Let’s Talk About Infant and Toddler Sleep

I came across an article eloquently written by The Beyond The Sleep Training Project, and it made me take pause. I have never agreed and disagreed with a post more. The article entitled Accepting the Reality of Infant and Toddler Sleep was featured on the Grubby Mummy and the Grubby Bubbies blog back in 2017 and addresses, with great veracity, the conversation surrounding “healthy” or “normal” or “natural” sleep in our children. It begs the reader to join the conversation urging society to accept infant and toddler sleep for all that it is, day and night, without conditions, and not have another word about it. Because our natural role as parents is to be there to nurture our little ones round the clock. Full stop.

There are so many aspects of this article that I love. It calls for educating ourselves, for looking deeper and recognizing what our miniature humans truly need, and for taking action at all levels of society to provide healthy and supportive sleep environments for our children. Who can argue with that?

“What if we knew and accepted [sleep] as expected and respected elements of a child’s development?”

I too believe this conversation needs further emphasis. Sleep is such an essential aspect of our little ones’ development – no less important than all they learn and experience and feel and explore in their waking world. It offers the silent, in-between moments of their early lives such that they can process all of the newness that every passing second brings. It is foundational to how they learn and how they grow. It should not be regarded as the time that brings the parent a brief respite (ok maybe a little), but rather the vital hours for our babies’ brains and bodies to rest, process, and mature. More now in this critical period of development than at any other time in their lives.

Only by emphasizing the importance of childhood sleep, can we begin the conversation of how we can appropriately support growing families in adapting their household sleep needs.

“If we, as a society, accepted normal infant and toddler sleep…There would be focus on all levels from family right through to the political sphere on the kinds of support families need to navigate this time in their lives….. groups would be all about helping mothers to build their support network and discovering options that will allow them to meet their baby’s needs while also meeting their own”.

The sleep sphere, while one of the most popular conversations amongst new parents, is also one of the most contested. This is why articles like this one harbour such attention. The topic is polarizing and rife with guilt. If you co-sleep and baby-wear, you are spoiling your baby. If you crib sleep and sleep train, your little one is doomed to a life of chronic stress and detachment. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could trade notes without judgment? If we could share our experiences without worrying that we may be called out for doing our babies harm? If we could speak of our own needs, without implying that we selfishly neglect our child’s? A support network from the ground up is the right of every parent, and something that can be greatly lacking in a society of four walls and isolation. A truly open discussion, without vanity or comparison, is the only way to create an accepting and supportive community.

A community that prepares you for what to expect and then holds your hand when things get tough.   

“Knowing and accepting what IS likely to happen as your baby grows and develops is not a horror story. No one knows how your baby will find sleep in this world but one thing is for sure, they will need you and that is not something you need to fear. Instead of fear, it gives room to mentally, physically and practically prepare. It takes away the element of surprise.”

I couldn’t agree more. Let’s take the fear out of the sleep conversation and turn it to one of recognition, understanding, and self love. Knowing what to expect equips us with the tools and the confidence to make informed decisions when it comes to the inevitable challenges that we, as new parents, will face. If we can anticipate the fluctuations and transitions that will shape baby and toddler sleep throughout the first years of development, and fully understand the nature of these changes, then we can confront challenges with a little bit more poise, a little bit more grace, and a plan that suits the unique needs of our own family.

Yet as much as this article is calling for us to band together and raise our voices in support of one another, it equally calls into question the parent that prioritizes a learned relationship with sleep. It chastises the mother who may feel she is at the end of her rope from being up all night long. The mother who has not slept in four months (or worse, four years). The mother who feels she may actually hurt her baby if something does not change. It suggests that if we opt for prioritizing independent nighttime sleep so that we can be the most present, most loving, most rested version of ourselves, that we are somehow doing it wrong.

“What if nobody doubted the value of night time parenting and wouldn’t even for a moment consider that they could trade it off so they could be a ‘better’ parent by day?”

Consider for a second the single mother. Or the caregiver whose partner works 14 hours a day while they are responsible for one, or two, or three developing humans. No doubt parents are superheroes, but not one of us is capable of being his or her best self on no sleep. And since sleep deprivation has been repeatedly implicated in postpartum mental illnesses, it is essential that the parent’s sleep is also part of the conversation. This is not a selfish desire. This is part of the healthy dyad that is the parent-child relationship. If the night-time sleep routine is in actuality severing daytime attachment by reducing the parent’s capacity to parent (with love and kindness and patience and acceptance), then looking into ways in which the sleep realm can be improved is a legitimate motivation. And I can assure you, it can be gently, naturally, and lovingly improved.

