In talking with a friend last night about our adventures with a sleep-sensitive child, I circled back once again to the mantra of many sleep books: Children are not born knowing how to self-soothe; they must learn the task in order to sleep independently.
Self-soothing is a critical skill not only at the beginning of sleep, but throughout the night: We all wake up multiple times during a period of sleep, but most of us learn how to fall back asleep quickly — so quickly that we don’t even recognize or remember that “partial wakening.” But the baby or child who doesn’t know how to self-soothe is prone to waking fully during these times and then needing the help of the parent to return to sleep.
(NB. One mistake some parents make is responding to every cry immediately, without waiting a moment or two to see if the baby settles back down on her own. When I started waiting, I realized the Dragon actually had more self-soothing skills than I realized.)
The books offer a wide range of prescriptions for how to teach your child to self-soothe, from “extinction” (i.e., cry-it-out with no parental intervention) to co-sleeping. My opinion is that the best approach for each child probably falls within this range and is largely dependent on the child’s needs, personality and environment. (Though I have yet to be convinced that extinction is the best approach for any child.) Many books also give laundry-lists of things to try within their basic approach, things like transitional objects and ambient sound.
But the conversation with my friend last night also reminded me that — like walking, talking and eating with a fork — self-soothing is a developmental task that takes some time, creativity and attunement. Simply implementing a prescribed solution may not be enough, especially for a sleep-sensitive child. When I told her that the Dragon still cries out for me when his dad tries to tuck him in, my friend — a therapist and early childhood expert — said, “It sounds like he’s just not yet convinced that his dad can soothe him as well as his mom. You need to let Alan show him that his soothing is just as good as yours.” Then, after that happens, we can work on helping the Dragon see that even he himself is capable of self-soothing.
What I left with is that, whether it’s mealtime, playtime or bedtime, when a particular function is closely associated with one person, or when the child believes that only that person can perform a certain task, it may be difficult for the child to grasp that she can take on those challenges herself. A loosening of the reins is necessary. It is definitely hard for me not to respond when the Dragon cries for me. But what’s important, I believe, is not that Mom soothes him, but that somebody does, until he is ready and able to take on that mantle himself.
This same friend once told me that “Mom” or “Mama” becomes the child’s name for the mother because “Ma” is often the earliest sound uttered in search of comfort; when the mother responds, she becomes “Ma” or some variation. So if you’re a mom whose heart aches when her baby cries “Mama!” while in someone else’s arms, you might understand it as a call for comfort. And if the child is getting it, you can release your guilt and feel good that your child is learning to widen her circle of support and comfort — to a circle that will soon include herself.