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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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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Children’s Sleep Impacts Marriage/Relationship

May 27, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

I admit Alan and I are guilty of this.

We schedule the entire rest of our lives before we schedule dates; when we do schedule dates, they often get shortchanged because we didn’t plan well enough — or we’re too tired to put much into it; we put tons of energy into the Dragon and very little into ourselves or our marriage.

Luckily, we’re aware enough of the couple that we are to see red flags early on. We know that when the sniping starts, or when we say little to each other between dinnertime and bedtime, or when quiet resentment builds, it’s time to sit down together and work some things out.

And if you’re wondering why this post is on a children’s sleep site, either you’re a single parent (facing a different set of difficulties) or you don’t have a kid who struggles with sleep.

Because if you’re in a committed relationship, and you have a kid who doesn’t sleep well, you know that the state of each situation impacts the other deeply.

What’s clear is that the time and energy it takes to attend to a sleep-sensitive child can drain and strain the adult relationship (not to mention the parent-child one!). The answers seem to be to pay attention to the marriage, schedule dates, work on the sleep issue, etc. These are not the most satisfying answers to me, mostly because (a) they assume the sleep issue can be resolved “with just a little more work” and (b) they require more work and obligation from parents who already feel up against a wall.

(Our couples therapist suggested another track that may work better for some couples, which was to create a regular ritual that doesn’t seem like a big deal but that keeps the couple in touch with each other. For example, Alan and I now make a point of meeting up in the living room after we’re sure the Dragon is asleep. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we give each other foot massages, sometimes we just watch TV. We don’t do it every night — our schedule and exhaustion levels dictate that we just can’t — but regularly enough that it defuses a lot of the tension build-up that might otherwise occur.)

What’s not clear — but a suspicion I have, drawn from my studies in family psychology — is that perhaps, in some cases, the state of the marriage contributes to a child’s sleep sensitivity. It’s an accepted understanding in family psychology that children sometimes unconsciously create stressors in response to a problem that’s not being addressed elsewhere in the family. So if marital strife is generating tense undercurrents, a child might whip up a problem to bring the family together to address something — anything. It’s like the child is saying, “Look! There’s a problem! It may not be the core problem, but let’s get together around something in this family!” In some cases, I believe, this secondary problem is sleep-sensitivity.

The implication of this is that the sleep problem may die down as the parents address the tension in their relationship — even if they never, ever talk to the child about it. Peace in the family helps children feel secure, which can help them sleep better.

Even more intriguing to me is the idea that the adult relationship and the child’s sleep could eventually enter into a vicious cycle, in which each one deteriorates in response to fraying in the other. Everyone’s sleeplessness, the parents’ need to respond frequently to a wakeful child, the tension that builds up around sleep problems, resulting splinters in the parent-child relationship, lack of down-time or adult time for the parents, and all the fallout of all these conditions can certainly harm a relationship. The child could, in turn, respond with more sleep problems — and the relationship could, in turn, respond with further fracturing.

And so on.

The wrench needs to be thrown in somewhere. While we focus so intently on “fixing” the sleep problem, perhaps the blame shouldn’t always be placed squarely on that issue. Perhaps we need to widen our gaze a bit. Perhaps we need to melt tension throughout the household, make up with the people we’re supposed to be teamed up with. Perhaps, in some families, that is the right response, or part of a response, to a child’s sleep-sensitivity. Perhaps a better marriage can actually create better sleep for everyone in the family.

So my questions to you are (pick one!): How do you preserve and bolster the adult relationship even as the sleep problems continue? How do you keep the adult relationship strong, close and loving? How do you melt the tension that builds when sleep problems persist? And do you think sleep problems affect the larger family? If yes, how so?

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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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