Recently, my family spent the night away. It was a vivid reminder of some of the challenges of traveling with children, (think "trip", not "vacation") and how the change in sleep environment can make it harder for children to fall asleep and stay asleep.
My children generally sleep in their own rooms with blackout shades on a quiet street. Last night they shared a room AND a bed. There was (what felt like) a half an hour of squirming and noise as they adjusted to sharing the space. Then, to add to the adventure one wall of the room has double french doors and floor to ceiling windows... basically one wall of glass. With no curtains or shades. Since we are almost at Summer Solstice, this meant it took a LONG time for the room to become even dim. All I could think about was how the bright light was inhibiting their bodies' ability to produce melatonin and causing them to be energetic and wound up instead of calm and drowsy.
Annoyed by the loud noises and desperate for them to fall asleep I resorted to staying in the room with them as they settled down and fell asleep. Which meant that my fantasy of relaxing and reading in this beautiful home was not realized as quickly as I hoped.
Fortunately, once my children were asleep, they stayed asleep. They weren't awakened as early as I feared by the bright sunlight streaming into the bedroom. They were fairly good natured early on in the morning, with crankiness only creeping in later in the day. However, the experience brought back memories of previous traveling sleep disasters:
- the 2 week camping trip we took with my son when he was a toddler and he cried loudly in our tent during the night,
- the time my son was awake in the wee hours of the morning at my in-laws and would not get back to sleep so as a desperate move I took him for a drive at 5:30 a.m.,
- the group campout we went to with my daughter when she was a toddler and the night-waking that continued most of the night.
Unfortunately, this list could go on! So, now that I am a sleep coach, what advice do I have for families?
- Be prepared. Bring all of your sleep accessories, such as night lights, sound screens, comfy blankets, cozy pajamas, loveys, black trash bags for windows.
- Do your best to keep the same schedule and routines as you have at home. If you need to resort to a car or stroller nap in order to insure that your little one has some daytime shut-eye, do it.
- Help your children be comfortable in their new environment. Perhaps they are anxious about falling asleep in a new room. Stay by their bed as they fall asleep, but don't resort to sleep crutches you have been working hard to eliminate.
- Explain to your children that things are different because you're not at home but that when you return they will go back to their usual routine.
- If your child has a hard time with transitions, think carefully about where you want to stay. Perhaps s/he will not do well with moving around a lot and would do better with a one week stay somewhere.
- If you are using a pack and play or other travel crib help your child become familiar with it before your trip.
- Find time to relax and have fun!
I often remind parents that the road to a good night's sleep can be a bumpy one. Parents beginning the sleep coaching process experience moments of increasing success followed by restless nights. It can be hard to keep focus on the end of the road and know that you will get there.
No one is better at reminding me of this than my own children. Recently, since the advent of Daylight Savings Time, my 5 year old daughter has had difficulty settling down to sleep, despite all of my efforts to pretend that the clock hasn't changed at all. I have been called back repeatedly for glasses of water, just "one last thing" that she needs to tell me, a final tuck-in, you name it.
Reaching back to all of my sleep coaching tricks, I thought returning to our tried and true sticker chart might help her. We went to the store and she picked out some sparkly Barbie (yikes) fairy stickers and I was sure that those would inspire her to stop making so much noise at bedtime.
Well, she got to sleep quickly and quietly that night, but.... just to keep me on my toes, she got out of bed at 4:00 A.M. and went to the bathroom. She then came into my room and informed me that she wanted to get up for the day. "When will it be breakfast time?" and "What are we having?" she asked.
I escorted her back to her room & tried to get myself back to sleep, only to be awakened again about 45 minutes later. "I can't sleep!" she says. She complains of some sort of dangerous creature in her closet and I shut the door. Somewhere in there, I may have muttered some comments about throwing her stickers away if she didn't get back to sleep. Mercifully (was it my empty threat that did the trick?) she did and so did I.
