Podcast

When it comes to helping our children with sleeping, the goal is to make them feel confident and capable of independently falling asleep and then falling back asleep if they wake up in the middle of the night. Sounds simple enough, but how do we as parents help our children build that skillset? In this episode, my guest Eileen Henry and I will review many of these factors. We’ll discuss regulation techniques, how to create an ideal sleep environment – both physically and emotionally – and how to identify when your child is suffering and needs you to step in versus when they are struggling and you can help guide them without fixing the problem for them. 

:16    SLEEP IS A HOT BUTTON TOPIC IN PARENTING

  • Between sleep training, sleep learning, the cry it out method, or the never let them cry approach – at the end of the day, what works best for you and your family is what matters the most
  • There is some basic biological, neurological, and psychological sleep information that can help inform parents so they can make educated choices 

:54     MEET EILEEN HENRY

3:20     WELCOME EILEEN 

  • She started working with RIE 19 years ago when she had her own newborn
  • She didn’t plan to do a family bed, and she was struggling 
  • The first night she put her son into his crib, she realized she was projecting a lot onto him – fear and abandonment
  • Her son was reflecting back to her the things she was saying
  • Eileen realized this is about me, not about him
  • She saw Jill Spivack in the Wall Street Journal working with sleep and was inspired by her and her lifetime struggle with getting the sleep she needed 
  • She knew these sleep struggles would impact her children if she didn’t do something to support the whole family’s sleep
  • Eileen created Compassionate Sleep Solutions
  • Eileen is the person Sarah sends people to when they are experiencing sleep struggles

6:27     SLEEP IS REALLY ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS

  • Sarah, as a psychologist, focuses on sleep in the context of separation anxiety 
  • Sleep specialists know sleep inside and out
  • Sleep is a very dynamic human experience of development 
  • There is a piece that is the left brain part of sleep – structure, form, nuts and bolts of it
  • Then, there is the right brain piece – relational, emotional, secure attachment 
  • How we can nurture the right brain and still nurture sleep through development 

7:28     THERE IS A LOT OF FEAR AMONG PARENTS THAT THERE IS ONE RIGHT WAY TO DO THIS AND IF I DON’T DO IT THE RIGHT WAY I WILL MESS UP MY CHILD, SCREW UP OUR SECURE ATTACHMENT RELATIONSHIP AND NO ONE WILL SLEEP AGAIN 

  • There is a thought that you must forgo your own needs for sleep
  • There is a way to do this where everybody’s needs are accounted for and honored 
  • Sleep is such a polarized and hot topic 
  • On one side is put your baby in a crib and let them cry it out method
  • On another side is the never let your baby struggle and never let them cry method
  • Each of these methods are deal breakers for some families 

9:06    BOTH PARTIES (MOTHER/PARENTS AND CHILD) NEED TO BE TAKEN CARE OF THROUGH SOME COMPROMISE AND SACRIFICE 

  • One doesn’t need to be a martyr to honor the attachment relationship – that’s not healthy attachment that’s enmeshment 
  • There is an enmeshment part of development during the newborn stage when babies are in us, and then they’re on us – the baby doesn’t know where they end and we begin
  • If we carry on this symbiosis past the stage of development where separateness can come in, or into toddlerhood which is about autonomy –  then it gets really challenging

10:30     THERE IS A WAY FOR EVERYONE TO GET SLEEP, BUT IT DOES TAKE SOME STRUGGLE

  • In RIE, a relationship with struggle is a worthy pursuit for growth and change

10:50    HOW THE BIOLOGICAL THEORY OF ATTACHMENT DIFFERS FROM MAINSTREAM SLEEP STRATEGIES 

  • Like the difference between sleep training vs sleep learning 
  • In RIE, struggle and challenge are embraced because parents are watching infant from the beginning of life as they learn skills at their own pace
    • First gross motor move (back to side to belly to side to back)
    • This unfolds differently in each child
  • We watch, experience, and support our infants in the struggle that it takes
  • Sometimes in struggle we do support them – if it becomes too much for them we pick them up and hold them to give them a break, but then put them back down to explore on their own again

