Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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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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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