Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Summer Sleep Tips for Children

June 17, 2009 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

Today’s post comes from Lissa Coffey and the Better Sleep Council in response to research presented last week at the Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Please see below for links. Thank you!

lion cub sleepingSummer Sleep Tips for Children

Children need at least nine hours of sleep each night on a regular basis to be healthy, active, and able to perform their best in school, sports and other extracurricular activities. During the summer, it can be hard for parents and kids to keep a steady sleep schedule, resulting in lost valuable sleep. Better Sleep Council Spokesperson and Lifestyle Expert Lissa Coffey offers the following tips to help parents ensure a good night’s sleep for their children.

1.      Set a Regular Bedtime For Your Child and Stick to It. A regular bedtime can help make sure your child gets a full night’s rest. The Obama daughters have an 8:30 pm bedtime.  This is an ideal time to tuck children in, especially when kids need to be up early for summer activities.

2.      Help Your Child Get at Least 9 Hours of Sleep Each Night. To be their best, children need 9-10 hours of sleep every night. This is important, even on the weekends.

3.       Don’t Over-Schedule Your Child.
Too many summertime activities and commitments can keep children from precious sleep. Allow your child plenty of time during the day for outdoor recreation, summer lessons and chores to ensure that they are not up past their bedtime. And try to avoid scheduling after-dinner activities like club meetings during the week; these tend to be very stimulating.

4.      Develop a Sleep Ritual; Help Your Child Unwind Before Bed. Allow your child at least one hour before bedtime to relax and unwind.  Try relaxing activities, like taking a bath or reading with your child, to help him or her transition into sleep mode.  This is also a special time to share with your child.  They’ll fall asleep easier and faster if they can relax before bed. Avoid loud music and television prior to bed, especially violent programming.

5.      Avoid Caffeine. Consuming caffeine, found in soft drinks and chocolate, even in the daytime, can make it more difficult for your child to fall asleep.

6.      Keep Computers and Television out of the Bedroom. The bedroom should be used for sleep only. The temptation of watching television or going online can be tempting for children once you’ve tucked them in and left the room.  Also, be sure radio and MP3 ear pods are out of their ears when you say goodnight!

7.      Make Sure Your Child’s Bedroom is Dark. Create a room that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool for the best possible sleep. A small nightlight is fine, if necessary, but a dark room is most conducive for a good night’s sleep. The ideal sleeping temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  Some children like the comforting feel of a heavy blanket on top of them; it’s like being wrapped up in a hug.

8.      Pay Attention to Your Child’s Mattress. Handing down an old mattress to a child isn’t a good idea. Because mattresses wear out over time, it’s important to maximize your child’s chances of restful sleep by making sure he or she is sleeping on a mattress that is comfortable and supportive enough in order to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up refreshed. As children grow, make sure the mattress is large enough for them. The Better Sleep Council recommends parents evaluate and consider replacing a mattress every five to seven years.

About the Better Sleep Council: The Better Sleep Council (BSC) is a nonprofit organization endowed by the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), the trade association for the mattress industry. With a quarter of a century invested in improving America’s quality of sleep, BSC educates consumers on the critical link between sleep and health, as well as the role of the sleep environment, primarily through an informative consumer Web site www.bettersleep.org, partner support and proactive consumer media outreach.

About Lissa Coffey: Lissa Coffey is a relationship expert, author and broadcast journalist. An Internet celebrity, she writes for eight different Web sites, including coffeytalk.com and whatsyourdosha.com. “CoffeyTalk: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Style,” is an Internet television show seen on YouTube and iTunes.  A frequent guest on radio and TV, Lissa’s keen insight into interpersonal and cultural dynamics offers guidance for anyone looking to fill the void in their harried lives.

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Sleep Solutions: Giving Time, Building Trust

March 24, 2009 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

At 3 1/2 years old, the Dragon seems, just recently, to have “gotten” how to sleep.

Oh, sure, he still  gets up in the middle of the night and crawls into bed with us. But the most persistent and disruptive problem of the last two years or so — the difficulty transitioning to sleep in the evening — seems to be largely a thing of the past now. Knock on wood.

A couple new strategies coincided with his better sleeping patterns. First, we created a “nest” for him in the corner of the master bedroom. Nothing fancy, just his toddler bed mattress on the floor, some Christmas lights, a few of his favorite books and stuffed animals. Second, we told him one of us would sit next to him for 10 minutes after stories; he could cuddle with us for that time, but when the 10 minutes were up, Mama or Daddy would be moving away to sit on the bench a few feet across the room.

