Parenting Tips, Info, & Advice
Dear Heartful, I’m Worried I Don’t Understand My Baby’s Needs!
Many of you may be able to relate to this sweet mama’s predicament—we’ve probably all had different times throughout our parenting when we wonder if we can do it—if we can understand and respond to our baby’s/child’s/teens needs.
It’s a hard place to be, and we all need a little grace and support. In reading this letter, it was clear that although sleep issues were the issue-of-the-day, at play were larger confidence issues about parenting. To respond, I not only answered Mom, I brought in the big guns—sleep and breastfeeding expert, Christine Muenz. Her wisdom is deep!
I have been trying different sleep training methods for a month now. I feel like I am getting worse at parenting rather than better. My baby turned 4-months old today and I am scared I will never get him to sleep through the night or to self-soothe. I have not been able to put him to bed drowsy but awake; he will just cry for hours. I know parenthood only gets harder from here and I am super scared that I am not able to understand my baby and his needs.
Christine Muenz’s Response:
Dear Exhausted Mama,
It sounds like you have been given the advice that your baby needs to fall asleep alone (ie. put her down drowsy but awake) and that he needs to be sleeping big long stretches of sleep without you (ie “through the night”). The problem with that advice is that it is not biologically appropriate for a baby this young. Eventually, all of those things will happen, but it is when he is developmentally ready for that.
So as for the ability to fall asleep by himself without his mama to hold him, nurse, comfort him to sleep… Your 4 month old baby is exactly the same, biologically speaking, as babies from thousands and thousands of years ago. What would happen to a baby that young thousands of years ago if we left him alone to sleep by himself? He would freeze to death or be carried off by a predator! That would be the end of the species. So Nature doesn't want a baby this young to sleep alone!
Second, this idea of sleeping big long stretches of sleep… We spend so much time talking to new parents about reducing the risks of SIDS. And you know what is the ultimate goal of all of the safe sleep recommendations? (on their back, not over-bundled, in the same room as the parents…) frequent night waking! Waking up in the night is protective against SIDS. Not only is it important for the baby's growth (he needs lots of calories at night for brain growth), but it is the way nature protects very young infants. Every time he wakes to feed and be held your body regulates his immature circulation and respiration. His body becomes more mature through closeness to the parents, not through separation. And that is how the baby eventually becomes mature enough to sleep through the night and fall asleep without being parented to sleep.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture with a multi-billion dollar baby product industry. They want you to buy swaddle blankets and white noise machines and $1200 Snoo beds! So our culture tells you that the way an infant sleeps naturally is a problem to be solved, then they sell you products to “solve” it. Our culture also undermines mothers' confidence by telling them that they need books and consultants and “sleep experts” to teach them how to parent around sleep. You can read all the books you want, and try all the methods you want, but of course it won't necessarily work for every baby. Babies are people! They are all different. And what worked for your friend's baby might not work for yours. So listen to your baby and listen to your instincts. What feels right to YOU?
When he “cries and cries for hours” he is telling you, “This isn't right. This doesn't feel safe for me.” Also, most mothers tell me that they feel physical discomfort when their baby cries. It makes them tense, it makes their heart race, it makes them cry, etc. Their body is telling them to go to the baby, to hold him and comfort him. So my main advice for all new mothers is listen to your baby, and listen to your heart… instead of listening to the noise of the culture. I hope this is helpful. This is such a hard time to be a new mama! Remember, it is really nobody's business how your baby falls asleep or what you do to get him back to sleep in the night. Just do whatever works best for your family, and know that it will get better… because that's how development works.
The Heartful Parent Response:
While I echo from a “parenting expert” standpoint what Christine shares above as it specifically pertains to sleep, I want to add a few thoughts.
First, beautiful Mama, you DO and WILL understand your baby’s needs. This period of parenting is really difficult, and no amount of reading or learning can fully prepare you for it. You are connected to your baby in a deep and meaningful way, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t take time to settle into a trust of yourself, and your body, and your heart in a way that you’ve probably never been called to do before. You will get there, I promise.
Second, this is a really good time to focus heavily on some regular self-care because, particularly in the midst of COVID, you are isolated in a way that no new parent is meant to be—so now more than ever is the time to learn that YOU have to be at the top of the list in order to do all the other things your life is calling you to do right now. In the midst of caring for an infant, prolonged self-care may not be terribly viable, but consistent regular small things that feed your heart and soul do not need to take a ton of time. Find ways, if you are not already, to incorporate getting outside, deep breathing, taking a shower to feel restored, having a cup of coffee, or whatever else might help you feel “human” again—this is so important for you right now!
Third, yes, this time is difficult. And yes, there are some aspects of parenting that get harder. But you will never again be so exhausted, and so isolated, and so unsure of your own abilities as a parent all at the same time—I promise! As time passes, you will gradually get more sleep, and a new normal will settle in that you will feel equipped to manage. I promise that a LOT of parenting actually gets easier as you go forward. I also promise that as time passes, there is more space for joy on the parenting journey. You are doing ALL the right things to support that journey now and in the future, most importantly asking for help and support when you need it!
You really do have this, Mama. Keep asking for help (it’s not a bad 4-letter word), and know that “this too shall pass.” Hugs.
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Christy Keating is a certified parent coach, positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.
The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.