Bedtime Special Time

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Have you had a hard day? Maybe you didn’t get the chance to connect with your kids as much as you’d like to. Perhaps you were busy with the school run, or work, and somehow connection took a back seat. I was having one of those days yesterday, and then I reminded myself that it’s never too late in the day to reconnect!

I set the timer for 10 minutes, and my daughter and I ended up surfing on pillows and imagining that the duvet was a house boat we were sailing on. That last minute dose of connection helped me to feel better about the way our day had gone, and more optimistic about the next day.

Our days aren’t always filled with connection, so if you’ve had one of those days try some special time at the end of it. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and let your child decide what they want to do. Special time at the end of the day often has a different feel to doing it at other times, and it’s always nice to shake up the routine a bit and do things differently.

Children experience letting go into sleep as a separation, even if they are snuggled right beside us, so special time at the end of the day can be a wonderful way to increase our child’s sense of connection to help them sleep well.


 

The Five Step Plan For Preventing Early Wakings

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Early waking is common in children . In the summer months we might blame it on the light outside, or noises that your child hears that disturb their sleep. It might be that your child is unwell, or teething, or any of the other myriad reasons children have for waking. Or we might just put it down to being an inevitable part of raising little ones.

However all these things are usually just the trigger for you child to wake, the root cause often goes a little deeper. If your child is regularly waking up tired without having enough sleep, then one of the most common reasons is their sense of connection.

Children often wake in the night, or wake early, when they are feeling disconnected. Sometimes children just need their connection cups to be filled a little more. At other times they may be experiencing hurt feelings or stress that get in the way of feeling our warm presence and attention. This can cause them to seek out connection with us a little earlier than usual.

This week I’ve been hearing a lot of success stories from parents who are trying out Giggle Parenting at bedtime, with amazing results. Kids are sleeping through the night. Nightmares and morning grumpiness are reduced. Laughter when kids are in the more powerful role (or playlistening as we call it at Hand in Hand) is a powerful way to strengthen our connection with our child.

But simply adding laughter to your bedtime routine may not be enough to completely cure sleep issues. The Hand in Hand parenting approach consists of 5 tools to listen to our children’s feelings and build connection with them. Whenever we are struggling with our parenting we can use all five of these tools for the most effective results.

So here are your five tools to help prevent kids from waking early.

  1. Get Some Listening Time For Yourself – First get yourself a listening partnership, and read more about them in Hand in Hand parenting’s Listening Partnerships For Parents Booklet. The Hand in Hand parenting tools are a way of listening to our children that takes a lot of patience and energy. With your listening partner you can vent about how tired you are in a safe space. Talking and being listened to by a warm listener is a powerful way to prepare yourself to do the same for your child. Read more about listening partnerships here.
  2. Do Some Special Time In The Daytime – Next schedule some time to do daily special time with your child. This may not always be possible, but while you’re dealing with sleep troubles it’s great to attempt it most days. Even five minutes can make a difference. Let your child do something they love, and shower them with attention. With special time it’s really about the quality of the time rather than the quantity. Your child can internalise a deep sense of connection with you, that can help them relax and sleep well. Read more about special time here.
  3. Staylisten To Morning Grumpiness – When our children wake early in the morning in a bad mood, we often tend to assume it’s because they haven’t had enough sleep. However it’s most likely that the grumpiness is what caused the early rising rather than the early rising causing the grumpiness. If your child gets upset about something that seems small and inconsequential, then stay and listen to the feelings until they have finished crying. Tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone, and other mood balancing hormones. When children get to cry with a loving adult they can release all the feelings that get in the way of feeling closely connected to you. Without these upset clouding their thinking their sleep will be much more peaceful. You can read more about staylistening here, and if this is challenging for you, don’t forget step 1 😉
  4. Set Limits and Listen To Feelings – When your child wakes grumpy you may find yourself walking on eggshells trying to avoid an upset. A child’s early waking can effect the mood of the whole day, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When a child behaves in ‘off-track’ ways, it’s like they are waving a red flag to saying, ‘’Help! I’m not feeling good, and so I can’t think well.’’ Setting a limit on their unworkable behaviour is actually a gift to them. As we stop them from throwing toys, or hitting a sibling, in a warm and loving but firm way we can listen to the emotional upset behind their behaviour, and also heal their sleep. You can get a free Hand in Hand parenting guide to setting limits here.
  5. Giggles At Bedtime – This tried and tested method is scientifically proven. Add giggles to your bedtime routine. Anything that gets laughter flowing with your child in the more powerful role. Chase games, roughhousing and any silliness that puts you in the less powerful role is a guaranteed sleep inducer. Read more about giggles at bedtime in my friend Tara’s fantastic article here.

