Ah, what a cozy day it was…big clouds with bright blue sky giving way to gray, drizzling rain and chilly temperatures. The kind of day that begs for an afternoon nap with a soft blanket, maybe with a cat nearby. Even the toddler on the call with me and her mother this afternoon took a PLAY nap (on the back of their couch) this afternoon! Naps…Sleep…that’s what is on my mind today.
If you’ve been following along with me since I started writing last March, you might have noticed it isn’t a topic I’ve spent a lot of time writing about. Mostly, I’ve written about the topic in the write-ups of RIE Chats I’ve had, answering people’s specific questions…but I haven’t dedicated a post to it before. That’s partly because Magda herself didn’t really say much on the topic herself. She counseled parents to be thoughtful in their language around sleep…to not even utter the word sleep, in fact, but instead to say “rest.” To really think about sleep as a gift, as she wondered if our American culture really did see sleep that way…our culture that so emphasizes busyness and effort. In terms of the actual mechanics of sleep, she encouraged predictable routines throughout the day, lots of fresh air and play. She encouraged parents to carefully observe for the earliest signs of sleepiness, rather than wait for yawns and eye rubs, and she advised parents to craft a sleep ritual, perhaps provide a ‘transitional object’ for children to cuddle, and to put children down drowsy…but awake. To resist rocking, feeding, walking, stroking, etc. a child to sleep, but instead giving children the gift of learning to put themselves to sleep.
But as most any parent can tell you, all of that is far easier said than done.
The other reason I have hesitated to write more on sleep is because it is such a huge topic…scads and scads of books have been written on the topic; there are more articles and websites than I care to shake a stick at; some people have even based their entire careers around the topic. One such person is a RIE Associate, Eileen Henry, and I like a great deal of what she says on the topic, including “sleep is not a problem to be fixed. Sleep is a developmental skill.” And indeed, it is: learning to fall asleep independently is something that children learn (and re-learn) over time…just like learning to move. It’s not something we can teach, but rather it is something we can allow children to learn to do. Something Magda was fond of saying was “be careful what you teach, you may interfere with what children are learning,” and I believe that informed her ideas about sleep as well. We can condition children to fall asleep to rocking or shushing, or nursing, or stroking…when I was working in group care I learned a gentle downward stroke on children’s foreheads, just between their eyes would trigger eyes to flutter closed. It worked so well, for a time, that I even tried it on myself…but it doesn’t work when you do it to yourself…and it doesn’t work long when you use it as a trick to get children to sleep. And there’s the rub (sorry, I couldn’t help the pun): that’s the issue with any of these methods of helping children to fall asleep…they eventually stop working, and parents are left with either trying to find another trick or trying to help children learn to fall asleep on their own.
I want to add that I’m speaking of children over 4 months of age or so…newborns most certainly are dropping off to sleep after nursing or having a bottle and parents shouldn’t worry they are creating unhealthy patterns at this stage. I don’t recommend parents start working on helping babies sleep independently until they are showing signs of self-regulation like turning away from loud sounds and bright lights, perhaps sucking on fingers, or at least being able to bring their hands together in the center of their bodies.
The other reason I don’t write much on sleep is because it is so very personalized. Each family has their own rituals and routines, habits and patterns. Parents all have varying sleep habits and needs themselves…and every parent has their own story and history around sleep. Sleep, perhaps more than any other topic, is so tied into a parent’s own experiences in childhood.
For some children, sleep comes fairly easily. Maybe it is in their genes, maybe they broadcast sleepy signs crazy brightly and their parents can catch the window easily, maybe it is just in their nature for these children to settle in and drift off peacefully. These babies do exist. I’ve met them. I even know of a parent of one such child, one that slept so readily and easily that this person decided to become a sleep consultant. Then she had her second baby. Her second baby who did NOT sleep like that.
Because that’s the thing, not every person is an easy sleeper…and even for children who are, sleep involves a transition, a separation at a time when resources are low…hello, they are tired (and so are you). And this combination is what can make sleep so hard for parents: not so much the mechanics of what to do, but the emotions behind them. If parents had troubled childhoods, they may find themselves dealing with feelings of abandonment, loss, separation, sadness, anger, helplessness as they face a tired and crying child.
And this is where I get stuck in writing a ‘simple’ post about sleep. I know the mechanics of helping a child learn to fall asleep independently, and I can teach a parent these steps and skills, but before those things can happen a parent has to come to terms with their own feelings of loss and sadness when they hear their child cry. To realize that separateness is not abandonment and to learn to listen to cries as communication and information…because there often is some (or a lot) of crying in learning to go to sleep… just as there was probably some crying in learning to roll over, for example. But were those tears of suffering…or tears of struggling? Struggle is part of life, and part of learning to do something new.
And that’s the thing about helping parents help children sleep…yes, it is about timing and environment, rituals and routines, boundaries and limits, but it starts with mindset. Trust in children’s abilities to learn to self-soothe, to sleep independently, to put themselves back to sleep when they awaken…and trust in themselves that they are not harming their children… in fact, they are helping children with an important skill that will serve them throughout their lives. But this trust is expressed by each individual parent, each family, in their own unique way and time.
So, all that said, let me finally give you a little synopsis on helping children sleep.
Start with knowledge: how much sleep, approximately, do you expect your child to realistically need? How often should you expect them to sleep and for how long? For this, I’m a big fan of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. It has more information on sleep than you could possibly need or want, but it is written to be a reference guide more than a book you sit down to read.
Next, know your sleepy signs: as I alluded to before, these do not include yawning or rubbing the eyes…these are late-stage signs. Instead, look for your child to be a little less vocal, to slow down, or maybe get a little clumsy, to have longer periods of staring off into space. These are the signs that your child is starting to get tired…this is the beginning of your window.
Finally, have a routine. A predictable, not too long and drawn out, series of steps that work you toward rest. Maybe you change their diaper, close the drapes, cuddle in the rocking chair as you read a book or sing a song, and then place your child down to rest.
But these are seriously the basics, the rest is all about what your child does, what they communicate to you, and how you respond to their communication. And that is where guidance and support gets personalized. If you need support with sleep, hop on a zoom, or email me for a consultation. I’m here to help.
The child you see today
will not be here tomorrow.
The child arriving home from school,
is different from the one
who left from home this morning.
Every moment is a death
of all that has gone before,
and a birth
of all that is to come.
You must jump into the river
and let it carry you on its journey.
If you try to stop it
you will drown.
nor our children,
will avoid change,
loss, and death.
But our children
will interpret these things
through the vision we give them.
If you can manage
to see through your fear
of these three things,
your children will have
the greatest vision.