He protested the first few nights, but we spoke to him from the bench, assuring him he was safe, we were right there, we weren’t going anywhere — and soon enough, he drifted off. It’s now been like this for a couple of months with little change. He’s usually asleep within 10 or 15 minutes. Compared to the hour or two of yore, it feels heavenly. I don’t even mind staying with him until he’s asleep, and the difference in Alan’s and my energy, mood and relationship is monumental.

But I’m not convinced it was the corner nest or the limits on cuddling that finally did the trick. I think it was a combination of those things alongside the dietary changes, a deeper understanding of the Dragon’s temperament, information about the science of sleep, trusting our instincts, working as a team, staying attuned to changes in our son, striking a balance between compassion and authority — and, most of all, simply giving him time to trust us again.

dragon-in-nicuSee, the Dragon was born with a lung infection and rushed to the emergency room just four hours after birth. From there, he was admitted to NICU and fitted with a respirator before he was half a day old. Alan and I shuttled back and forth twice a day to sit by his bedside, but we couldn’t touch him much, and we couldn’t hold him at all for the first few days. Through no fault of anyone’s, the Dragon — like many NICU babies — missed those first crucial days of continual loving touch and instinctively-felt safety that most newborns get.

I have no way of proving this, but my instincts tell me the Dragon’s certainty that a safe world was supporting him got damaged by that experience. Our midwife, the paramedics, the ER and NICU staffs all did an amazing job. But no matter how quality the care, it’s not the ideal experience for transitioning into this world. Though your conscious memory is still buried deep at that age, your unconscious mind is up and running and recording everything that happens to you. When something frightening happens, it goes right into that unconscious mind and begins to grow evermore powerful, until it’s brought into consciousness and addressed and resolved.

It is my belief that — underneath the diet issues and the tactile issues and the need for routine and all those overt problems we tried to solve to help the Dragon sleep better — underlying all those things, he has always had a fundamental anxiety that he will be separated and unsupported in the world. Leaving him to “cry it out,” as so many people advised us, just made him panic.

What finally worked was showing up at his bedside, night after night after night after night, for more than three years, with our presence and our reassurance and our touch, working to restore the Dragon’s faith that we were there for him. We didn’t always do it well. But we were always there, and I believe that is what he needed to sleep better.

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Multi-Faceted Solutions to Children’s Sleep Problems

October 13, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

As Alan, the Dragon and I wind up our 3+ year odyssey of finding sweet sleep (fingers crossed), it occurs to me that we’ve run the gamut of suggested solutions. Many of them even worked, at least partway.

We’ve employed behavioral, nutritional, energetic, spiritual, biological, psychological and even home decorating solutions for helping the Dragon sleep. Each one bestowed a tiny bit more sanity on our family but none was the silver bullet solution we were hoping for 2 1/2 years ago, when it became apparent that the Dragon was more sleep-challenged than most children — and that we were more sleep-deprived than most new parents.

Someday soon, I hope to write a longer piece covering the entire spectrum of our experience. I hope it will be helpful for parents just starting out the struggle. I hope it will shorten some families’ journeys toward better sleep.

But in the meantime, we have one more situation to tackle before we reach real success: the Dragon’s need for sustained skin-to-skin touch in order to get to sleep.

Please don’t get me wrong. We love kisses and hugs and won’t give them up until he pushes us away in adolescence (I hope it lasts that long!). I don’t even mind lying down to cuddle with him for a few minutes before he drifts off. But I still cannot leave before the Dragon falls asleep without inciting the poor child to panic. He must be touching me until he’s unconscious, or he will lie awake for hours. For my own mental health, and for the good of our marriage, it is time for this last difficulty to fall away.

By sheer dumb luck, once again, I was presented with a resource that gave me some insight into this issue. An occupational therapist who’s part of an online parenting community I frequent posted a general comment about her work on a recent thread. So on the off-chance she could give me some insight, I e-mailed her about the Dragon’s need for touch at bedtime.

“[The Dragon's] sleep patterns are atypical,” she responded, “especially to still have them at 36 months and after years of concerted effort from you and Alan.” Since I’d told her that the Dragon was assessed as “highly sensitive,” including some issues with tags and textures, she gave me this insight:

When a person with sensory defensiveness is confronted with their triggers, it’s not just a “yuck! pudding is gross!”  or “dang! annoying itchy tag!” It becomes an autonomic fight or flight response…terror. [The Dragon] may not feel comfortable enough to let go, let his state of regulation change and relax into a calm arousal state unless he feels the skin contact from you.

