Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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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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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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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