Sleep Training & Sensitive Children
When I discuss Sleep Training, I understand those who did train their littles have a lot of feelings about it. Trust me, I know how it feels and that's the main reason I chose to support families offering alternatives. But this post in specific was written for parents who have sensitive children, and maybe tried to sleep train but felt it wasn't not for them. My posts are not aiming to change people's minds about their decisions, but to support those who already chose a different way, sometimes unknowingly.
Some children wake more often than others, not because we are "rewarding" them with our response, but because we are all different (check my “hourly waking” highlight if your child is waking hourly every night). Before we jump into the idea that we need to “fix the behavior” and even reframe it with focusing on the relationship instead, there’s a crucial element that’s not discussed nearly enough.
These past month, most of my clients had attempted to sleep train before coming to me or have had sleep trained their littles in the past but parents did not want to go through the “retraining" process. I noticed one pattern with all of them, in all cases their children had at least some characteristics of being sensitive little ones.
In accordance with Dr. Elaine Aron, 15 to 20 percent of the population are composed by Highly Sensitive (Spirited) People. Babies described as spirited (highly sensitive) are more likely to be easily aroused due to their genetically wired temperament.
Now here’s what’s interesting, for about 20% of babies, sleep training just doesn't work, Jodi Mindell says. Mindell is a psychologist and researcher, as well as an advocate for sleep training*
Saying that sleep training “works" is also relative, because most parents truly believe that they are training their children to sleep, but sleep is a biological function and cannot be taught. So then, after the sleep training process, when the child stops crying at bedtime and doesn’t call for assistance during the night, the conclusion is “it works”. This may be the goal for some parents, however if your goal is to keep the communication channel with your little one in a way that they will call you for feeds, comfort and support, sleep training may not be the answer.
The issue I see is that falling asleep independently before children are ready is also something that challenges some of the most primitive reactions for a young child, the attachment system. This system keeps young humans safe and it is built in, a survival instinct, not a result of “too responsive” parenting or a lack of giving “opportunities for independence”. The only way to deactivate this alarm is through proximity and the ability to rest assured that their needs will be responded to. Young children can’t down regulate their Neurosystems without a mature Neurosystem**, this process known as co-regulation will take several years of observing you self-regulating so when neurologically ready, they will do the same. So basically when a child stops crying at bedtime, it doesn’t always mean they are now fine and learned to fall asleep independently.
Now, for the children who do not stop crying, the 15% to 20% I mentioned previously, it is said that parents should try harder or maybe they were not consistent enough. I heard these things myself and keep hearing from the families coming to me for support.
So next time someone pressures you into sleep training or questions your decisions, you can confidently say that sleep training is definitely not for everyone, and doesn’t "work" for every child.
I would like to make it clear that I am not discussing secure attachment, which often results in that old narrative of “Attachment parenting is different from Secure Attachment” even when we are not advocating for attachment parenting, I'm discussing Attachment Theory. What I advocate for is for families to have all the information they need, to get to know their unique child, to then make a decision based on what they feel is right for them. This may mean shifting sleep patterns in a very slow pace, adapting and changing things depending on how the child responds to those changes. Maybe it will take several weeks, months, to see improvements but this is respectful. Every single child is different just like every adult.
If you want to know more about HSP, click here
**Montroy, J.J., Bowles, R.P., Skibbe, L.E., McClelland, M.M., & Morrison, F.J. (2016). The development of self-regulation across early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 52(11), 1744-1762. doi: 10.1037/dev0000159.