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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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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Throwing Out the Rule Book

August 22, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

We’ve thrown out the rule book.

Books.

Most of them.

It’s not that they weren’t helpful, and I still recommend them to anyone looking for a baseline or starting point with their children’s sleep challenges. At least read one or two so you can go the party line for a while, and know what you’re deviating from if you have to. If you don’t have to, you’re lucky and the books will help you.

But it turns out that a lot of the expert advice didn’t apply to our son, or our family, at all.

Just after my last post (nearly two months ago now — sorry!), I found a book called The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. — a treasure-trove of information about children’s psychology that I’d never before come across, not even in graduate school. Though the book obviously focuses on sensitive children in particular, it was the first I’d ever read that addresses the child’s temperament as a major factor in how he or she experiences the world and reacts to stimuli.

The Highly Sensitive Child touches only very briefly on sleep per se, but really the entire thing opened a whole new perspective on sleep for me — so much so that I didn’t really need a separate section on it. Rather than trying to fit our sleep approach/solution into a particular parenting philosophy, or into prescribed and pre-set routines and interventions, the book made us more observant of our own child and our interactions with him — and, importantly, how his temperament and our reactions to it might be challenging his sleep.

It also prompted us to call a temperament therapist for more assistance. She had us fill out an assessment that ranked our son on nine different temperament scales, such as sensitivity, adaptability and intensity. Then we talked about how the results on each scale could impact sleep.

For example, the Dragon is highly perceptive and highly active but a bit less adaptable than the norm. That means he’s very aware of his surroundings and loves to be constantly engaged in learning and play. But he has a hard time moving from one activity to the next — in part because he’s taking in so much, that it just takes time to leave one thing and start the next. Transitions themselves are activities to be embraced, investigated and acted upon. Rushing through transitions overwhelms and frustrates him. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes getting your toddler from the front door to the car, you know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, armed with this information, our empathy and tolerance levels went up. Our views of “misbehavior” and “resistance” were recast as we understood why he might be fighting bedtime, fighting sleep. Suddenly we understood his behavior not as manipulation or intransigence but as our child’s effort to get his needs met. He was, in effect, telling us, “I can’t go as fast as you want me to go. I need time,” and, “I need less stimulation. I can’t be seeing and hearing so much, or making so many decisions, when you want me to calm down.” We were able to craft our evenings and behaviors — and even small interactions — to help the Dragon prepare internally for a peaceful bedtime.

At first, we tried to be more stringent about the routine: everything exactly the same, every night, so he’d know what was coming and could worry less about adapting and transitioning. It worked alright, in part — at least we all knew what was coming, what to do next; the runup to bedtime got better — but there was still major resistance to actually going to sleep. When the lights went down, there was crying, screaming, running for the door. There were attempts to sleep on the floor, the Dragon rolling across his carpet, back and forth, back and forth, arranging and rearranging his pillow and blankets, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable. If I tried to leave the room, he screamed and cried. If he tried to leave the room, and I didn’t let him, he hit me and kicked me. All of this would go on for an hour, for two hours. We knew children of his temperament take longer to get into a new routine than others, so we breathed deep and tried to be patient.

But one night, I got so exhausted, and so frustrated, that I just quit. For nearly three years I had poured all my energy into doing it by the book, into following the experts’ advice to a T.

And then I hit a wall. I just couldn’t do it anymore. There was a single moment in time, sitting up against the wall in the Dragon’s room, going through the whole routine of fear, anger and resistance, when I finally realized: This isn’t the right way. We’re all exhausted. We’re angry. We dread the evenings. We’re working against each other. This is wrong.

So we started experimenting with things the books say not to do. For example:

  • Many books warn against decreasing or eliminating naptime as a strategy to ease bedtime: “Sleep begets sleep,” the say. Not in our case: The Dragon’s mind is always going, so less naptime gives him more time to take in what he feels he needs to know and experience.
  • The books warn against a later bedtime for the same reason. But guess what? The Dragon sleeps better if he goes down a little later. He’s a really relational kid who needs to feel connected to Mama and Daddy before sleep disconnects him for the night. Since we both work full-time, we need our family time in the evening to stretch a little later.
  • The books, by and large, also put the kibosh on pre-bedtime TV. You know what? As much as I try to minimize TV in our family, he’s been easing into sleep better with a little managed tube-time in the evening. I don’t know why. But it’s true. So I don’t resist it anymore.
  • I’ve been preaching to the masses for years about the importance of consistency in the bedtime routine. And it works for many, many, many people. But we’ve found out that it’s not so necessary with our child. Again, I’m not sure why — the temperament folks all say it is. The logic is not flawed. But every family, every child, is different. And we had to experiment a lot to find that out. Our routine is so flexible that the Dragon has even slept in the living room a couple of times!

Though lots of my personal beliefs are pretty unconventional, I tend to follow the rules and trust the “experts” (well, in many areas) much of the time. Now I know I waited way too long to buck convention in this case. Boy, do I regret it.

Now, it’s true that the dishes don’t get done nearly as consistently as they did before. And, yes, Alan and I need to carve out other times to veg out alone and take care of the couple. And, no, I don’t get as much business-building done in the evenings as I did before. We’ve even had to engineer a massive shift in how we even think about our evenings, because the Dragon is now up with us until about 9:00 or 9:30. Before, family time was winding down by 7:30.

But he gets to sleep only a little later than he used to — without the screaming trauma. We’re having a lot more fun as a family: playing together more, taking walks, bonding, appreciating, forgiving. Our evenings feel less engineered, more natural. We’re learning to be flexible, to let activities be fluid, to move in and out of each other, not to compartmentalize life so much. There’s room for spontaneity: A few nights ago, we piled into the car way after dark and drove up the mountain to see the city lights. We would never have done that before. And we all get a lot more — and better — sleep.

And that expands our family’s cycle of happiness much more than a strict bedtime routine and fighting to get him down ever did.

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