"Sleep Training": Some Theoretical Background for Parents

It's so hard to walk away from that face! Reader JD was asking me for some specifics on sleep training, and I fought off the urge to give you another list of "How-To's". Your baby is much more complicated than a quick "Baby's Sleep Checklist", so here are some thoughts to ponder while you are up with your little screamer tonight, courtesy of one of my faves, Selma Fraiberg:

Regarding 9-12 month old babies:

We understand that the older infant finds it painful to be separated from beloved persons. We grant him the right to protest. At the same time this pain, this discomfort, is something he can learn to tolerate if it is not excessive. We need to help him manage small amounts of discomfort and frustration. If we are too quick to offer our reassuring presence, he doesn't need to develop his own tolerance. How do we know how much he can tolerate? By testing a bit of the limits of his tolerance as they become known to us. The point at which protesting and complaining crying turn into an urgent or terrified summons is the point where most of us would feel he needs us and we would go to him. This is real anxiety and he needs our reassurance. But we need not regard all crying of the older infant and young child as being of the same order. At this age, in contrast to the period of early infancy, the baby can manage small amounts of anxiety or discomforts by himself....As far as possible we should try to reassure the child in his own bed. Picking him up, rocking him, is usually not necessary and seems indicated only when the baby is unusually distressed by anxiety or illness.

From The Magic Years, pages 74-75.

If you like Selma, Click on "The Quotable Parent" down and to the right for more juicy tidbits, or just buy the paperback -- I promise it will end up heavily read, re-read, mashed and dog-eared, like mine. I'm clinging tightly to Selma these days (and nights), as Baby #4 has proved to be exceptionally gifted in protesting loudly, and waking up her siblings. But we are making progress, and so will you. Hang in there!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: Fabulous Fraiberg #6: Why Won't My Toddler Sleep?

zzzzzz.......Excuse me, I was just dozing off. I haven't been able to get much sleep over the past, say, 10 years or so (I keep having babies, what can I say) -- and the pursuit of sleep, because of unwilling babies and toddlers, has become an obsession for me. Unfortunately, there's no holy grail, but at least there's a good explanation for it. As usual, I turn to the Fabulous Fraiberg for a little support over my sleepless children. I always get goosebumps when I reach the end of this section:

We began with a baby in the first month of life....His world was a chaos of undifferentiated sensation from which he slipped gratefully into the nothingness of sleep...

At 18 months this baby is traveling extensively and has acquired a small but useful vocabulary (just enough to get a meal and bargain with the natives). He has encountered some of the fundamental problems of the human race -- the nature of reality, of subjective and objective experience, causality, the vicissitudes of love, and has made promising studies in each of these areas. We could easily forgive him if these first encounters with our world should create a desire to go back to sleep twenty hours a day. But this fellow upsets all notions about human inertia by forging ahead like a locomotive right into the densities of human activity. Sleep?...Let us try to take it away from him and put him back into the darkness. Sleep? But look, he can't keep his eyes open! He's drunk with fatigue. He howls with indignation at the extended hands, rouses himself with a mighty exertion from near collapse to protest these villains who take away his bright and beautiful world. From his crib, in the darkened room he denounces these monster parents, then pleads for commutation of sentence in eloquent noises. he fights valiantly, begins to fail -- then succumbs to his enemy, Sleep.

Sleep -- at last

From Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years, pages 63-64

Don't blame the toddler for resisting sleep. But notice, Fraiberg doesn't suggest we take him out of the crib and let him keep up his explorations -- no, Fraiberg asks us to understand the toddler's dilemmas, to empathize with him, but to put him to bed nonetheless, when he needs it. A toddler can be "pushed" to go to sleep. A 6-month-old baby shouldn't (yet). It's this major disparity in the developmental needs of young children -- 3 months, vs. 6 months, vs. 9 months, vs. 12 and 18 and 24 months -- that confuses us, as parents. But the more we understand the unique needs of the specific age of our child, the better we will be at negotiating their needs.