She suggested we seek out an occupational therapist with training in sensory integration and ask about specific interventions that would “bolster his calming neurotransmitters during the day.” Having been helped so much by other experts in various fields of child development — nutrition and temperament, specifically — I’m encouraged that there may be things we can do to help our child learn to self-soothe his way to sleep.

For the record, we tried lots of the techniques suggested by the many great books out there for parents of sleep-challenged children. But I suspect the Dragon’s challenges relate to his early separation trauma. My instinct says that being highly sensitive and highly relational, and not getting that constant touch a newborn would expect and need from the get-go, created in him an intense need for lots and lots touch that eventually became a habit.

While I hope he always enjoys human touch, I also hope we can now help him self-regulate so he can get to sleep anywhere, anytime, without need of my body to get him there.

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Protein-Powered Parenting

September 02, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

I spent the holiday weekend gorging on Kathleen DesMaisons’ book Little Sugar Addicts and have so many thoughts and connections spinning in my brain that I hardly know where to start.

So I’ll back up one post to make a little confession: Last time I blogged, I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of the book. I’d looked at DesMaisons’ website for parents of sugar-sensitive kids and seen that the first step in her healing program is breakfast — just breakfast. Specifically, make sure everyone in the family eats a breakfast that includes protein within an hour of waking up. Every morning, without fail.

I thought, “Well, what could it hurt to take the sugar out of the day at the same time, anyway?” So I snuck chocolate when the Dragon was at daycare instead of in the next room, where he’d smell it and come running. Even still, when he came home and found my little empty bowl, he picked it up and said, “Mama, what was in here?” I said, “Almonds,” as nonchalantly as I could. It was true, technically: I like almonds and chocolate chips together, and that’s how I usually have them. But he eyed me suspiciously.

You can’t fool a three-year-old.

The book reminded me of two things I’d forgotten in the frenzy of parenting a young child.

First, five years ago, when I started addressing my own alcohol addiction, I had to find other ways to get the same effect — comfort, confidence — in non-alcoholic ways before I felt I could let go of the bottle. I likened it to a blanket: You don’t just rip a blanket off a shivering person and expect them to be warm. You find a jacket for them first. So we couldn’t just take sugar away from the Dragon and expect everything to be okay.

Luckily, we don’t keep a lot of refined sugar in the house anyway — at least not outside of the cannisters — so we had options to offer that were less sweet but still satisfying at this point. A spoonful of honey in his yogurt, a white-flour bagel for his sunflower butter. (In our defense, we’ve always done whole wheat bread products; this week, the store was out so we went for the white.) The Dragon doesn’t ask for more food after he eats these, the way he does after he gets his hands on the Holy Grail of Refined Sugar.

The second thing I remembered when reading Little Sugar Addicts came directly from my training as a psychotherapist: You cannot work effectively with a child unless you have the parent(s) on board. Children’s problems are family systems problems. So if I wanted this to work, I quickly realized, I had to jump on board as well — and fast. And needed to get Alan there, too.

DesMaisons also advises going slooooooow. There are seven steps in her plan, and she recommends implementing the steps one at a time, over six to 18 months total. She also notes that sugar-sensitive people tend to want to rush in and do things all at once. I had to laugh to myself when I read it: Sure enough, that’s what I’d started to do. So we pulled back.

Breakfast first.

But then the most amazing thing happened.

The Dragon started asking for healthier food throughout the day: Pears and cheese, nuts and grapes, a chicken nugget. He actually asked for these things. What’s even more startling is that I haven’t heard more than one request for a cookie in over a week. It’s like his body knew what it needed, if only it could get his brain and mine to pay attention.

Monday — Labor Day — was the Dragon’s birthday, and we started it with a healthy breakfast made to each of our likings. The grownups also had their coffee (addressing that addiction will come later!) and the Dragon asked for chocolate milk.

DesMaisons says to go slow and forgive yourself, so we gave the child his chocolate milk.

And then, a couple hours later, when it was time to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, there was very little fussing and whining. We all just got in the car and left. This is a minor miracle in our house.

I usually bring crackers or fruit to snack on in the car; this time I threw in a little protein source, too. (Improving snack choices is Step 3 in Little Sugar Addicts so I didn’t want to be too gung-ho, but since the child has been asking for healthier foods, I thought I’d try to oblige.) When both the Dragon and I got cranky in the car, I knew it was time for a snack. We popped a few nuts and apple slices and went peacefully on our way. No kicking, no crying — from either of us. And no headache for me: That’s new.

