Are parents the roadblock to their child’s sound sleep?



As a certified sleep coach, most of my consultations start something like this: I ask parents to tell me a bit more about what’s going on with their child’s sleep issue. More often than not, I get a response that includes one of these sentiments:

Well, it’s my fault because I did this…

I know I messed it all up because…

I’ve ruined their sleep.

The tone isn’t difficult to identify. Guilt. Blame. Shame. Exhausted, these parents spend their nights — and often days — doing everything they can to get their children to sleep. Yet, they can’t describe their situation without explaining that it’s all a result of things they’ve done to create the problem. They are putting all the weight of the “blame” on their shoulders…and it’s not a load they should have to carry.

When I ask a sleep client to describe their situation, I’m always listening for their sleep “crutch.” A sleep crutch is something the parent does that helps their child fall asleep (that the child cannot do for themselves). This causes the child to depend on a parent for sleep and ultimately, makes it difficult (or impossible) for them to fall asleep on their own. The crutch is at the root of all sleep issues because it is the obstacle that gets in the way of them learning how to self-soothe. Whether it is rocking, feeding, laying with, or holding hands —  these are all essentially roadblocks that are impeding the learned skill of being able to fall asleep on one’s own.

Jessica Manela Litwack, a social worker and certified gentle sleep coach, is the owner of Haven Sleep Solutions. She lives in Ladue with her husband and two children. You can reach her at [email protected].

So when mom or dad explains what is going on at bedtime when the baby is refusing to sleep, they are usually also condemning themselves as the “roadblock.” Are they right? A crutch, by definition, is something that is done by a parent. Also, the association the child makes with their action keeps them from falling asleep on their own. But what I would argue is that parents should not feel guilty and ashamed for the situation they find themselves in. Here’s why:

Parents who find themselves with a child who doesn’t sleep well must make a choice of how to cope. Their child needs to get sleep somehow because without it there are countless side effects (not limited to the ones that involve torturing bystanders with overtired whining). Not to mention, parents deserve sleep too. Simply put, in order to be the best parent we can be to our kids, we cannot be chronically sleep deprived. And sometimes that means making decisions that do not go by the “rulebook” (as if one really existed).

When a family is in the midst of a sleep crisis, no matter how long, they are forced to go into survival mode. The situation reaches a boiling point, and they must do what is best for their family at that moment. This might mean holding their baby until they fall asleep every night, napping with their 2-year-old every afternoon, or climbing into bed with their 3-year-old to get two more hours of sleep. Are all of these sleep crutches, which delay the development of independent sleep skills? Sure they are. But are they things to feel ashamed of? I would argue that they are not. Parents make these choices from a place of love. They do these things to ensure their children get the rest they require to thrive.

Instead of a mom listing all the ways she is “messing up” as she lays with her toddler during a nap, I would urge her to take a different perspective on what she is offering her baby. She isn’t “ruining” her child’s sleep, but rather unselfishly giving the child precious rest he desperately needs in the only way she knows how. He won’t sleep any other way during this phase of his life, so she puts everything on hold in hers while she lays with him. This isn’t going to “ruin” him. On the contrary, it’s showing him he can depend on her when he needs her the most, which is never a negative thing for children to learn from their parents.

When the time is right, most sleep issues can be corrected by committed parents with a structured and consistent plan. The decision of when the right time is varies for each family. Until then, don’t put so much pressure on yourselves as parents to fit into an idealized model of what perfect sleep looks like. Sometimes parenting means just surviving or making it through the night. When you’re ready to move onto the next phase and address the sleep issues you want to improve, consider consulting with a sleep coach.