I’ve been involved in the gentle/natural parenting world now for almost 8 years. In that time, I’ve gone from slightly in awe of a lot of the “leaders” within that world, to cautious…or even downright unhappy.
While some leaders have offered some excellent advice, many have also offered some that is awful, or even against what I thought they believed or promoted. Sometimes they simply change up the language to make it seem like it falls in line with the philosophy when it doesn’t.
Since new parents are often desperately seeking assistance and don’t know where to turn or who to trust, they can be easily misled when this happens. They find a parenting leader or two who seems to have good information, and when they wade into a new area, even if the advice seems “odd,” they think, well, I trusted them on these other topics, so they must have a point here, too.
That’s why we need to talk about this today. Some very unhealthy, unnatural, un-gentle sleep advice is being shared within the positive/gentle parenting community.
Natural Parenting Leaders Share Damaging Sleep Advice
When I first read about this, I was surprised — and hoping that it was just a one-off, unusual situation. But as I kept reading, I realized it wasn’t. This advice was being offered by several parenting leaders, in several places, on a consistent basis. This was something they were actively standing behind…and presenting as a gentle, natural option.
Essentially, these leaders are promoting cry-it-out.
There is nothing gentle about cry-it-out at any age, for any reason. But if you listen to these leaders, it’s perfectly natural and normal. See this language here, from an interview between Lisa Sunbury and Janet Lansbury, both RIE parenting leaders (quotes from THIS LINK [emphasis mine]):
“…that her parent has trust that her room is a safe place, that her child can go to sleep on her own. She might not like it, but she can.”
“The crying will happen and it needs to happen. She has a right to express that she doesn’t like this. She wants to be with the parent. She wants the parent to stay with her. She doesn’t need that.”
“To help children do that sometimes can look like we’re being mean, we’re not doing what they want, we’re not giving them what they want, but that is what parents are for.”
“…tell them exactly what will happen, “We’ve been doing this and it’s not working. Tonight, when you go to bed, this is what is going to happen. You might not like it and you might need to cry, and that’s okay. You can cry and you can tell me. We’re still going to do it this way.” They know exactly what to expect.”
“…really the only option is to, without any emotion or putting any interest in it, just returning your child right back to bed. [As many times as it takes.]”
“20 years working in infant/toddler programs and working as a nanny for families and I’ve helped countless families with sleep. I didn’t have difficulty with hearing a child cry.”
These are parenting leaders that the gentle/natural community has trusted to give connected, healthy advice on parenting matters. And this is no different than Babywise, or other religious fundamentalist parenting advice, which most gentle parents (rightly) abhor. It centers on what the parents need and want, rather than truly looking at what the child is communicating and needing.
I have learned that this is pretty central to the RIE approach by Magda Gerber. RIE plays lip service to “connectedness” and “respectfulness” but really just wants the parent to exert control over the child and the environment, and teach the child to what to expect by the parents creating a “predictable” routine. It’s entirely parent-led, and has nothing to do with what the child actually needs.
This advice is damaging, because it sounds gentle, like the parent is trying to consider the child’s feelings, but really, they aren’t.
I cannot recommend this approach. This is the antithesis of actual gentle parenting.
How Do We Handle Sleep Troubles?
Sleep deprivation is awful. It is. That’s why so many parents are desperately seeking some kind of solution…anything to get a good night’s rest. It’s easy to see why many are lulled into the sleep advice given by these natural parenting leaders. (These leaders are not the only ones giving this advice.)
In a true gentle parenting approach, if a child is not sleeping — or not wanting to go to bed — then we have to see it from the child’s perspective and figure out why. Then, we have to solve that problem in a way that both parents and child are comfortable with.
“I need more sleep, so I have decided you will go to bed in this room at this time, whether you like it or not” is NOT GENTLE.
First, check out these 7 Reasons Kids Don’t Sleep Well. Is there a physical cause? Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can make sleep difficult. So can hunger, thirst, teething pain, having scratchy PJs or being too hot or cold. Also, changes in routines or daily stress can — if the child has just started preschool, a new sibling has been born, or they have just transitioned from a crib to a bed.
These things are hard for small children. And they need our support.
If there’s a physical cause, address it. Meet that underlying need. Tired children want to sleep, but they may not be able to fall asleep sometimes! Once they get the support they need, they will.
If there’s an emotional cause, address it. Toddlers “may not want” to sleep alone because they are truly scared for some reason! Some have fears of monsters, others have separation anxiety. Whatever the fears, they may seem irrational to adults, but they are very real to toddlers. It’s not okay to dismiss them just because we don’t understand, or recognize objectively that it’s “not a big deal.” Toddlers don’t know that!
The best way to solve a sleep issue is in a way that means everyone gets the sleep they need. Bring the toddler’s bed into the parents’ room, so that they feel like they have a safe place to be. Have the toddler sleep in the parents’ bed, if needed, for awhile. Help everyone feel comfortable.
It isn’t about ignoring the parents’ needs entirely; sleep is a real need! But having a toddler sleep in a separate space during specific hours is a parent’s preference (i.e. “want”), not a need. This is about balancing everyone’s needs as fairly as possible.
The book No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley is a better approach — it supports co-sleeping and considers a child’s feelings and needs much better than these other leaders do.
Confused About Gentle Parenting?
If this is confusing to you, or if you need some assistance with gentle parenting resources, please feel free to ask! I am a mama to 6 kids, and have been practicing gentle parenting for almost 8 years. I can offer my thoughts, or point you towards other resources that are truly in line with the philosophy.
At the end of the day…treat children like tiny humans who matter and deserve respect. That’s most important!