Dr. Carr’s Introduction: In my work helping families get a better night’s rest, one of my most important tasks is to support parents, especially mothers. who feel conflicted or downright distressed by the process of helping their child learn how to sleep independently.

Although I never sleep train newborns, and though there are multiple options available to fit with what makes parents most comfortable in terms of their family, it is never easy to change a pattern, especially one that has been in place for a long time. Therefore, in spite of folks out there who insist they use “no cry” methods to sleep train, it’s impossible (and unfair) to expect a child not to be upset or protest when we ask them to do something differently from what they’re accustomed, no matter how gradually or gently we implement that change.

Setting limits in the face of crying and protest can be extremely difficult, which is why I asked psychologist and therapist Dr. Heather McKee to chime in on how to manage our own feelings as parents during the process…

When Setting Limits is a Challenge: Understanding Our Feelings About Sleep Training

By Heather McKee, PsyD

Mother and Baby

In my private practice I see a lot of first time mothers. Women who have been conscientiously building solid relationships and careers in anticipation of one day starting a family. The arrival of a first child is a profound milestone–one that is romanticized by our culture. We are flooded with visions of all that will be gained with motherhood while the losses (freedom, independence, various identities) are minimized and trivialized. The myth of the ideal mother as a wholly self-sacrificing and nurturing parent, endlessly patient and compassionate all for her child’s well-being can be at odds with the reality when it comes.

How can we reconcile the desire to be the best parent possible with the challenges inherent in parenting today? The unforeseen stress on marriages and relationships, the struggles keeping up with a life and a career that once felt manageable are the realities that are impossible to prepare for, especially when our expectations don’t meet the reality.  How does we manage it all without plummeting into an emotional tailspin?

The solution centers around setting limits. Setting limits for ourselves and our children in a way that is comfortable, compassionate and effective. Limits allow us to stay strong, build truly intimate relationships, keep our families healthy, and provide a strong role model for our children. Too often we are not practiced in the area of gracefully and compassionately setting limits before having children. If limit setting was done in an angry, punitive way for us when we were children, we may struggle with how to do it differently as parents.

Appropriate limit setting is done in a neutral way, always for a reason that is helping the child regulate their emotions, develop frustration tolerance and build understanding. In order to do this, we must be aware of our own feelings about their behavior and the links to our own experiences in childhood. Understanding our feelings is essential to both understanding our children’s motivations and preventing a reactive, punitive response. But then, how do we differentiate between our child’s needs and wants? When do we compromise and when do we stand firm? How do we stay neutral in the face of intense emotion?

Sleep is perhaps the first example of setting a limit. Although the limit is centered around the child’s need, we don’t need research to tell us that sleeping through the night is crucial to a mother’s sense of competency and well-being. Setting that first limit and allowing our babies to learn to soothe themselves can be more difficult and messy than expected. It will raise intense feelings in both parent and child which can be confusing to navigate. We didn’t expect motherhood to make us feel so weak and alone.  If we are clear on our own feelings and their roots, then we are better able to maintain empathy and a strong connection with our child while setting limits — offering guidance and strengthening the bond. When we are clear on our own reactions, we can see it more clearly from our child’s perspective and are more likely to keep in mind what is age-appropriate and best for our child’s development.

Understanding our own inner landscape (and often adjusting our expectations) helps us set limits. Accepting imperfection while continuing to learn and understand about ourselves and our child makes the process a journey, not a destination. By accepting that it is impossible to get everything right in motherhood, we are more open to exploring our imperfections, more emotionally present for our partners and children and better able to nurture ourselves and our families. We can model for our children what is most important for their well-being: how to be emotionally present while celebrating our successes and learning from and repairing our mistakes. Our children will learn how to take care of themselves and others from those they watch every day. Taking care of our children starts with taking care of ourselves, and setting limits help us do both.

Heather McKee, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist with a private therapy practice in Westport, CT. She works extensively with new mothers in her practice, and is herself a mother of young children. For more information about Dr. McKee and her work, visit drheathermckee.com

Sasha Carr

Dr. Sasha Carr is a psychologist and child sleep expert who has helped over 1000 families get healthier sleep. Dr. Carr serves as a faculty member of the Family Sleep Institute and is the author of Putting Bungee to Bed, a bedtime picture book aimed at helping children be better sleepers. You can learn more about her services here.

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