The whole day was like this: As soon as I saw him get glassy-eyed or start to whine, I fueled him up with a healthy snack. He ate happily and promptly, and told me when he was done. No fussing, no whining, no tantrums. And — critically important — I did the same thing for myself. He ate a little slice of his birthday cake but didn’t ask for another; soon he was back out in the yard playing with his new toys. His parents and grandparents all joined in the fun, and his laughter was contagious. He took a little catnap in the car on the way home.

And when he awoke, another little miracle: The Dragon spent two hours absorbed in playing with his new Tinker Toys with his dad. I have never, ever seen him focus on one task for so long, and so happily. There was no frustration or upset; no requests for TV; just enjoyment and togetherness.

And when it was time to go to the concert in the park to finish off a big day, he was a little sad to leave their new creation. But he got over it quickly and fully enjoyed dancing and clapping to the music and eating strawberries and chicken nuggets. But, truth be told, more strawberries than anything.

Now lest you think it’s all Pollyanna around here now, we still had trouble with the departure from the park and especially with bedtime — as per usual. But I was much better proteined all day long, and what a huge difference that made in my ability to cope with the Dragon’s sleep sensitivity. I could enforce the rules better, I could minimize the intensity of my responses to him, I could bring myself to soothe and tolerate his difficulties. And when he was finally asleep, I still had energy to read and relax.

I was a better mom yesterday. And it was one of the best family days we’ve ever had.

I blame it on protein.

Photo credits: Cold, Yogurt and fruit

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Children Sleep What They Eat

August 25, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Solutions

We all accept, pretty much without question, the principle of comfort food.

We’ve all felt that “Mmmm…” moment when an intense craving for brie, chocolate or pulled pork finally gets satisfied.

We know (many of us) what it feels like to be buzzed or, let’s face it, out and out drunk.

The relationship between what we eat and our state of mind is pretty instinctively understood.

So why the surprise when, this week, I realized with a start that sugar ramps my kid up?

I should have taken better notice about 2 1/2 years ago, when I went without chocolate for (gasp!) a whole day. The Dragon was eight months old at the time and still breastfeeding. That night, he went to sleep quite easily — for once.

Maybe it was denial or just profound disconnect, but although I put two and two together at the time, four — to me — equaled caffeine. Not sugar. So I resumed my chocolate habit but recommitted to decaf coffee and cut out the Diet Coke. For a while. The Dragon still slept poorly, so I wrote that one night off as a fluke, then forgot about it.

Since then, we’ve struggled with getting him to sleep at night — and to stay asleep.

I have read what seems like every book on the market — hope springs eternal! – and together Alan and I implemented solution after solution after solution. A few days would go by and things would look up. But then the inevitable slide back into sleeplessness would begin, and we’d all end up as frustrated, forlorn and fatigued as ever.

Then one day a few weeks ago, one of the Dragon’s daycare teachers, who knew of our sleep challenges, suggested offhand that perhaps evening sugar consumption was contributing to the problem. It wasn’t like we served cookies and candy for dinner, but we were definitely guilty of giving into requests for sweets more often than not. And we were willing to try anything, so we started watching.

Sure enough, we began to notice that even a little sugar in the afternoon or evening delayed the Dragon’s sleep window by an hour or more, and that he’d never cop to being tired if there was sugar in his system: He’d just keep going, and going, and going.

Without sugar, we can count on him to tell us he’s ready for bed between 8:15 and 8:30. It’s still not always easy to get him to sleep, but it’s not a nightmare. With sugar in his system, he just doesn’t wind down, and bedtime becomes a battle zone.

The pinnacle came last Friday night. I’d promised the Dragon we’d make cookies together when he got home from daycare. But the minute I started pulling ingredients from the cupboard, his fingers were in the sugar — literally grabbing gobs of it and shoving it in his mouth. When I took the sugar away, he disintegrated. His screeching, kicking, howling and hitting were alarming and dreadful.

After he calmed down, we resumed the cooking project but with a more measured approach: one ingredient at a time, the bowl close enough for him to dump the ingredients but too far to dunk his hand in.

Even still, he managed to get to the sugar. For me, cooking together is a pleasure, a bonding experience that I’ve had with my mother since early childhood. For the Dragon, that element is there — has been since he could grab a measuring cup — but increasingly it’s become about getting sugar into his system. By the time we were done, he was grabbing handfuls of dough as quickly as he could. I put the bowl of batter on top of the fridge. He howled.