Tried all this and your child is still not sleeping? For more indepth help applying these tools check out Hand in Hand parenting’s online sleep course Helping Young Children Sleep. Or for personalised advice contact me for a free 30 min initial sleep consultation.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

The Pramshed

Giggle Parenting To Help Your Child Fall Asleep In Their Own Bed

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I think that as parents we should find the sleeping arrangement that works best for our family. There’s no right or wrong, and whether you co-sleep or have your child in their own room, (or make any other parenting choice for that matter!) you can do Hand in Hand parenting in the way that works for your family.

We have been a co-sleeping family and also had phases when my daughter slept in her own room because she chose to. Now she sleeps in a bed next to ours in our room. It just seemed to work out that way. She’s been sleeping in her own bed since she was 18 months old. She actually embraced having her own bed and was happy falling asleep in there until February this year.

One night before she had to go to the doctor for a blood test she got really clingy and wanted to fall asleep in my bed. Ever since then she’s fallen asleep in my bed. I’d be totally happy with her falling asleep cuddled up next to me, except for the fact that I know it’s because she’s still got some feelings (perhaps about the blood test, perhaps about earlier hurts from being a baby that got triggered when she went to the doctor etc.)

So a few weeks ago I wrote this blog post about how I staylistened to my daughter’s feelings to help her through the fears, and get comfortable falling asleep alone. But, she was still falling asleep in my bed! I still hadn’t got her comfortable to fall asleep in her own bed.

The funny thing is my daughter will fall asleep in her own bed, but only if my husband puts her to bed. This kind of inconsistency, is a sure sign that she is trying to ‘tell’ me about these feelings, because I am the parent that uses the Hand in Hand parenting tools the most to build emotional safety (as I talked about in this post here.)

One of my issues is that my daughter is a night owl, and likes to go to bed around 9.30 ish. This has been her natural rhythm for her entire life so far, and my attempts to shift her sleep pattern never worked. I also like to go to bed at this time, and I’m often pretty exhausted by then, so it’s been a struggle to work on this emotional project consistently.

A few nights ago I got some listening time, and I ended up actually asking my listening partner for advice! This is not really what we usually do in listening time, but as my listening partner is also a Hand in Hand parenting instructor I was looking for a fresh perspective. Even though I’m a Hand in Hand instructor, it’s often my own parenting issues that are the most challenging, because my own emotions exhaustion, tiredness etc, often get in the way.

My listening partner suggested that I get into bed with my daughter, and then slowly leave her there, or that I could set a limit, and gentle move her into her own bed while staylistening if necessary. Well it kind of turned out that way!

When I finished my listening time my daughter was in her own bed, just about to fall asleep, but when she was me she immediately wanted to come into her own bed. I was feeling energised from my listening time, and it had also helped to talk with my partner and get new ideas.

So I immediately moved towards the gap between our beds and said, ‘’I’m the door of the bed, and I’m staying shut!’’ Then she started trying to get by either side of me, and wrestled to climb over me.

I let her jump into my bed, and then acted all playfully exasperated that she had climbed over. Then I told her ‘’I’m the door, and I’m coming to put you back.’’ Being playful meant it didn’t seem so ‘forceful’ to physically move her into her own bed. I playfully picked her up and put her in her bed, and then I ‘shut’ the door again. We repeated this a few times as she wrestled and laughed. At one point she ran around the beds instead to avoid the door, which really made her laugh.

Then she said she was tired, and I asked if she could get into her own bed, and I’d cuddle her for a bit. She agreed straight away and fell asleep quickly and easily. The next day she woke up in a great mood even though she’d fallen asleep later than usual.

Now, for some parents, myself included, we can often feel a little strange, about enforcing a separation from our child. We can worry that this may give our child the wrong message, that we are not available for closeness.

But it’s actually the opposite. By noticing those moments when our child is clingy, we can actually become closer together by playing with the idea of distance. I felt a lot more closely connected to my daughter, when we wrestling and laughing together, than I do when she’s clinging to me, taking ages to fall asleep because she’s still tense because there are feelings she hasn’t released that get in the way of her being able to let go and fall asleep.

So if your child is taking a long time to fall asleep at night, or is showing signs of being tense or disconnected, then try having some fun getting them to sleep in their own bed.

 Are you struggling with parenting and looking for a fresh perspective? I have a Parenting By Connection Starter Class beginning next Wednesday at 8pm Central European TIme, (7pm UK Time, 11am Pacific time).

Giggle Parenting To Help Your Child Fall Asleep On Their Own

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Sleeping arrangements are individual to all families. I actually love sleeping cuddled up with my daughter, and would happily do so night after night. For others it works best for everyone to have their own separate bed.