We haven't had another night like that since, but I am hearing that she is feeling lonely in her room and scared sometimes. Which is a good reminder that just when we parents think we have something figured out, our children move into a new stage and we have to learn how to navigate that one. So I will spend a little more time making sure her room feels safe & cozy to her at nighttime, and giving her some strategies she can use when the scary thoughts sneak in. Take the fears out and put happy thoughts in. Tell the worries to the worry dolls. Close that closet door.
No, I'm not talking about Disneyland. I am really thinking about one of my favorites places (which on a good day CAN feel like the happiest place on earth): the cooperative preschool my children attended. My kids have now moved on to elementary school but this year I've had the good fortune to visit there multiple times as a guest paid parent, substituting for parents who can't make their regularly scheduled shift.
On a recent Tuesday morning I arrived at the co-op tired and grumpy after a challenging night. But quite quickly my mood was lifted. I wondered: what exactly is the magic? Sure, I loved connecting with the children and the adults that were working that day. But, I thought, there must be a little more to it than just that.
I had my epiphany the next day, when I unexpectedly found myself working at the co-op again. I had attended a parent education event the night before, in which I heard Dr. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, discuss what parents can do to teach their children the skill of happiness. Throughout the morning I observed so many happiness habits in action.
First and foremost: Gratitude! The teacher started the day at our morning meeting by talking about being awakened by her husband that morning with a birthday gift and saying with a smile "That's why I love him!" During the day I observed how often she expressed thanks and appreciation to adults and children alike for their efforts to be helpful and kind. When I received her s
Second: Never too busy to pay attention! Dr. Carter talked about how often in our culture we are too busy with too many scheduled events, too much media, too much multi-tasking. At the co-op, there are no computers. No one is checking their email while they are supervising the children. Phone conversations are at a minimum. Even when adults ARE chatting with each other, for the most part their eyes are on the children. The children themselves are busy with the work of play, experiencing everything with their whole bodies and spirits. Of course (these are three and four year olds we're talking about!) there are plenty of moments of conflict, tears, and distress, but adults respond with a focus on the present moment and full attention.
Third: Focus on the process, not the product. Dr. Carter highlighted in her talk that our praise often focuses on a fixed mindset (the end result) rather than reflecting the process. And, at the co-op, here it was at the end of the day, when one of the parents talked about a project she had done with the children that morning. The children loved it and were very engaged, but the end result was hard to interpret. And once again, the teacher commented that it is the process that is important. That is what they learn from and will remember.
Fourth: We must focus on our own happiness in order to help our children learn how to be happy. And, once again at the co-op, there it was. When I walked into the co-op in the morning, I felt happy to be part of the community. Spending time with adults and children is something that brings me happiness. Those relationships feed my spirit.
So, what does all of this have to do with sleep?? Well, quality sleep also improves our mood. But, more than that, when it comes to bedtime routines, I notice that it helps my children to take some time to think about their day and notice what they are grateful for. I also notice that when I feel too busy and try to rush through their bedtime routine, stress and anxiety follows. When I put aside my to-do list and focus on on the process of spending time with them it goes much more smoothly and they are better prepared for sleep. Finally, when I have spent some time that day doing what makes me truly happy, I am more relaxed and ready to engage with my children.
Yesterday afternoon I had an unfortunate reminder of what happens when we deviate too much from regular sleep schedules and when our children (consequently) become sleep-deprived. We had several late nights and early mornings in our house this week and there was definitely a price to be paid for all of that.
First there was the sassy behavior and not-so-kind language. Then, later, there was the forty-five minute meltdown about Valentine's Day. We've carefully looked at all of the valentines in the bag that came home from school and to my daughter's dismay there was not a complete set from her classmates (despite the rule that each child MUST make a valentine for every student in the class). To add insult to injury two of the missing ones were from her closest friends in the class.
We spent a lot of time speculating what might have happened to the valentines: perhaps they went in the wrong bag, perhaps they dropped on the floor, perhaps the friends didn't bring enough for everyone.... but even after all of those ideas were generated there were still BIG TEARS to come. Certainly this is something that would hurt any kindergartener's feelings... but I credit the intensity and duration of those feelings to the fact that my daughter had 1) gone to bed an hour later than normal the past three nights 2) woken up in the middle of the night last night and had been awake for quite a while and 3) woken up earlier in the morning than usual. Her usual resources for coping with disappointment and upset were just not there, so she suffered (and so did I!).