And now, off to get a cup of coffee -- the baby needs me :)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: Fabulous Fraiberg #5 - Dealing With Negative Toddlers

Here's a continuation of the previous quote from Fraiberg. I try to keep this in mind while wrestling with the baby at diaper-changing time:

The chief characteristic of the second year is not negativism but a powerful striving to become a person and to establish permanent

Toddlers -- messy and hilarious

bonds with the world of reality. We must remember when we speak of the "negativism" of the toddler that this is also the child who is intoxicated with the discoveries of the second year, a joyful child who is firmly bound to his parents and his newfound world through ties of love.....Under ordinary circumstances it does not become anarchy. It's a kind of declaration of independence, but there is no intention to unseat the government....The citizen can be allowed to protest the matter of the changing of his pants (they are his pants, anyway) and the government can exercise its prerogatives in the matter of pants changing without bringing on a crisis. When the citizen is small and wriggly, is illiterate and cannot even speak his native language, it takes ingenuity and patience to accomplish this, but if we do not handle this as a conspiracy against the government, he will finally acquire the desirable attitude that changing his pants is an ordinary event, and one that will not deprive him of his human rights.

Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years, pages 62-62

It's a lot of work coping with (and cleaning up after) these shrimpy mess-makers, but try to remember that you're in charge, after all. Then try to enjoy the wild abandon that is the miracle of your toddler.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: The Fabulous Fraiberg #4 -- Why Your Toddler Says NO

Toddlers say "NO" with such glee. It's clear that they've discovered a powerful tool when they start to randomly chant "no no no...." like the words to a song repeated ad nauseum, meant to irritate us parents. Here's what the Fabulous Fraiberg had to say about the issue: Already a politician

So the toddler, with only a few words at his command, has come upon "no" as a priceless addition to his vocabulary. He says "no" with splendid authority to almost any question addressed to him. Very often it is a "no" pronounced in the best of spirits and doesn't even signal an intention. It may even preface an opposite intention. He loves his bath. "Tony, would you like to have your bath now?" "No!" Cheerfully. (But he has already started to climb the stairs.)...What is this? A confusion of meaning? Not at all. They know the meaning of "no" quite well. It's a political gesture, a matter of maintaining party differences while voting with the opposition on certain issues...."I wish to state at the outset that in casting my vote for the amendment on the bath, I am not influenced by the powerful interest groups that are behind this amendment, but I am...in favor of baths." It's a matter of keeping the record clear.

From The Magic Years, page 60. So for all practical purposes, it's important to keep a sort of "Toddler Translator" running at all times, ready to analyze the true meaning of any given "NO". I've found this helps take the grind out of the seeming constant negativity of this age. When you look at them that way, toddlers can actually be quite hilarious. Hang in there! Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: The Fabulous Fraiberg #3 -- How to Civilize Your "Little Savage"

Your toddler isn't a "kid". Your toddler is a unique creature with his own way of thinking. We could all use some reminding about what it's like to be a toddler. Check this out, another gem from Fraiberg, about the experience of a young toddler:

The missionaries have arrived

The missionaries have arrived. They come bearing culture to the joyful savage. They smuggled themselves in as infatuated parents, of course. They nurtured him, made themselves indispensable to him, lured him into the discovery of their fascinating world, and after a decent interval they come forth with salesmen's smiles to promote higher civilization.

Somewhere between eight and fifteen months they sell him on the novelty and greater convenience of a cup over the breast or bottle. By the time he himself has come to regard the cup as a mark of good breeding and taste the missionaries have lost interest in the cup and are promoting the hygiene and etiquette of potty chairs and toilets which, he is assured, will elevate him into still higher strata of culture....They are forever on hand with a clean diaper, a pile of fresh clothes and hypocritical smiles to induce him to leave whatever it is he is doing for whatever it is they want him to be doing, and it's certain to be a bore. They are there to interfere with the joys of emptying garbage cans and wastebaskets. And of course, they bring in proposals of naps and bedtime at the most unfortunate moments and for reasons that are clear only to them.

Now, admittedly, such interference is necessary in order to bring culture to a fellow who obviously needs it. But from the baby's point of view most of this culture stuff makes no sense at all. He only knows that certain vital interests are being interfered with, and since his missionaries and he do not even speak the same language, the confusion will not be cleared up for some time.

