Baby stress, self-settling & emotional support

In a previous article, I mentioned the debate around cortisol – the stress and activity hormone – which measures the distress babies feel during a challenging experience.

So, let’s look at this issue in the context of baby sleep training.

1. Firstly, giving the child some time and space by himself when he cries is not the same thing with child abuse which is a toxic form of stress which can occur in the context of “a strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship”.

Toxic stress emerges in the context of child abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse, maternal depression, war or natural calamities. This is the dangerous form of stress, according to AAP, which can cause disruption of brain circuitry and other organs during important child developmental periods which could result in later impairments in learning and behaviour, physical and mental illness.

Baby sleep training is certainly NOT a toxic form of stress because it is a short-term approach, with the emotional & physical support and in the presence of a responsive parent.

After all, when a child is angry and frustrated and has a tantrum, the best approach is just to be there for him, as Dr. Gabor Mate says, without necessarily giving him what he wants. This is how we teach them self-regulation.

The difference between self-settling & self-regulation

Self-settling is the ability to fall asleep more or less independently (achievable even at birth or close to 6 months of age) while self-regulation has more to do with the ability to regulate emotions (it’s a long-term process and can happen all the way up to adulthood). Big difference!

Moreover, self-settling translates into supporting the baby through their emotions, offering constant reassurance, trust and proximity of a responsive parent, without co-sleeping in the same bed with the baby.

The key about sleep training is realising that crying is not abandonment

says Kim West, the co-author of the book “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight”.

2. Secondly, it is true that when babies cry, they release more cortisol, but at the same time cortisol is a normal reaction of the body in any stressed situation which helped us survive throughout the history of mankind (fight or flight reaction, right?).

Cortisol release is damaging only on a long-term basis (which is not the case of baby sleep training which is a short-term process) when it can indeed affect brain circuits and disrupt the normal development of a child in early childhood.

Moreover, not any rise of cortisol is damaging since in the early hours of the morning its normal level is 300-400% higher than at midnight (studies measured baby’s saliva).

At the same time, there is also a huge cortisol rise around Christmas for kids (due to their excitement) which does not alarm us at all, on the contrary. We would never consider banning Christmas for this reason, right? surprised

Moreover, crying does not always imply rise of cortisol because due to their short-term memory, even babies can recognise a pattern and therefore their response with cortisol release depends on their level of predictability.

Remember: “babies thrive on predictability”.

Even if prolonged separation from mum can be stressful for a baby, studies have shown that bringing the child to day-care causes more cortisol increase during the first 2 weeks even if mum stays with the baby. In this case, cortisol level fluctuates even longer at kindegarden presumably more because of group interaction and less because of separation from parents. We don’t give up day-care for this reason either, right? 😉

Moreover, what many sleep experts recommend is connecting time with a baby during the day and less engagement during the night because what we all need the most at night is SLEEP. At the same time, responsive, warm, rested and loving parents who are attuned to their baby’s needs and emotionally available are the ones who offer the baby the secure base the little ones need to develop well and build secure attachment for life.

Most psychologists and parenting experts, including Dr. Gabor Mate, claim that the first 3 years of life are crucial for the emotional and physical development of a child. During this essential time span, they all plead for conscious and responsive parents, whose patience and availability should never run out (well, they do sometimes and that’s normal).

However, in this context, the fundamental need and necessity of sleep are totally neglected, as if parents should simply sacrifice themselves during this time, consciously sleep-depriving themselves, risking their mental & physical health, without promising neither a conscious responsiveness nor a restorative sleep for their babies.

So why should we wait until our children go to school to get our sleep back and enjoy life again, as a happy and conscious parent when we could build a solid foundation and set healthy sleep habits for our children in just 3-week-time?

Why sacrifice ourselves good years at the start of motherhood, out of fear of not being the “perfect mother”? Why wait up to 6 years to get our sleep back (according to this study) and postpone so much the chance of enjoying the time spent with our babies due to a restorative night sleep?

We can instead, look at baby sleep coaching as an assisted way of helping children learn to fall asleep peacefully in a safe and sleep friendly environment by reassuring them of parental presence and emotional support.

Let’s face it, we cannot sleep instead of our children, we cannot silence them down not even in our arms, but we can support them physically and emotionally to go through tough changes and we can show them the trust they need to develop both confidence and resilience skills in life.

Benefits of a good & connected sleep for babies

In this context, let’s remember again the benefits a healthy & restorative sleep has on babies:

  • Sleep helps babies learn better and consolidate their memory – an event which occurs mainly during deep sleep.
  • A baby who sleeps longer stretches of sleep at night and naps well tends to have a better mood, an easier temperament and is less fussy.
  • Because the growth hormone is mostly released during sleep, babies who sleep better tend to develop better and reach their age-appropriate weight sooner, whereas babies who sleep poorly are at higher risk for obesity.
  • Due to good restorative sleep, babies’ immune system gets stronger and they tend to get sick less than a fussy, under-slept baby.
  • Babies who sleep better have lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone)

On top of this, I want to point out that we should not be afraid of baby crying (even if this might trigger many of our own childhood wounds) but try to make sure our baby does not cry alone and knows that we are close and respond.

This is the warm circle of arms children need to feel secure in order to develop and sleep well.

If you want to tell me your opinion about this complex and controversial topic of attachment pareting, feel free to contact me here.