Babies are bad sleepers. Multiple nocturnal awakenings are normal in the first few years of life and not a cause for concern. On the contrary, it is completely wrong to expect babies or toddlers to fall asleep and sleep through the night alone in their own bed, and even schoolchildren can still fear separation at night. Only in very few (western) cultures is it common for children to sleep separately from their parents before school age, and this has only been the case for a relatively short time, ie since the beginning of industrialization.
From the point of view of attachment theory, behaviors that the child shows when tired and waking up at night can be interpreted as attachment behavior. Attachment behavior is understood as behavior that serves to establish or maintain the closeness of a preferred attachment person in order to find security and security there. These behaviors are controlled by an innate attachment behavior system that is activated when you feel unwell (e.g. due to tiredness, fear, illness, excessive demands). The activation of the attachment behavior system in connection with the sleep situation is understandable through evolutionary psychological considerations: In the sleep situation, the child was helplessly exposed to threatening dangers (from storms, predators, etc.), when it has not been protected by the closeness and care of parents. The closeness and care of the parents gives the child a feeling of security and security that lets them fall asleep calmly. Physical contact with the parents plays a particularly important role with infants and very young children. Even if the child woke up at night, it was advantageous for the survival of the child in the course of evolution if it first made sure that the parents were present before going back to sleep. Although there are children who have built a strong trust in their environment and can sleep in their own bed without any problems without ever having been trained on it, in many children, however, primitive alarm systems in the brain and body are activated at bedtime. These children need the sensitive support of the attachment person,
Sensitive care requires that the attachment person perceives the child’s signals, interprets them correctly and reacts to them promptly and appropriately. Sensitive parenting behavior is an important prerequisite for developing a secure bond. In relation to the sleeping situation, this means that the attachment person must understand that the child is expressing an intense separation anxiety through screaming or crying that it cannot regulate on its own. Most children primarily seek physical contact with their parents, but the parents’ voice can also have a calming effect. Many infants also like to be nursed to sleep and this is the best way to find peace.
From the point of view of attachment theory, the following recommendations for the sleep situation can be derived:
(1) Babies and toddlers generally sleep best in the vicinity of their parents, ie ideally in their parents ‘bedroom, in their parents’ bed, in an extra bed or in their own bed in the same room. If the child is to sleep in their own room early on, it must be ensured that the parents can quickly perceive the child’s signals when they wake up at night and react to them directly, in order to prevent the child from waking up properly and possibly by screaming or calling after the parents become so aroused that it is difficult to get back to sleep.
(2) Especially with infants, close physical contact with the attachment figure plays a central role in regulating stress and excitement. Laying down next to the child to sleep or at least touching the child, as well as co-sleeping give the child a feeling of security and security, which promotes a peaceful sleep.
(3) Children’s need for sleep is also very different from person to person and also varies depending on the time of day, the season and other factors. Sensitivity to the needs of the child therefore also includes putting the child to bed when the child is really tired, and not at a set time. Often the cause of problems falling asleep is that the child is simply not yet tired or (less often) that the child is already too tired. Children who are tired also want to sleep and usually signal this clearly.
(4) The parents’ well-being also plays an important role here: If the parents themselves are stressed, it will be difficult for them to calm their child. Anger and stress can activate the alarm systems in the child’s brain and make them feel too unsafe to sleep.
(5) If the parents are so exhausted from permanently exhausting nights that they no longer feel able to cope with the demands of everyday life due to chronic fatigue or if they even develop negative feelings towards the child due to the sleeping situation, action should be taken. This is especially important because stress and exhaustion also impair the parents’ sensitivity, which affects the relationship and bond with the child. A first step can be the analysis of the sleep situation against the background of attachment theory considerations. For example, frequent nocturnal breastfeeding is much less stressful for the mother when the child sleeps in the parents’ bed or in the extra bed than when the mother has to get up several times a night. A change in sleep times according to the needs of the child can also bring about a change. If such attempts are unsuccessful, it is also worth taking a look at the daily routine of the family and looking at how the child’s attachment relationship (s) are formed in everyday life. If you have severe or chronic sleep problems, it can be helpful to go to an educational counseling center.
With all these considerations, it should not be forgotten that babies and children from birth also differ greatly in their temperament and of course there are children who are more irritable, are difficult to calm down and therefore often have a tendency to sleep problems. For these children in particular, however, dealing sensitively with their needs is of particular importance – which can be a great challenge for parents.