Luke Salkeld speaks to certified baby sleep consultant, Louise Goncalves
The sound of your child crying is one of the hardest things to hear. And a lack of sleep is one of the hardest things to bear. A combination of both is universally acknowledged as one of the toughest challenges of parenting.
Yet letting your child “cry it out” until they fall asleep remains a common approach used by tired parents in a desperate bid to establish a workable sleep routine. It has been widely written about, and is frequently recommended.
One reason for its apparent popularity may be simplicity. While not an easy approach to take, it does appear to avoid grey areas, adjustments and tweaks, with just a simple set of instructions to follow. The idea is that you put your child to bed, and then you go out of the room, leaving them alone to cry until they (eventually) fall asleep.
But it’s not a method recommended by children’s sleep consultant Louise Goncalves.
“Leaving babies and toddlers to cry themselves to sleep has been very popular in the past,” she said.
“It’s easy to sell as an idea, because it’s easy to describe. It’s what many of today’s mothers would have experienced when they were babies, and if you repeat it enough as an idea, it becomes accepted.
“But it can be extremely stressful. And we don’t know whether letting children cry themselves to sleep will lead to attachment issues when they grow up.”
Indeed, trauma experts such as best-selling author Gabor Mate cite research which claims that the cry it out method can impose enormous stress on a developing brain.
Louise adds: “Now people understand more about the importance of secure attachment with their children. They are asking whether there are better ways of helping their child to sleep.”
Louise, who offers both online consultations as well as overnight visits, says she prefers to seek alternative solutions for families.
She explains: “What we do know is that responsive parenting is the style of parenting that’s more likely to lead to secure attachments.
“Responsive parenting helps parents and children to build their attachments through early childhood, and also helps parents and children to build their own confidence.”
Louise says that many of her clients are parents who have decided not to go down the “crying it out” route, but don’t know what else to do.
“They may have tried it, but couldn’t do it, because it’s horrible listening to your child cry,” says Louise.
“But at the same time, they don’t want to be a night time martyr. They are seeking alternatives that get the balance between being responsive as a parent but also getting some sleep.”
Encouragingly, Louise says there are “plenty of quick wins” which can be achieved with a fresh and thoughtful approach to bed time – something that can be achieved by seeing an expert baby sleep consultant to help implement strategies that are tailored for families.
One common mistake parents make is to drastically reduce the amount of napping during the day in the hope that their child will be so tired at bed time that they instantly fall asleep.
“That just does not work,” Louise confirms.
“The scientific evidence shows that when you get really really tired, your body will release the hormone cortisol to keep you going. And once you’ve got that in your system, it affects your night time sleep.
“Also, If you’re crashing to sleep at the start of the night because you’re exhausted, you miss some of the early parts of the sleep cycle and go straight into a deep sleep. This means you’re more likely to wake up during the night because your brain hasn’t practised moving through the first stages of the sleep cycle.”
“So cutting back on naps in the day is a no no. You just need to get the timing and length of those naps right.”
Louise, a mother of three, says that many of the parents she helps feel overwhelmed by the pressures of bed times. Evenings and night times can become stressful battle zones which put a strain on relationships.
As part of the solution to his she also recommends a calm “pre-bed time routine” to set the scene for a more restful existence. Expecting a child to go from running around at full throttle to falling asleep 20 minutes later, she says, is unrealistic.
Instead she advises low levels of lighting (to increase melatonin levels), no screens, and crucially, some time spent connecting with your child to help with the physical separation of bed time.
Louise says: “If you can supercharge that parent child connection before bed, it eases the separation that occurs when it’s time to sleep.
“If you’re both feeling good about the time you’ve just spent together, with some child led play, reading stories, or even co-bathing, rather than being busy busy busy and rushing to get everything sorted for the next day, it’s a different bed time experience altogether.”