August 2nd, 2022
What is the Baby-led Sleep Approach?
When I support families to get more sleep without sleep training, the method I use is focused on development and attachment. What the heck does that mean? To understand how this approach differs from more traditional methods, let’s dive into two different scopes you can use to view and approach your child’s needs; behavior and development.
I love it when things just make sense, and I hope that’s what happens for you here. You already know this stuff, but a little science every now and then can help remind us of what our hearts and bodies already know.
In a nutshell, my approach focuses on development rather than behavior. Behavior has been the dominant focus since the 1950s, when punishments and consequences became all the rage. Despite these practices not really working, not long term anyway, parents are still clinging to them. I want to unpack what’s happening behind the scenes of the heavy handed behavioral approach and discuss the more human potential friendly, developmental approach.
The Nitty Gritty of the Prevailing Behavioral Approach to Raising Children.
In simple terms, the idea is – if you’re consistent with how you handle your child, and how you direct their behavior, learning and shaping of the child will eventually occur. I think it’s important to point out that if this process worked, it wouldn’t need to be repeated forever and ever and ever.
In reality, humans are emotional creatures – which means behavior stems from an emotion, not from reasoning or intellect. It’s estimated by developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, that 99% of behavior problems are rooted in emotion; making the behavior focused approach, where the aim is to squash the behavior (emotion) ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
An example of using the behavioral approach when it comes to sleep, is the cry-it-out method hailed in popular sleep training culture. Waking up is the “behavior” desired to be changed, and the consequence to teach the lesson is separation from the parent.
You might wonder why these principles were ever thought to be a good idea. When humans became more advanced and more revolutionized, the needs of children became more and more inconvenient. In an effort to fix this, Drs of the early 1900s turned to animal studies, specifically of rats and pigeons. These studies showed great success with consistency and behavior modification using consequences and punishments (rewards too). These principles were copied/pasted to human babies, and voila the behavioral approach to raising children was born!
Some people may still argue – but it works, so what’s the problem! WELL, if these practices do work, it’s going to be short term and it’s not because the child has learned a lesson. Within the parent-child dynamic, maintaining the relationship is a matter of survival for the child, if a parent is unapproving of a behavior, a child will learn to suppress it in an effort to maintain the relationship with the parent.
Children aren’t learning to “self-soothe” like sleep trainers would have you believe – they are simply giving up on you and saving their precious energy.
This disconnection erodes the parent-child relationship overtime, hello teengers who slam their door in your face and don’t want to share their struggles with you. Can we really blame them when their struggles have been met with separation and consequences all of their life?
Parents who are still convinced the behavioral method is the way to go, will meet such teenage defiance with, you guessed it, more separation, punishment and consequences, further eroding the relationship. I think you get the point, if not, I think you’re reading the wrong post…
So if a behavioral approach isn’t the golden ticket, what is? The way I approach struggles with families is through a developmental lens. All this means is that instead of aiming to extinguish the undesirable behavior, we start at the root, and 100% support the child to make changes that their development is ready for and capable of.
Why is the child not sleeping the way you think they should? Are your expectations developmentally appropriate? A great example is self-soothing. Our culture is OBSESSED with self-soothing, because it reflects independence and, again, our culture is absolutely obsessed with independence. A shame really, when you remember that humans are developmentally meant to live in tribes and communities.
Even for an adult, just the thought of being cast out alone is terrifying. Back in the day, it most certainly meant death – and our biology remembers it that way! Especially children, who are born with an immature brain, and live primarily in the primal part of the brain, this whole left alone to self-soothe nonsense feels like a death sentence to them; eventually leaving them no choice but to shut down in an effort to save energy to survive.
ANYWAY, to wrap up, a developmental approach simply takes into account where a child is in their development, and what is reasonable as far as making changes to sleep or expectations of their behavior.
Peering through the developmental lens when understanding and responding vs. reacting to your child’s immature behavior is life changing. For more detail about what’s happening when kids act like maniacs (scream, hit, bite etc) check out my blog post.
The Cherry on Top
The good news is, you have endless opportunities to change how you interact with your children. I don’t even want to know how many bedtimes that is… or how many tantrums… yikes.
The cherry on top is that approaching your child’s behavior through a developmental lens is a one stop shop as far as building your relationship with them, which at the end of the day is everything.
If your child feels not just allowed, but welcome and loved to throw an all out tantrum because the banana you handed them “broke” or because they wanted to red cup “NOT THE BLUE ONE”, you will be well on your way to teenage years where you don’t have to guess what they are upset about today, or try to bribe their friends to let you in on the inner workings of their lives. Understanding the role of emotion in humans is crucial for thriving in these moments.
When children feel safe and loved in their relationship with you, a.k.a. their life line, they can relax and focus on, yup – developing and unfolding into their greatest potential.