Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Protein-Powered Parenting

September 02, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

I spent the holiday weekend gorging on Kathleen DesMaisons’ book Little Sugar Addicts and have so many thoughts and connections spinning in my brain that I hardly know where to start.

So I’ll back up one post to make a little confession: Last time I blogged, I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of the book. I’d looked at DesMaisons’ website for parents of sugar-sensitive kids and seen that the first step in her healing program is breakfast — just breakfast. Specifically, make sure everyone in the family eats a breakfast that includes protein within an hour of waking up. Every morning, without fail.

I thought, “Well, what could it hurt to take the sugar out of the day at the same time, anyway?” So I snuck chocolate when the Dragon was at daycare instead of in the next room, where he’d smell it and come running. Even still, when he came home and found my little empty bowl, he picked it up and said, “Mama, what was in here?” I said, “Almonds,” as nonchalantly as I could. It was true, technically: I like almonds and chocolate chips together, and that’s how I usually have them. But he eyed me suspiciously.

You can’t fool a three-year-old.

The book reminded me of two things I’d forgotten in the frenzy of parenting a young child.

First, five years ago, when I started addressing my own alcohol addiction, I had to find other ways to get the same effect — comfort, confidence — in non-alcoholic ways before I felt I could let go of the bottle. I likened it to a blanket: You don’t just rip a blanket off a shivering person and expect them to be warm. You find a jacket for them first. So we couldn’t just take sugar away from the Dragon and expect everything to be okay.

Luckily, we don’t keep a lot of refined sugar in the house anyway — at least not outside of the cannisters — so we had options to offer that were less sweet but still satisfying at this point. A spoonful of honey in his yogurt, a white-flour bagel for his sunflower butter. (In our defense, we’ve always done whole wheat bread products; this week, the store was out so we went for the white.) The Dragon doesn’t ask for more food after he eats these, the way he does after he gets his hands on the Holy Grail of Refined Sugar.

The second thing I remembered when reading Little Sugar Addicts came directly from my training as a psychotherapist: You cannot work effectively with a child unless you have the parent(s) on board. Children’s problems are family systems problems. So if I wanted this to work, I quickly realized, I had to jump on board as well — and fast. And needed to get Alan there, too.

DesMaisons also advises going slooooooow. There are seven steps in her plan, and she recommends implementing the steps one at a time, over six to 18 months total. She also notes that sugar-sensitive people tend to want to rush in and do things all at once. I had to laugh to myself when I read it: Sure enough, that’s what I’d started to do. So we pulled back.

Breakfast first.

But then the most amazing thing happened.

The Dragon started asking for healthier food throughout the day: Pears and cheese, nuts and grapes, a chicken nugget. He actually asked for these things. What’s even more startling is that I haven’t heard more than one request for a cookie in over a week. It’s like his body knew what it needed, if only it could get his brain and mine to pay attention.

Monday — Labor Day — was the Dragon’s birthday, and we started it with a healthy breakfast made to each of our likings. The grownups also had their coffee (addressing that addiction will come later!) and the Dragon asked for chocolate milk.

DesMaisons says to go slow and forgive yourself, so we gave the child his chocolate milk.

And then, a couple hours later, when it was time to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, there was very little fussing and whining. We all just got in the car and left. This is a minor miracle in our house.

I usually bring crackers or fruit to snack on in the car; this time I threw in a little protein source, too. (Improving snack choices is Step 3 in Little Sugar Addicts so I didn’t want to be too gung-ho, but since the child has been asking for healthier foods, I thought I’d try to oblige.) When both the Dragon and I got cranky in the car, I knew it was time for a snack. We popped a few nuts and apple slices and went peacefully on our way. No kicking, no crying — from either of us. And no headache for me: That’s new.

The whole day was like this: As soon as I saw him get glassy-eyed or start to whine, I fueled him up with a healthy snack. He ate happily and promptly, and told me when he was done. No fussing, no whining, no tantrums. And — critically important — I did the same thing for myself. He ate a little slice of his birthday cake but didn’t ask for another; soon he was back out in the yard playing with his new toys. His parents and grandparents all joined in the fun, and his laughter was contagious. He took a little catnap in the car on the way home.

And when he awoke, another little miracle: The Dragon spent two hours absorbed in playing with his new Tinker Toys with his dad. I have never, ever seen him focus on one task for so long, and so happily. There was no frustration or upset; no requests for TV; just enjoyment and togetherness.

And when it was time to go to the concert in the park to finish off a big day, he was a little sad to leave their new creation. But he got over it quickly and fully enjoyed dancing and clapping to the music and eating strawberries and chicken nuggets. But, truth be told, more strawberries than anything.

Now lest you think it’s all Pollyanna around here now, we still had trouble with the departure from the park and especially with bedtime — as per usual. But I was much better proteined all day long, and what a huge difference that made in my ability to cope with the Dragon’s sleep sensitivity. I could enforce the rules better, I could minimize the intensity of my responses to him, I could bring myself to soothe and tolerate his difficulties. And when he was finally asleep, I still had energy to read and relax.

I was a better mom yesterday. And it was one of the best family days we’ve ever had.

I blame it on protein.

