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.

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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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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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