This concern extends to working parents, whose needs and realities I feel are dismissed in this article.

“Families making decisions about paid employment would do so with the full knowledge that their baby will still require night time parenting”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all “make decisions” about paid employment. Wouldn’t it be nice if this were, indeed, a choice in the majority of situations. We must hold space for the fact that a great number of us lives in a single-family unit, in an economic state that requires parents to balance childcare with financial stability. And feeling guilty about that does everyone a disservice.

But what about what’s natural with respect to the caregiver-infant relationship? Regardless of what society dictates of us, should we not strive for the natural human condition, especially with respect to our little ones? We are “carrying mammals” after all. It is true that the grasping hands and feet of the Primate Order has enabled infants to cling to their mother’s body and nurse on demand, and that this dyad has shaped our incredible capacity for sociality and complex cognition. It is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. However this ability is something we actually traded when humans stood up on two feet and shed our body hair. Evolution is wrought with trade-offs. 

But humans are also an incredibly adaptive species – this is truly what has led to our success – and we are constantly confronted with new pressures to which we must adapt. For instance, it is most probable that we began attaching our infants to us in other ways. Equally as probable, a mother likely needed to pass her baby off to another caregiver at times (a behaviour, known as alloparenting, that is commonly seen in other primate species) in order to meet her own needs and the needs of her family. As the African proverb attests, “it takes a village”.

Fast forward several millennia and we find ourselves in an entirely new environment with new pressures to which we must adapt (such as the single-family unit). At the same time, past pressures no longer present a challenge. While our ancestors may not have had their infant sleep apart from them, in a separate room, in part because it would leave her vulnerable to predators or cold, our environment has shifted such that it is possible to have our children sleep safely in their own room and allow mom to recharge her battery for the demands of the following day. And week. And year.

I’m not suggesting that this is the answer for every parent. Co-sleeping and constant connection is a beautiful, healthy approach to parenting. And is very likely the condition under which we evolved. But that does not make the alternative inherently unnatural or harmful. And if this conversation makes a caregiver feel that way, then I cannot sit back in silence. There is currently no scientific evidence that supports the notion that behavioural sleep interventions are damaging to our children, mentally or physically (for more information, check out this link for a pediatrician’s discussion of the myths surrounding “sleep training”). Nor that they have not been occurring for decades or centuries, in some form or another, but simply not openly discussed through online platforms.

“Let’s be real. Let’s be honest and let’s give new parents the very best chance to set themselves up with realistic expectations for the early time in their child’s life where they will be needed just as much at night as they are by day.”

Yes let’s be real. Let’s turn to the science and truly appreciate the form and function of sleep so that we cannot only know “what to expect”, but also “why” various sleep behaviours emerge. As with all aspects of holistic health, the best way to feed our bodies is to understand what they need. Our children need to sleep. And so do we. There’s no getting around it. I am a firm believer that it is possible to offer sleep assistance to our babies to help develop sleep-positive behaviours (i.e., behaviours that promote the sleep we all need) without necessarily resorting to weeks of all night long crying sessions. There IS a middle ground (for a fantastic and science-based example, check out this study).

And I do not believe that desiring better household sleep = detachment parenting. Some level of physical separation does not equate to neglect of our children. Quite the contrary – I view much of the sleep assistance out there not as abandonment, but as an opportunity to reinforce attachment between you and your child. You are the means through which positive associations with bed and sleep are created, and fears surrounding bedtime isolation are diminished. Indeed, many studies have reported a strengthening of the parent-child relationship following a sleep training program and a happier, less irritable child overall. So let’s not dismiss those who are searching for a better fit for their family. Let’s actually strive to be inclusive in this discussion and not make false claims about intents and outcomes. Like all things parenting, sleep is not a one-size-fits-all condition. Do what works for you. Educate yourself. Trust your intuition. And don’t feel like a bad parent for making yourself part of the equation.

There are merits to setting limits with respect to children’s sleep behaviour and there are merits to pulling out all of the stops to offer undivided and uninterrupted 24-hr nurturing. In fact, you’ll probably experience times for each throughout your child’s development. So let’s stop calling each other out. Let’s share tips, hugs, and unconditional support – that’s the way we can really change the conversation.