Do Children Need Sleep Training?
For a good night’s sleep, children need to feel safe and secure. Physical contact with parents helps them calm down and relax.
For adults, sleep is considered to be healthy when we can sleep through the night. And that’s why we wish the same for our children – that they, too, can sleep without getting up at night, and let us sleep in peace. During the stone age, people were more often awake at night, for example, in order to hunt. During the day, hunters and gatherers had periods of rest with real sleep.
Although we now live in the 21st century, our organism still functions as it did then. The autonomic nervous system only distinguishes between tension and relaxation, anxiety and security, stress and regeneration, and it requires a balance between the two. But people today tend to rush from appointment to appointment, often without taking even the shortest break from our work. This can sometimes cause disruptions to our sleep at night, our “long break”, so to speak, because of too many stress hormones in the blood. It’s no different for children than for adults.
Physical contact fosters a sense of security
Gathering together around the fire at night gave our early ancestors a sense of security. Today, small children experience a similar sense of security at the breast of their mother, who not only provides nourishment through the breast milk, but also the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. After weaning, children seek security through body contact with their parents in their bed, until they no longer need it, maintains Dr. Renz-Polster. As the author of a book about children & sleep, he expressly opposes practices such as letting children cry themselves to sleep or leaving them to cry or fall asleep alone in their own room. “If a child has been left crying for 15 minutes and then falls asleep from exhaustion, they have not learned how to go to sleep, but how to rest,” he explains.
“What the child takes away from the experience is the feeling of ‘I can’t fight, I can’t escape,’” adds the physician. “The child gives up.” What remains is a sense of insecurity and the feeling that “My signals don’t count, even if I am in need.” Often in such cases, the child does not sleep very well and tends to wake up screaming and crying.
“Humans need a sense of security in order to sleep,” asserts Renz-Polster. Sleep training, however, is counter-intuitive to our deeply-rooted instinct that falling asleep makes us vulnerable. But we can only relax if we feel safe. “And only when we are relaxed can we sleep.” This is why small children are especially in need of closeness when they become tired. “Only when they have made the repeated experience that they are not being abandoned can they form an own sense of security” – coupled with the certainty that “here, I have a good home where I can sleep, here I can relax.” Parents cannot force the creation of this sense of security in their child, but only accompany it – by being close to their child and providing comfort whenever needed.
Don´t let children cry themselves to sleep
The foundations of sound sleep are laid during the day, by treating one another with respect, which is experienced by all members of the family as a team. This includes establishing sensible boundaries by establishing times for adequate (but not excessive) activities and movement, as well as more calm phases, for instance, for cuddling together. It’s important that time spent together is free from any underlying sense that the parents are annoyed in anticipation of another hard night. “When the issue of sleep negatively affects the relationship, it makes the child feel insecure about sleep in general, which can lead to an apparent sleep disorder or also a behavioural disorder in the child,” says Renz-Polster. He therefore encourages parents to nurture a relationship with their child that is not characterized by struggle, control and forced functioning, but instead by understanding and a fascination for how their child is growing up.