Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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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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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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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