However, I began to notice that bedtime was my daughter’s ‘broken cookie’; a moment of the day that had strong feelings for her. So I wanted to help her with these feelings, as I wrote about in my last post.

Listening to these feelings for us is not about setting a rigid routine of how she must fall asleep every night for the rest of her childhood. It’s about building her confidence and checking that she doesn’t have fear and anxiety coming up in everyday situations – like falling asleep.

Last night we focused on giggles and play. As she lay down to sleep in my bed. I put her toy banana in her bed reading one of my books. Then I said, ”hey! Excuse me banana, that’s my book!” I put myself in the less powerful role, which always makes her laugh.

You might have noticed that when children are feeling nervous to separate from us they call us back because they need something. Their covers are all wonky, or they need the toilet suddenly, or a drink of water.

I decided to play around with that neediness of children to call us back if they want something. I told my daughter I would leave soon, and I said in a very light, playful tone, ”and please don’t call me back if you want…. ten socks.” She laughed. I repeated the sentence again, telling her I was going to go, and then saying, ”and please don’t call me back if you…want to go bring a real-life elephant to bed.” I kept coming up with all sorts of crazy scenarios to get her laughing, like ‘please don’t call me back if you want to… go to the supermarket, eat an ice cream, go to a disco, use some Lego as a pillow etc. The sillier the scenario the better. She fell asleep quickly and easily after that.

If your child has fears around falling asleep alone, or being in their own bed you might want to add in some giggles. Each time we laugh together we are building a closer connection that our child internalises so even if we do go into the next room, they can still feel deeply connected to us.

Working on fears and anxieties around bedtime can help children sleep through the night, because those feelings are released they don’t wake them up later. It can help prevent waking too early in the morning too. Even if your child sleeps really well you may notice that when you help them with bedtime feelings they grow in confidence in other areas of their life.

Here’s my other post about this topic, Why I Helped My Daughter To Fall Asleep Alone

To learn more about helping our children sleep well check out Hand in Hand parenting’s online self-study course, Helping Young Children Sleep

Why I Helped My Daughter Feel Safe To Fall Asleep Alone

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When my daughter was born we started off by co-sleeping. Our bed is pretty small so by the time she was 2 years old my back was getting sore from sleeping all squashed together. So we took the side off my daughter’s cot and had it next to our bed. I introduced the idea of falling asleep in there. She was completely happy to do so from then on.

A few months ago my daughter (now 4) had to go to the doctor to get a blood test. The night before she got really upset and scared. She fell asleep clinging to me.

The blood test ended up being much more painful than either of us anticipated, and at the time she didn’t feel safe enough to express her fear or pain at the time.

For the next couple of months she would only fall asleep next to me in our bed. Later we would move her into her bed.

Now I absolutely loved falling asleep with my daughter cuddled up and close. Because she’s a night owl, and I love to go to bed early we tended to fall asleep at the same time around 930pm.

But, I also had my suspicions that this need to fall asleep close to me was a pretext that was about emotions related to the doctor and the blood test. For two years she’d been perfectly happy falling asleep in her own bed. Even before that, (around 18 months) she’d naturally turn away from me to fall asleep, as if making a little space and distance for herself.

I was also noticing some changes in my daughter’s behaviour. She started waking early, which was really out of character. Ever since I’d used the Hand in Hand parenting approach to help her sleep through the night she’d always slept really well. Now if I took a shower or came into our bedroom to get something, she’d wake up.

As well as being clingy around the house I also noticed another change when we were out in public. She became very fearful around other children she didn’t know. If we went to a playground she would avoid the slide or the roundabout if there were other children using them. If playgrounds were full of lots of children, she just wouldn’t want to play at all.

We’d always been happy sleeping in one room and it suits our family as we live in a small apartment and it’s just the three of us. And if we had a big enough bed, I would happily co-sleep as it works for us.

But I began to see that letting my daughter fall asleep close to me every single night, wasn’t actually serving her. We may have been physically close, but I wasn’t listening deeply to the emotional struggles she was having, or making the space to hear them. She wasn’t able to lead a full and happy life when she wasn’t getting enough sleep, and was having fear triggered in everyday situations like the playground.

I wanted to help her release the fear that was making her feel scared to sleep in her own bed. I started with a bit of laughter. I started saying, I was going to lift her into her own bed. So I picked up my pillow, and tucked it into her bed. Then suddenly realising my mistake, I’d say, ”oh, hang on that’s not R, that’s my pillow!” I repeated it with lots of soft toys, and got some giggles flowing.

Then I realised that there wasn’t much I could do to get my daughter to fall asleep in her own bed other than physically move her. I didn’t want to do that. I knew she’d been in situations where she’d felt physical overwhelmed and powerless, and that physically force would not be a way to help her overcome this.

