Parent Guilt and Ghosts in the Nursery

The decision to sleep train can often bring up “ghosts” from one (or both) parent’s past. In my conversations with families, uncovering these has become one of the guiding factors in creating a plan for sleep. No sleep plan works effectively until the fears get spoken, until the parents feel aligned, until the baby is ready.

The decision to sleep train can bring with it conflict and disagreement between parents, anxiety, confusion and even guilt. Often parents feel torn between the desire for the family to sleep better and their fear of having to let their baby cry it out. And while I assure reluctant parents that there are also low cry methods, it is still a big decision.

Why is this? I refer to them as “ghosts in the nursery.” The “ghosts” are what surface as we become parents and navigate through different stages of parenthood. They are often influenced by our own childhood and upbringing…even our own birth. So while we think that sleep training is about helping a baby learn to sleep, what many books and online courses fail to recognize is that the parents' own readiness is crucial in the success of the sleep training process.

I was talking with a Mother this week and she was telling me how her own mother had left when she was just 2 years old. The decision to sleep train her baby was stirring up worries and emotions about her own daughter feeling “abandoned” during the sleep training process. We then explored what is surfacing for her when she thinks about sleep training her own daughter and it became clear that the cry it out method felt like a separation and this particular Mom needed to be physically present with her baby if she was going to have her cry. This tended to the Mother’s needs and allowed her to trust this process which in turn helped her daughter to regulate and learn to sleep.

Too many parents feel pushed, rushed or pressured into sleep training their baby and if the “ghosts in the nursery” do not get recognized, heard and acknowledged, it can often derail the whole process.

The readiness and trust of the parents is crucial for these sleep methods to work. Babies will pick up on any ambivalence or lack of trust in sleep training methods so it is really important that both parents feel ready and trusting before starting sleep changes.

So how do you know if you’re really ready?

Here are some options for ways to prepare yourself for sleep training your baby:

1. Decide exactly how you want the night to go.
This includes where your baby will sleep and for how long.


2. Write out a description in real time, as if it is happening now, of how it will go, how you both will be feeling, what your baby will be experiencing on night one from 7pm-7am.
For example: “my baby is crying but we are trusting the process and taking deep breaths. She is learning and knows she is loved. We as parents are taking good care of each other and she cries but gets reassurance. Within a short period of time, she settles down, gets comfortable and begins to rest....”


3. Write down your fears/concerns/doubts and how you will talk yourself through those fears when they arise.
What will you tell yourself or believe to get through those fears?


4. Write yourself a letter
What do you want to remember during this process, how will you take care of yourself and each other, why did you reach out to me in the first place, what is your vision for sleep?


5. Write your baby a letter
What do you want him to know as he is in the process of learning to sleep?

Making a plan for sleep is never linear and one size fits all. It requires a tending to the multiple factors in regards to your baby (readiness, development, health) as well as the parents well-being and feelings.