And later, when the cookies were baked and he’d had his allotment of two, there was another meltdown: Just two? No! I need more! More! More! It was all he could see, all he could imagine. For two hours the Dragon sobbed for more sugar. I held my sweet addict in my arms and caught Alan’s eyes over the sobs.

“I’m launching a food revolution in this family,” I yelled. “This is it. No more sugar. This is insane.”

Alan nodded vigorously.

Please realize this is not the result of bad parenting. Yes, we could have made the connection sooner. And yes, we could have limited sweets more than we did. But in general our family eats balanced and healthy meals, so it wasn’t something we really connected. We were so focused on the process of sleep that the connection to food — which we felt we were doing moderately well — slipped us right by. And most of the otherwise-wonderful books on children’s sleep don’t spend much, if any, time on the connection between diet and dreaming. So we just weren’t focused there.

And, says Kathleen DesMaisons, author of Little Sugar Addicts, sugar addiction is a biochemical imbalance. It’s a problem to be addressed, but it’s nobody’s fault.

If you’ve ever seen a person addicted to alcohol do the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, you know what I’m talking about. They have to have it, even though they know they’ll lose control when they do. It wasn’t until I saw the extreme end of sugar addiction the other night that I deeply understood how food affects mood, how bound up in the habits of the day are the experiences of the night. It was like our typically friendly, balanced, loving child was replaced for a couple hours by a screaming fiend. It was alarming, and awful. We were all badly bruised.

So we’re now working to slowly wean the Dragon and ourselves — especially me: Alan’s vice tends toward the salty, not the sweet — from the allure of sugar. It’s only been a couple days, but already the effects are subtly evident.

We’ll keep you posted.


A short but important postscript:
If you think your child has a sugar sensitivity, check out DesMaisons’ book and/or her website. Please note that she advises against eliminating sugar as the first step toward addressing the problem.

And another one: I don’t by any means believe the effects of sugar are the only reason the Dragon has been sleep-challenged since infancy. I think that, as with many chronic issues people face, there are several different reasons that all converge to create the problem. That’s what makes it so hard: Straightforward solutions don’t work because the reasons come from many different places.

Multi-pronged problems require multi-pronged solutions. The hard part is figuring out what the prongs are. That’s what we’re here for.

Photo credits: Comfort food, Cookie

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Throwing Out the Rule Book

August 22, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

We’ve thrown out the rule book.

Books.

Most of them.

It’s not that they weren’t helpful, and I still recommend them to anyone looking for a baseline or starting point with their children’s sleep challenges. At least read one or two so you can go the party line for a while, and know what you’re deviating from if you have to. If you don’t have to, you’re lucky and the books will help you.

But it turns out that a lot of the expert advice didn’t apply to our son, or our family, at all.

Just after my last post (nearly two months ago now — sorry!), I found a book called The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. — a treasure-trove of information about children’s psychology that I’d never before come across, not even in graduate school. Though the book obviously focuses on sensitive children in particular, it was the first I’d ever read that addresses the child’s temperament as a major factor in how he or she experiences the world and reacts to stimuli.

The Highly Sensitive Child touches only very briefly on sleep per se, but really the entire thing opened a whole new perspective on sleep for me — so much so that I didn’t really need a separate section on it. Rather than trying to fit our sleep approach/solution into a particular parenting philosophy, or into prescribed and pre-set routines and interventions, the book made us more observant of our own child and our interactions with him — and, importantly, how his temperament and our reactions to it might be challenging his sleep.

It also prompted us to call a temperament therapist for more assistance. She had us fill out an assessment that ranked our son on nine different temperament scales, such as sensitivity, adaptability and intensity. Then we talked about how the results on each scale could impact sleep.

For example, the Dragon is highly perceptive and highly active but a bit less adaptable than the norm. That means he’s very aware of his surroundings and loves to be constantly engaged in learning and play. But he has a hard time moving from one activity to the next — in part because he’s taking in so much, that it just takes time to leave one thing and start the next. Transitions themselves are activities to be embraced, investigated and acted upon. Rushing through transitions overwhelms and frustrates him. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes getting your toddler from the front door to the car, you know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, armed with this information, our empathy and tolerance levels went up. Our views of “misbehavior” and “resistance” were recast as we understood why he might be fighting bedtime, fighting sleep. Suddenly we understood his behavior not as manipulation or intransigence but as our child’s effort to get his needs met. He was, in effect, telling us, “I can’t go as fast as you want me to go. I need time,” and, “I need less stimulation. I can’t be seeing and hearing so much, or making so many decisions, when you want me to calm down.” We were able to craft our evenings and behaviors — and even small interactions — to help the Dragon prepare internally for a peaceful bedtime.