So I let her stay in my bed, and I began to tell her that I was going to leave the room and let her fall asleep by herself. She started to cry. I reassured her that she would be completely safe, and that I’d just be in the next room. I reassured her that I absolutely loved falling asleep cuddled up to her, and that I was doing this because I wanted to help her with her feelings. I told her that after I’d listened to the feelings we could have lots of nights, falling asleep cuddled up together. I told her that I wouldn’t leave her if she was crying, that we would wait until she was ready. I kept gradually trying to leave, moving a few cm’s further each time, and then coming back to stay with her when she got upset. I listened to three big cries, on three different nights with lots of cuddles, gradually trying to leave.

Then I noticed the changes. Within one night, she wasn’t waking early anymore, and was sleeping deeply, getting the right amount of sleep. That first morning she woke up and wasn’t clingy anymore. She played with her Lego by herself while I took a shower saying, ”I’m 4 and a half now. I can play by myself.”

She started being more adventurous physically. When we were on some escalators one day, she started walking to the top by herself (whereas before she would have always held my hand). When we went out with her scooter, she started trying going down hills for the first time. And when we went to the park she was happy to play alongside other children, smiling and glad to have their company. When one child was in the way, she said excuse me to them in Swiss German, rather than feeling like she had to be the one to get out of the way.

I think many of us (myself included!) can worry that separating at bedtime may be upsetting for young children. I wanted to write my story to show that when we stay close and work through the feelings, we can deepen our connection to our children and build their confidence.

Children thrive on physical closeness. But they also need to have emotional closeness. To be securely attached a child needs to internalise a deep sense of connection so that they can feel safe to venture out and explore their world. It could be to play on a roundabout  by themselves, or go on a playdate.

Fears and upsets can get in the way of that sense of connection to us, in effect our child clings to us, because they need an extra big dose of connection. Sometimes setting a limit and listening, is the most helpful thing we can do to our child, to help them release the upsets  that stand in the way of internalising that sense of connection.

All families have their own sleeping arrangements that work for them. It’s always good to trust your instincts about what your child needs at any particular time in their life.

Is there an area of your child’s life where they seem stuck or fearful? For example perhaps they can only be with mummy at bedtime, or they have to fall asleep with a pacifier (dummy). These may be places where you can set a limit and listen. The next day your child might surprise you in the ways they grow and shine, and can be their most confident, adventurous selves.

You might want to read this article too, Moving Your Child To His Own Bed To Sleep and Helping Children Conquer Their Fears

Reader Question – For A Toddler That Wakes Multiple Times A Night

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Dear Kate,

I’m struggling with my 22 month old son, who has a very  busy brain and wakes between 2 and 7 times a night. At first it was colic then he had hip issues. Now it’s dreams and hunger and general wanting to chat. From ‘E’

Dear E,

I’m sorry that you’re still dealing with so many wake-ups. One of the wonderful things about Hand in Hand parenting is that there’s a lot we can do in the daytime to help our child sleep well, and we can help improve our child’s sleep without using the cry-it-out approach.

One of the most common reasons that children wake is because they are experiencing stress and tension, and they are trying to process feelings. Children experience sleep as a separation so often when upset feelings bubble to the surface they wake up seeking connection to us.

Using all the Hand in Hand parenting tools described in this post can naturally help our children to sleep better. So it’s definitely worth reading the Hand in Hand booklets and implementing them as much as you can.

Sometimes children’s sleep issues are rooted in their early life. If they had a difficult birth, or they had a difficult start or lots of medical intervention, or separation early in life, they can need an extra big dose of connection to help them recover. Toddlers may use asking for things in the night such as food, as a pretext for deeper feelings they need to heal from.

Babies are born with an inbuilt way to release stress and tension, and naturally improve their sleep – crying. However it’s really common for us to get confused about our children’s crying. Most of us were never told about this natural healing process, so we may not recognise the times our child needs to cry to heal from upsets. We may stop them by distracting or avoiding tantrums when actually our child just needs to cry.

All we need to do to help our child sleep well, is simply let go of our need to control or manage their emotions. When we make space to listen to them, they will naturally be able to relax and sleep well through the night.

Staylistening is the tool, we can use to listen to upsets whenever they arise. If we can stay close and listen to our child, when there is nothing to fix, then they can naturally release the feelings that get in the way of their sleep.

Using special time (1-1 time spent with our children doing what they love) can help deepen your connection with your child, so that they internalise a sense of having you ‘there.’ This can mean they are less likely to wake, because it deepens their sense of safety and security. You might want to try some special time first thing in the morning, or as part of your child’s bedtime routine.

