Children sleeping alone: a modern mistake?

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

3 AM distress

On our recent trip to Portland, OR,  my not quite 2 year old daughter Sloane would wake up in the middle of the night screaming her head off in the other room.

We had sleep trained her since she was six months old, which meant we taught her to “self-soothe” to fall asleep. This more or less meant letting her cry until she was able to fall asleep alone in her room. Heart-wrenching for a parent, but it works!

But on this trip she wouldn’t go back to sleep, probably due to the new environment and some recent separation anxiety.

So I did what all the sleep training books say you shouldn’t do: I brought her into bed with us.

Sloane stopped crying immediately and fell asleep.

The other benefit? It felt wonderful, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

I loved knowing that she was safe and not in distress. I experienced a deep appreciation that I had her in my life.

I still felt that way even when she rolled over and kicked me in the face.

Sleep training is modern

Sleep training is a modern phenomenon, designed to help parents adjust their child’s sleep schedule to the modern lifestyle.

You can’t go to sleep WITH your child because your kid goes to bed at 6 PM which is way too early. Your can’t bring your kid into bed with you because they are squirmy and that would interrupt YOUR sleep which means you’ll be a mess at work and eventually get fired for falling asleep at your desk.

By contrast, there is no formal sleep training in more “ancient” or traditional cultures. You just bring your young child with you everywhere and they learn to fall asleep in all sorts of environments. No need to endure the desperate cries of your young child asking to be held.

But we can’t do that today. I don’t think your corporate manager would appreciate a 2 year old sleeping on the floor in your next meeting.

The dilemma

Here’s the question: did modernity get it wrong?

Is it right that we need to go against our nature and make our kids cry themselves to sleep just so we can function at work?

I’m not sure what the answer is.

The child sleep issue is a relatively minor one by itself, but how many other artifacts of modern, Western culture force us to fight against our natures?

Some that come to mind include:

  • Salaries
  • Suburbs
  • Abundant high calorie foods
  • Everyday bureaucracy (customer service phone trees, government registrations, tax forms, etc.)
  • All-day artificial lighting
  • Constant noise
  • Advertising
  • Social media
  • Isolated nuclear families

But what steps can we take to live lives that are more in line with our nature?

We can’t just rewind the clock and live in hunter-gatherer tribes, nor do I advocate that. You still need to file your tax return.

But perhaps it’s possible to build a life that removes some of the more glaring assaults on our nature, the stuff prevents us from feeling fully human and authentic.

That might just mean, on occasion, letting your kid sleep with you in your bed.