12:17     THERE IS A LINK BETWEEN GROSS MOTOR DEVELOPMENT AND SLEEP DEVELOPMENT 

  • These things influence each other
  • The first stage of rolling from back to belly is initially itneruptive to sleep and then it facilities it so they can move, change positions and get more comfortable
  • Allowing infants and young children to learn sleep vs sleep training is really supporting them in struggle 
  • Sometimes this means stepping back and listening and waiting, sometimes it’s stepping forward and intervening when the struggles gets too much for them
  • Eileen works with parents on discerning struggle from suffering and dysregulation

“Our nervous systems are communicating to each other through our regulation and dysregulation. We’re built to communicate in that way without words.” 

13:26     COREGULATION AND SELF REGULATION IS A DANCE WE DO FOR A LIFETIME

  • Anything that sounds like suffering, we’re always going to go toward that and help children coregulate 
  • We are all so connected – our nervous systems are communicating to each other through our regulation and dysregulation
  • We’re built to communicate, even without words
  • Whether it’s sleep, or leaning a new skill, or separating to go to school – whatever it is, the distinction between struggle and suffering is key
  • We want to be an attuned parent who can see the difference between these two things
    • To do this we need to first know the difference in how my child communicates those two things and what that looks like
    • And then I need to know I have the skills to tolerate my child’s struggle 
  • Struggle for children is healthy – it builds resilience and gives a child confidence to move through struggle on their own with our close support, but without needing us to fix it for them
  • When our child is suffering, we need to be able to respond in an attuned and swift manner and help be their external nervous system for them
  • The self soothing mechanism comes online at different times for every brain – but typically around 3 to 4 months 
    • At the same time that they’re starting to social smile, opening their fists
    • They light up and bloom into a child 
  • Parents need to tune into their own particular child, you’re the expert on your own unique child
  • It’s about giving parents a way to hone their intuition and instincts with respect to their own child

16:35     ATTACHMENT STARTS TO BEGIN AT THIS SAME “BLOOMING” PERIOD TOO

  • When a child is born they are merged and are one with the mother – they don’t know where they end and the mom begins
  • As we naturally mess up from time to time and misattune, we create some space and awareness that is the beginning of the attachment relationship 
    •  the quality can be different depending on the relationship, but that is the attachment relationship
  • The child realizes “woah, we’re two different people, we’re in relationship with one another”
  • The cause and effect – there is no greater effect that children have on us than what their cry causes
  • We want to remain responsive, reliable, and trustworthy and yet also be able to step back as child develops and becomes more capable and competent 
  • The self soothing mechanisms come to stability around 6 months
  • Alan Shore has work on regulatory theory – at 6 months infants are so relational that they understand the tone of language, facial tone, body tone and are tuned into our nervous system 
  • Sleep is that side effect of a calm and regulated nervous system 
  • You can’t sleep when you’re revved up
  • They call the parasympathetic nervous response “rest/digest”
  • There is the individual parasympathetic nervous system, and then there is a bigger umbrella of the home that holds our sleep
  • We go into the subconscious and unconscious at night – we want to create a physical and emotional environment that is conducive to sleep

20:09     HOW DO WE CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO SLEEP

  • Creating the physical environment should be done with intention, care and regard
  • Create an adult space and a child space
  • Eileen likes cribs and finds that children love that small contained and cozy space
  • How we approach the physical environment and what we put emotionally into that container makes a big difference 
  • If you look at a crib and see a prison and have a negative connotation of a crib you’re not going to want to put your baby in that space
  • The same way in which Eileen realized she projected fears onto her baby’s experience – this too can happen with cribs or with the environment, we can project our own feelings onto it
  • We want physical environment to be a loving, holding place – the container is infused with love, relaxation, quality connection, and ritual 
  • Ritual sets up both the physical and emotional environment
  • In RIE this is referred to as the routine of the day – an inherent structure in the routine of the day (when, where and how the basic needs are met throughout the day)

