Ok so imagine that you start a new job and one day at work you had to submit a report to your boss. There were parts you didn’t understand what your boss was asking for so you just left them blank. You submit your report and expect to get it sent back because of the incompletions, but then you hear nothing from your boss. You file this little tidbit away.
Later that week there is another report that you don’t understand, so again, you submit the report with blanks. Your boss walks by your office later that day and gives you a thumbs up and says, “keep up the good work!” Again, you store this information.
The following week you submit a report, again with some missing information. This time however, you get a request to come to your boss’s office and he yells at you for your incomplete work effort.
Now obviously you would be confused. Why would it be acceptable for you to hand in incomplete work one week and not the next? Most likely, the next time you go to submit work where you have not been able to complete parts of it, you would have added stress over which way your boss would react. Would you get rewarded again with positive feedback? Or would you get reprimanded again? Or would your boss ignore it all together?
Now think about your toddler who is struggling to fall asleep in their crib for whatever reason.
One night they start crying before you go to bed and you have no laundry to do (ha, yea right!) so you rush in, pick them up, and help them fall back asleep.
But then the following night they start to cry much later in the night, while you are already sleeping and you have a big presentation at work the next day; so you let them “cry it out” by themselves because you need your sleep.
The following night they cry again. This time it’s a Friday night and you think “eh, they’re only little once, I’ll go snuggle them to sleep.”
Now remember, your baby does not know what time of night it is when they wake up. They do not know what day of the week it is when they are crying in their crib. All they know is: if I wake up and cry, my parents come in and soothe me. Or if I wake up, I know it’s something I can figure out and fall back asleep on my own. Or, unfortunately, they don’t know what to think because they are always getting mixed signals!
If you are reacting differently every night when your child cries, your child is left to wonder, what is going to happen tonight?
Children (not unlike adults) thrive when there are routines, boundaries, and limits. This gives them a sense of stability and security.
When a child wakes up alone in a dark room, they cry because they know they don’t want to be:
In a Crib
They want to be either sleeping or out of their crib. So when they wake up but they know for certain:
If I cry, my parents will come and put me back to sleep.
If I try to find my own pacifier or lovey and close my eyes, I can put myself back to sleep.
They won’t be awake, alone, in a crib anymore.
The problem arises when they don’t know what to do because it is always changing. They don’t know what to expect, or what is expected of them, and this makes the situation stressful for them.
My message to you, as parents- whatever you do, do it consistently.
As a pediatric sleep consultant, do I think it’s important for your child to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own? Yes, I do. But if you’re not ready to commit to teaching them that skill, then that’s your choice and that’s ok.
But please don’t send your child mixed signals.
If you are going to try anything, it takes more than just a night or two for it to stick. If you have found yourself saying:
“Oh we tried to let them cry it out, but it didn’t work”
I want you to ask yourself, how long did you try this method, and how consistent were you when you were trying?
If you left your child in their crib crying for say, 15 minutes, and then thought “oh well, I guess they can’t do it” and went in and rocked them to sleep, you just taught your child a lesson.
They learned that all they have to do is cry for a long period of time (remember they don’t know exactly the length of time) but then my parents will come in and help me or better yet, snuggle me in their cozy, comfortable arms.
If you left your child to cry for two nights and then once they were still crying in their crib on the third night, you threw in the towel, and went in to help them fall asleep, you still didn’t give them a strong enough sense of boundary and routine.