Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Self-Soothing a Developmental Task

May 25, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

In talking with a friend last night about our adventures with a sleep-sensitive child, I circled back once again to the mantra of many sleep books: Children are not born knowing how to self-soothe; they must learn the task in order to sleep independently.

Self-soothing is a critical skill not only at the beginning of sleep, but throughout the night: We all wake up multiple times during a period of sleep, but most of us learn how to fall back asleep quickly — so quickly that we don’t even recognize or remember that “partial wakening.” But the baby or child who doesn’t know how to self-soothe is prone to waking fully during these times and then needing the help of the parent to return to sleep.

(NB. One mistake some parents make is responding to every cry immediately, without waiting a moment or two to see if the baby settles back down on her own. When I started waiting, I realized the Dragon actually had more self-soothing skills than I realized.)

The books offer a wide range of prescriptions for how to teach your child to self-soothe, from “extinction” (i.e., cry-it-out with no parental intervention) to co-sleeping. My opinion is that the best approach for each child probably falls within this range and is largely dependent on the child’s needs, personality and environment. (Though I have yet to be convinced that extinction is the best approach for any child.) Many books also give laundry-lists of things to try within their basic approach, things like transitional objects and ambient sound.

But the conversation with my friend last night also reminded me that — like walking, talking and eating with a fork — self-soothing is a developmental task that takes some time, creativity and attunement. Simply implementing a prescribed solution may not be enough, especially for a sleep-sensitive child. When I told her that the Dragon still cries out for me when his dad tries to tuck him in, my friend — a therapist and early childhood expert — said, “It sounds like he’s just not yet convinced that his dad can soothe him as well as his mom. You need to let Alan show him that his soothing is just as good as yours.” Then, after that happens, we can work on helping the Dragon see that even he himself is capable of self-soothing.

What I left with is that, whether it’s mealtime, playtime or bedtime, when a particular function is closely associated with one person, or when the child believes that only that person can perform a certain task, it may be difficult for the child to grasp that she can take on those challenges herself. A loosening of the reins is necessary. It is definitely hard for me not to respond when the Dragon cries for me. But what’s important, I believe, is not that Mom soothes him, but that somebody does, until he is ready and able to take on that mantle himself.

This same friend once told me that “Mom” or “Mama” becomes the child’s name for the mother because “Ma” is often the earliest sound uttered in search of comfort; when the mother responds, she becomes “Ma” or some variation. So if you’re a mom whose heart aches when her baby cries “Mama!” while in someone else’s arms, you might understand it as a call for comfort. And if the child is getting it, you can release your guilt and feel good that your child is learning to widen her circle of support and comfort — to a circle that will soon include herself.

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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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Falling Asleep Not Always Peaceful

May 11, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, Toddlers

When I put the Dragon down for nap or bedtime, he often spends a lot of time arranging himself on the bed, collecting the stuffed animals he needs, getting a drink of water, turning and tossing and turning some more, trying to find the right spot.

This all seemed logical to me from the get-go: I do similar things when I first get into bed as well. I adjust the pillows, straighten out my t-shirt, maybe jump up again for a quick drink of water or to make sure the back door is locked. So I’ve been pretty tolerant of the Dragon’s adjustment needs overall. Going to sleep is a transition, and transitions take time and attending-to.

But the Dragon does a couple other things that, for a long time, drove me batty. First, he whispers to himself. It’s a kind of under-the-breath whisper, fast and rambling, and I can’t usually tell what he’s saying. Second, he doesn’t just toss and turn; he actually kicks his feet against the bed and wall repeatedly.

I used to get mad. I used to say sternly — sometimes through clenched teeth, sometimes louder than polite — “Stop kicking! Stop talking! Keep quiet! Keep still! Close! Your! Eyes! Go! To! Sleep!

This tactic definitely quieted and stilled our child, but it didn’t help him go to sleep. He’d lie there in the semi-dark, eyes wide and shamed, while I stabbed myself with guilt. A wide gulf lay between us. After ten, 20, 60 more minutes, he’d finally drift off. I’d sneak away and come running back in guilt the next time I heard him cry out.

One night, after it was Alan’s turn to manage bedtime, he emerged from our son’s room contented and kind of amused. “I just let him kick,” he said. “He just needed to kick. He must have had some extra energy.”

It seemed to obvious, then. Of course. He wasn’t kicking the walls or mumbling under his breath to stay awake. He was doing it to process his day, to move the unspent energy through his body so he could settle into sleep much better. He was actually trying to comply with my wishes but got confused and hurt when I wouldn’t let him.

I’m trying to find a study I once came across that said introverts tend to need more time to fall asleep than extraverts. As I recall, it’s because introverts get their energy internally, so lights-out in the bedroom doesn’t automatically lead to lights-out in the brain. I can see this in the Dragon: He’s not completely introverted, but enough so that this may be the case with him. And it’s not the only reason he has trouble sleeping, but perhaps one of the clues to our struggle over the last 2 1/2 years.

If anyone has seen this study, please send me the link! Thanks.

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Site Massively Updated!

May 10, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Help is on the way!

We’re thrilled to announce several new developments on the site that we hope will help parents and other caregivers who struggle to help their children sleep:

  • Three book summaries have been added, along with more than a dozen links to books that provide off-the-shelf approaches to children’s sleep problems. Summaries of all the books listed will eventually make it onto this page.
  • Links to books, music, night lights and other products to help children sleep have been added here.
  • A study on the impacts of trauma on sleep has been added to our research section.
  • An (800) number to Childhelp child abuse hotline has been added to the right-hand sidebar on every page to make sure parents and caregivers who’ve been pushed beyond their limits have a place to call 24/7/365.

