Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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 stillĀ  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.

  1. R posted the following on April 7, 2013 at 8:55 pm.

    That is so great to hear and I can only hope that one day my husband and I can say the same thing. My heart goes out to you, for I know where you are coming from. Our daughter has been struggling to find peace at night for quite some time. Sleep does not come easy for her. We have tried many things, but it seems that it has gotten even harder for her. She was adopted at 12 months old from Guatemala. We have no background on her birth parents. We know that she was with a foster mother for that first year. We are constantly trying to think of new ways to soothe her so she ( and us) can get some good sleep at night. We have yet to find the answers.

    Reply to R

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