Laughter is the second way we naturally release stress and tension from our bodies. Playlistening means any kind of laughter play where our child is in the powerful role. This builds their confidence and sense of security. Lots of laughter throughout the day, can help them to release any tension that may come up at night if it’s not released in the day.

Hand in Hand parenting is based on the idea that our children are naturally good, loving and co-operative. Where does your child struggle? Where are they not co-operative? If you can find those moments and add some laughter, you are not only helping their ability to co-operate, you are also building the connection they need to sleep well. Take a look at this list of ten typical challenging moments for parents of toddlers, and try out some of the playlistening suggestions.

Allow lots of time and space for your children’s feelings in the day. So if for example your child throws a tantrum when you need to leave the house to meet a friend, see if you can send apologies to them and listen to the feelings rather than rushing out. This means the feelings are less likely to arise at night.

And if you try all this and your son is still waking. Have a read of the following sleep related articles, and see if they help too.

5 Sleep Secrets For Peaceful Nights 

Helping Young Children Sleep 

Still need some sleep help? Check out Hand in Hand parenting’s online self study course, Helping Young Children Sleep 

Would you like a Hand in Hand parenting solution to your parenting challenge? Leave me a comment or use the contact form here

Sleeping Through The Night Without Using Cry-it-out

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Closeup of a baby girl sleeping in her mother’s arms

On Wednesday I co-hosted my second #SnoozeChat with @SnoozeShade and my interviewer @GreatNorthMum. This week’s topic was sleeping through the night without crying it out.

Firstly one of the things that motivates me to teach and write about Hand in Hand parenting is that there is a lot of the parenting advice out there is just wrong, and completely unscientific. Never has this been so true as with crying-it-out. Even the Doctor who invented crying it out, now admits that he made a mistake!

Crying-it-out is a really short term solution, that can worsen your child’s sleep in the long run. In the short term, a baby gives up on being responded to and may fall asleep from exhaustion, with a high level of stress hormones in their body. But as they get older they may start expressing all that stress through nightmares, or other challenging behaviour.

I think it’s really sad that so many parents are lacking good information on children and sleep. We often think our only two solutions are to ‘cry-it-out’ or ‘wait-it-out.’ That we can either wait until our child miraculously starts sleeping through the night, or that we have to resort to crying it out because sleep deprivation is making our lives really hard.

In the SnoozeChat I talked about the third way of helping older babies and toddler’s sleep through the night. It’s based on the fact that one of the most common reasons that older babies (who are not hungry) wake in the night is because of emotional reasons. Just like adults babies, and children often wake because of stress and tension.

Babies are actually born with a completely natural way to regulate their sleep, and sleep through the night when they are ready; that is crying.

When we first become parents we’re on a steep learning curve. Trying to decipher our babies cries, making sure we meet all their needs, and figuring out how to be the best expert on our baby.

One of the areas in which most new parents (including me!) get confused is with our baby’s crying. Nobody ever taught us that babies don’t just cry to get their needs met. They also cry to heal and recover from stress and upset.

So when we’ve triple checked we’ve met all our babies needs, and they’re still crying, then it’s possible they are crying to heal. For me the tell-tale signs were that this crying happened regularly, often in the evening. I kept assuming my daughter was hungry, but she just didn’t seem to want to breastfeed. I would bounce her around, trying to pace the room and use movement to quieten her, until I realised that what she actually needed was for me to sit with her and be comfortable with tears.

Babies actually need to cry a lot to recover from their arrival into the world, and to release stress and overstimulation. The psychotherapist Matthew Appleton, talks about the ‘cultural blind-spot,’ we have around birth and how it can be painful and traumatic for babies, as well as mothers.

Listening to tears is how we can help our babies recover, and when they can natural regulate their emotions they will sleep better.

We most notice times of the day when we’re avoiding our baby’s emotions by ‘shhhing’ them, feeding them when they aren’t hungry, or waving a toy in front of their face to distract them from the upset. When we stop their feelings, what we are actually doing, is stopping the natural process they have for sleeping well.

If we simply stay and listen, our babies will naturally be able to regulate their sleep, and they will sleep through the night, when they no longer need to wake to be fed (at least most of the time!.

Crying is an important signal our babies give us. We should always trust our instincts about what our baby needs at any moment, as we are the best experts on our children. We should also seek medical advice if we are concerned in any way.

As we get to know our baby, we may get an idea of when they are fine and well, and simply need to be held and cry to heal. That’s one of the most powerful gifts we can give them, our presence and acceptance of how they feel.

It was a great pleasure to share these wonderful ideas with @SnoozeShade. You can read the whole #SnoozeChat here.

And if this post resonates with you, please share it with the sleep deprived parents in our lives! Crying it out is never necessary. And the whole family will benefit from a good night’s sleep.

