Wednesday, 30 January 2013

How do YOU 'Self-Soothe'?

The question of whether or not babies can learn to 'self-soothe' continues to divide parenting writers and experts. Does a baby left to cry alone in their cot eventually find ways to comfort themselves, to make themselves feel better? Or do they simply stop crying after a while because they realise that nobody will come and that there is nothing they can do about it - they learn that they are helpless?

Let's look at this from a fresh angle. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, let me ask you a question: How do YOU 'self-soothe'?

Think for a moment.

The shit is hitting the fan. You are distressed. You have lost your job. Your relationship flounders. Someone close to you is sick. The usual suspects. You feel 'emotional'; you are upset, jangled, stirred.

What do you do?

How do you try to regulate yourself, to bring yourself back into balance?

You might sit with your difficult feelings for a while, aware that they are part of life's pattern and will pass. You might cry, alone or in the arms of someone who cares. You might go for a run, or distract yourself with a project. Perhaps you stare into space. Maybe you pretend it's not happening. Maybe you eat. You might pour a drink. But do you stop at just one? And do you stop at just a drink?

Do you find 'comfort'? Are you ever fully 'soothed'? For some, this place is never reached, and attempts to find it become increasingly desperate - perhaps using drugs, self harm or other destructive behaviours. If this is you, you might not describe them as destructive, because you truly believe that they are helpful to you and that you will eventually find the inner peace that you seek in them.

The choices we make when our world is in turmoil are not simply genetic or the luck of the draw. They are a direct result of how we were treated as children.

If the adults around us could tolerate our distress, respond to it consistently, and bring us comfort, then we will now, as adults, be able to do this for ourselves. We will still feel distress, but we will not be afraid that it will overwhelm us or kill us or swallow us up. If the adults in our childhood were inconsistent, unresponsive, or worse still, abusive, we may well have difficulty in responding healthily to difficult feelings or situations. We will be more likely to be overwhelmed by life, seek comfort in unhealthy places, and take longer to recover from hard times, if we are able to recover at all.

In fact, the debate over whether babies learn to 'self-soothe' should become obsolete. Because the fact of the matter is - they do. We all learned to 'self-soothe' when we were babies, all of us. Every time we felt distress, we learnt a little bit more about comfort. Every time we were held, shooshed, rocked, nursed, sung to, kissed or hugged, we learned something. Every time we were ignored, left alone, told to stop crying, shouted at, shamed or threatened, we learned something. We learned to stay with our feelings and let them slowly shift, or to find ways to bury them, deny them or disown them.

Yes, babies learn to self-soothe. A baby who cries in the night and is quickly enveloped in loving arms learns to soothe themselves quickly and with love. A distressed baby who is left alone learns to soothe themselves by switching off their feelings, minimising them, disassociating. The more such lessons are repeated the better they will be learnt.

Perhaps those 'experts' who advocate leaving babies to cry it out have a difficult relationship with their own distress - a childhood lacking in comfort which they now wish to play out through their books in the homes of strangers. It might be interesting to ask them the same question, "How do YOU self-soothe?"

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dear Daughters - I'm Sick Of You Waking Me Up!

Dear Daughters

Brace yourselves, I have a confession to make. It may or may not surprise you. Here goes...

I don't like being woken up in the night! I REALLY don't like it! I can't stand it!

Maybe you thought it just washed over me - all part of the service - like chopping cheese into chunks or sitting through Waybaloo - well you're wrong. Being woken up and dragged from the delicious depths of sleep two, three, four, five times a night is WAY more irritating than that! WAY MORE! And, quite frankly, I'm bloody well sick of it!

It's not just the nights - which are bad enough - it's the evenings too. For five years now I have had my enjoyment of every single evening compromised in some way, either because I've been trapped in a bedroom breastfeeding, singing, storytelling or simply begging you to go to sleep, or because I've had to abandon my delicious food / fascinating film / other grown-up activity, and go back upstairs to soothe you back to slumber.

And then there's the days. I used to be bright eyed, sparky, witty even. I used to have a 'To Do List', and do the stuff on it. Now my face is as grey and puffy as my brain and I cry when I can't find a matching pair of socks. You might think that all I need is a good night's sleep, but deep down I know that this state of insane confusion is becoming The Way I Roll and that I'm slowly morphing into a Mad Middle Aged Woman. This is how it happens.

Yes, dear girls, the days, the evenings, the nights - all a chaotic blend of mind-numbing sleep deprivation, dreams that are never finished, and constantly, completely fucking irritating interruption. But do you know what? All of it is just a teeny tiny tip of the most enormous iceberg of what I would do for you.

For as long as I am alive, if you need me, I will come, no matter how much it inconveniences or even irritates me. Call me in the middle of the night from a train station four hundred miles away, and I will jump in my car without question. Get sick and I will camp on the cold hospital floor for as long as it takes. Without hesitation I will empty the bank, I will cut off limbs, I will turn my back on friends, I will serve time, I will move to a new country, I will lay down my life. No matter how old you are, or what the situation, I will be there.

Which kind of makes missing the end of the film while I pop upstairs to soothe you back to sleep seem like nothing much really.

For some reason I can't quite fathom, not everyone sees it this way. Being a 'parenting blogger' who speaks out against sleep training makes me a sort of 'High Profile Softie', and sometimes a target for people who think I should be treating you differently. Their arguments, often put forward angrily in blog comments, all seem to boil down to two essential points:

1. Letting you continue to disturb my sleep means I am ignoring my own needs.
2. Responding to your cries round the clock is 'spoiling' you and teaching you that the world revolves around you. You will grow into a selfish person with no boundaries and probably end up in prison.

Let's quickly deal with these points, firstly -

1. Ignoring my needs? My 'need' is to respond to you, to be there for you, to comfort you, to mother you. While you are small, and vulnerable, and dependent, I actually want to provide you with all the reassurance I can that you are 100% safe and loved. Doing so brings me great fulfilment. I absolutely know that this solid start will stand you in good stead as you grow and move away from me into the world, which brings me to -

2. Responding to a small child's needs day and night does NOT create a fragile adult destined for a difficult life, rather it provides a secure foundation, a strong sense of self-worth, and an ability to find comfort in healthy places - essential for long term mental well-being. If you actually talk to people who are finding life hard - prisoners, addicts, the mentally unwell - you will struggle to find any of them who say, "If only my parents hadn't been so responsive, so loving, so consistently warm and kind to me, 24/7".

And so, dear daughters, I will continue to be there for you at night as well as in the day, and ignore the critics, the baby trainers, the journalists and the researchers who say 'Shut the door and let them learn to sleep alone'.

I confess, I don't like having my sleep interrupted, not one bit, but I know that - for now - you need me, and I need to be there for you.

By the way, I really can't stand the Soft Play Area, either.

It's amazing what you'll suffer for someone you really love.

- - -

You know you're in love when you can't fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.

Dr. Seuss