A common concern among parents of babies, toddlers and children is that of the sleep ‘problem’. It is such a big issue in our culture that there are even sleep clinics that you can take your problematic off-spring to to get someone to fix them.
But what really is the problem here? Can it really be that something so common can be labelled as a ‘problem’? Is it even helpful to put the label of ‘bad …’ on someone so young (or ever!)?
This post suggests five ways to deal with what are often called ‘sleep problems’ and will hopefully give parents a bit of reassurance that things are maybe not quite as bad as they initially felt.
1. Bring your baby, toddler or child back into bed with you
Yes, I really do mean baby, toddler or child, no matter what their age, and I am very aware that this suggestion goes against what most parenting writers are telling parents to do nowadays. However, I really feel that this one measure can be the answer to many, many sleep ‘problems’.
(I’ll use the term ‘child’ interchangeably from now on, to mean a baby, toddler or child)
If your child’s ‘problem’ is waking in the night and struggling to get back to sleep, if his ‘problem’ is constantly coming into your room and needing cuddles, if his ‘problem’ is that he doesn’t like to sleep alone, then I promise you that his ‘problem’ is not a ‘problem at all, but normal human child behaviour.
Our culture likes to see children become as independent as possible as young as possible. It doesn’t like children to be children – it’s inconvenient. And parents pick up on this, of course. It’s not necessarily the parents’ view, or if it is, it’s one that is conditioned. Many parents are fighting their instincts when it comes to sleep ‘problems’ in the belief that they are being too ‘soft’ and ‘spoiling their child’ if they ‘give in’ (excuse all the inverted commas – all these terms are ones spoken to me by parents, and not ones I would use nowadays).
But our culture is pretty much the only one that expects babies and children to sleep alone so young. Most cultures know and trust that it is just normal, and understandable, and just what happens when you have young children, for their early years of parenthood to mean shared sleep.
If you lived in one of these cultures, going to a friend and saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing wrong! My three year old just won’t stay in his own room all night, and is constantly nagging me to let him into our bed, no matter what I do!’ would result in a very bemused, and probably rather shocked look. Your friend would probably be thinking ‘eh? Why are you expecting a three year old to sleep alone? Are you mad?!’.
It would be like saying to a friend in this culture, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing wrong! My three year old can’t do calculus yet! He just won’t even try no matter what I do!’.
The fact is that three year olds, or five year olds, or whatever age it is that the parental bed is needed until, are usually just not biologically or emotionally ready to sleep alone yet. And the age at which they are ready varies from child to child, and depending on what has happened up until now in that child’s life with regard to where he or she sleeps.
Out of my four children, one wasn’t ready to sleep in her own room until she was nearly seven, one was ready at five, one at four, and one still comes in half way through most nights at three and a half. Sometimes we take her back once she’s fast asleep, but that’s no big deal, and, most importantly, it means we all get more sleep, and each of us gets far more peaceful sleep as well.
Yes, it can be annoying having a foot in your back in the middle of the night, but weigh it up: Dad or Mum swapping beds with their child half way through the night for a few years creates far less stress, and far more sleep than years and years of hand wringing and self-blame and tears and money spent on books and sleep-clinics does.
And both routes lead to the same place in the end, at about the same time…in fact, I’d argue that the first, gentler, more accepting route gets you to a better, stronger, more secure place than the second stress-filled, painful route does.
2. Have faith – your child will grow up not to need his sleep supported without you training him
This is a hard one to grasp when we’re bombarded with exhortations to sleep train our babies from a crazily young age, but I promise you, even if you happily had your baby sleep in your bed for years, he would not still be sleeping in your bed when he reached the age of eighteen – in fact, I would be willing to bet money that it would be the last place he would want to lay his head at night!
Why do we think that sleep-training is the only way to achieve independent sleep from our children, when it is such a new concept, and one that is only adhered to in the West? How has the human race survived to create more children if all those adults for countless generations weren’t trained to sleep apart from their parents?
Trust in your baby’s innate ability to grow up to be independent, self-supporting adults, and allow yourself to sit back and enjoy watching the process, instead of feeling that you need to interfere and instigate training plans here, there and everywhere.
3. Remind yourself how short these years are and prioritise
Worrying and constantly trying to fix problems wastes the present moment, which is always gone in a flash. Is it really worth all that time, stress, fear and, in some cases, money when you could be really living these years with your children with joy and wonder?
Learn to prioritise the present moment. Ignore naysayers who tell you you’re making a rod for your own back if you choose to take delight in what is happening right now rather than worrying about the future.
Learn to prioritise relishing the utterly delicious and desperately fleeting feel of your toddler’s warm body snuggled up to yours over stress and tears on your and your toddler’s part while you try to train him to sleep apart from you.
Learn to prioritise your relationship with him, and the fostering in him of a profound sense of trust in you so that he grows up secure, knowing that you will never turn him away when he needs you.
These are the years when children learn to build relationships, when they learn about trust, and unconditional love. Separating ourselves from our children during these years is rarely helpful, and frequently harmful. There are plenty of years where independence can be learnt coming in the future, and you will probably find that there is no need for ‘training’ when your children get such a solid start.
A few years of musical beds is small price to pay for good nights’ sleep and a loving, and trusting start to your child’s life.
4. Surround yourself with other parents who have been ‘soft’, who have opened their arms and their duvets to their children at night, and whose children are older
It is so, so hard to trust that you’re taking the ‘right’ approach in ignoring the baby rule-books unless you have physical evidence around you that the books are not necessarily right.
It is so, so hard to move away from the more mainstream, Western approach to baby-rearing and to listen to and trust your heart and in your baby’s natural ability to grow up unless you have peers who are doing it too, or who have already done it and have lovely, independent, happy, confident, secure children to show for it.
Meetings of people who practice what they call ‘attachment parenting’ aren’t for everyone, but you may find searching one out in your area may be just what you need. Look up La Leche League meetings, which will be supportive of heart-led parenting (I think I’ve just come up with my favourite parenting ‘label’!), or maybe simply find internet communities of people who will support you when you’re coming up against issues that Western society calls ‘problems’ and the rest of the world call ‘normal human behaviour’.
Read this post for a more in depth look at this way of supporting yourself.
5. Ignore ‘normal’ childhood bedtimes
One last more practical suggestion: we are conditioned in our culture to think that children need to be in bed by a certain time – some say 7.30pm, others may say 6pm. I don’t know what that time is, as I’ve never adhered to it.
Children who are expected to be asleep by 7.30pm, but who are actually night-owls, will probably wake a few hours later and struggle to get back to sleep again. Have a play with moving their bedtime later, or introducing a nap, or even letting them fall asleep when they’re tired enough to make that choice themselves!
You may just be surprised at your child’s maturity after a few weeks of ‘no bedtimes’, after he’s realised you’re not going to put him into bed and shut the door when he’s just not sleep enough yet.
This approach isn’t right for all families – it certainly isn’t for ours – but I know many families who’ve done this and are pleasantly surprised to hear their three year olds ask to be taken to bed at 9pm, and who then sleep right through peacefully and happily. In fact, my three year old does do this, but the other three don’t, so it’s not an approach that works for our family as a whole unit.
We fiddled with our bedtimes for years, ignoring what everyone else was doing, or what they thought was sensible, until we came upon a solution that everyone is happy with, and that usually makes for peaceful nights all round. Our children are asleep far later than our society thinks is sensible, but it works for us, and that is the key – do what works for you and your family. Don’t just do what your sister or neighbour or friend does just because it works for them – you are a different family and your child is a different family.
I’d love to hear your tips about children’s sleep and about heart-led parenting with regard to sleeping.