I remember when I first had my son, I “knew” so much. I had studied, I had worked with families and children, I had done work experience in childcare, and had been around babies and children in my personal life a lot. I believed I was as prepared as they come.

Not so true.

Was everything I had learned and experienced true, yes. Would it have been helpful YES. But what happened, and I have found this to be true for so many women, is that it was like I forgot. All of a sudden this baby emerged into the world, a baby that was 100% reliable on me. No one else could do the job, not the way I knew I wanted it to be done (which included breastfeeding), and I was overcome by that responsibility and probably resembled a deer in headlights.

I will mention that I have an extremely supportive husband who was a HUGE help in those early days, but he can’t do the breastfeeding, and the middle of the night feeds, and he did have to go back to work. SO it was me + bub during the week, and it was hard.

We took our son home, and he (like so many newborns – which is very normal) cried A LOT and fed A LOT. However, it got to the point where he was feeding every 2 – 2.5hrs around the clock and was on the breast for 1.5hrs at a time!!!! Which meant, at night, I was getting, at most, an hours block of sleep at a time, usually less.

It peaked, like it does, at six weeks and I couldn’t do it anymore.

I sat up at 2am in the morning, holding my son, and struggling to keep myself awake; I google.

“How to get baby to sleep without resorting to crying it out.” 

From many years back, I knew that cry it out (CIO) methods, or anything similar were strategies I would never use. Simultaneously, I felt like dummies or any kind of “quieter” was not the answer, and I wasn’t comfortable co-sleeping in those early days either (we did later though). I felt stuck, but I knew in my bones that there was something out there. I don’t know if it was my intuition, or if it was what I had studied that was telling me that there was something more, but I just knew there had to be.

My belief and persistence paid off, at 2am that morning I found “it.” I found what the Holy Grail I had been looking for was. It was a beautiful framework that weaved together my greatest values, everything I had studied, science, neurology, biology, development, reality, and so much more. 

Aletha Solter, a Ph.D psychologist and who also has a Master’s degree in human biology, obtained almost 50years ago, is recognised as an international expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. In 1984 she published her first book “The Aware Baby” which intricately and definitively wove together her academic knowledge, professional history, field expertise, and personal experience as a mother, with research in all the aforementioned areas, to create the big picture where parents have the opportunity to get a “birds-eye view” of what is going on, and how we can navigate it.

What a woman, right! Since then, Solter has added another four books to her collection, building a framework dubbed “Aware Parenting,” that can really guide you through any challenge you may face as a parent. 

This included the very challenge of sleep deprivation, crying, and excessive feeding I was failing to navigate at 2am that dark but warm morning.

The surmised version of what I realised was: It is ok for my baby to cry and I don’t have to fix it! It is healthy, and he just needs me to listen. 

Oh the sweet relief. My god, the weight that lifted off of my shoulders at that moment. It was like some all-seeing benevolent being told me I was a good mum, and I could relax.

Aware Parenting is founded on three core principles; attachment-style parenting (where possible), non-punitive discipline, and healing from stress and trauma. You may be wondering what these have to do with sleep, the answer: everything. But not just sleep, as I wrote earlier, any challenge you may face as a parent can be navigated via this framework and its principles.

Attachment Style Parenting

Attachment style parenting is a set of practical strategies that are optimal in supporting a child in developing what is called a “secure attachment.” This is derived from, possibly the single most widely accepted, developmental theory “Attachment Theory” as developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (worth googling). The basic idea is that all human beings need to develop a “Secure Attachment” in order to develop into healthy, functioning, positive, adult members of society. To do that, we need to be raised in an environment with sensitive attunement and responsiveness. 

What does that mean exactly?

Well basically it means that parents are sensitive to a child’s needs, often hidden behind various behaviours, and respond to those need promptly and empathetically.

Seems easy enough, right?

Not so much when you have been sleep deprived for months. It is 3am in the morning, and you have been trying to get your baby to sleep for the past 90minutes.

Or when your toddler starts hitting and biting you whenever they don’t “get their way.”

Harder again when your small child starts swearing or using threats “well I’m going to break my toys if you don’t ____.”

You see what I mean?

Some of the practical tools attributed to attachment style parenting can be really helpful in establishing a secure attachment right from the start, such as a natural drug-free birth, breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping, baby wearing and the like. However, these are not always possible, for a variety of reasons. I was able to do some of these things, but certainly not all, due to my own circumstance and things outside of my control. This is often the case with birth, for me I was aiming for a natural drug-free birth, but when my son turned footling breech at 30weeks and wedged himself in, it wasn’t going to be possible. I had to have a scheduled c-section. Does that mean my son is not going to be securely attached, that I have doomed him right from the start? No, of course, not, but KNOWING how those experiences affect not only me but him too, means I can do something about it after the fact,

Which brings us to the next principle.

