So... let's get started into the meat of things, shall we? I think I'll start posting on the different stages of cognitive and emotional development chronologically and then try to post questions (and some brainstorming solutions) as they relate to that stage. I've received several emails and, not surprisingly, they coincide with very particular problems that arise at very particular ages/stages in development. I can't really figure out how to prioritize them, so chronological order seems to be the most straightforward way to proceed.
So... what's going on from birth to about 3 months?
The period of birth to 3 months is often considered the time when babies learn to regulate their basic bodily reactions, their states, and their physiology. These little beings have spent a long time in the womb, developing all the bodily mechanisms necessary to live on this planet, to eat, to breathe, to expend energy in motion, to coordinate muscles and senses so that motion accomplishes something, and to sleep when replenishment is needed. They have also developed the mechanisms for acquiring knowledge and skill—mechanisms that will allow them to pay attention to what is most important, especially the faces, voices, and actions of other humans.
Most important, this is an age when the baby’s states—alert attention, quiet wakefulness, and sleep—become practiced and differentiated from each other, creating a predictable cycle of daily rhythms. And these rhythms gradually become synchronized with the day-and-night cycle of our planet, so that, starting around 6 weeks, babies sleep more at night and less in the day. And, as they develop, these rhythms will also become synchronized with your rhythms and the household routines that underlie them. During the end of this stage, you will also notice a rapid increase in face-to-face gazing, more smiling and other expressions of pleasure, and a general decrease in fussiness at the end of this stage. Babies learn, by about 2 to 3 months, that they are part of a complex but exciting world of cycles both inside and outside their bodies.
From my perspective, sleep training prior to 3 months is not a good idea. There is too much going on. The synchronization of brain and bodily systems, the establishment of cycles for eating and sleeping, the coordination of these cycles with the outside world, all need time to develop and stabilize. The sheer number of biological and psychological systems getting wired up, and the rapid rate at which they are becoming connected with each other, staggers the imagination. A lot of biological events, including cascades of changes in neural pathways and organ systems, unfold with uncanny precision, almost as if there were a master schedule posted somewhere and your baby is diligently following it. Scientists still do not know exactly how this cascade of changes progresses so effectively. But what we do know, as child psychologists, is that it’s better not to mess with it! To attempt sleep training before your baby does the majority of her sleeping at night would be to miss a massive biological leg-up. Why not let natural biological processes do their work, before you begin adjusting the fine points?
Sleep training during this early period may simply be ineffective. It may be difficult or impossible to establish desirable sleep habits before sleeping at night becomes routine. But it could also confuse your baby’s evolving capacity to synchronize her interest, excitement levels, perception, and communication. Imagine that your baby is just learning to smile at you and to expect a smile in return. This reciprocal smiling sets off an episode of communication that is designed to increase arousal, because arousal is part of pleasure. And now imagine that this smiling takes place just as you are turning out the lights and leaving the room, a necessary step in most sleep-training methods. Now your aroused, excited baby, instead of receiving the ongoing communication she expects, is faced with the prospect of lying still and going to sleep. This might simply not work. Fine. But it’s quite possible that, after a few such scenarios, your baby will become confused as to what to expect when mutual smiling or gazing take place. Maybe the smiling means “game over”. Maybe I should disengage rather than engage when Mom and I make eye contact. This sort of social confusion could result from mixed signals, as the baby sees it. So, my take is better to wait until the interpersonal routines of smiling and gazing become solid habits. As they solidify, security and trust will solidify as well, making the ordeal of sleep training less of a challenge to your baby’s sense of himself, his sense of you, and his sense of your relationship.
So, if you're in the throes of this stage with your baby, you might be saying: But I'm DYING over here! What can I do to maximize EVERYONE'S sleep?
Our answer (which had to be edited out of the book for copyright infringement but now I'm free to go for the full chorus) is best summarized by John Lennon: “Whatever gets you through the night, is alright... Do it wrong or do it right, it’s alright.” Use a swing, a bouncy chair, tuck your baby in the crook of your neck, lay him across your chest, rock him in a chair, a glider or a hammock, bounce him in a sling or a baby carrier, throw him in a car seat on top of the dryer (my husband insists on my warning you to be careful that the seat can fall off the edge), in the back seat of a car, or in the stroller. Have you tried the quarter-time bounce (oh man... I need to videotape this "bounce" and share it with you all... It seriously worked with EVERY infant I've laid my hands on)? Anything you do, you can undo with proper sleep training at a later stage of development. This is not the time to stress out about “creating bad habits.” What you’re creating is a tight bond with a rapidly developing little organism that needs your warmth, flexibility and consistency. During this early newborn stage, whatever gets you (and your baby) through the night is just fine.