So, yesterday afternoon after the emotions were more settled I was determined to move quickly through the dinner, bath, teeth, books, bed routine. There were a couple of delays but we managed to hit lights out at 7:10... slightly earlier than usual but perfect for getting much needed rest.
She slept straight through the night. This morning there was the usual daily squabbles with her brother but once these were resolved she moved into the day with more flexibility and ability to cope.
When friends and acquaintances learn that I am a sleep coach, they often look sheepishly at me and start telling me their sleep stories, as if they are going to confession. They will begin: "I lie down with my child every night when he is going to sleep" or "my daughter comes into our room every night around 2:00 a.m. and sleeps with us" or "my kids stay up late... they fall asleep around 9:00 p.m. every night & sleep until 8:00 a.m."
My response is always to ask them if they feel their children are well rested and if they (the parents) are getting enough sleep. Some parents love the cozy time with their children as they are falling asleep. If they can do that, night after night, without longing to get up and get to their to-do list, more power to them for their beautiful connection. But if they are lying there silently willing their child to sleep so that they can get to business, perhaps it is time to find another strategy. If parents enjoy sleeping with their children and easily return to sleep when their nighttime visitor arrives, no problem! But if they find their sleep disrupted by their child's presence in their bed, it might be time for a change. Finally, if the late birds wake up well rested in the morning and are happy and cheerful during the day AND their later clock fits with the limits of school and work schedules stick with it. But if parents find they need to wake their children up for school every morning and they are tired and cranky, it's probably time to change their clock.
So here is what I remind my friends: every family is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sleeping, eating, parenting... we all have to examine our child's behavior and our own well-being and decide if we are on the right path.
In 2003 my first child was born. I had prepared thoroughly (I thought) for his arrival. I had taken classes on Childbirth and Newborn Care, bought a crib, borrowed a bassinet, been given many wonderful gifts to outfit my new baby and arranged for my older sister to come help me care for the new baby in the early days. To top it off I was a school social worker and was confident that I knew plenty about child development and attending to children’s emotional needs. My biggest concern (other than getting through the delivery) was whether I’d be able to change a diaper.
Well, I was in for a BIG surprise. Not only did my baby cry a lot, he also didn’t sleep like I thought a baby would. I thought that babies slept when they were tired and that all that was required was a round of “Rock a Bye Baby” before my little one would fall asleep in my arms and easily transition into his crib. Instead, in the evening hours, I was walking him around the neighborhood in a sling. Then nursing him, and then rocking him while listening to calming lullaby music, and finally gingerly laying him down in the bassinet, crossing my fingers that he’d make the transfer WITHOUT waking up. Which he seemed to do, a majority of the time, requiring me to go through many steps in the process again and again.
At “naptime” I would be walking my son around in the sling, or sitting with him next to me on the Boppy after he dozed off nursing, or driving him around in the car. I never imagined that I could set him down awake. I saw other moms doing this maneuver and was in awe (well, in other words, jealous). I read book after book: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, the Sears and Sears Baby Book. I kept sleep and evening logs as I attempted to detect patterns and possible causes for my baby’s restlessness. I bought sheepskin blankets and lavender oil. I tried various sleep training strategies including cry it out, Ferber. I talked with my pediatrician. I cried. I was exhausted.
Finally, I read an article about Kim West, the Sleep Lady, in Parenting magazine. The author shared her own story and how Kim’s techniques helped her child learn to sleep. I looked online and found out the I could take a class from the Sleep Lady. I jumped at this. And after the class, I dived in. The sleep training wasn’t easy… it required consistency, determination, and tolerance for tears. But in the end I watched as my child learned to fall asleep on his own, without me patting, nursing, walking, rocking, or singing. It was an important parenting lesson: sometimes we have to step back and allow our child the room to struggle and learn to do something on his or her own.
