Emotional Wellbeing or Behavioural Approaches? The Value of Intention.

by Ann Caird, IMPI graduate and mentor;  founder of Nurturing Sleep


Many sleep consultants now ask me about the appropriateness and usefulness of applying ‘behavioural’ approaches and strategies to resolving problematic baby and child sleep behaviours in relationship to emotional wellbeing.

Reflecting on this question, it would seen that it’s as if we have to choose between 2 extremely different approaches. Does a professional support a family fully and totally with the emotional wellbeing aspects of child sleep, or go for the ‘fix the problem’ approach of the behavioural techniques such as controlled crying, extinction or gradual withdrawal?

From the emotional wellbeing point of view the answer is quite simple:

What’s the intention?


By asking ourselves this simple question we dig deeper and reflect on the unique child and family, as well as the purpose of each and every approach we consider and use for each unique family and child.

If we conclude that we are using a technique or strategy with the pure intention of fixing problematic sleep behaviours, then we disregard the emotional element underlying the child’s behaviours and sleep work as a whole. A quick fix approach won’t typically address the deeper emotional influences of problematic sleep behaviours.

So, I suggest professionals consider and reflect on the intention behind their use of approaches and strategies with each child and family:

  • Will the approach or strategy meet the emotional needs of the parents, family and child?
  • Is the use of the approach or strategy empathic in that it considers the sum of the childs (and family’s) previous and present experiences and present situation?
  • Is the use of the approach or strategy sensitive and responsive in meeting varied emotional needs – for example, are we supporting attunement and responsiveness of the parent to their child?


Approaches and strategies that support emotional wellbeing are more likely to be fluid and flexible rather than rigid and static. This is important to remember because a child’s emotional needs will flow and fluctuate as the child is supported appropriately and their unique process unfolds within the responsiveness and flexibility of the approach. If the approach or strategy is too rigid and fixed within tight unyielding consistency there is little room for attuned responsiveness and no emotional safety to support the emotional child’s deeper needs. Getting the balance can be a challenge.

The intention then: approaches which support emotional wellbeing will foster a parent’s sensitive responsiveness to the needs of their emotional child; there will be a good fit between the child’s emotional need, his fluctuation and flow of emotion and the responsiveness and provision of emotional safety by the parent or carer.

This responsiveness and provision of emotional safety provides the foundation of the secure attachment relationship.

When we consider and reflect on these factors, the choice of strategies and approaches used with emotional wellbeing in mind is about the intention of their use, and therefore the intention of the sleep consultant in supporting the parent/child relationship. So in this case, applying emotional wellbeing to sleep work is about thinking outside the box and challenging the boundaries of the traditional behavioural approaches, and meeting fluid and changing emotional needs.

The notion of meeting fluid and changing emotional need is important too. In many cases problematic sleep behaviours are multi-layered – like layers of an onion. One size will definitely not fit all, so again, an ‘outside the box’ approach is important. Observation, reassessment and flexibility in approach supports the practitioners Intention to provide emotionally supportive approaches that meets the fluctuating needs of the child as the sleep work unfolds.


In summary then, reflection on the intention of the intended use of approaches is important if we are to fully address the emotional wellbeing of the child through sleep work. The practitioner’s ability to reflect, observe closely, re-assess and be mindful of the changing and fluctuating needs of the child throughout sleep work is central to providing a sensitive and responsive approach that will support and flow with the child’s unique process and needs.


Ann Caird © 2015.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  the International Maternity and Parenting Institute.

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