Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Archive for the ‘tips’

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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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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Baby Sleep Can Be a Moving Target

May 23, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t believe there’s a magic wand for children’s sleep problems. Good sleep depends on so many different factors that, especially with a “sleep-sensitive child,” it is easy to thwart it – often without even knowing it!

Compounding the problem is that what works at eight months might not work at 18 months, and that “solution” will probably be completely wrong at seven or ten or 15 years old. So not only is there no silver bullet or magic wand, but the pursuit of your child’s consistently good sleep can also feel like a moving target.

Many sleep books on the market are divided into “ages and stages” sections, which provide specific developmental norms and advice on how to help your child sleep during this period of his or her life. This way of sectioning a whole sleep solution book can be very helpful because it gives you a context for understanding where your child falls within the standard expectations. It also makes it easier to reference when you’re bleary and frustrated!

But your child’s age isn’t the only context for observing changes in his or her sleep needs. Nor is it, probably, the fastest-moving target on which to fix your awareness when dealing with sleep issues. Regardless of age, a child’s sleep is impacted by his or her developing personality, emotional and interpersonal shifts, physical changes, and life experiences, events or situations that span days, weeks or longer.

  • A simple example is that the Dragon spent his first two-plus years falling asleep to music or other ambient sound. It seemed to soothe him, and it definitely muffled other household sounds. But suddenly, at around 30 months, he asked us to turn it off: He’d rather have it quiet now. I’m thankful that he has enough language to articulate that need. If he didn’t, we might still be searching for this particular source of his frustration.
  • Another example is a recent visit from the Dragon’s grandparents. Not only was he displaced from his bedroom, his normal routine was interrupted by lots of excitement and naptimes that seemed to fall off-schedule each day. We had to adapt our typical evening, watching our son more closely than usual for sleep cues and building more calm-down time into the bedtime routine. Now that our houseguests are gone, things are relatively back to normal.
  • A final example is the Dragon’s fear of monsters, which started around two years and peaked at 28 months. For a while, our bedtime routine included a ritual to scare the monsters away and help our son feel protected through the night.* After about six months, his need for the ritual faded out.

The “moving target” concept of children’s sleep may be one reason parents of sleep-sensitive children can feel so frustrated. Just as one routine seems to be working, something happens – sometimes we don’t even know what it is – to throw a wrench in the sleep pattern again. We feel like we’re starting over at square one.

My premise here is that awareness of the child’s changing needs – not just over months or years but even from day to day – can mean the difference between whole-family sleep deprivation and a better (if not perfect) bedtime. If a child is sleep-sensitive, one off-the-shelf solution may not work forever. As I’ve mentioned, the books have a lot of great information. But our job with “nighttime parenting,” as Dr. Sears calls it, is to be consistently attuned to our children so that our responses ebb and flow with their sleep needs.

This suggestion does not preclude the consistency that’s so important in many of the popular books: Look back at our responses in the three situations I described above. We didn’t change the basic approach. We pruned and adapted as the Dragon’s needs changed – and we’ll continue to do so – but we didn’t throw out the entire bedtime routine and make up something brand-new. And sometimes the need for change is more subtle: Something suddenly shifts, and we have to observe more closely, make adjustments, try again. When we do, the Dragon’s sleep almost always improves once again.

*Some professionals advise parents to simply tell children that monsters don’t exist, but I believe in meeting the child where he or she is. Perhaps there are not literally monsters, but something feels scary to the child, and using “monster spray” and a “monster whacker,” as we have done, gives some power back to the child and validates his experience that something frightening lurks in his midst.

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Magic Wand for Baby Sleep

May 14, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, Infants, Solutions, tips, Toddlers

For a long time, it felt like I was looking for a magic wand — the one, solitary change we would make that would finally, and for good, make our child drift off quickly and peacefully, and sleep deeply all night long.

It took more than two years for me to realize that such a thing doesn’t exist, at least not for our baby.

It’s true that some children might actually just need an adjustment to the environment or some tweaking of the schedule to reliably bring about good sleep. But our son is so sensitive to change, environment and other factors that this hope has seemed to vanish into thin air, after we thought we glimpsed it quickly, dozens upon dozens of times.

We’ve had to change our expectations dramatically. We spent a long time listening to advice and reading books about how to change our child’s sleep habits for good. The books and advice were not bad — in fact, they had lots of information and insight that we rely on today to shape bedtime and nighttime better. But the full off-the-shelf solutions weren’t for us.

What we realized was that there was no single thing that was keeping the Dragon awake. Yes, there were logistical issues, such as thirst and temperature. There were also scheduling issues: Feeding him dinner earlier and learning to read his sleep cues were especially helpful steps. Making sure he got enough outside time throughout the day also turned out to be very important. Many other things, seemingly small turns in behavior — from putting him in the same pajamas every night to recognizing that a certain story ramped his energy up — contributed to a better night’s sleep.

What’s more, with each passing month, it seems, there is another new sleep obstacle to attend to. Recently, it’s been monsters; we’ve devised ways to help him deal with his fears. (The game Go Away, Monster has been especially helpful!) We tried to help him learn to self-soothe so we could leave before he fell asleep (and there are several excellent books that tell you how to do so), but his attention was so attuned to us, his reaction to our departure so panicked, that we couldn’t go there.

So we started to understand that we must remain attuned to this child, that there was no silver bullet, no magic wand that put him to sleep. We understand and accept now that we can’t just settle the Dragon into bed, kiss him goodnight and leave. We have to help him ease into sleep, at least while he’s still young. The transition is too alarming for him to make on his own. He needs accompaniment and reassurance for his fall into unconsciousness.

I don’t know whether this is because he suffered a trauma at birth that separated him from Alan and me, or simply because the sleep sensitivity is inherent in his personality. It’s probably a combination of the two. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

But since we’ve acknowledged and accepted that trait in him, bedtime has seemed easier for everyone. The Dragon feels more able to ask for what he needs: a retelling of his day, a pat on the back, socks. I don’t take these as manipulation; I take them as the small adjustments we all need to move from wakefulness to sleep. And he falls asleep faster and usually awakens only once now, to stumble into our room and sleep out the rest of the night between Alan and me. Considering where we’ve been — at 16 months, he was still waking ten times a night — this feels like a very, very good place to be.

My bedtime dread, too, has slowly diminished over the last few months. As a result, I’m now much better able to stay connected to the Dragon throughout the evening. We can have fun playing games and reading books all the way up to bedtime. My temper no longer flares at the first sign of his struggle to sleep. I’m able to maintain my own sense of calm and that certainly helps him feel more supported as he works his way into sleep.

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