At first, we tried to be more stringent about the routine: everything exactly the same, every night, so he’d know what was coming and could worry less about adapting and transitioning. It worked alright, in part — at least we all knew what was coming, what to do next; the runup to bedtime got better — but there was still major resistance to actually going to sleep. When the lights went down, there was crying, screaming, running for the door. There were attempts to sleep on the floor, the Dragon rolling across his carpet, back and forth, back and forth, arranging and rearranging his pillow and blankets, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable. If I tried to leave the room, he screamed and cried. If he tried to leave the room, and I didn’t let him, he hit me and kicked me. All of this would go on for an hour, for two hours. We knew children of his temperament take longer to get into a new routine than others, so we breathed deep and tried to be patient.

But one night, I got so exhausted, and so frustrated, that I just quit. For nearly three years I had poured all my energy into doing it by the book, into following the experts’ advice to a T.

And then I hit a wall. I just couldn’t do it anymore. There was a single moment in time, sitting up against the wall in the Dragon’s room, going through the whole routine of fear, anger and resistance, when I finally realized: This isn’t the right way. We’re all exhausted. We’re angry. We dread the evenings. We’re working against each other. This is wrong.

So we started experimenting with things the books say not to do. For example:

  • Many books warn against decreasing or eliminating naptime as a strategy to ease bedtime: “Sleep begets sleep,” the say. Not in our case: The Dragon’s mind is always going, so less naptime gives him more time to take in what he feels he needs to know and experience.
  • The books warn against a later bedtime for the same reason. But guess what? The Dragon sleeps better if he goes down a little later. He’s a really relational kid who needs to feel connected to Mama and Daddy before sleep disconnects him for the night. Since we both work full-time, we need our family time in the evening to stretch a little later.
  • The books, by and large, also put the kibosh on pre-bedtime TV. You know what? As much as I try to minimize TV in our family, he’s been easing into sleep better with a little managed tube-time in the evening. I don’t know why. But it’s true. So I don’t resist it anymore.
  • I’ve been preaching to the masses for years about the importance of consistency in the bedtime routine. And it works for many, many, many people. But we’ve found out that it’s not so necessary with our child. Again, I’m not sure why — the temperament folks all say it is. The logic is not flawed. But every family, every child, is different. And we had to experiment a lot to find that out. Our routine is so flexible that the Dragon has even slept in the living room a couple of times!

Though lots of my personal beliefs are pretty unconventional, I tend to follow the rules and trust the “experts” (well, in many areas) much of the time. Now I know I waited way too long to buck convention in this case. Boy, do I regret it.

Now, it’s true that the dishes don’t get done nearly as consistently as they did before. And, yes, Alan and I need to carve out other times to veg out alone and take care of the couple. And, no, I don’t get as much business-building done in the evenings as I did before. We’ve even had to engineer a massive shift in how we even think about our evenings, because the Dragon is now up with us until about 9:00 or 9:30. Before, family time was winding down by 7:30.

But he gets to sleep only a little later than he used to — without the screaming trauma. We’re having a lot more fun as a family: playing together more, taking walks, bonding, appreciating, forgiving. Our evenings feel less engineered, more natural. We’re learning to be flexible, to let activities be fluid, to move in and out of each other, not to compartmentalize life so much. There’s room for spontaneity: A few nights ago, we piled into the car way after dark and drove up the mountain to see the city lights. We would never have done that before. And we all get a lot more — and better — sleep.

And that expands our family’s cycle of happiness much more than a strict bedtime routine and fighting to get him down ever did.

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Highly Recommended: Baby Whisperer for Toddlers

June 23, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, Solutions

Many times, for many families, a pre-fab sleep solution works wonders. Your family’s sleep challenges are precisely targeted by the perspectives of authors like Ferber, Sears or Pantley. You implement their recommendations, and everyone is sleeping better soon. I absolutely recommend these books and others for people for whom they make sense.

But if, like us, you’ve tried those approaches and still struggle — or if you suspect that their fairly straightforward prescriptions aren’t right for your child and family — then take a look at Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers by Tracy Hogg with Melinda Blau.

The book isn’t specifically about children’s sleep (though there is a chapter on the subject). It’s about setting the tone for the entire parent-child relationship. It acknowledges the differences in children’s personalities, honors different paces of development among kids, and looks at development not by “typical” ages but by fluid stages and unfolding progress — regardless of chronological age. Her successful avoidance of comparing one child to the next is a feat in and of itself.

