Once upon a time humankind lived a life more in tune with nature. We rose with the sun rise, and went to sleep when the sun set. We lived in groups, and hunted, and gathered from the land for food. Our babies carried with us, in arms and in simple ‘slings’, sleeping by our side. Ahh, how idyllic… or not…
Part of the reality of this prehistoric paradise was that we were also part of the food chain. Both hunter and hunted. Humans were at risk of being attacked by the local wildlife. We stayed together for safety. Our babies, who are such gorgeous little bundles of helplessness, were safe only when they were close to us. They relied on us for food, for warmth, and for protection. A baby left alone was not safe. Every instinct of babies, to cry when put down, to cling, to relax when in contact with their parents, is based on ‘parents mean safety’.
Safe as houses
Nowadays, babies are as safe as houses. They are warm, well fed, and gently rocked to sleep before being placed lovingly down in their beautiful basket. Only to wake up moments/minutes/(if you are very lucky) an hour later screaming as though you had abandoned them to their fate in the wilderness. The thing is, as far as they are concerned, you have!
From womb to world; parent, protector.
All their life, from the first stirrings of consciousness as they become aware in the warm, wet world of the womb, you have been there. The ultimate safety. Their body contained inside your body. Your heartbeat, their lullaby. Your movements, rocking and easing them to sleep. Even your body provides their very life giving energy. You were their protector and sustainer. It is all they have ever known. They exist in this most connected, most instinctive state.
And when your baby is born, and they enter our world, they are still instinctively tuned in to you as their sustainer and protector. They still have the instincts that tell them that being alone means they are in danger. They cry to signal for help.
When you pick up a baby and they instantly settle some people will tell you that your baby is manipulating you. They got you to pick them up. But really what happened was your baby felt scared or unsafe. Then you picked them up and they felt safe again; calm, protected, and loved.
Bedsharing: safe from suburban sabre toothed tigers
Your baby has no idea that there are no sabre toothed tigers roaming the suburbs. They don’t know that their cot is perfectly designed to be sleep safe. Human babies are designed/wired to feel safe around their parents. Throughout human evolution, all over the world, in almost every culture, parents have kept their babies close. Day and night.
Whole families slept in the same space. Beds were often a more comfy patch of floor. Babies slept close to their parents for warmth and to feed through the night. This close sleeping, what we now call bedsharing, is the biological norm. It is how families have met the needs of their babies overnight since the beginning of time.
Babies are normal, but society is weird
The idea of separate sleep spaces, of nurseries and cots, is the new invention. Evolutionarily speaking babies are normal. They are totally in tune with their instincts. We cannot convince them to feel safe on their own. We cannot explain to them that they are safe. It won’t make them feel safe. This is why bedsharing works for many families. It is the closest we can come to our biological norms in today’s sleep set ups.
Methods that encourage parents to allow babies to cry until they stop doesn’t teach babies that they are safe. It teaches them that no help is coming. When you are afraid of predators after a while going quiet makes sense. If the adults that protect you are gone, crying may just attract predators. Experiments measuring cortisol levels in babies left to cry show they stay high even after the crying stops. They haven’t self soothed. They still feel unsafe.
Support crying, and high needs babies
Some babies cry a lot. They cry a lot even when their parents spend every moment trying to soothe them. They are in pain or distressed a lot fo the time. These babies are often called high needs babies and it can be really frustrating to read that ‘just holding your baby will magically make them feel safe and calm’. High needs babies may cry unconsolably even in your arms. You are doing everything you can. We know.
BUT even though a baby who cries and cries in your arms is producing cortisol, the stress hormone, they produce less than when they are left alone. Even when you cannot stop the crying, you being there helps. Listening to your baby cry and being unable to calm them is horrendous. It can be overwhelming, and soul destroying. Sometimes you need to take a few minutes, calm yourself, avoid getting into a situation where you’re frustrated and tempted to shake them. Most of the time, however, just remember, you being there is helping. Talk to people who will listen to you and hear how hard this is, and help you cope. It will change, in time.
What can we do?
Make keeping them close work for you both
You cannot convince a baby they are safe when they are apart from you. However, you can find ways to keep them close in a way that is practical, safe and fits your life as much as possible. This may be using a cosleeping side car crib, or creating a safe bedsharing set up for night time sleep. It could also involve using a sling for parts of the day you need to be doing things to give you free hands.
Clever tricks aka sensory sleep cues
Sometimes it just isn’t possible, practical or safe to be right there with your baby all the time. We know this. They don’t, they don’t understand the pressures of real life. The things is, when you know that your presence helps them to feel safe, you can find ways to help them know you are near, even when you aren’t right there. This is where a lot of sensory cues come in handy. Here are a few ideas:
Transitional objects, that special toy/blanket that they take everywhere and helps them feel safe, often begins as something that they associate with you. It smells of you, and ideally this is something you make conscious use of. Keep a snuggly comforter close to your skin so it smells of you, and leave it with them when you manage to put them down, so if they rouse, they smell you and in their half asleep mind, it helps them know you are close and feel safe and go back to sleep.
White noise, alpha music, or dream sheep with heart beats, all create constant and consistent sounds like being in the womb, or having their head on your chest, hearing your heart beat. Using these sounds when getting your baby to sleep helps them become a familiar part of a baby’s sleep atmosphere. So, leaving them to play whilst they sleep can also help keep a sleepy baby calm when they stir.
We have lots of other ideas about sensory cues you can use when settling babies to sleep:
You are their safety
Sometimes, however, no sensory cue will trick your baby. Sometimes, they need you, the real you, the warm, snuggling, you-scented, real person, to hold them, and calm them and be near them. Night or day. Sometimes only you will do. Sensory cues will not make your baby an independent sleeper, nor teach them to self soothe. At a superficial level they may fool a half asleep baby into thinking you are close so they are safe. But, fundamentally, your baby will still feel calmest, and safest with you, and that is one of the greatest burdens and most wonderful privileges of parenting.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in