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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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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Instinct is About Everything

June 09, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

I wholeheartedly believe in following your instincts when you parent — day, night and all points in-between.

But instinct is not just about the big decisions. It’s about all the little things, too. Things like pajamas.

It’s been pretty hot here in L.A. the last few weeks, so hot that Alan and I now kick the covers off our own bed before falling asleep. But the Dragon’s temperature always runs a little high or a little low, so when he begged to wear his flannel fireman pajamas, I relented.

Bedtime that night wasn’t horrible, but it took a long time, a lot of tossing and turning, and a lot of lullabies to get the Dragon to settle down. I kept feeling his neck, and I kept feeling low, damp heat. I kept asking if he was too hot, and he kept insisting he wasn’t. How can you not be? I thought. Your neck is clammy. But he insisted, so I did nothing.

After about 45 minutes, the Dragon started clutching at the buttons of his pajama top, clearly trying to unfasten them. I jumped into action, helping him change out of his beloved PJs and into ones more weather-appropriate. He was asleep within five minutes.

We try to give the Dragon the benefit of the doubt. He’s a smart kid, he makes lots of great choices, and he tends to recognize and vocalize what he needs quite readily. But he is still a little guy who needs guidance about appropriate decisions. And I’m still the mom who can rely on observation, experience and instinct about when to intervene in his decisions.

Instinct isn’t something to be pulled out and brushed off for the big decisions only. It should be up at all times, testing the winds, ready to move in when necessary to facilitate a better bedtime — and other life experiences.

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Returning to Normal After Sleep Interruptions

June 04, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Uncategorized

Our sleep routine during two of the last three weeks has been thrown off a bit by house guests. We love to have them here, but we can’t do bedtime exactly as it goes during “ordinary time.” We cobble together an alternate routine that works well enough on a temporary basis.

But the first night back has killed us both times. In part, I think it’s been because the Dragon has returned to his bedroom after sleeping in with us for a week. But another part, I’m sure, is missing the loved ones who he’d grown used to having in the house.

His cousin left town this morning, and he howled at bedtime — squirmed, stormed, raged, kicked, threw things at Alan for a good 45 minutes. Finally, Alan asked gently, “Do you miss your cousin?”

“Y–y–y–yeeeeessssss!” the Dragon sobbed. Then he fell quiet, allowing his upset to drain out of him. Within five minutes, he was asleep. He just needed an acknowledgment of his upset with the change, but he didn’t have the words to put to it himself. As soon as Alan voiced it, the Dragon felt heard and acknowledged and could settle in.

Granted, this was number four in a string of major departures, so it was probably worse than a one-off transition would have been. But within the last month, his friend moved away, then his teacher left his school, then his grandparents’ visit ended, then his cousin’s. We have two more major transitions to get through — change of classroom and my four-day business trip — before things settle down for a while.

Tonight, Alan and I realized that the first night after a major change should be as “baseline” as possible: the most familiar PJs, the most familiar stories, and Mama accompanying the Dragon to sleep instead of Daddy. The normalization of regular life after such excitement may feel boring but it is clearly more important than the picky details such as which adult’s “turn” it is to manage the transition to sleep.

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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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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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