Helping Young Children Sleep (page 3)
Most children struggle at some time or another with sleeping through the night. Of course, when infants are quite young, they need to wake several times in the night, eat, and be reassured that their parents are close and all is well in their world. The need for reassurance, in addition to nourishment, is even stronger if a baby has had difficult times in his life already. I won't discuss helping infants with feelings that may stem from early life struggles in this article. I’ll focus on helping healthy children six months of age and older with the patterns of interrupted sleep that sometimes appears.
After about six months, unless your baby is ill or underweight, he is capable of sleeping through the night much of the time. Children vary greatly in how much sleep they thrive on, but by this age, most parents can hope for a good 7-hour stretch of sleep without waking. However, many children experience feelings that prevent them from sleeping through the night at least some of the time. Most parents do the expedient thing to get their little one back to sleep--they allow him to nurse or have a bottle, and hope for another few hours of rest. For some babies and lucky parents, there's a slow progression toward less waking in the night that ends in all-night sleeping. But other parents put in months of patient accommodation, followed by frustration and mounting stress because neither they nor their child can sleep through the night.
Children need us to respond to them when they waken in the night
We parents want to help our children acquire the ability to sleep through the night, but are faced with a recommended method that requires letting the child cry, frightened and alone in his own bed, without response from us. Many parents can't bear to do this. It doesn't sit well with our instinct to help, to care, and to be trustworthy and available to help when our child needs reassurance.
I think that we parents do need to respond every time a child cries. Children need to know that we will be there for them, especially when their whole system is telling them that something is amiss.
The “I’ll listen until you can fall asleep” approach
There is an effective and supportive way to handle a child’s sleep troubles. This approach allows your child to dissolve the tensions that wake him, and allows you to help him recover from those tensions and sleep peacefully. It's not an easy approach, but it's loving, respectful, and it works.
The principles on which this approach is based are these:
- When children can't sleep through the night (and there are no health or developmental issues such as a fever or a growth spurt), the cause is most likely some kind of emotional tension that bubbles up in the child's mind during sleep.
- Children’s tensions are relieved when an adult can stay close and listen to how the child feels. The crying, struggling, perspiring, and trembling that children do actually heal their fear and grief, if a parent can be reassuring and attentive. Crying and active struggling and trembling are the child's own best way of getting free of feelings he harbors. Those feelings have sprung from some difficult, unwell, or restless time, either recent or long past.
- Children’s systems are built to offload feelings of upset immediately and vigorously. And our training as parents is to stop them from offloading their feelings! We are taught to give them pacifiers, food, rocking, patting, scolding, and later, time outs and spanking, if the crying or screaming goes on for more than a minute. We are taught to work against the child's own healthy instincts to get rid of bad feelings immediately. So our children store these upsets, and try many times a day to work them out, usually by testing limits or having meltdowns over small issues. If they can’t offload them during the day, the feelings bother them in the night.
This is why nursing or offering a bottle to a child who wakes doesn't keep him from waking again. In fact, as a child’s storehouse of feelings gets fuller he wakes more often, trying to have a good cry. Parents try to solve the problem by offering food or allowing the child to sleep with them as a way to pat the feelings down again. But over time, the pent-up tension inside the child becomes trouble for everyone. (Healthy families in many cultures allow children to sleep with parents, but the good effects of sleeping close together can be negated if no one sleeps well in that arrangement.)
To help your child, and yourself, help him release the feelings that wake him up
This is easier to do during the day than at nighttime, so a good strategy to try first is to listen to your child's feelings of upset when they arise during the day. Listen when you're sure that the issue he's crying about doesn't involve hunger. Simply get close, say loving things to him, offer warm eye contact and gentle touch, and let him cry until he feels better.
Children pick lots of little pretexts to open the door to releasing feelings. They will cry about a shirt being put on over their heads, about having a shampoo, about you moving six steps away to do the dishes, or about how their mittens don't fit into their coat sleeves quite right. When a big cry begins, stay close, be interested in all the feelings they have, and don't try to fix the little thing that upset them. Just hear how they feel about it for as long as you can.
When children feel you listening, they often cry harder. Your loving attention is reassuring enough to let them tackle big feelings of fear and grief. It will take courage on your part to trust that your child knows what he’s doing as he cries that hard with your support. You’ll see good results afterward. A passionate cry in your arms will help your child relax, trust you, and see the world as a safer place. All he needs is for you to be close and confident that all is well.
If daytime listening isn’t enough to ease night waking, listen at night
For nighttime work on fears, here are the measures that work very well. You may need to take a week to set things up so you can get an extra nap during the day, or buy earplugs for the rest of the family, or warn the people in the apartment next door (earplugs for them might be a thoughtful touch).
- When your child wakes the first time, go to him and turn on a low light so he can see you and see that he's safe. Make close physical and eye contact.
- Tell him it's OK to go back to sleep, and it's not time to nurse or have a bottle or come into bed with you right now. Tell him that all is well. "I’m right here, son." "You're safe as safe can be." "You have everything you need, darling." “I'm not going to go away." Offer warm touch, but don't bring him into your arms immediately. Keep gently moving him toward lying down again.
- Listen to him cry. If he trembles, writhes away from you, arches his back, shuts his eyes tight, and makes lots of motion, things are going well. Those signs indicate that he's offloading the fears that won't let him or you rest. It looks and sounds awful, but he's using a powerful healing process, one he was born to use, and he'll be able to sleep well afterward. Some children will work on their feelings for a whole hour before they relax and fall fast asleep. As you listen, your child absorbs your love.
- Once he is crying vigorously, you may be able to bring him into your arms and hold him while he cries. After a few moments of crying, many children have grabbed onto the feelings they need to release, and being held by you doesn’t distract them from crying hard. Other children stop crying the moment they are held close. If your child stops crying in your arms, remind him that it's time to go back to sleep, and move slowly toward putting him back to bed. Keep moving until he remembers the feeling he's working through.
- Allow your child to struggle as he offloads his fears. Children working through their fears usually cry without many tears, look terrified as they cry, and struggle constantly, as though they want to get free of your embrace. However, if you let them go, it breaks the safety they need to keep working on the feelings. They don't need to be held tightly. They need to struggle mightily, with you giving them a "corral" in which to act powerfully. The feelings they are working through may be connected to earlier times when they felt both frightened and helpless. They must struggle while they cry, to counteract the memory of being so helpless, and regain their self-respect.
- Remember as you listen that your child has everything he needs. He has you watching over him, he has your warmth, and he is safe right next to you. He can't tell all is well because of feelings inside of him, not because of something lacking in the present moment.
- Allow him to cry until he either is happy to be put back to bed, or until he falls asleep in your arms. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more, depending on how many feelings have been pressing on him.
- Observe his behavior the next day. Generally, children who get a good chunk of crying done are able to make visible gains in confidence, closeness, and relaxation in the presence of others. Sometimes you'll see gains in their physical skill and courage. Sometimes, after a parent has listened at length for the first time, the child’s instincts say, "At last! They're listening!" and he finds ways to set up another big cry the next morning. If you can listen again, his load will be lightened once more. It might take several listening "sessions" before a child is able to sleep better, but you will see some positive changes in his functioning that will tell you he’s making progress.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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