Healing from Stress and Trauma

Many parents can wonder at stress and trauma for infants and children, often believing that they really don’t experience stress and trauma unless something traumatic (such as some kind of accident, abuse, complex surgery etc.) happens. We often mistake infancy and childhood for being the easiest time of a human’s life because we compare it to adulthood. The responsibilities, societal and familial obligations, expectations and so on, that we experience daily as adults seem (to us) much more stressful than having to wait five minutes for a feed, wanting a toy that your sibling has, going to school for the first time, or even being born. 

However, infancy and early childhood is arguably the MOST stressful time of a human beings life.

Imagine for a moment, that a great burst occurred and some unknown pressure forced you out of this dimension into a completely alternate universe. Absolutely NOTHING was familiar, except some basics such as gravity, and oxygen. Everyone walking around looked strange, you couldn’t see properly because of the atmosphere, whilst breathable, seemed dense and foggy. You couldn’t speak to anyone, or at least no one seemed to understand you, and because of that dense and foggy atmosphere, you couldn’t move properly. You were completely reliant upon the hopeful kindness of those around you.

Stressful to say the least, yet that is the experience of every infant and baby and continues to be that way for quite some time. Despite learning to walk and talk, toddlers and small children still struggle with communication, understanding information, powerless (because they are still forced to do what the parent wants), and misunderstanding.

And some parents may be feeling “yes, when they can talk about their feelings, it is so much easier.” Well, that is somewhat of a false belief. Verbal expression of feelings is a little helpful for adults, BUT it is not what brings deeper healing especially for babies and children. What does are the biologically, evolutionarily developed, physical mechanism of crying, sweating and shaking.

Think about the times you have had a really big, deep cry. How did you feel afterwards?

Now I want you to reflect again. What did those cries ALONE feel like when compared to having a cry with someone who JUST listened? They didn’t try to fix it, that person didn’t give you a silver lining, brush it off, distract you with something else, or tell you that you’re ok even though you clearly weren’t. How did it feel to be deeply seen and deeply heard?

That is what it is to heal from stress and trauma. The thing that CAUSED the stress or trauma is irrelevant because it is relative. It is unique to each person, and so the only way to heal is through empathic presence being held for the expression of emotion through tears.

To translate into reality, that means that when your baby cries and all their physical needs are met, they are comfortable, they aren’t sick, and they are being held. All that they NEED is for you to listen. The same goes for a tantruming toddler, or a child having a meltdown. In my case, it was knowing my son wasn’t hungry, but the reason that he cried so excessively was because of the trauma of his birth and the stress I experienced (and he subsequently experienced) during my pregnancy.

Non-Punitive Discipline

No punishments. No rewards.

Oh this warrants not one, but a whole bunch of articles. But for a lot more information I recommend looking at the work of Alfie Kohn.

The basic idea behind this principles is that there are mountains (and I MEAN mountains) of research that proves that both punishments, whether hitting, time-out or something else AND rewards are not only not helpful, they often result in the OPPOSITE effect. Yes, you read that right. They don’t only NOT work, they cause more of the problem that you are trying to deal with and some.

Whilst this isn’t relevant to infant sleep, in those sleep-deprived states it can be easy to want to punish your baby by leaving them alone to cry. With toddlers and up, it is MUCH easier to want to punish, bribe, reward and so on. Believe me, I KNOW (and I read and practice this stuff!)

The reason this is so very import in the triad of principles that is the foundation of Aware Parenting is that:

Firstly, punishments and rewards CAUSE stress. They cause feelings of being manipulated, of powerlessness, distrust, and confusion. All sensations that are uncomfortable and stress inducing.

Secondly, it encourages you to find the reason BEHIND the behaviour. If nothing else, the behaviour is a form of communication. It is our role as parents to play translator. To parent well and intentionally, we must be willing to look for the underlying needs of our children. Yes, that is hard, damn fucking right it is! But let me stress this point:

Nothing worth doing is EVER easy, and parenting well is the single worthiest thing anyone can do.

Does that mean you are going to be perfect? No. Does that mean you aren’t going to make mistakes? No, you will daily. Does it mean that you need to judge. condemn, and shame yourself for those things you get “wrong?” Hell no, because shame etc. has NEVER been helpful or conducive to growth. What is, is empathy, kindness for self, and forgiveness.

Non-punitive disciple is principles we use both in regards to parenting our children AND in “re-parenting” ourselves.

We cannot give to others what we cannot give to ourselves. Very hard to do, but oh so worth doing.

So be sensitive to your child’s needs, but be sensitive to yours too. Be present with your child’s feelings, and show them empathy, and do that for yourself or find an empathy buddy who can do that for you too. Lastly, look beyond the behaviour to the need, whether it is your child’s or yours, and find a way to navigate that without punishment or rewards (I recommend Attachment Play J )

Much Love,
Natalie Eve

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