Helping Children Sleep

In the early days, weeks and months after birth, sleep is a focus. Indeed, for at least the first year everyone wants to know how you are sleeping. Sometimes in conversation I get the feeling I am supposed to feel guilty or ashamed for still co-sleeping with my little one or for nursing her to sleep, but I don’t. Sometimes her teeth hurt or she missed me because I worked late or she was busy all day hanging with her friends and family; then, at night, she wants to be close and nurse. I understand, I don’t mind any sleepiness. Nothing seems as hard as those early days.

Back in those times, exhausted, desperate for information, I found a wonderful article: Helping Young Children Sleep. The gist of the article is that sometimes sleep disturbance is caused by pent up emotions. If you listen to your child’s feelings, they can offload emotional tension (what they know to do innately), get to sleep and be happier beings.

What do I mean by listening to your child’s feelings to help your child sleep? You can read the whole article for stories and examples. This is my own, recent experience followed by excerpts from the article I found helpful.

Tonight, my little girl told me (signed) she was sleepy and walked over to the stairs to go upstairs. We went into the dark bedroom, and, as I put on her diaper after some diaper free time, she goofed and giggled with me while she wiggled in a funny little shiver motion and made a little noise. As I zipped up her Woombie sleep sack/swaddle, something about that strange wiggle of hers told me she was wound up inside. As I put clove oil on her gums (to numb the pain of teething), I felt a teeny tiny point of her very first tooth edge…finally! I imagined that such a long, painful process now at its peak would cause me to have some feelings.

She began crying but not moving to nurse. Not saying anything, I held her close but a bit loosely so she could choose to get milk or to have some feelings. I had done this a few times when she was very young, but since then each time the idea floated into my mind she didn’t seem to want to have a feelings session. This time was a bit surreal, as if we seemed to both know that her crying was just to get her feelings out.

She did the textbook back arch and leg shoving, essentially throwing her head back and howling at points. I was not a bit disturbed by her wailing and writhing because it was clear that she could have milk whenever she wanted or get her arms out of her swaddle whenever she wanted like she always does. I did have to check in at one point because it seemed to be going on longer than I expected at first. (In fact, it was at most five minutes.)

She started squirming down towards milk a little while after she finished getting out her feelings and instantly went from crying loudly to nursing, done with the session. She nursed a good deal and was deep asleep in less than ten minutes. She slept soundly for over six hours, something she has only done once in the last four months or so.

Listening to a child’s feelings (being there, embracing and observing, often silently) rather than trying to solve a child’s problem seems like one of the hallmark lessons of parenthood.

I can see how this will come in handy in the future. For now, I just feel like something momentous happened between us — one of those moments when you feel effortlessly in the flow of the universe. I felt a raw closeness I haven’t felt with her since she was a dependent newborn. There was a trust there between us, a feeling of letting go on her part, and then there was her sweet sleeping face. Yes indeed. Sure did like and appreciate this article.

Here are the parts of the article that I found most helpful.

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 heals their fear and grief, if a parent can be reassuring and attentive. Expressing intense emotion is 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. But 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 instinct 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.

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).

  • 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—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. 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.

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