Fast forward seven years. I still receive the Sleep Lady’s monthly newsletters and weekly blogs. I learn that she is developing a training program, and I sense that this is where my personal and professional lives could meet. After many hours of classes (55, to be exact) and several practice clients, I am a trained and certified Gentle Sleep Coach with a much better understanding of why my son couldn’t sleep.
Sleep is a Learned Skill In order for children to learn to sleep, it is the parents’ job to provide an environment conducive to sleep and to support their children during the process. It is something that babies must learn to do on their own without parents doing something for them. I tried every trick in the book: rocking, walking, nursing, stroking my son’s cheek, patting his back. This might have helped my son fall asleep sometimes, but it didn’t teach him how to stay asleep. A calming bedtime routine can set a child up for success as well as parents becoming attuned to their child’s “sleep windows”. All of us are influenced by a biological circadian rhythm that influences our sleep and awake time.
Sleep Begets Sleep Lack of naps doesn’t lead to a tired child who falls asleep readily and sleeps all night. It leads to an overtired child who may be amped up on cortisol, a stress hormone the body releases which keeps him awake. He may have trouble falling asleep, or he may fall asleep very easily because he is so exhausted (how many times did I say he “crashed”?) but wakes up quickly and can’t get back to sleep because he hasn’t really learned how. The better your baby sleeps during the day, the better s/he will sleep at nighttime.
Medical Issues and Temperament Can Affect Sleep Now that my son is eight years old, I know him better. I learned when he went to the dentist a few years ago that marks on his teeth are a sign of reflux. He never showed the classic signs of reflux when he was an infant: no projectile vomiting, no excessive spitting up, but I wonder if this was one of the issues that made sleep more of a challenge for him as a baby. As he has gotten older, I know that he is a sensitive person who has difficulty with transitions and reacts intensely to situations. He was also a very alert baby who was an expert at hiding his sleepy cues, so I often didn’t realize that he was tired until it was too late. Now he still needs a lot of time to wind down at the end of the day. Occasionally, he has a hard time falling asleep and needs to use some “tricks” such as counting down from 300 or picturing a “movie” inside his head.
Inconsistency Breeds Disaster In my effort to find the magic key that would unlock my son’s sleep tank, I tried many different things and responded in a multitude of different ways. These constantly changing responses served only to confuse my child and make it impossible for him to know what to expect. I imagine that when we were sleep training he was probably thinking: if I cry hard enough she’ll nurse me… well, that didn’t work, maybe I’ll cry harder and she’ll pick me up and walk me around, no, that didn’t work, maybe I should keep crying and she will let me hold her finger until I go asleep.
What I Should Have Done ·
* Decreased my child’s awake time. I was so often keeping him awake much longer than he should have been. He was such an alert baby that I was “tricked” into thinking he wasn’t tired, until it was much too late.
* Created a sleep friendly environment with black out curtains and white noise. In the newborn period babies are often more portable but as they get older they may need help tuning out the exciting outside world.
* Started a routine of Eat Activity Sleep early on rather than nursing to sleep. It is of course quite natural for newborns to doze off while they are sleeping, but look for ways to shift this cycle as babies move past the newborn phase.
* Made a plan, and stuck to it.
* Talked with my pediatrician more about my son’s sleep challenges. I tried this, but probably did not emphasize enough how difficult it was for him to take naps and sleep at night.
* Used some physical activites before bedtime to help his body relax, such as “Itsy Bitsy Yoga” or baby massage.
What Advice Would I Give Other Tired Parents?
As most parents learn, when babies don’t sleep, no one sleeps well. If you are struggling with sleep issues, know that you are not alone! There are many different paths to a good night’s sleep. Educate yourself about them and think about which one is the best fit for you and your family. If you decide to pursue “sleep training”, get support while you go through this process. Talk with other sympathetic parents and/or professionals and process the (sometimes intense) reactions that can come up as you go through it. Know that when you reach the end of this path you and your family will arrive at a place of sweet dreams.