We ran out of space in last week’s column about bedtime challenges. If you recall we discussed two hypothetical infants, Sara and Sandy. Sara’s parents, after following a nice bedtime routine give Sara the responsibility of calming herself for sleep. Sandy’s parents are less sure that she will calm herself to sleep and they love the feeling of helping her fall asleep in their arms.
The question is, what will happen next? The two little girls, with similar loving, caring parents are heading on different trajectories.
Here’s what I think will happen: Sara will learn more quickly that the cuddle time with mom or dad is followed by sleep time in her bed by herself. She has learned that after a night time feeding, she is put back into her bed where it is again her responsibility to go to sleep. As Sara grows into a toddler, she will accept this routine as normal. She trusts that her parents will come and check on her if she is not feeling well, but if all is well, they have the expectation that she is responsible for falling asleep herself.
Sandy’s similar bedtime routine differs in one small but significant piece. Her parents are more alert to her crying and worry more that she cannot fall asleep without help. On particularly hard days, they have resorted to car rides to get her to sleep. Sandy is learning to work hard to stay awake. As she grows into toddlerhood, bedtime becomes more difficult. When her parents come to the conclusion that she must get to sleep by herself, she redoubles her efforts and cries louder and longer. When her parents come to check on the sobbing child and pick her up from her crib, she has learned something very, very important: “If I cry long enough, they will come and save me from being by myself in my bed. I need my parents to put me to sleep.”
Of course, we hope that it doesn’t get this difficult for Sandy. She has loving parents who are trying their best. We hope that they can trust their infant’s ability to learn to calm herself and go to sleep on her own, even if they’ve had a rocky start.
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