23:03     THE 4 BASIC NEEDS OF WELL BEING ARE NUTRITION, SLEEP, EMOTIONAL MENTAL WELLBEING AND QUALITY DOWNTIME

  • Emotional mental wellbeing – quality relationship with self and others
  • Quality downtime – play
  • The child is pretty much devoted to play for nearly a decade 
  • Children learn through their play
  • For sleep to be able to take place in a rich, fulfilling and satisfying way for everybody it’s more than just about nighttime and sleeptime, it’s about the full day
  • For a child to let go at the end of the day, they need these 4 needs to be met and tended to 

25:00     THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN QUALITY CONNECTION AND QUALITY SEPARATENESS 

  • The best sleep happens in stillness, silence and solitude 
  • If we catch ourselves thinking of solitude as lonely or fearful, that is a projection that will cause us to be anxious for our children to be in that solitude 
  • If we think of solitude as peaceful stillness and quality time with oneself we will feel much more confident when we lay a child down
  • Even if a child protests, we can be confident that we’re doing something okay for them
  • Often when parents come to Eileen she’ll tell them, you haven’t done anything wrong you’ve just done it too right for too long
  • For a child to sleep you have become a rock – they need to be touching you, holding onto you – a physical body boundary of sleep
  • Work from being a sleep rock to a touchstone
  • If it does become too much for a child (separation anxiety, bad dreams, etc) you can be their touchstone 

26:48    CONFUSIONAL AROUSAL

  • This can look like toddler is walking laps around their crib at night
  • Initially they became upset and cried, parents came in as the touchstone and reminded them that more sleep needed to happen
  • Now the toddlers will just get up, walk around, and then eventually put themselves back to sleep 
  • What is the brain science of what is happening there? It’s like when adults are on Ambien (brain is not really sleeping)
  • A child is not in a state of paralysis when they sleep, their bodies are fully moving and their brain is practicing all the things they learned during the day (gross motor skills, language, etc.) at night 
  • Child can be crawling and hit the corner of the crib and that can freak them out
  • This can be very disorienting for a child
  • Parents often think these are night terrors, but often in very young children what can look like night terrors is actually confusional arousal 
  • They startle themselves awake
  • You may think this could make a child anxious about going to bed at night, but these experiences are completely forgotten 
  • While the child has no memory of this, the parent holds the memory of this experience in their body and brain and self and it can cause parents to be anxious
  • The action parents need to take is to go in and provide a loving touch
    • Touch, holding the child, tone of voice, just being present – all this can be enough to help the child go back to sleep
  • Our nervous systems are always talking to each other

31:05     WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS PARENTS CAN DO BEFORE THEY GO INTO THEIR CHILD’S ROOM WHEN THEY’RE AWOKEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BY THEM SCREAMING AND CRYING 

  • Settle your own nervous system as much as you can
  • We’re supposed to feel along with the child – when they’re distressed we’re supposed to tune into that and have co-distress with them
  • We need to hold a bigger, stronger, regulated container so if they need to fall apart, we give them the space to have an emotional release
  • It helps parents to say “my child is developing just like they’re supposed to” so they don’t get freaked out as much when their child wakes up screaming in the night
  • Try to go to the child with the knowledge that this is normal and I’m here to support you through this
    • This is true for confusional arousal or for any natural night waking

33:13     WHEN WE ARE GOING INTO OUR CHILDREN’S BEDROOM AT NIGHT IT IS BECAUSE THE CHILD WOKE UP AND THEY CAN’T FALL BACK ASLEEP ON THEIR OWN

  • The child needs us to come in and help them coregulate, but they don’t need us to rescue them
  • We are having a different experience than our child is having
  • Our brain is saying “fix it and go back to sleep”
  • For the child, the most adaptive thing is to let this experience unfold and then they’ll go back to sleep

