When my oldest son was 9 months old, I took him to his well baby check. His pediatrician asked the basic questions, checked Cameron out, then asked the dreaded question, “is he sleeping through the night?” I knew this was some sort of expectation, but Cameron was nowhere near. I told the pediatrician no, and listened as he told me I needed to let Cameron cry it out and teach him how to sleep longer. My heart was racing, but I went home and shared the information with my husband. That night when Cameron woke up the first time, we waited as he cried. It was heart breaking. I didn’t last very long before my mommy instinct told me to go cuddle and nurse my baby. And I’m so glad I did. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that sleep is developmental, 9 months is a tough time for sleep, and a 5 hour stretch is considered “sleeping through the night.”
Before I dive right in I’m going to say that I know everyone parents the best they can, with the best intentions for their children. This is definitely not about shaming or putting down a certain technique. It’s simply information that made my life a lot easier when my boys were babies and that influences how I care for the babies I’m with every day.
When we learned that letting Cameron cry himself to sleep wasn’t going to work for our family, I found myself wanting to know more. Why was it so important that babies sleep all night? I don’t sleep all night! How are babies supposed to learn to self-soothe if they aren’t able to trust the very adults caring for them? Why is slef-soothing even an expectation for a tiny human who can’t talk? I know I have a hard time calming down sometimes, and I have quite a few tools in my arsenal to help me do it. Somewhere along the line, society decided that babies needed to be seen and not heard. Expectations were placed upon them that most grown adults can’t even meet. There are all sorts of parenting books on the market that support strict scheduling for babies, only feeding at certain times, letting babies cry, and the big one, not spoiling your baby.
The sad truth is that a lot of this information has been linked to infant dehydration and failure to thrive, damaged neurons in our infants’ brains, and an overall lack of trust between infant and adult. Babies are born with 100 billion neurons. (Yes, that many!) During their first 3 years, synapses, or connections, between those neurons are made. From birth to age 3, the number of synapses per neuron grows from 2500 to 15000! This is why early childhood is such an important time in a child’s life. Babies have specific periods where synapses are made at higher speeds. I personally discovered The Wonder Weeks when Cameron was around 10 months old, and I wish I had sooner. The Wonder Weeks are specific periods of rapid brain development, usually marked by extra fussiness, more frequent sleep interruptions, and the need for more cuddles. For me, it was helpful to know what was going on and why.
Early stimulation sets the stage for how children will learn and interact with others throughout life. A baby’s experiences, good or bad, all play a part in the wiring of his brain. Loving interactions with caring adults strongly stimulate a child’s brain, causing synapses to grow and existing connections to get stronger. Connections that are used become permanent. If a child receives little stimulation early on, the synapses will not develop, and the brain will make fewer connections. This means that when a baby is responded to when crying and held and comforted, connections are made and strengthened in his or her brain. If you take anything away from that, it’s that you can’t spoil a baby! Hold your baby, feed your baby, play with your baby, whenever and however you can. You’re setting them up for success and not the other way around.
It doesn’t stop when they’re no longer infants either. My boys are 6 and 3 and I still respond to them as quickly and lovingly as I can. They both end up in our bed often. I write this as my 3 year old sleeps next to me! He was scared and knows that I’m a safe place. One day they won’t need this from me, but that will be on their own terms. No matter what happens in life, I think that’s one of the biggest parenting goals ever.
Infant Nursery Supervisor
Parent Connection Coordinator