Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

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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