Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Sleep Solutions: Giving Time, Building Trust

March 24, 2009 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

At 3 1/2 years old, the Dragon seems, just recently, to have “gotten” how to sleep.

Oh, sure, he still  gets up in the middle of the night and crawls into bed with us. But the most persistent and disruptive problem of the last two years or so — the difficulty transitioning to sleep in the evening — seems to be largely a thing of the past now. Knock on wood.

A couple new strategies coincided with his better sleeping patterns. First, we created a “nest” for him in the corner of the master bedroom. Nothing fancy, just his toddler bed mattress on the floor, some Christmas lights, a few of his favorite books and stuffed animals. Second, we told him one of us would sit next to him for 10 minutes after stories; he could cuddle with us for that time, but when the 10 minutes were up, Mama or Daddy would be moving away to sit on the bench a few feet across the room.

He protested the first few nights, but we spoke to him from the bench, assuring him he was safe, we were right there, we weren’t going anywhere — and soon enough, he drifted off. It’s now been like this for a couple of months with little change. He’s usually asleep within 10 or 15 minutes. Compared to the hour or two of yore, it feels heavenly. I don’t even mind staying with him until he’s asleep, and the difference in Alan’s and my energy, mood and relationship is monumental.

But I’m not convinced it was the corner nest or the limits on cuddling that finally did the trick. I think it was a combination of those things alongside the dietary changes, a deeper understanding of the Dragon’s temperament, information about the science of sleep, trusting our instincts, working as a team, staying attuned to changes in our son, striking a balance between compassion and authority — and, most of all, simply giving him time to trust us again.

dragon-in-nicuSee, the Dragon was born with a lung infection and rushed to the emergency room just four hours after birth. From there, he was admitted to NICU and fitted with a respirator before he was half a day old. Alan and I shuttled back and forth twice a day to sit by his bedside, but we couldn’t touch him much, and we couldn’t hold him at all for the first few days. Through no fault of anyone’s, the Dragon — like many NICU babies — missed those first crucial days of continual loving touch and instinctively-felt safety that most newborns get.

I have no way of proving this, but my instincts tell me the Dragon’s certainty that a safe world was supporting him got damaged by that experience. Our midwife, the paramedics, the ER and NICU staffs all did an amazing job. But no matter how quality the care, it’s not the ideal experience for transitioning into this world. Though your conscious memory is still buried deep at that age, your unconscious mind is up and running and recording everything that happens to you. When something frightening happens, it goes right into that unconscious mind and begins to grow evermore powerful, until it’s brought into consciousness and addressed and resolved.

It is my belief that — underneath the diet issues and the tactile issues and the need for routine and all those overt problems we tried to solve to help the Dragon sleep better — underlying all those things, he has always had a fundamental anxiety that he will be separated and unsupported in the world. Leaving him to “cry it out,” as so many people advised us, just made him panic.

What finally worked was showing up at his bedside, night after night after night after night, for more than three years, with our presence and our reassurance and our touch, working to restore the Dragon’s faith that we were there for him. We didn’t always do it well. But we were always there, and I believe that is what he needed to sleep better.

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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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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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