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Sleep Baby, Sleep: Cultivating Some Sleep Zen

Sleep Baby, Sleep: Cultivating Some Sleep Zen

When my child was an infant, he was about as good at sleeping as he was at long division. This meant that we, his parents, spent many nights in a vertical position wishing for sleep to move in and overtake everyone in the house. Some nights he would just cry at the unknowable expansiveness of the world before him. Other nights he would just stare up at the ceiling, as I rocked him “down” while singing (or more appropriately, hoarsely mumbling) back-catalog Bowie classics. When he finally started sleeping with some regularity, I was somewhat amazed, as throughout all of those endless nights, I had convinced myself that he not only did not need sleep, but disliked it with great skepticism (as I write this, he sleeps peacefully upstairs).

As harrowing and frustrating as some of those nights were, my wife and I stumbled upon a small bit of wisdom that seemed to work well for us (or in the least, make things more bearable for all involved). It was sort of an inversion of intentions; instead of trying to calm an upset or crying baby, we focused on trying to be calm ourselves. Achieving a sense of calm, an imperturbable sense of calm, was the ultimate and highest goal. No longer would we be wrapped up in the desired result, as much as we would be invested in remaining in a state of purposeful tranquility. That way, if the baby cried for hours, we would not be overtly disappointed, as the goal was not to quiet him, but to provide a sort of blanket of serenity. Believe it or not, this worked (most of the time).

I was reminded of this harrowing time by the publication of an article concerning bedtime routines in The Journal of Family Psychology. The article and research (which regrettably only focuses on the mother’s role in the bedtime ritual – boo, hiss!) argues that it’s not good enough for mothers to simply be there, but they have to be “present” — serene and sensitive and warm — as well. The research, which was conducted at Penn State University, used 39 mothers as subjects and gathered data (via videotaping and questionnaires) about how the mothers felt about each bedtime and how their babies were sleeping. The requisite warm physicality of soothing a child to sleep (rocking down, holding, etc) are, essentially “going through the motions,” the study concludes, and had far less impact on sleep quality than emotional cues. The true shift occurred when the mothers in the study engaged in these actions while feeling generally warm and positive. The result was the baby slept well, (on average at least) and when the warm physical interactions were performed by a mother who was irritable, hasty, or distracted, the children were more likely to sleep poorly. No real surprise there.

OK, I will not say, “I told you so” but I feel this study (however limited and flawed for not including fathers) does provide some form of vindication, or at least substantiation. The baby, or child, has no real emotional control during these times, and therefore is looking toward you (the parent) to lead by example. If you are resentful, rushed, or completely out of your head, the child will meet you in crazy town without a second thought. However, if you are composed and relaxed, the child will find his/her way there sooner or later (hopefully sooner).

Has anyone else tried this? If so, how do you achieve this semi-Zen enlightened state without losing consciousness and/or resorting to mood altering substances. Do you find that your children soak up your mood and reflect your emotional state at, or around, bedtime? What is your secret for staying calm and tranquil for yourself, and the whole family, at the end of the day?

Read more: Babies, Family, Mental Wellness, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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1:16PM PST on Jan 30, 2013


2:23AM PST on Jan 24, 2013

thanks for sharing

10:29PM PST on Nov 28, 2011

A serene attitude is an ideal and rather lofty response to any stress.

Yes, we learned the same lesson with our first kiddo, who didn't sleep through the night until 1st grade, and cried frequently until 3rd grade. By then, my nerves were a jangled wreck! When I could manage it, no matter her age, I focused on taking slow, deep breaths. More times than not, however, I went to bed regretting not being patient enough.

Along comes our next kiddo who cries in pain from some unknown dietary source or acid reflux. His first 6 months were really quite difficult for us. There is no consoling a baby in pain. So breathing, relaxing, minimizing the internalization of stress, was imperative.

My oldest is pushing 11 now, and pushing many of my buttons by forgetting instructions given only moments before, hiding dirty clothing under her bed, and crying over spilt milk (literally). Breathe.

My youngest is a healthy and painfree 2 year old now. He explores everything, touches everything, and listens to little. Breathe.

I went back to work and had to learn the work/family balance. It is a moving target that I often miss. Breathe.

No matter the external stress, an attitude of zen, calm, serenity, whatever you call it, helps one to not respond to insanity with insanity. (When one can actually freaking muster it anyway!)

8:35PM PST on Nov 14, 2011

Sweet baby ..and great article .. thanks!

6:02AM PST on Nov 13, 2011

Thank you

11:52PM PDT on Aug 28, 2010

"Achieving a sense of calm, an imperturbable sense of calm, was the ultimate and highest goal." = I think this can apply to all types of situations & not just sleep. Thanks for this article, Eric. C",) Reminds me of what I did right & teaches me not to repeat (to the best of my abilities) the wrongs.

11:22AM PDT on Jul 4, 2010

I have trouble sleeping still, and I haven't been a baby for quite a few years now haha. Thanks for the article!

1:29AM PDT on Jul 4, 2010

nice, thanks!

8:27PM PDT on Jul 3, 2010

thanks for the article

10:56AM PDT on Jul 3, 2010

As I've said before, once you become a parent how YOU feel counts for NOTHING. Sorry, I'm just not a "calm, serene" person. Never was, never will be. Neither is my husband. So, was it child abuse to my daughter because we're not the "perfect" temperment"? This is why I hate all these articles. She's 17 now, so we're dealing with other issues. Parenting involves enough sacrifices, and the first to go is your personality!!

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