‘No cry’, ‘low cry’ gentle sleep solutions. That’s what I’m all about. As much as practically possible. But will your little one definitely not cry? No guarantees I’m afraid. Many parents (myself included!) absolutely HATE hearing their little one crying, and will do anything to avoid crying. There is of course a lot of variability with age – in general, the younger the child, the more unacceptable it would be to have them cry for more than the length of time it takes you to go to the loo, or take a shower (after all, those things have to be done!).
But in my experience, something that is a common phenomenon with gentle parents is that they forget to redefine the boundaries as their child gets older. It is absolutely appropriate for a 3, or 6, or 8 month old baby to have their needs and wants met promptly, and not ever be deliberately left crying. What about an 11 month old who is crying because he wants Daddy’s electric drill because it makes a great sound? What about a 16 month old who is crying because she wants to stay up and go to bed at the same time as her big sister? What about a 2 year old who is crying because their banana broke in half?
You see, crying is just another form of communication. Small babies generally get everything they want, because their wants and needs are relatively closely aligned! As children get older, their wants and needs become a little more independent of each other!
For example – a 4-month-old who wants milk, needs milk, and therefore gets milk. A 7-month-old who wants mummy, needs mummy, and therefore should get mummy.
But an 18-month-old who wants juice, does not need juice, and won’t always get juice. They will have their needs for fluid met, but they will not always have their wants for a specific fluid met. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s really important when we think about crying in the context of sleep.
Let me just say before we go any further that crying alone as a method of ‘training’ a child to go to sleep is never ok in my view. This is not an article that basically says it’s fine to use controlled crying after a certain age. In my opinion, it is never appropriate to teach children that their wants/needs will be ignored. But it is important that children know that although their needs will be met, their wants will not always be met. Where I disagree with pro-controlled crying sleep trainers is that I believe a child’s wants are important. They do not always get what they want, but they need to be helped through the disappointment of not getting what they want.
It is absolutely ok for children to not get what they want. It is more than ok: it is good parenting! Children need to learn about disappointment in a safe way, from the people they trust most of all. They need to have their disappointments legitimized, held, contained and understood. We need to empathise with how hard it is to not get what you want. But we do not need to make it all right. We cannot make it all right. Parents often say that one of their goals for their child is that they are happy. This is not an appropriate goal, because life has its ups and downs. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you need to know how to handle it. Sometimes we get dealt a real blow and we cannot fall apart, we have to think of a solution and accept an alternative option. We do not always get the house of our dreams, the university place we wanted, the invitation we longed for, or the news we hoped for. Our goal as parents should be that our children learn from us how to be content with what we have, how to handle disappointment, how to be resilient through adversity. They do not have those skills until their early twenties and beyond, so this will be a lifetime of practice.
Start gently. Expect nothing. Support, guide, empathise, hold, contain, affirm and love your child through their disappointments.
I often say that children lose their minds over apparently trivial matters such as broken bananas, or sandwiches cut up the wrong way (or whatever!) because they simply do not have enough life experience to know which things really matter, and which things do not matter. So when something unexpected happens, they get upset, because that’s not how they imagined it in their mind. They may appear irrational, tyrannical and hysterical when they lose their minds over a small thing, but something profound is going on in your child’s brain when they do this. They do not have the developmental or cognitive maturity to be able to understand the difference between the world as they know it ending, and simply not getting something they way they thought they would get it – whether that is their morning toast, or the way the bedtime routine is going.
Which brings me onto crying at bedtime, naptime and through the night… I absolutely love it when a parent tells me that their child has not cried at all during the sleep coaching process. It makes my day and I smile from ear to ear. But some children are just like that. If your child cries a lot, even when they are right there with you, getting held, nurtured, loved and rocked, soothed and patiently cared for, yet still cry, it does not mean that you have failed. Your child is just having a harder time than other children adjusting.
I usually help parents to break down their child’s crying into the physical, and emotional. And also what it means for their child, and what it means for them. Because my view is that a child cannot be viewed outside of the context of the family and environment in which they live.
The ‘child’ part is often the less complicated bit. There are several very good reasons why sometimes children cry at bedtime, regardless of what intervention you are using with them.
They may just be fatigued or over-stimulated – try putting your child to bed just 15-20 minutes earlier, and see if it helps. Some babies also cry to release tension and seem to need a cry (with their parent holding them) before finally settling down and going to sleep. The giveaway sign is that if nothing works – breastfeeding/holding/rocking etc, then they may be tired, overstimulated or need to release some tension. We secrete cortisol (stress hormone) in tears, so sometimes babies need to let out their pent up tensions at the end of the day. If you have tried feeding, holding, bouncing, and your child is still crying – it is not your fault. Don’t feel bad. You could try some big body play to release some stress – remember that the antidote to stress is oxytocin. Think tickling, skin to skin, laughing….
The ‘parent’ part is that sometimes, we as parents get ‘involved’ in our little ones’ distress. Of course, their crying is biologically hardwired to affect us, and it is not supposed to be something we can tolerate hearing very well. But sometimes we go further – we see our precious child crying and it’s like we see them in a pit of despair and jump right in there with them.
Sometimes, the crying triggers an emotional memory of a time when we ourselves were very upset and crying, and we project those feelings on to how our baby must be feeling. But that’s not the case. They are communicating, for sure, but we don’t absolutely know 100% that they are communicating anything negative towards you. Especially if you are trying every strategy you can think of! If they cry, your job is to be there, without assuming that the crying is a distress that you need to get involved with personally.
Yes, you support them, yes, you empathise with them, and no, you never leave them alone, but crying is not necessarily something that can be eliminated, or something to be overly alarmed about. Often what happens is that the parent becomes saddened, stressed, upset and confused, maybe even frightened, of the crying that their baby is doing. But because babies do not use spoken language that we can understand in the same way, they rely heavily on non-verbal body language. So, your little one will pick up on your breathing and heart rate, the tension in your muscles, the tone of your voice, and your stress levels.
So, the trick here is to recognise this and be aware of it, so that you can prepare for it. Your job is then to be CALM, CONFIDENT and IN CONTROL. You need to show your little one that there is nothing to be worried about. Nothing to be scared of. You’re there for them. It’s hard when you’re tired and need to sleep but don’t want to miss out. You get it. But you’re not going to panic. You’re not going to get into their pit of apparent distress with them. You’re going to hold their hand and be there. I often liken this to when we are greatly distressed and crying, and need a hug. When we get the hug, it doesn’t make the problem go away, but it definitely makes us feel better. We feel comforted, supported, and not alone. That is your role here. You need to show your child that there is nothing to fear. They take their cues from you, so show them that sleep is relaxing and calm. You may need to prepare yourself, so take some time out if you can to calm yourself, get in a really peaceful state, and then your child will pick up on that.
So, in summary – crying is never pleasant to hear, and we would rather eliminate it completely. But its ok for your much older baby or toddler to be disappointed or cross and for you to hold them through it, rather than give them precisely what they want – and this is true whether it is day or night. Be consistent, as much as you can. Set your boundaries and stick to them, even if it sometimes means a tantrum. Finally, be tuned in to the needs and wants of your little one. Just because their wants are unreasonable or inappropriate, does not mean that they are not deeply held and important to your child, so they deserve to be listened to with respect, empathy and compassion. You just don’t need to give them what they want…..
Sleep and behaviour are closely related subjects with a lot of cross-over advice. Check out my blog on developmental milestones for more information on developmentally appropriate behaviour and some specific strategies at each age range from 0-2.
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.