But most of all, this book demonstrates how parents can be compassionate and empowering toward their children while also setting limits and establishing the authority that is necessary not only for parents’ sanity but also for children’s self-confidence. Her specific examples shed light and relief on how to balance those two attitudes, which can often feel contradictory.

Though she doesn’t say it explicitly, underlying each chapter is the implication that sleeping (or eating, or walking, or…) isn’t a task achieved in isolation from the rest of the day. Your child takes his or her own unique personality to the dinner table, to the playgroup, to the bathroom, to the bedroom — everywhere. Recognizing that personality, and responding to its needs, is key to helping children blossom in all areas of life, including sleep. This book provides a wonderful basis for thinking about how to do just that.

At the same time, Hogg implies, your parenting style shouldn’t change drastically from one time of day to another. If you’re lax about structure during the day, your child will rebel against structure at bedtime. If you’re militant about schedules in the morning, your child won’t respond well to a changeable bedtime at night. So Hogg helps readers reflect on the messages they deliver and expectations they set up in the way they relate to their children — and then, if necessary, change those messages and expectations to ones that are realistic, supportive and helpful.

I’m not quite finished reading Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers, but I’ve started working some of Hogg’s suggestions anyway, for example: Setting the boundaries of an activity and allowing the Dragon to make simple choices within those boundaries; following through on established plans instead of negotiating with The Dreaded Whine; letting go of my need for the Dragon to eat a certain amount of food during dinner. It hasn’t been long enough to see how our bedtime challenges play out, but I’m hopeful that a stronger foundation throughout the day will help him trust that he’s well supported throughout the night. And, in any case, I feel more confident as a parent — and I have to believe that will have positive repercussions somewhere.

Hogg does make some semantic choices that I’d challenge — for example, she uses the word “touchy” to describe what I’d call, more diplomatically, a sensitive child; and she occasionally addresses her adult readers with terms of endearment better suited for toddlers. But those are minor irritations compared to the solid, practical wisdom she imparts about compassionate yet authoritative* parenting.

* Notice I said “authoritative,” not “authoritarian.” I can’t remember where I read this recently, but I like the distinction.

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Instinct is About Everything

June 09, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

I wholeheartedly believe in following your instincts when you parent — day, night and all points in-between.

But instinct is not just about the big decisions. It’s about all the little things, too. Things like pajamas.

It’s been pretty hot here in L.A. the last few weeks, so hot that Alan and I now kick the covers off our own bed before falling asleep. But the Dragon’s temperature always runs a little high or a little low, so when he begged to wear his flannel fireman pajamas, I relented.

Bedtime that night wasn’t horrible, but it took a long time, a lot of tossing and turning, and a lot of lullabies to get the Dragon to settle down. I kept feeling his neck, and I kept feeling low, damp heat. I kept asking if he was too hot, and he kept insisting he wasn’t. How can you not be? I thought. Your neck is clammy. But he insisted, so I did nothing.

After about 45 minutes, the Dragon started clutching at the buttons of his pajama top, clearly trying to unfasten them. I jumped into action, helping him change out of his beloved PJs and into ones more weather-appropriate. He was asleep within five minutes.

We try to give the Dragon the benefit of the doubt. He’s a smart kid, he makes lots of great choices, and he tends to recognize and vocalize what he needs quite readily. But he is still a little guy who needs guidance about appropriate decisions. And I’m still the mom who can rely on observation, experience and instinct about when to intervene in his decisions.

Instinct isn’t something to be pulled out and brushed off for the big decisions only. It should be up at all times, testing the winds, ready to move in when necessary to facilitate a better bedtime — and other life experiences.

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Returning to Normal After Sleep Interruptions

June 04, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

Our sleep routine during two of the last three weeks has been thrown off a bit by house guests. We love to have them here, but we can’t do bedtime exactly as it goes during “ordinary time.” We cobble together an alternate routine that works well enough on a temporary basis.

But the first night back has killed us both times. In part, I think it’s been because the Dragon has returned to his bedroom after sleeping in with us for a week. But another part, I’m sure, is missing the loved ones who he’d grown used to having in the house.

His cousin left town this morning, and he howled at bedtime — squirmed, stormed, raged, kicked, threw things at Alan for a good 45 minutes. Finally, Alan asked gently, “Do you miss your cousin?”

