Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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.

  1. Annette posted the following on March 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm.

    Hi, I have been reading your website with interest. My son is now 16months and in his first year has been through trauma, having 4 operations and many many tests and dr’s appointments. This has led to major sleep (or lack of sleep) problems. But it has also led to a need for touch. He needs to touch me constantly, like a reassurance, but especially at sleep time. When he is in a stressful situation his hand goes down my top and he rubs my chest, if he is really stressed he will also lay his cheek on my chest. If he doesn’t have access to this skin to skin contact he becomes very distressed. Perhaps this sensory integration is something to look into. Thanks for your website.

    Reply to Annette
    1. Amy posted the following on March 12, 2009 at 11:10 am.

      Annette – my sons both do the same thing with their hands down my shirt! I have self-diagnosed my oldest as highly sensitive, not sure on the younger one yet. Interesting to know other people have the same issues. Thanks for posting!

      Reply to Amy
  2. Kim posted the following on March 24, 2009 at 6:53 pm.

    My youngest son, who is almost five, needs to touch me as well to comfort himself and to get to sleep. He either places his hand on my chest or if I’m cuddling with him, his feet on my belly. If we’re somewhere and I can’t hold him, he’ll stick his hand up my shirt or my husbands. He’s told me he just “needs to touch my skin”. He’s also a thumb sucker and if he’s at preschool and feels like he can’t suck his thumb he sucks his bottom lip and gets chapped skin under his lip. He’s also had clothing issues (tags, pulls his pants up past his belly button, seams in socks, switching from short sleeves to long sleeves, etc.). The touching thing started after he stopped nursing during the day around 16 months. I thought it would have stopped by now, but when he’s stressed or tired, it gets worse.

    I’m curious as to the diet issues you addressed with your Dragon’s sleep issues.

    Reply to Kim
  3. Kathy posted the following on March 24, 2009 at 9:41 pm.

    Kim —

    The diet issues we’ve worked on have largely been related to sugar sensitivity. I first blogged about it here:

    And then here:

    I hope these posts are helpful to you.

    Good luck,

    Reply to Kathy

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