34:36     8 HOURS OF CONSECUTIVE SLEEP IN THE NIGHT IS A MYTH

  • This isn’t how human being evolved and functioned through most of our time on earth
  • Historically there were two sleep periods during the night (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison both wrote about doing this)
  • People would wake up and read, write, make love, etc – up to an hour and a half during sleep periods with candle light
  • Outdoor lighting and the light bulb changed the whole paradigm of sleep
  • The 8 hour consecutive sleep evolved to fit with our work schedule 
  • Babies in cribs don’t have this schedule – if you watch the monitor you’ll notice this
    • Babies may sit up in their crib and play with their toes
    • Toddlers may get up and walk around

“The process is really understanding that cries are a signal of struggle, and that we can step back. And then we come close when it gets too much for them.”

37:25     GOAL IS FOR A CHILD TO FALL ASLEEP AND THEN BE ABLE TO REFALL ASLEEP ON THEIR OWN 

  • The child can become skilled at falling and re-falling asleep on their own, they don’t need someone to come fix it
  • It takes a confident child to wake up and not panic
  • How do parents help their child to feel safe letting go and being content in the stillness until they drift back to sleep?
  • There is no missed window of opportunity – children can learn this at any stage
  • For infants – create physical environment and bring positive emotions to that space
  • Children need to learn the physical sensation of falling asleep
  • It can be the most beautiful feeling of the day to get under the sheets and fall asleep – children can have that same experience too, but we need to nurture that in them
  • Sleep isn’t a problem to be fixed, it is a skill to be nurtured (39:50)
  • Allowing children to fall on still surface is disorienting to them because it stimulates their moral reflex 
  • Young babies will need a little help – touch, talk, and your presence, stepping away and coming close 
  • The processes is understanding what cries are struggle-that means we can step back, and what cries mean we need to come close and soothe them
  • If babies are dysregulated you may need to pick them up and coregulate

40:57    ROCKING, SWAYING AND BALL BOUNCING – WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO SOOTHE YOUR CHILD?

  • Ball bouncing has become a thing recently 
  • Bouncing babies is a movement that children can’t replicate themselves without waking up the system too much to get that bouncy feeling
  • Try gentle swaying since that is something they can replicate 
  • All the things we do to soothe children they can replicate – humming, loving touch, lovie, rocking
  • Help soothe without fixing 

42:15     CHILDREN NEED TO LEARN HOW TO FALL AND TO KNOW THE MATTRESS WILL CATCH THEM

  • On a sensory level – the mattress catches babies 100% of the time when they fall 
  • It just takes a few times for babies to learn this and then they can relax and let the mattress catch them
  • It’s like exposure therapy – they have to experience the fearful thing (and we can be close by supporting them)

42:51     WE CAN’T COME BACK IF WE NEVER LEAVE – THIS REASSURES THE CHILD THAT BEING ALONE IS SAFE BECAUSE MY CAREGIVER ALWAYS COMES BACK

  • Let the struggle happen without us being right next to them, supporting them from the next room
  • If the child understands object permanence – when we step out the room we don’t disappear, you can really step into a different room
  • Being alone is safe because my caregiver always comes back
  • Every time your face pops over the crib it’s like seeing the arrivals at the airport – your child is so excited to see you
  • Our energy in this moment is important – nothing like the joy of reuniting after sleep
  • This reunion can deepen the bond and the attachment 

46:08     STAY TUNED FOR AN EPISODE ON TODDLER SLEEP

  • From 10 months on children are ready to be a part of their own solution
    • And this builds confidence and is empowering for them

46:50     LEARN MORE ABOUT EILEEN HENRY

48:18     SLEEP, OR LACK THEREOF, CAN BE ONE OF THE MOST FRUSTRATING AND TRYING EXPERIENCES PARENTS FACE EARLY ON

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08. Sleep training, sleep learning, cry it out or never let them cry: The basics of creating an ideal sleep environment

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