“Y–y–y–yeeeeessssss!” the Dragon sobbed. Then he fell quiet, allowing his upset to drain out of him. Within five minutes, he was asleep. He just needed an acknowledgment of his upset with the change, but he didn’t have the words to put to it himself. As soon as Alan voiced it, the Dragon felt heard and acknowledged and could settle in.

Granted, this was number four in a string of major departures, so it was probably worse than a one-off transition would have been. But within the last month, his friend moved away, then his teacher left his school, then his grandparents’ visit ended, then his cousin’s. We have two more major transitions to get through — change of classroom and my four-day business trip — before things settle down for a while.

Tonight, Alan and I realized that the first night after a major change should be as “baseline” as possible: the most familiar PJs, the most familiar stories, and Mama accompanying the Dragon to sleep instead of Daddy. The normalization of regular life after such excitement may feel boring but it is clearly more important than the picky details such as which adult’s “turn” it is to manage the transition to sleep.

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Children’s Sleep Impacts Marriage/Relationship

May 27, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

I admit Alan and I are guilty of this.

We schedule the entire rest of our lives before we schedule dates; when we do schedule dates, they often get shortchanged because we didn’t plan well enough — or we’re too tired to put much into it; we put tons of energy into the Dragon and very little into ourselves or our marriage.

Luckily, we’re aware enough of the couple that we are to see red flags early on. We know that when the sniping starts, or when we say little to each other between dinnertime and bedtime, or when quiet resentment builds, it’s time to sit down together and work some things out.

And if you’re wondering why this post is on a children’s sleep site, either you’re a single parent (facing a different set of difficulties) or you don’t have a kid who struggles with sleep.

Because if you’re in a committed relationship, and you have a kid who doesn’t sleep well, you know that the state of each situation impacts the other deeply.

What’s clear is that the time and energy it takes to attend to a sleep-sensitive child can drain and strain the adult relationship (not to mention the parent-child one!). The answers seem to be to pay attention to the marriage, schedule dates, work on the sleep issue, etc. These are not the most satisfying answers to me, mostly because (a) they assume the sleep issue can be resolved “with just a little more work” and (b) they require more work and obligation from parents who already feel up against a wall.

(Our couples therapist suggested another track that may work better for some couples, which was to create a regular ritual that doesn’t seem like a big deal but that keeps the couple in touch with each other. For example, Alan and I now make a point of meeting up in the living room after we’re sure the Dragon is asleep. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we give each other foot massages, sometimes we just watch TV. We don’t do it every night — our schedule and exhaustion levels dictate that we just can’t — but regularly enough that it defuses a lot of the tension build-up that might otherwise occur.)

What’s not clear — but a suspicion I have, drawn from my studies in family psychology — is that perhaps, in some cases, the state of the marriage contributes to a child’s sleep sensitivity. It’s an accepted understanding in family psychology that children sometimes unconsciously create stressors in response to a problem that’s not being addressed elsewhere in the family. So if marital strife is generating tense undercurrents, a child might whip up a problem to bring the family together to address something — anything. It’s like the child is saying, “Look! There’s a problem! It may not be the core problem, but let’s get together around something in this family!” In some cases, I believe, this secondary problem is sleep-sensitivity.

The implication of this is that the sleep problem may die down as the parents address the tension in their relationship — even if they never, ever talk to the child about it. Peace in the family helps children feel secure, which can help them sleep better.

Even more intriguing to me is the idea that the adult relationship and the child’s sleep could eventually enter into a vicious cycle, in which each one deteriorates in response to fraying in the other. Everyone’s sleeplessness, the parents’ need to respond frequently to a wakeful child, the tension that builds up around sleep problems, resulting splinters in the parent-child relationship, lack of down-time or adult time for the parents, and all the fallout of all these conditions can certainly harm a relationship. The child could, in turn, respond with more sleep problems — and the relationship could, in turn, respond with further fracturing.

And so on.

The wrench needs to be thrown in somewhere. While we focus so intently on “fixing” the sleep problem, perhaps the blame shouldn’t always be placed squarely on that issue. Perhaps we need to widen our gaze a bit. Perhaps we need to melt tension throughout the household, make up with the people we’re supposed to be teamed up with. Perhaps, in some families, that is the right response, or part of a response, to a child’s sleep-sensitivity. Perhaps a better marriage can actually create better sleep for everyone in the family.

So my questions to you are (pick one!): How do you preserve and bolster the adult relationship even as the sleep problems continue? How do you keep the adult relationship strong, close and loving? How do you melt the tension that builds when sleep problems persist? And do you think sleep problems affect the larger family? If yes, how so?

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