For more information about the healing power of tears check out my post in the Elephant Journal hereYou can also read my other sleep posts here

When Your Child Just Won’t Fall Asleep – Giggle Parenting Inspiration

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How Silly Stories Can Help Your Child Fall Asleep Faster 

So you’ve gone through your child’s bedtime routine, and now they’re in their bed, but you’ve suddenly realised, that they don’t seem completely tired, or they’re tense, and you’re worried it’s going to take them ages to get them to sleep.

Last night I was in this position, and when my daughter asked for another story, I said I would tell her a story. I told her about a day trip we had planned with some friends. I said we looked for a restaurant to have lunch in, and went in one and looked on the menu, and all the menu said was ”carrots, carrots, and more carrots.” She laughed at this. I then continued the story as they looked for another restaurant. They went in and looked at the menu, and it all it said was ”peas, peas, peas and more peas.” She laughed again.

I had the grown ups exclaim, ”Oh no! Not again! What is wrong with the restaurants in this town?” I drew out lots of dramatic tension by having them choose another restaurant, and say, ”okay lets try this one, I hope that doesn’t happen again.”

I repeated the game with all different restaurants, and different foods, until she told me, ”now I feel really really, tired.”

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know that laughter helps to release melatonin, the sleep hormone, so a few last minute giggles can be just what our child needs to fall asleep easily. Telling silly stories, especially ones where the grown-ups are in the less powerful role is one of many ways that laughter can be used to help your children fall asleep more quickly.

Sleep is a separation for children so they need to feel well-connected, and free of emotional upset in order to fall asleep easily. Hand in Hand parenting is all about helping children with the emotions that can make sleep hard.

Looking for more info? Check out 5 Sleep Secrets For Peaceful Nights. Hand in Hand parenting also has an online self-study sleep course

5 Sleep Secrets For Peaceful Nights

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Sleep advice for babies and toddlers usually comes in two forms. There is the strict ‘cry it out’ approach where we leave children alone till they learn we won’t respond at night, or the more gentle ‘wait it out’ approach where we simply wait until they naturally start sleeping through the night.

Neither of these approaches tend to be that affective. If we ‘cry it out’, research has found it’s simply a short term fix that results in more sleep disturbances further down the line. If we ‘wait it out’ our babies may also continue to wake regularly into the toddler years and beyond.

Most of the sleep advice out there doesn’t mention the major reason babies, and toddlers (and adults too!) have difficulty sleeping – stress and emotional tension. This unspoken cause is the reason that so many parents struggle with sleep.

Here are the 5 sleep secrets that most sleep advice doesn’t take into account. Follow these tips for peaceful nights.

  1. Children need a close sense of connection in order to sleep well. Children experience sleep as a separation, even if they sleep right next to us. They need a strong sense of connection in order to feel safe to let go into sleep. Try some special time as part of your evening routine. Spend 10-15 minutes 1-1 one with your baby or toddler, doing something of their choice. Whether it’s simply lying on a playmat together gazing at the ceiling or joining them in their explorations, being there while they take the lead helps them internalise a sense of connection to you, that keeps them feeling safe to sleep through the night.
  2. Upset feelings can cause babies and toddlers to wake – The emotional part of our human brain is fully formed even before a baby is born. So babies fully feel a wide spectrum of emotions, and experience stress and tension, during pregnancy, birth, and in the early days of their lives. Babies, and children have a natural healing process for releasing stress and tension through crying and stress hormones are contained in tears. When babies or toddlers  cry or tantrum for what appears to be no apparent reason, (or a very small reason!) they are often releasing stress and upset. Because the healing power of tears isn’t widely understood many parents try to stop their children from crying, through distraction, ignoring, or ‘shhhing.’ Sometimes there are times your baby just needs you to listen to them, and stay close. Doing so can help them release the feelings that cause them to wake at night.
  3. Laughter is the best natural sleeping pill – Laughter has been found to cause the brain to release melatonin – the hormone that induces sleep. It’s also nature’s way of releasing the stress and tension that interfere with sleep. Most sleep advice focuses on ‘winding children down,’ and this is where we make things much hard for ourselves. We actually need to ‘wind children up!’ and get some laughter and fun flowing so that they can naturally regulate their own sleep. If you don’t have giggles in your bedtime routine you should add them now!
  4. Early Waking isn’t inevitable – Early waking is so common for babies and children that many parents feel it’s just an inevitable part of parenting. Ever woken at 4am in the morning with your brain whirring and being unable to get back to sleep? This happens with children too. Listening to their feelings whenever they arise during the day can help them to process them so they don’t interrupt their sleep in the early hours.
  5. You don’t need a strict routine for your children to sleep well – Routine is often presented as the most important factor for getting children to sleep well. However as much as we have a natural rhythm to our days it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ when it comes to sleep. Connection and listening are much more important factors. When we connect with our children, and listen to their feelings on a regular basis both in the day and night, they will naturally sleep well.

