My sister would be so proud. A vague attempt to misquote Shakespeare (she is a literary expert and blogger). Anyway, this isn’t about how to get your kids into Shakespeare so you can show them off at the theatre because they laugh in all the right places but is instead about that precious commodity — sleep.
I say precious because I think what people forget to tell you is how much of parenting is actually about sleep. A day out at an attraction can be ‘make or break’ based on the amount of sleep the night before. It can lead to grumpiness, tears lack of focus, playing up — and then there’s the kids (I’m so proud of that joke). But it’s true. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there about patience, reasoning and naughty step and positive parenting (“What I need you to do now sweetie is park your arse on the step over there!!!” counts as PP right?). But a bad night for either of you can throw it all out the window.
The thing is, lots of parents are habitually sabotaging themselves on this front. Consider the following quick-fire scenarios:
- We are on holiday so it is fine to disrupt their routine
- The only time I (we) get to ourselves is in the evening so let’s make the most of it
- They take ages to get to sleep so I keep checking on them
- I just need them to calm down and sleep because it is making me stressed.
Any of those sound familiar?
I’m not being judgey. I’m out of my depth on the baby front (I have done some research but my kids were adopted at 4 and 5 years old) but I know enough to know it’s very hard. Let’s just deal with each of the above in turn:
The holiday is already a disruption. By all means, let them stay up late or sleep in but be mindful of what the impact is likely to be. As an adult, you are (slightly) more able to moderate your natural sleeping pattern to fit in with what you hope to achieve on any given day. But consider everything about the holiday is exciting and disruptive, being kind to your kids might also mean sticking to the routine.
Jet lag makes it worse. But assuming it’s just basic out-of-routine stuff might be a mistake – just check to see if you are asking too much of your kids in any one go.
You are probably having a drink and staying up later too. So the following day you have hung-over or at least more tired parents and probably tired grumpy kids — potentially a recipe for disaster. I’m not saying don’t do it but consider easing the transition a bit and be prepared for what my mum used to call ‘itises’ i.e. the diseases; ‘end-of-term-itis’, ‘start-of-holiday-itis’, ‘back-to-school-itis’. This is unrelated to sleep but the gist is all change has the potential to create grumpiness and mental fatigue in klids. Deal with bad behaviour by all means but try not to judge the kids too harshly, or read to much into, a week of out-of-character behaviour at times of change.
Time for Yourself
Time for yourself is a big one when it comes to making yourself tired. I know it is for me. I am someone who likes their own space and time to just ‘be’ with my better half. As a result, it’s very tempting to stretch out ‘evening time’. We did this is a lot when we first adopted, talking about what was working and what wasn’t, probably analysing behaviour too much.
The thing is, anything below 7hrs sleep for most people (6 for a few and 4 hrs for a very, very small proportion of the population) is too little. Even if you think you’re in the 4-6hrs camp I implore you to assume you are a 7 hrs person for a while and see if you feel better.
If you get woken up at 5 o’clock occasionally then what time should you be sleeping? It may not seem very grown-up to go to bed at 10 but if they don’t wake up make the most of the morning as ‘grown-up’ time (or get an ‘extra’ hour if you really need it). I am now someone who has learnt most days to go to sleep earlier (my wife prefers this so it is less disruptive to her too) and actively get up at 05.30 most mornings. I’m awake when the kids get up but I also fit in exercise and or writing most mornings too.
Checking at Bedtime
I’m pretty sure Super Nanny or someone has spoken about the fact that poor bedtime routine is basically the parent’s fault. I’m a little less judgemental – you are being played at a game you are ill-equipped for.
It’s as true for sleep as it is for anything else; kids are great manipulators. For lots of families whose day-to-day life basically looks like Taz the Tasmanian devil in full spin, bedtime is a remarkably intimate moment. Think about it, one-on-one attention in comfy PJ’s with probably a fluffy bear and fluffy adult to cuddle. Kids think/feel “This is awesome!” so they gamify the sleep process.
They start off at level one – ‘delay’ – that’s pretty easy at first, then they progress through levels two and three – ‘stay out of the bed’ and ‘find another bed’. Before you know it they have beaten the ‘boss’. So you need to keep them calm and disrupt the game. This means identifying what may be a ‘reward’ for them – extra attention, big cuddles, time to talk, playing, being listened to and make it linked to sleeping or at least not linked to staying awake.
The first step is to try to get some more of those intimate moments into daily life, that way the stringing-out of the bedtime routine is less interesting. Next, for example, if your child gets a big cuddle and soothed back to sleep, try doing that without getting them out of the bed. And make sure those soothing activities only take place in the bed. Also if you feel your child is otherwise not anxious (i.e. during the day) try to assume they aren’t really anxious at bedtime and see if they respond with less anxiety — they are great at mirroring us.