But I’m perhaps proudest of our newest page, Top 12 Tips, which compiles the core children’s sleep principles we keep coming back to in our family. I hope they’ll help others — and I hope you’ll continue the discussion in our forums!

If you’ve just found the site and think it’s helpful or have suggestions, please don’t hesitate to comment below or e-mail us (contact links are to the left).

Thanks!

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Breathe Deep to Cope with Kids Not Sleeping

May 08, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping

Our toddler has had trouble sleeping since he was born.

Though his struggle isn’t fully resolved, it’s a good sight better than it was six months ago, a year ago, two years ago.

Nevertheless, some nights are still so difficult that it takes all my emotional reserves just to get through bedtime.

These are the nights that I do deep breathing.

Inhale ( 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) … Exhale ( 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) … Inhale ( 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) … Exhale ( 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) …

And so on. It helps me relax, remember what’s important and quiet my energy.

There’s a wonderful, if small, study by Dr. Sears that suggests that babies sync their breathing to their mothers’. After I read it, I started paying attention to what happened to our child’s breath when I remembered to breathe deep during frustrating nights.

It was true! It was especially noticeable when the Dragon was younger, the most dramatic example being when he first came home from NICU. At night, we put him in a bouncy-seat next to our bed, but his breathing was ragged and labored and kept everyone awake. As soon as we brought him into bed with us, his breath evened out and quieted down.

But I even notice it now, if more on an energetic level than a physical one. When I’m agitated, the Dragon’s energy is equally wired. The more wired he gets, the more anxious I get. I snap at him and treat him harshly; he fragments a bit and gets needier. It’s like he’s searching for the thing I’m supposed to be giving him but can’t in that moment.

It’s hard to change course in the middle of a dynamic like this, when we’re both attached to our anger and frustration. Deep breathing makes it much easier. It’s hard to be agitated, upset or short with someone you love when you’re inhaling slowly, exhaling slowly, inhaling slowly, exhaling slowly. (Though a cautionary note: Deep breathing can easily slide into heavy breathing that communicates anger. Awareness is important!)

Without a word (or perhaps with one or two to soothe both of us back into alignment), deepening my breath turns the tide of the evening. It might take just as long for the Dragon to fall asleep as it would have with all the agita. But at least, when he does, he’s drifting off on a feeling of being connected and supported, not one of anger and isolation.

And I’m able to enjoy the rest of the evening without guilt, regret or the need to “come down” from another frustrating bedtime.

(Photo credit)

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Harvard Study Links Sleeplessness to Obesity

May 07, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Research

It’s not that I’m against research, but last month’s study out of Harvard has me a bit peeved.

According to the press release, “Infants and toddlers who sleep less than 12 hours a day and who watch two or more hours of television per day are twice as likely to become overweight by age 3 than children who sleep longer.”

I don’t have scientific evidence of this, but all the parents I know whose infant or toddler sleeps less than 12 hours a day are a bit frazzled and fatigued. Plopping the child in front of the TV tends to be a coping mechanism, not a lazy, shiftless, dunno-what-else-to-do kind of move.

Not that Harvard characterized it that way, and maybe I’m just defensive, but the implication on parental self-esteem is just a little wearying. Believe me, I’d love for my child to sleep more than 12 hours a day. Believe me, if I had the energy myself, he wouldn’t be watching TV while I scrape myself together every morning. Believe me, we’d all love a little more sleep and a little less body fat, for our children and ourselves.

I don’t have scientific data to back this claim, either, but in my experience, parents with children who don’t sleep much tend to be pouring as much of themselves as they possibly can into the act of parenting. The guilt/anxiety combo that can come from reports like this one can just about send us over the edge.

I don’t want my kid to be overweight. I’d rather he didn’t watch TV at all, truth be told. But at this point, I’d gladly trade a few pounds and a Thomas the Tank Engine for an extra hour of sleep each night.

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Support and Solutions are On Their Way!

March 16, 2008 By: Alan Category: Help is on the way!

If you struggle with getting your child to sleep better, you’ve come to the right place.

We’re currently working on reviews of the best books and products to support your efforts, a questionnaire to help guide and focus your strategy, and summaries and links to the latest research on children’s sleep — including ones that highlight obstacles to sleep not commonly covered in the popular literature.

In this space, we’ll publish tips and insights from our experience as well as the story of our own long struggle to help our child sleep better. You’ll see you’re not alone. (Scroll down for a few tips to get started!)

In fact, you can connect right now with other parents in the same boat. Visit our forums and be one of the first to post your questions, offer support and get the answers you need from your parenting peers.

In the meantime, here are three key tidbits we’ve found helpful in guiding our child — and ourselves — to a better night’s rest:

1. Everyone has a “sleep window.” It’s caused by a rise in melatonin that cues the body toward sleep. It doesn’t last long, and it’s followed by a rise in cortisol, a stress hormone that wakes the body up. If your child misses that sleep window, it’s much harder for him or her to fall asleep — and stay asleep.

2. Children get ritualized easily. They get used to having bedtime a certain way, at a certain time, in a certain order. When one part of the ritual gets thrown off, many kids have trouble adapting easily. For some kids, this even goes so far as to mean the same pajamas every night!

3. Honor your instincts. Just because everyone you know swears by a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the right one for your family. By the same token, just because we say it here doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Take in all the information and use what’s best for you and your family.

Bookmark this page and come back for more thoughts, tips and stories about children, sleep and building a healthier, more connected and better-rested family life.

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