Photo credits: Cold, Yogurt and fruit

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Children Sleep What They Eat

August 25, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Solutions

We all accept, pretty much without question, the principle of comfort food.

We’ve all felt that “Mmmm…” moment when an intense craving for brie, chocolate or pulled pork finally gets satisfied.

We know (many of us) what it feels like to be buzzed or, let’s face it, out and out drunk.

The relationship between what we eat and our state of mind is pretty instinctively understood.

So why the surprise when, this week, I realized with a start that sugar ramps my kid up?

I should have taken better notice about 2 1/2 years ago, when I went without chocolate for (gasp!) a whole day. The Dragon was eight months old at the time and still breastfeeding. That night, he went to sleep quite easily — for once.

Maybe it was denial or just profound disconnect, but although I put two and two together at the time, four — to me — equaled caffeine. Not sugar. So I resumed my chocolate habit but recommitted to decaf coffee and cut out the Diet Coke. For a while. The Dragon still slept poorly, so I wrote that one night off as a fluke, then forgot about it.

Since then, we’ve struggled with getting him to sleep at night — and to stay asleep.

I have read what seems like every book on the market — hope springs eternal! — and together Alan and I implemented solution after solution after solution. A few days would go by and things would look up. But then the inevitable slide back into sleeplessness would begin, and we’d all end up as frustrated, forlorn and fatigued as ever.

Then one day a few weeks ago, one of the Dragon’s daycare teachers, who knew of our sleep challenges, suggested offhand that perhaps evening sugar consumption was contributing to the problem. It wasn’t like we served cookies and candy for dinner, but we were definitely guilty of giving into requests for sweets more often than not. And we were willing to try anything, so we started watching.

Sure enough, we began to notice that even a little sugar in the afternoon or evening delayed the Dragon’s sleep window by an hour or more, and that he’d never cop to being tired if there was sugar in his system: He’d just keep going, and going, and going.

Without sugar, we can count on him to tell us he’s ready for bed between 8:15 and 8:30. It’s still not always easy to get him to sleep, but it’s not a nightmare. With sugar in his system, he just doesn’t wind down, and bedtime becomes a battle zone.

The pinnacle came last Friday night. I’d promised the Dragon we’d make cookies together when he got home from daycare. But the minute I started pulling ingredients from the cupboard, his fingers were in the sugar — literally grabbing gobs of it and shoving it in his mouth. When I took the sugar away, he disintegrated. His screeching, kicking, howling and hitting were alarming and dreadful.

After he calmed down, we resumed the cooking project but with a more measured approach: one ingredient at a time, the bowl close enough for him to dump the ingredients but too far to dunk his hand in.

Even still, he managed to get to the sugar. For me, cooking together is a pleasure, a bonding experience that I’ve had with my mother since early childhood. For the Dragon, that element is there — has been since he could grab a measuring cup — but increasingly it’s become about getting sugar into his system. By the time we were done, he was grabbing handfuls of dough as quickly as he could. I put the bowl of batter on top of the fridge. He howled.

And later, when the cookies were baked and he’d had his allotment of two, there was another meltdown: Just two? No! I need more! More! More! It was all he could see, all he could imagine. For two hours the Dragon sobbed for more sugar. I held my sweet addict in my arms and caught Alan’s eyes over the sobs.

“I’m launching a food revolution in this family,” I yelled. “This is it. No more sugar. This is insane.”

Alan nodded vigorously.

Please realize this is not the result of bad parenting. Yes, we could have made the connection sooner. And yes, we could have limited sweets more than we did. But in general our family eats balanced and healthy meals, so it wasn’t something we really connected. We were so focused on the process of sleep that the connection to food — which we felt we were doing moderately well — slipped us right by. And most of the otherwise-wonderful books on children’s sleep don’t spend much, if any, time on the connection between diet and dreaming. So we just weren’t focused there.

And, says Kathleen DesMaisons, author of Little Sugar Addicts, sugar addiction is a biochemical imbalance. It’s a problem to be addressed, but it’s nobody’s fault.

If you’ve ever seen a person addicted to alcohol do the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, you know what I’m talking about. They have to have it, even though they know they’ll lose control when they do. It wasn’t until I saw the extreme end of sugar addiction the other night that I deeply understood how food affects mood, how bound up in the habits of the day are the experiences of the night. It was like our typically friendly, balanced, loving child was replaced for a couple hours by a screaming fiend. It was alarming, and awful. We were all badly bruised.

So we’re now working to slowly wean the Dragon and ourselves — especially me: Alan’s vice tends toward the salty, not the sweet — from the allure of sugar. It’s only been a couple days, but already the effects are subtly evident.

We’ll keep you posted.


A short but important postscript:
If you think your child has a sugar sensitivity, check out DesMaisons’ book and/or her website. Please note that she advises against eliminating sugar as the first step toward addressing the problem.

And another one: I don’t by any means believe the effects of sugar are the only reason the Dragon has been sleep-challenged since infancy. I think that, as with many chronic issues people face, there are several different reasons that all converge to create the problem. That’s what makes it so hard: Straightforward solutions don’t work because the reasons come from many different places.

Multi-pronged problems require multi-pronged solutions. The hard part is figuring out what the prongs are. That’s what we’re here for.

Photo credits: Comfort food, Cookie

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