Sleep, Routines, and Challenging Toddler Behaviors – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Even though the call ran long last night, way past my bedtime (even past my new ‘quarantine bedtime’ which is later than it was before), I had a hard time peacefully settling down to go to sleep when it was over. Now, part of that was absolutely my body’s natural hormonal response…filling me with some adrenaline and cortisol to keep me alert when I was clearly awake past my bedtime. I appreciated it during the call; lying in bed, though, not so much. That’s what happens to us all…including your babies and toddlers…when we miss our sleep window. It’s a blessing and a curse to an adult…it’s just a curse when it happens for your child! So, when you’re asking yourself why your clearly overtired infant, toddler, or self can’t sleep, you now know why! (Dim the lights anyway, practice slow and deep breathing, tell yourself a meditative and very long and boring story or repeat a mantra quietly…sleep will come!)

But I digress…the other reason I had trouble sleeping is because our conversation was truly so stimulating and engaging. I swear I looked at the clock at 10:15 and the next thing I knew, an hour had passed! I hope those that were on the call felt the same! I won’t try to reconstruct the conversation, but I’ll pull together the overarching themes and expand a little.

There was a lot of conversation about rituals and routines, and how they can make you…or the lack of them can break you…especially around sleep. For as much as she valued sleep, Magda was fairly reticent on the topic of sleep in her books. Her main message is that the rhythm and regularity of the day, together with parents’ careful observations of their children, would lead to healthy and peaceful sleep. Considering the vast number of sleep consultants, books, webinars, and websites, you’d think she could have been a little more verbose, no? In fact, though, she’s right…when you boil down those sleeping guides, you come to the essence that Magda talked about: creating a ritual around sleep and putting children to sleep when tired (but not overtired)…and letting children fall asleep on their own. Trouble is: that can be dang hard to do. (Enter: the zillionth book on the subject.)

Sure, there are many ways we can help children to fall asleep: rock them, feed them, hold them, rub their backs, stroke their foreheads, take them for rides in the car…but what we are really doing is relaxing them until they drift off. And you know what feels really good? Relaxing! Who wants to drift off to sleep and miss out on that lovely dreamy feeling?! Ultimately, no one can force someone to sleep: it is something you have to do for yourself, so Magda always recommended putting babies down to rest in a drowsy, but awake state, so they could fall asleep on their own. Of course, sleep, like any piece of development doesn’t progress in a straight line…there are hills and valleys and curly-q’s and dead-ends. And I could go on about sleep, but like I’ve said in previous emails…the process really is individual to each family and child and the readiness of each parent and the circumstances in each household, so I prefer to tailor the conversation to each family…but I will say there are two parts to the ritual/routine involving sleep…one is the ritual that happens in the bedtime and naptime…the other is the over-arching rhythm and routine of the day.

A predictable and orderly day is paramount for helping children sleep, both at night and during the naps. And for young children, some time spent out of doors in the sunshine and fresh air, particularly in the mornings…getting some much needed exercise absolutely helps children rest….but there’s a bit more to it than that.

A predictable and orderly day is paramount for so many of us…and for many of us, our predictable and orderly days are gone. I think if you asked me before March 12, I would have told you I didn’t really have a predictable and orderly schedule. I wore a lot of hats and did several different jobs, big and small, and had a small, but active social calendar; no day looked like the one before it. But in retrospect, over the course of a week or two weeks, there was absolutely a pattern. And I knew what was expected of me, where I had to be, what I had to get done and when. When ‘safer at home’ started, I lost that schedule. It’s been (and still very much is) a process to create a new one for myself…and some days I’m more organized and orderly, others are more chaotic and messy. Of course, I had organized and messy days before, but somehow now the chaotic days seem more distressing (never mind the overlay of everything the world is reverberating with now). And I say this now because I know that many of you out there may be feeling the same…many of you have creative jobs like mine and while you are used to uncertainty, this is on a whole new level. Be kind to yourselves. Experiment with new ways to “fill your cup”, even if you’re just adding a few sips. Celebrate the organized days, and forgive yourself for the messy ones as you work toward finding a routine that you can be comfortable in.

I also say it because if you felt the shift of predictability tilt you off your axis a bit, your children absolutely have, too. One of the primary things infants and toddlers do is to make sense of the world…what happens when, who responds how, what happens here but not there…and so on. Creating a predictable and orderly routine for them takes the guesswork out for them, allows them to flow through the day in a more peaceful way…including sleep.