The baby resists these interferences with his own investigations and creative interests. This earns him the reputation of being "negative" and permits us to speak of the second year as "a negativistic phase." This is not entirely fair to the toddler who lacks the means for stating his case. If he had a good lawyer he could easily demonstrate that most of the negating comes from the side of the culture bearers, and his "negativism" is essentially a negation of their negation.

From Selma Fraiberg's The Magic Years, pages 59-60.

That's why an easy-going toddler toddler with no complaints actually worries me. It's not developmentally appropriate. So the next time your toddler dumps out your garbage can, think of Fraiberg and try to smile. My 7-month-old and I be joining you there again in just a few months :)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: The Fabulous Fraiberg #2 -- Fear and the Young Child

I'm plowing through essential classic parenting titles as I write my own book. Fraiberg is such a gem, and even 50 years after publication, this book is a giant among Fears can't be avoided

parenting titles. In this next section, she elaborates on the theme of the child's own innate ability to deal with fears. She give us a timely reminder that we need to trust in the inner ability of our children to cope with their own difficulties. Of course they need us to assist and support them in that process, but the "equipment" is there, naturally. These days too many of us get caught up in worrying that we need to teach our kids every single thing, and don't give them enough space to work on solving their own problems. I find it quite a relief to be reminded that my kids are far from a tabula rasa -- a blank slate -- but rather, they come pre-loaded with all sorts of fancy developmental abilities.

(Normally) the child overcomes his fears. And here is the most fascinating question of all: How does he do it? For the child is equipped with the means for overcoming his fears. Even in the second year he possesses a marvelously complex mental system which provides the means for anticipating danger, assessing danger, defending against danger, and overcoming danger. Whether this quipment can be successfully employed will depend, of course, on the parents who, in a sense, teach him to use his equipment. This means that if we understand the nature of the developing child and those parts of his personality that work for solution and resolution toward mental health, we are in the best position to assist him in developing his inner resources for dealing with fears.

From Selma Fraiberg's The Magic Years, page 6.

So as parents, the best we can do is to understand the developmental process, know the temperamental realities of our own kids, and hold their hands while they walk through the tricky spots. No parenting "technique" can take the place of a genuinely interested, centered, and supportive parent -- one who knows when to step in and help, and one who knows when to hang back and trust the magic of the developmental process.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: The Fabulous Fraiberg #1 - Child Development Problems

Selma Fraiberg wrote this classic on early childhood fifty years ago. My own thinking is based largely on her work, and I literally sleep with this on my bedside table for parenting comfort after a hard day with the kids. One of the problems with parenting advice today is that it's a "one size fits all" approach that doesn't take the child's specific developmental stage -- or temperament -- into account. Fraiberg explained this in the juicy little quote I've included below. Here's a sampler from the book's preface:

If we understand the process of child development, we see that each developmental stage brings with it characteristic problems. The parents' method of helping the child must take into account the child's own development and his mental equipment at any given stage. This means that there is very little point in speaking categorically about "childhood anxieties" or "discipline problems in childhood". The anxieties of the two year old are not the same as the anxieties of the five year old. Even if the same crocodile hides under the bed of one small boy between the ages of two and five, the crocodile of the two year old is not the same as the crocodile of the five year old -- from the psychological point of view. He's had a chance to grow with the boy and is a lot more complex after three years under the bed than he was the day he first moved in. Furthermore, what you do about the crocodile when the boy is two is not the same as what you do about him when the boy is five."

From the classic "The Magic Years", by Selma Fraiberg: page xvii.

Here at BabyShrink, I take Fraiberg a step farther. We look at problems with parenting babies, toddlers and preschoolers, and break the developmental stages down even more specifically. So the feeding problems of the 3-month-old are completely different than the feeding problems of the 9-month-old or of the two-year-old.

I don't do any affiliate links in any way from this site, so believe it when I say the 10 bucks you spend on this gem at amazon (or wherever) will be worth way more than that in parenting clarity. Enjoy!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink