantastic because it is simple and easy to remember. “Simple” doesn’t over complicate, “simple” helps you move through the day more easily.
Believe me, I would know. I am one who has a tendency to over complicate. So if something will assist me in focusing in, and keep out the “white noise” then I am all for it.
This formula does miss out on a very important aspect of a baby and toddlers development and relationship with sleep. A necessary component for sleep, and even the development of a healthy and secure attachment.
But what is attachment?
When people hear “attachment” they may be tempted to refer to “attachment parenting,” which is not actually the same thing. “Attachment” or “attachment theory” is a psychological framework for understanding how key aspects of a human beings develops via their primary relationships. Attachment is one of the most widely accepted theories of psychology; criticisms of attachment usually only pertain to a specific paper and experiment, but not the theory itself. This theory pulls apart the development of an attachment which is responsible for so much in life. Having an internalised secure attachment gives huge advantages in life, and influences many area, leading to:
– A heightened self of self-esteem, and self-worth
– Ability to regulated and process stress
– A greater ability to deal with stressful events, in the moment
– Greater levels of self sufficiency
– Being more willing to cooperate, but not submit indiscriminately (there is a difference)
– A greater interest in learning
– More success in peer groups
– Have more meaningful and more successful relationships throughout life, and a great deal more.
A secure attachment has even been linked to physical systems within the body, including glucose regulation and the respiratory system.
Attachment forms the foundation for how a person experiences life, AND how they react to life.
The foundation of attachment is the primary care giver relationships. This is often the mother/infant dyad but it also consists of other adult/baby relationships that influence a baby’s attachment. Whilst the primary caregiver has the greatest influence, a baby is wired for multiple attachment figures. They will benefit greatly from multiple empathic, reciprocal, and sensitively attuned relationships. That is relationships that are gentle and understanding, that read a baby’s cues not just assume needs, and meet those needs sensitively and readily.
How does this relate to sleep?
Well one primary area necessary for the development of a secure attachment is emotional regulation.
Here, I define emotional regulation as the ability to feel and process deep emotions, with self-acceptance and self-compassion. To be able to process these emotions without becoming overwhelmed and overcome by them, and to maintain a sense of focus. Lastly, to be able to do so, without causing harm to self or others, via shame, blame, and/or judgment.
And emotional regulation deeply impacts on sleep.
Let me put it this way.
Have you ever had a really bad day, everything is going wrong, a new job you can’t wrap your head around, a discouraging conversation with your boss, stuck in a traffic jam, burning dinner, a disagreement with a loved one, and so on, and then that night you just can’t sleep?
You can’t sleep because your stress response has been switched on, you are in a heightened state, and your system is ready to run or fight. Not sleep promoting.
So you can see that stress (being any experience that results in an influx of negative emotion, and/or frustration) is a sleep inhibitor.
And babies and toddlers experience stress daily.
In the world of a baby and toddler, absolutely everything is new and overwhelming, The brain is still highly underdeveloped (babies are only born with 25% of their brain developed, and it doesn’t finish developing until we are in our mid twenties). They are also very powerless, often handled somewhat roughly and, due to social and cultural misconceptions, expected to be able to act in ways that are far beyond their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive capacities.
So at the end of the day, before sleep, they can really struggle. But stress doesn’t only effect their able to fall asleep, but also their ability to link sleep cycles, sleep soundly, and obtain the amount they need.
This is where expression comes into play
When we are in a stressed state not only is our fight/fight system engaged, but we are also sitting in our Limbic system. The part of the brain that is responsible for our stress response (influenced by our early attachment) and shuts down our neo-cortex, which is responsible for complex behaviours, higher levels of thinking, organisation of emotional reactions and a great deal more (this is the part of the brain that takes longest to develop).
We need to reengage the neo-cortex in order to have our system settle.
Stress inhibits, but empathy reengages.
When a baby is stressed there are quite a few more factors at play.
Firstly, they aren’t able to run or fight, they don’t have that capacity, so a baby is more likely to become overwhelmed by emotion and go into a state of freeze. This is not beneficial at all, and is most likely to occur if a baby is left alone to cry.
Secondly, the baby and toddler brain is highly underdeveloped, but EVERY experience they have is training their brain. Every experience engages different neural circuits, similar experiences engage the same neural circuits. The more a neural circuit is engaged, the stronger it becomes, and the the greater impact it has on the brain. So whilst the brain is not fully developed, it is developing, and every moment influences its development.
If a baby/toddler is not supported in processing emotions, the neural circuits engaged and reinforced are ones that either suppress or are aggressive, or some combination of the two. This can have long term negative effects, involving mistrust, inability to commit, low self-esteem, emotional disregard and more.
However, the opposite is just as true.
The more we support a baby in healthy emotional regulation, the more we are supporting those neural circuits to become strong and long standing.
So with all that said, what does this look like.
Based on the work of Aletha Solter, Ph.D., this is quite simple.
With a baby who is not yet mobile; after they have been fed and have had all physical needs met and are ready for sleep, it is recommended to hold them close and maintain eye contact. In that moment you are offering a calm and loving presence and emotional acceptance.
Imagine, for a moment, being held close by the person who loves you most, and whom you love most. This person is looking into your eyes, and without even saying a world you know that they accept you. For all of who you are, and love ALL of you. They simply state “I’m here for you, and I love you.” If you are feeling deeply connected, and tired, and relaxed, you will fall straight to sleep. But if you are upset, you will likely burst into tears. Simply because it is such a relief to have someone hold you. Who helps you feel safe, and who just accepts you. As you cry, they don’t distract, or tell you to hush, they don’t attempt to fix it, or tell you “I told you so” they just listen.
How loved does that idea make you feel? To be so deeply accepted, and to have someone be so present for you?
That is what you can do for your baby, and toddler.
By doing this we are “training” their neural circuits and priming them with a skill foundational for emotional regulation. This is attachment, because how we treat our baby becomes their way of treating themselves, and the world around them.
With a toddler, the idea is to maintain closeness, and stay present. Holding is not necessary unless your little one is violent, or requests to be held. Holding, as an immediate resort can cause further stress. However, simple presence can support a toddler to cry and rage about the stress of their day. It doesn’t matter what they may focus on, it could be anything, but all they need is presence. They may be focusing on the fact that they wanted their other pajamas’s, or that they didn’t give someone three kisses goodnight. It could be anything, it is just an focus point. If all their physical needs are met, and your toddler is getting upset, the best thing you can do is to just offer empathy to their expression.
This allows them to move from their stressed state into a state of calm and relaxation. Crying promotes the production of oxytocin, empathy reengages the neo-cortex, and this mitigates stress. A deep sense of emotional relaxation is felt, and your baby or toddler is then able to sleep.
So whilst I love a simple formula, I have added to the old one to help us all (myself included) to remember the importance of expression in the promotion of sleep, and for the development of emotional regulation.
Play, EXPRESS, Sleep, Eat, Repeat.
The next time your little one is crying and raging before sleep, I would like to invite you to listen. Don’t offer a dummy, or sleep aid, or try to hush them by bouncing, singing, rocking and so on. Instead, stay present. What you are offering to your baby, in this moment, is the very real opportunity to process and heal. A strategy that will serve them for life.
Much love to you,