How to Cope with Anxiety About Sleep Training

So you’re on the fence about this whole, “teaching your baby to sleep,” thing.

On the one hand, you know that sleep is essential for everyone in your family. You’ve read all the literature and have come to agree with the consensus of the pediatric community that sleep is vital to your baby’s development and well-being. You’re 100 percent positive that your little one needs some help learning how to sleep well, and you’re dedicated to helping them overcome this obstacle.

Lots of parents I’ve worked with have started off absolutely riddled with anxiety. They know there’s a problem that needs fixing and they’re committed to that solution, but even with all of the research and evidence that this is a safe, effective process, they’re still on pins and needles.

Because there’s a big difference, right? There’s all the babies, and then there’s your baby. And when it comes to your baby, the research and evidence can’t override your concern that you might be doing something wrong. Especially if your baby doesn’t seem to take to the new way of doing things right away.

So, what’s happening here? Is this your maternal instinct kicking in? Are you subconsciously aware of an underlying threat to your baby? Is mother nature trying to tell you not to teach your baby to sleep?

Well, sorry to be ambiguous, but the truth is, it’s complicated.

Let’s take a few things into consideration here. First of all, you’re probably running on empty at this point when it comes to your own sleep. If your baby’s not sleeping, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re not sleeping either, and that can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being.

Sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that controls several of your immediate emotional reactions.

According to a 2007 joint study between Harvard Medical School and UC Berkeley, '...a lack of sleep inappropriately modulates the human emotional brain response to negative aversive stimuli.'

Or, in layman’s terms, you’re likely to overreact when things go bad. So when, say, your baby starts to cry, you’re less inclined to think, 'I wonder what she needs,' and much more likely to think things like, 'I’m a complete failure as a parent.'

This is what happens after just one night of sleep deprivation, so you can imagine what chronic lack of sleep over the course of weeks, or even months, can lead to. You may even be experiencing it right now. It leaves you feeling helpless, inadequate, and riddled with anxiety.

Alright, that’s the sleep deprivation part. Let’s look at the other major reason that this process can be so difficult, and the real elephant in the room when it comes to this whole endeavour: crying.

Will your child cry when you’re teaching them this skill? Here’s the straight answer. It is entirely likely that yes, your baby’s going to cry when you implement these new rules around bedtime.

Is your baby also going to cry when they get dropped off on their first day of school? Maybe! 

Will your baby throw a fit when you turn off their favourite cartoons, or when they get their first taste of asparagus, or when they’re told not to eat dirt?

You betcha. And even though you know they’re not in any danger or genuine distress in those situations, you’re still going to feel your heart explode when you hear your baby crying.

But again, if we look at this objectively, we can see that there’s an actual reason why the sound of a crying baby causes us such distress, and it’s not because of the actual level of urgency. Dr. David Poeppel, Professor Of Psychology & Neural Science at NYU, found that a crying baby differs from other environmental noises in something called the 'amplitude modulation rate,' meaning how often the loudness of a sound changes.

Crying babies, along with car alarms and police sirens, have a modulation rate of about 100 times per second, compared to a regular speaking voice, which hovers somewhere between 4 or 5.

In experiments with an MRI to monitor the brains of people while listening to a variety of sounds, Poeppel found that baby screams have a unique ability to trigger activity in… you guessed it, our old friend, the amygdala.

Now, I could suggest some meditation practice and deep breathing exercises to help calm your nerves before we start teaching your baby these vital sleep skills. In fact, I think that’'s a great idea, but I’m guessing you already know what works for you in those arenas.

Where I think I can be of the biggest help here is by getting you to realise that your brain, despite having some really noble intentions, is playing tricks on you. It’s making you feel negligent. It’s making you think that your baby is in desperate need of something they’re not. It’s attempting to get you to address an immediate situation because it’s incapable of appreciating the long-term solution that you’re working towards.

As with most instinctual habits, this one is more easily dealt with when we can appreciate not just what we’re feeling, but the science behind why we feel what we feel, so I wanted to provide you with that vital tool before you take on the challenge of helping your baby sleep through the night.

While you may have moments of anxiety, the best thing you can do for your little one is make a commitment to the program. Sticking with the plan - which still allows for lots of comfort and gentle reassurance for your little one - is key. Trust the process!


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