If they are talking to string out the time with you, maybe give them a limit on the number of questions they can ask at night (the three-question rule worked really well for me and protected time for my adopted kids to ask questions BIG and small). That way they can still take that time to talk about the things that bother them, but it isn’t a delaying mechanism. In addition, they are in control — they get to decide the questions. It may backfire for the more active imagination. With my most practical child I ended up having to earn how every domestic object was made — all her questions started with “How do you make ….”.
It’s easier said than done — the calmer you are the calmer they are.
Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read it, but I found something that really helped us with our youngest was ‘timed returns’. We settled her into bed (did a few things we agreed on to help sleep, cuddle, quiet song etc) and then tell her that we would be back in 5 minutes to check how well she was sleeping (notice careful language choice there).
The expectation is set that sleeping is the thing to do. Also, the anxiety of the fear of being afraid is taken away because in a very short time someone will check-in. But, and here is the biggie, some of the anxiety is taken away for the adults. It’s OK in that first 5 minutes to start a short task like tidying up after dinner. If you can hear movement/playing, just let it go, you know it will only go on for 5 minutes. When you go back, praise good attempts at sleeping, restate the expectation. On this occasion maybe just make sure that nothing in the ‘pre-flight checks’ has been missed (“Where’s teddy!?”) and tell them you’ll now be back in 10 minutes. Same again but this time you can get more done, maybe watch a bit of TV, chill. When you go back this time even less indulgence, no cuddles, maybe just a tummy pat, make sure they are back in bed and restate the expectations. 15 mins.
Keep going and stick to the times rigidly. Use your phone’s timer or something so you don’t have to watch the clock. Take the game back.
Sometimes it isn’t a game
All of the above is assuming there hasn’t been significant disruption to the child’s life and there isn’t something day-to-day causing anxiety. If there is, this should be dealt with first. Sleep disruption can be a great indicator of underlying anxiety, especially if it seems to appears out of nowhere.
There’s another thing to think about when it comes to sleep for kids (perhaps especially those that are adopted) is they may never have learnt how to sleep. All the soothing activities and routines with lights and milk etc. are designed to help a child mentally and emotionally prepare for sleep. A lot of the good advice for babies (of which there is a lot) hinges on establishing a routine that helps the baby calm and slows their breathing. But some children (and some adults) have never learnt, or have ‘unlearnt’, the process of sleeping.
After our children came to us, the youngest was struggling to sleep. We just supported as best we could at first on the basis it was due to a disruption in their lives and the adjustment period. But fairly quickly we decided to try the timed return because as brand new anxious parents we realised the benefit to us and them. But the youngest of our family (excluding the cats) broke our heart as she cried once she realised the games weren’t hers anymore. As we restated she needed to try to sleep we heard through sobbing “I don’t know how”. How horrible did we feel? At that moment, we felt like we were restating the need for her to complete advanced calculus. The despair in her voice was tangible.
So we went through a routine of ‘no playing because that’s a tired brain trying to keep itself awake’ and ‘slow breathing’ and ‘imagine the things that might happen tomorrow that you want to dream about’. That and taking away screen time later in the evening got her from about 1hr of restlessness to about 15 minutes (i.e. Two returns) most nights.
A very quick word on babies. I don’t know as much about them but I do know a bit about adult sleeping. Our circadian rhythm supports us waking up about 1-2 in the morning. In fact, in the West, when we used to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier (with the sun, sort of) it was documented as a thing that was done. You know, wake up in the middle of the night, have sex, eat a bit, smoke a pipe; the usual. Anyway, some experiments have been run with this sleep pattern and have found that people may feel more refreshed by the ‘longer in bed with a break in the middle’ sleep. Sometimes known by the punchier if somewhat inaccurate ‘diurnal’ sleep. Anyway one thought I have is that if you controlled when you wake up to feed, maybe change your young one, it takes control back.
I know that you may be waking up more than once but if you force one wake that can become part of the routine that you control. Most parents of young babies, that I have known, report that the number of disruptions slowly decreases. It will all work itself out eventually anyway, this just means it might be on your terms sooner than you think.
I know some children will be tricky and I have only given a few examples of how to ‘take back the game’ but I welcome other suggestions and ideas.
More recently my youngest is staying up for over an hour peacefully. Just calling out when we head upstairs. This is new and (as of the time of writing) is probably due to a mixture of COVID, moving home and disruption with my job. Revisiting how we dealt with sleeping previously I have realised this is a new game, which we can take back by proactively checking on her before we head up and encouraging sleep earlier.
With kids, there will always be a game. Your job is to spot it, decide if it is healthy or not, decide how you disrupt the game if you want to, and create a new dynamic. The rules change constantly, but it’s always the same game.
Good luck and good night.
Previously published on medium
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