Would you like to learn more about the Hand in Hand parenting approach to sleep struggles? Check out the online self-study course Helping Young Children Sleep 

Sleeping Through the Night

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When my 6 month old daughter didn’t sleep through the night, I wasn’t really looking for a solution, I didn’t like the concept of sleep training. We co-slept so when she woke it was easy simply to just feed her and then fall back to sleep. I was still getting my full eight hours with a few short interruptions. I assumed that she would sleep through the night eventually.

But after eight months, nothing was changing. I started to wonder why she was waking more than she did as a newborn. When I fed her she didn’t seem that hungry, and just sucked for a minute or two before falling asleep again. I read about sleep cycles, and how a baby needed a way to soothe herself back to sleep. It made sense that other babies were self-soothing back to sleep with their thumbs or a dummy, whereas I was my daughter’s comfort mechanism. But I thought that this couldn’t be the full story. My daughter had on occasion slept in four hour stretches. She also always woke half an hour after falling asleep; I knew that had nothing to do with being hungry, or transitioning through sleep cycles.

Before my daughter was born, I’d read a book called The Aware Baby. The author Aletha Solter explains that in the first three months of life, all babies spend some time each day crying ‘for no apparent reason.’ She explains that this kind of crying has a healing function. In a study conducted by Dr. William Frey, he compared real ‘emotional’ tears with those caused by chopping onions. He found that emotional tears contained stress hormones such as cortisol and other toxins. Crying is a way that we can literally release stress and tension out of the body.

All babies inevitably experience stressful events, such as a difficult birth, medical interventions, or just the daily stress of getting to know their new stimulating world. The understanding that crying was healing made sense to me. I’d gone through a difficult period in my life in my mid-twenties, when I’d felt depressed and physically exhausted. I’d written for therapy, done yoga, meditation, and also deep tissue massage. I often found that these modalities took me deeper into my sadness, and I would release my feelings through crying. I always felt much better afterwards, and eventually my depression lifted, and I felt a renewed sense of self and happiness.

Knowing about the healing function of crying helped me through the early colicy days of my daughter’s life. There were times when I didn’t bounce my daughter, pace the room or feed her. There were times, when nothing much worked but to listen. And what I found were those were the times when I’d had the deepest connection with her. By witnessing this pain that she felt, I felt connected to her deepest self. It was heartbreaking that she needed to cry so much, that she had so much suffering inside of her. But it also felt wonderful that she had this way to heal. Her birth had been difficult, but now I was able to cuddle her close to me, and tell her she was safe now as she expressed these strong feelings.

During the first few months of my daughter’s life, I fed her whenever she cried. As I didn’t use a dummy or, put her to sleep by herself, it seemed natural that eating and sleeping became intertwined. I fed her to sleep, but after a couple of months, that stopped working easily, so I would pace the room until she was more sleepy, and then try to feed her to sleep again. It took me a while to realise that these were what Aletha Solter, calls ‘control patterns;’ things to stop the crying that become habits that the baby comes to rely upon. I had thought I was helping her to sleep, but then I began to think, maybe what I was actually doing was repressing the feelings that she wanted to let out before she slept.

So next time my daughter needed to take a nap, I sat on the bed, and held her. She made some slow tired cries, and I watched her face look visibly more and more relaxed.

She looked so peaceful, as if she had been doing some baby yoga or meditation! She fell asleep much more easily than if I was pacing the room. I did this a few times, but I still felt some confusion about whether it was really okay just to let her cry. Sometimes she would ask to breastfeed, and then I would feed her. It wasn’t long before the habit of feeding to sleep had crept back. Yet occasionally I thought to myself, that she probably wasn’t hungry, and was just asking out of habit, because if we were out, then she would just fall asleep in her buggy without needing milk.

When my daughter was eight months old, I realised she was hardly crying at all. I still believed in the idea that crying was healing. And I missed that deep connection that I had with her when she cried. I noticed that when I fed her to sleep at night, she seemed to wriggle around a lot and have a lot of tension in her body. Feeding her to sleep wasn’t helping her relax. I reread The Aware Baby and realised that I’d forgotten most of its contents since my daughter had been born! My daughter was feeding every two hours, which I had always been puzzled by. All of the other babies I knew went 3 or 4 hours between feeds. Aletha Solter, explains that breastfeeding every two hours can be a sign that it has become a ‘control pattern.’ Other babies might have been using pacifiers or movement as their control patterns, but for us it was breastfeeding. I also realised that because breastfeeding was a control pattern, then she would ask for the breast out of habit even when she wasn’t hungry.

