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The Science of Sleep

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In the first article, Welcome to the World Little One, we explored your baby’s basic survival needs during the newborn phase. 

In the second, What is Self-Soothing, Really? We explored the process of calming ourselves and how it connects to our sense of self. We learned that teaching them this first skill is truly a gift that grows with them as they have new experiences and practice emotional regulation. 

Today, we’ll tackle sleep science because as amazing as all that sounds, it is hard to believe when you are looking at your teeny, tiny little baby who only has one method to communicate.

Cry. Cry. Cry. And cry some more!

Sleep is a miracle reset, for all of us, but especially for babies. 

What happens when we sleep? Science tells us:

  • We replenish our physical and emotional resources.

  • We process all the information we’ve absorbed and catalog it (or trash it). Ie: We learn!

  • In a state of total rest, young bodies grow - literally.

These are just three of the plethora of benefits that good sleep provides.

Sleep Science shows us that what's going on inside your baby's brain and body is astounding. The research confirms that your baby’s external experience, and their internal development are not in ratio. This study cites the critical relationship between infant sleep and their physical and cognitive development.

It’s very important to keep this in mind because unless you have a degree in early childhood education, It's something that new parents just don't know. 

From the day your baby's born you are in a cry-react-solve cycle. You are literally working in a reactive crisis mode. 

Luckily, there is a finite list of base, survival mode responses.

They’re hungry, feed them. 

They’re wet/dirty, make them safe and dry again. 

They’re tired, calm their body so they can sleep. 

There are no long term, cause and effect connections being created inside your baby's brain during this time period. Put another way, you can't spoil a baby in the first three months.

This is so important I’ll say it again, in bold, and caps. 

 

YOU CANNOT SPOIL A BABY IN THE FIRST THREE MONTHS!!!

 

People who say this believe that your baby is capable of controlling their own experience, and we know that’s just not true. 

In fact, by consistently responding to their cries you are establishing a strong connection, a forever bond and early trust with your baby. 

From their perspective:

I have a need, and they take care of it.

I can trust that if I’m uncomfortable they will solve it for me. 

This foundation will be the key when you begin to ask your child to learn independent skills and try hard things for themselves. They will still know they can love and trust you even while you are expanding their horizons.

At the age of three months old you no longer have a newborn. Yes, they might still look like one and sound like one, but they're not. This is where the external vs. internal experience becomes a factor. The next phase of development is called infancy. During this period their brain becomes capable of experiencing something multiple times, and establishing a cause and effect relationship between the event and the outcome. 

Between 12 and 16 weeks old your child begins to create a belief system associated with sleep. 

I know it sounds unbelievable, but it's true. 

And this is where a lot of parents unintentionally set up cause-and-effect sleep relationships they never meant to create. 

When I'm tired, I cry then an adult rocks me to sleep. 

When I’m tired, I get to sleep on a warm body.

When I’m tired, someone puts a paci in my mouth and sucking on it helps me fall asleep.

These are just a couple of examples. Now, how about this?

When I’m tired, I cry. Then, my parents put me in the same place every time (crib).  I hear my parents' voices talking to me. I feel their touch on my body as they rub my belly or face. I know I'm safe. I have my sleep object (paci / lovey). And sometimes it's hard, but I can fall asleep by myself.

Sounds dreamy, right?  So, what’s the catch?

You.

You are.

Your state of mind. Your parenting ‘why’. Your ability to understand that today’s parenting choices are part of a much bigger master plan to benefit your child for their whole life. 

Your child is still physically small and incapable of communicating beyond crying. 

Understanding why you're asking them to practice this skill is so important. 

Remember, you are depleted, too. You are fatigued, you may not be getting all the nutrition you need. You have just finished three months of transitioning a new life to the world. So you're not your best self right now. And listening to your baby cry even for one minute can be hellish. So understanding your long term sleep why matters more than ever. 

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • When you have a six month old do you want to rock them to sleep every nap time?

  • When you have a 12 month old do you want to have to get in the car, so that they fall asleep, and then hope that you can pick them up and transition them to their crib for the night?

  • When you have a two year old who desperately still needs naps, but can't seem to nap without you, do you want to give up two hours of every day to lay in bed with them so that they get the sleep they need?

I didn't. My long term ‘sleep why’ sounded like this. 

I want to give my child the gift of being able to self-soothe so that they can fall asleep by themselves and put themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the night. I want to give my child the gift of sleep, so that they can be their best selves when they are awake, so they can grow, so they can learn, and so I can get some sleep, so I can be my best self, when we are awake together.

If this is how you feel, then teaching them that first life skill is vital. The short term temporary distress that you feel while you teach them to self-soothe becomes a gift that sets your child up for so much more than a good night’s sleep!

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