Sleeping Angels

How children's sleep affects their health and well being.

Teaching a Child to Self-Soothe: Not for Everyone

More than one way to get a child to sleep through the night

Harold Gilman, Mother and Child, 1918
A reader wrote, in response to a post about sleep training:

This new phenomenon known as self-soothing is just neglect as far as I am concerned. I had a busy career, as did my husband. Our daughter was put to bed with comforting, cuddling, and a feeling (I hope) of being loved. Yes, it took an hour but we considered that an hour well spent. She had a difficult time switching off but once asleep she stayed deeply asleep for the entire night. I made a relaxation tape which aided her in falling asleep. Fast forward 36 years later and she now has two daughters of her own, ages four and six. The six-year-old struggles to switch off and fall asleep just like her mother used to. My daughter sprouts this self-soothing nonsense to me which I consider to be no better than neglect because she cannot wait to get online as soon as she puts her kids to bed. I have now made a 30 minute "sleep" relaxation tape for my six-year-old granddaughter which puts her to sleep for the entire night. I do believe the so-called "modern" mother is self-absorbed and selfish.

Clearly, some feel very strongly about how to get children to settle down for the night and to fall asleep on their own. And while each of us has our own opinion on what is best, for the most part, there are very few objective differences as far as longterm outcomes go. Yes, locking an anxious toddler in a dark room to cry herself to sleep without reassurance that she hasn’t been abandoned can be traumatic—both for child and parent—but in most cases, from the child’s perspective, she’ll wind up getting a good night’s sleep whether left to fall quietly asleep on her own, or allowed to co-sleep in her parents’ bed.

I meet a fair number of parents of younger kids who have difficulty making that last transition from wake to sleep on their own, relying instead on their parents’ presence to do so both at bedtime and if and when they stir during the night. Often times, a mother will say to me something like “I know I’m doing this all wrong, but…” After hearing what that “something wrong” is—be it nursing her baby into slumber and then transferring her to her crib asleep, or letting her seven-year-old migrate into her bed at night—I almost always reassure her that in fact, she’s doing nothing wrong. If this mother enjoys the feeling of symbiosis with her infant and doesn’t mind waking up multiple times across the night to soothe her back to sleep, or loves how her second-grader snuggles up against her at night and doesn’t mind having less room in bed for herself, it’s hard to find any fault or problem with that.

The difficulties begin when the child’s sleep patterns begin to interfere with the lives of the other members of the family unit. For example: when the mother is ready to return to work and needs to sleep herself, or when marital tensions arise because of a lack of privacy in the bedroom. At that point, it’s absolutely reasonable to reconsider the existing patterns, and to find a different way of doing things that works better for everyone else. And that usually means redefining, and setting limits, which is a normal part of parenting.

Because teaching a child how to self-soothe doesn’t really have any negative consequences beyond the immediate short-term period of adjustment—except in rare cases where something else is going on, medical or psychological—I disagree with the grandmother who characterizes her daughter’s attempts to do this as neglect. As parents, we are entitled within reasonable limits to decide how our households are run, and what is and is not appropriate. In this case, the grandmother’s opprobrium seems excessive, and out of place. I am sure, however, that there will be those who disagree with me.

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Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Help your child get a great night's sleep with: 

Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids (a Harvard Medical School Guide)

Dennis Rosen, M.D., is a pediatric sleep specialist who practices at Children's Hospital Boston.

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