Aletha Solter also says that all healthy babies over six months of age are able to sleep through the night. She explains that babies above this age wake because of emotional tension. Just like adults, babies who have stress and tension, have trouble with sleep. I decided to try again, and let my daughter fall asleep without breastfeeding. This time the cries were powerful. I sometimes doubted whether I was doing the right thing, but then I’d look at her face, when she’d just fallen asleep after a big cry. She would smile and even giggle sometimes as she fell into dreams. It was clear that she’d cried away her upset and felt peaceful again.

I felt more certain that listening to her cry was the most loving thing I could do, and started looking for more resources to support me. The idea seemed so different to what I read and heard everywhere that I needed to know there were other parent educators and thinkers out there who understood the healing nature of crying. I returned to a website I’d looked at before called Hand in Hand parenting. I read some articles, and was relieved to hear Patty Wipfler’s compassionate advice, that it’s natural that in the close breastfeeding relationship children often come to depend on the breast for comfort. I downloaded a podcast from Hand in Hand, called ‘Helping your child sleep.’ These ideas, along with Aletha Solter’s, helped me to figure out what I needed to do to help my daughter sleep.

I started with the first time she woke up, at 9pm. Instead of feeding her I held her instead. She cried for just a few minutes and then fell back to sleep. I fed her as normal for the rest of the night. The next night, she slept right through the time of her first waking the night before, and didn’t wake up till 11pm. When she woke I repeated the process of holding her instead of feeding her. The next night she slept right the way through till 1am!

Sometimes when she woke, I could just hug her, and that would be enough for her to fall asleep. Other times she would have a big cry. Within a couple weeks she was sleeping through the night, and she now sleeps through the night, all of the time, apart from the occasional illness or emotional upset. She has become more relaxed and confident, as a result of being able to release her feelings through crying. And I feel so much closer to her, now that I’ve learnt how to listen to her more closely, rather than simply trying to stop her from crying.

In all the debate about baby’s sleep the experts divide into two factions. On the one side, there are those that think we should leave a baby to cry it out, so that they learn to sleep on their own. On the other side are the ones that think we should do whatever we need to do to stop our children from crying. But there is a third way that involves a deeper understanding about the nature of crying. That we don’t have to leave our children alone when they cry, that we can hold them and support them, and help them heal, so that they naturally sleep better.

We as parents often seem compelled to stop our children from crying. We think of this as parental instinct. But what feels like an instinct is actually a learnt behaviour that comes from our own childhoods. As psychiatrist Dan Siegal says, ‘we learn to parent, when we ourselves are being parented.’ Very few of us were listened to fully when we had upsets. Our parents might have thought it kindest to just stop the crying as quickly as possible. They may have told us to stop crying, ignored us, or said things such as ‘don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about.’

When we take the time to listen to our own children it can trigger the strong feelings of not being listened to as children. This and the common cultural idea that crying is a negative behaviour we must stop as quickly as possible makes it hard for us to listen to our children cry.

Now when my daughter cries, I don’t actually think of it as a ‘bad’ thing. Of course I’d rather she was happy and smiling, but when she cries, I know she’s doing the most intelligent thing she can, healing from her hurts and upsets. When we listen to our children when they have upset feelings, they can heal from the stress and tension that cause off-track behaviour such as aggression. Our children use ‘misbehaviour’ as a red flag to tell us they’re not feeling good. Listening allows our children to express their feelings through crying so they don’t have to resort to more indirect ways to tell us how they’re feeling.

Listening to our children cry is not easy, particularly if we weren’t listened to as children. In order to listen to our children well, we need to be listened to ourselves. Hand in Hand parenting has a wonderful (and completely free!) listening partnership scheme where parents can get together and exchange listening time with each other. This helps us to work through some of our difficulties, and to find our sense of well-being again. I’m always amazed at how spending ten minutes talking about my feelings after an exhausting day with my daughter, gives me such a sense of renewed energy that I can delight in being with her again.

Adults do not cry as easily as children, and this is partly because our feelings were suppressed when we were young. Through my listening partnerships I’m rediscovering my ability to cry easily, and learning first hand about just how healing crying can be. What I’ve learnt is that it’s never too late to find ways to heal, and change and develop as a person. Throughout my life I’ve met many people like me, looking for ways to shed that baggage they have carried throughout their lives. What a wonderful gift it is to give our children, to help them heal while they are still young, before the baggage gets too heavy. They can grow up retaining the lightness they have as children.

Are sleep struggles with your child leaving you exhausted? Hand in Hand Parenting offers an online self study course. Click here for more details. 

This article was previously published in Juno Magazine, issue 34.

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