Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a plethora of words used by lovers and haters to describe the process of helping your baby or child get comfortable with letting go and falling asleep independently–you know, sleep training. Some have moved away from using the words sleep training because it has developed a negative connotation. You can talk all about limit setting during the day, but the second you talk about setting limits at night the conversation turns emotionally charged and divided. Others still use this phrase (myself included) because it is a recognizable phrase to tired parents looking for information online. I want to make it easier, not harder, for you to find my website at 2:00 AM.

You can call it whatever you’d like, but we are all describing the universal parenting technique of limit-setting, just around sleep. Setting limits isn’t easy for parents. But it’s simply a part of being a parent. We set limits all day long. No one puts up a fuss about it, well besides the kids!

Here are some examples that I am sure you’ll relate to:

  • Infants hate their car seats, but we don’t let them ride shot gun. They’d slide right off the seat. The crying is blood curdling, but we can’t never get out of the house. No one tells you that you are damaging your baby’s brain in 20-minute ride to your in-laws.
  • Toddlers hate having their diaper changed, but we can’t let them sit in their own poop. No one tells you that you are abusive for using your body to hold their squirmy bodies down on the changing table while they scream and try to bite you.
  • Crawling babies love exploring those stairs, but we put a gate up. ER visits are expensive and we’re still feeling guilty for the time we let them roll off the bed. (Yes. We have ALL been there.) Your mother-in-law doesn’t accuse you of “jailing” him in.
  • Preschoolers would hands-down choose candy at dinner, but we don’t let them suck lollipops while the rest of the family eats a healthy meal. Plus, it means more candy for us to sneak after bedtime. You don’t question whether you are denying him of love, just of scurvy.

These are limits we set all the time without question. And when our child cries because they aren’t getting what they want, we feel badly. But we don’t give in (most of the time) or question our parenting for wanting to keep them healthy and safe. Sleep is also in the realm of health and safety. Setting limits around sleep is no different. It just feels different, because it’s dark out, you’re alone, and your bed and Hulu is calling!

Setting Limits with Empathy, Respect, and Resolve

No other person, not your pediatrician, not your friends, and definitely not your mother-in-law, can tell you what your limits should be and how you should set them (aside from physical or emotional abuse—just don’t, please). Like with day time limit setting, your sleep time limits and how you enforce them are defined by many factors that are unique to your family. You can set limits that are respectful, that you can enforce with empathy, and stick to with resolve, when you consider:

Your parenting philosophy- Whether you are on team helicopter or team free-range or somewhere in between, your parenting approach informs how you set limits and how you enforce them. If you practice attachment parenting you might set limits while staying physically close to your baby or child. If you are a free-range parent, you might be more comfortable with giving your baby more space.

Your baby or child’s developmental age– You need to understand your child’s developmental age and set realistic expectations. You wouldn’t set a limit that your three-year old must take two naps a day, because you’d be setting her up for tears and frustration. You also wouldn’t set the limit that your four-month old must go from three night feedings to sleeping 12 hours straight just because you want 8 hours of sleep.

Your baby or child’s temperament- Consider how your baby or child responds to stress, change, and new expectations. If you have a toddler who struggles with change, you might set limits more gradually, changing the expectations slowly over time. Other children do better with change that is clean and fast.

Your family’s needs- Your baby or child doesn’t live in a vacuum. You need to balance his needs with the equally important needs of others in the family. If you have another child to care for, you might need to set limits in the fastest way possible so that you can get back to meeting the needs of your other child. If you are in the middle of a huge deadline at work, you might have more relaxed limits because it gets you the sleep you need right now.

It’s Not Manipulation. 

When you set limits, your baby or child will push back. Adjusting to new expectations involves some struggle and that struggle often comes out in some pretty big feelings. Your child isn’t “bad” and neither is your parenting. It is human nature to push back against change-whether that human is a baby, toddler, or big kid. Once you understand this, you can stop taking it personally and show up with empathy, not anger.

There is a quote I lean on often when my own children push back against my limits, and I believe it was said by Magda Gerber, founder of RIE Parenting (if you know the source, let me know):

“You can change anything you do with your child at any time, but first you have to be honest with yourself, then honest with your child, and then show them the new way.”

Have confidence in yourself to know what is right for your child. Help him learn that change is hard, but change is good (that’s Henry Rollins there). He trusts you to set limits that will meet his needs and keep him safe and healthy. Sometimes that means saying hell no (respectfully, of course) to a want in order to meet a need—the need for more sleep for him, for you, for everyone. You need to send him the message that you’ve got this, because YOU DO!



Jessica Begley

Author Jessica Begley

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