This may sound like a funny thing to say, especially if you have a tyrant in your house. Oh, did I say tyrant? Darn spell-check…I meant to say “toddler.” A little joke that may not feel so little if your child is between 1 and 3… I’ve been having a lot of conversations this week with parents of children in this stage of life…autonomy vs shame and doubt, as Eric Ericson put it. Children in this stage are struggling with issues of power and control balanced against inability and powerlessness. You may sometimes have a child who can seem to do everything (or insist on trying to do everything) one day, and then the next, have a fully weaned child suddenly asked to be nursed, or a child who pulls out his old newborn blankie to snuggle in. Or you may have a child in your house who asserts that he hates you, or Grandma…or God (that was a new one for me). It’s powerful to assert that you HATE someone powerful…and it’s even more powerful when you get a stunned and powerful reaction from your parent. That’s all that message is about: they couldn’t safely say that they hate you or someone you love if they didn’t feel completely sure of your love for them.

There’s a push-pull in this stage of growing up and you’re especially likely to see the dichotomy when they hit big milestones (like potty training). You may have children who are asserting their control overtly (in defiance or tantrums) or indirectly (stalling and delaying, or ‘not hearing’). It isn’t personal. I know it feels personal…and goodness knows they know all the right buttons and just when you’re feeling most vulnerable…but it isn’t personal, it’s developmental. And it’s not logical…so try to let go of the idea that there’s something inherently maniacal about a toddler who seems to hear and agree with your very logical plans and then balks. Take a deep breath and engage some strategies. Here are a couple I suggested last night:

  1. Take a deep breath; slow down and look your child in the eyes…and be honest: “I’m frustrated right now.” Sometimes simply engaging with them honestly brings out their own inherent empathy and you can start to work together again.
  2. Give some visual cues. Yes, they are verbal now…visual cues still help: “I’m going to start pulling the toys out of the bath. When they’re all out, it’s time to get out, too”
  3. Give your power-hungry child opportunities to exercise his or her power: “I’m going to set my timer and when it goes off, it’s time to get out of the bath. Shall I set it for 2 minutes or 3 minutes?” (Or, “Do you want to pull the plug or should I?)
  4. If your child has a sudden case of deafness or it seems that you have apparently turned transparent because they certainly can’t see you…stop everything. Stop talking. Stop moving. Stop emoting. Sudden stillness and quietness will bring your child’s focus back to you. At this point, you might want to go back to #1.
  5. Bring some silliness into it…”Oh, you don’t want to get out of the bath? Let me see why not, I think I’m going to get in with all my clothes on…here I come! What?! I’m not supposed to?!” Sometimes, and we’ve all felt this (well most of us, Rigo…), when we’re in the middle of a conflict, and we’ve dug our heels in…and we realize we’re wrong. Or we are actually really just ready for it to be over, but not ready to give in…sometimes when our conflict partner allows for the grace of a little silliness or joke…that can break the tension and get you over the hump. (Note: be careful with this one…children have their pride just like us, and this technique can lend itself to manipulation, which is not where I’m going with it.)

In all of these scenarios though, it’s okay to circle back and talk about it just a bit later. Briefly: no lectures, but (in the above scenario, say after the child is out of the bath and drying off, but you can see they are in a peaceful state)… “That was hard a few minutes ago. I really wanted you to get out of the bath and you didn’t want to get out.” [Pause] And maybe, “I’m glad we worked it out together.” The key is to wait for the calm after the storm: see my previous emails AND future ones…there’s no learning during a tantrum.

Ultimately, this conversation works itself back to my opening piece about rituals and routines (remember way back then when you started reading this?)…the rhythm of your day and predictability of the routines allow children opportunities to express their power and autonomy…they know what’s coming and they can participate. And your consistent response to toddler meltdowns or standoffs will eventually get you to a place of fewer meltdowns and standoffs. Toddlers are growing more powerful and love feeling that power, but they still (and perhaps more urgently) need to know that ultimately you are in charge, keeping them safe, making the hard choices.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with the reading I pulled from the Parent’s Tao Te Ching. I don’t usually read from it on the zoom chats, but last night it just didn’t feel right to end the call without a reading. And I’ll end my summary with it, too.

Wishing you a peaceful and predictable end to your week, and hope some of you can join me on Saturday.


46. Each Day is a Dance

When parents step outside the Way,
they begin to feel vulnerable.
They become afraid of,
and afraid for,
their children.

They lie awake at night,
afraid to confront,
to correct,
to love,
or to hold their children.
Each day they prepare for battle.

But when parents remain in the Way,
they face each day as a dance.
They have nothing to fear,
therefore they produce joy.
I remember many nights of worry.
I remember many days
of tiptoeing around issues,
not wanting to have a confrontation,
hoping I could avoid unpleasantness.
At times I even felt
these lovely persons
were my enemies,
hindering me
and making my life unhappy.
How foolish I was.
There was nothing to fear.