[Week 14 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
This title is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but kind of not. We can make choices that affect our children’s sleeping habits. We can also, after a certain age, expect them to begin to respect limits. But it is a well known fact that young children are associated with parental sleep deprivation.
How sleep is handled can have a big impact on parent-child relationship due to a few things.
- It affects how well everyone functions the next day
- Time to sleep usually occurs when everyone is worn out and prone to lack of self-control
- Children’s growth means their sleep needs can be constantly changing
- Sleep means separation on some level
Let’s talk about it from 3 perspectives:
- Sleeping through the night
- Sleep arrangements
Making happy memories at bedtime
You have probably heard some of this advice about bedtime:
- create a peaceful atmosphere
- have a routine
- anticipate needs
- read stories together
- make it a priority to be home by a certain time in order to do the above
The goal is to have bedtime be a combination of good memory making and relationship building. You want to look forward to these times with your kids. You want them to feel sleeping is the next and natural step in the process. You want them to be convinced that you like spending time with them. You want them to feel secure in falling asleep.
Even with this approach, parents are often sleep deprived
An important question to ask is
Is it the child’s fault that the parent is sleep deprived?
In some cases, the answer is quite obviously yes. Babies in particular need round-the-clock care at intervals that unavoidably interrupt sleep. If all a parent does is take care of the baby and snatch some shut eye when the baby does, it can still be very hard to feel rested.
Fortunately, this doesn’t last forever. The baby grows and reaches an age when his or her body can go longer without eating and has gotten more used to normal daily rhythms. Still, most children never seem to sleep as much or as easily as parents want them to. And therein lies a key:
Why and how much does a parent want a child to sleep?
To be honest, as a new parent, even though I knew sleep was important for my kids’ health, sometimes I just wanted a moment’s peace. I wanted free time or time to not be responsible constantly. This was more of an issue with the first children, because it is nearly impossible to be prepared for the 24/7 responsibility of children. It kind of took my breath away at first.
As a result, bedtime was sometimes associated with a feeling of desperation. “PLEASE go to sleep, little one!” would be ringing in the back of my head while I tried to appear motherly on the outside. Maybe your first baby was a “good sleeper.” Mine was not. In fact, I’m not sure she has needed much sleep her whole life. Lest you think this was just an issue of inexperience on my part, there is more to the story below. First, it brings to mind another key.
How much sleep does a child need?
A wise mother once told me that I should not expect to have any free time until my youngest child was 3 years old. I have found this to be pretty true. I could learn to go with the flow of my young children’s real needs or I could drive myself crazy trying to constantly mold them to my selfish schedule.
Yes, I say selfish. All this talk about “me time” is antithetical to parenting. Parents need to spend more time being creative about being at peace with parenting and less time thinking of ways to get away from the kids. Parenting is a full-time job for someone. It also works best with full-time moral support from a fellow parent.
I’m not saying never guide/train your children into regular sleep habits. I’m certainly not saying that everything they want is a need. As parents we have the responsibility and capability to weigh many factors about our children’s sleep patterns. The fact remains that children have different sleep needs, and therefore schedules, than adults. So, we must ask,
How is your schedule affecting your child’s sleep?
A child can feel stressed from a schedule without knowing it. There are choices parents have about how strictly to try to schedule a child. On one hand, some sort of predictable, rhythmic schedule can give a child a sense of peace and security. On the other hand, if that schedule is frantic and/or inflexible to the child’s needs, then it can very well create sleep problems.
This is particularly true when a child feels (probably only subconsciously) deprived of social interaction with the parents. Bedtime might be a time when a child finally feels he is getting attention. He or she may try to do everything possible to drag out the interaction.
It can take some experience to learn to evaluate real needs versus childish manipulation. But just because a child is being manipulative, doesn’t mean there is not a real need that should be addressed for the benefit of the relationship. To put it another way, don’t be in a rush to require children to develop adult sleeping habits for your convenience.
This extends to when children are required to wake up, as well. One bad effect of the institutional school model is that it almost forces parents to treat children like little soldiers. From a young age, most children must get up to attend “school” at a certain time. The fact that they usually have to be woken up should be a clue. Maybe parents should be considering this:
Why not let children sleep until they wake up?
This is especially true for young children, but also for older children if they are getting to bed at a reasonable hour compared to the family schedule. As always, in this context, I think childhood basically ends around age 12-13. After that age, a child needs to begin to learn to moderate their own sleep while still fulfilling some responsibilities.
There is also a phenomena where children have a hard time falling asleep if they are exhausted. There is something about being exhausted that stimulates adrenaline flow. Maybe the body assumes that if it is still up while exhausted there must be an emergency? This can lead to the frustrating cycle of making bedtime harder. Just allowing a child to sleep it off the next morning could help everything get back on track.
But what about sleeping through the night?
My view is that people get too hung up on children sleeping through the night. It is one reason why it makes so much sense to have a dedicated care-taker in the family (usually the mom), because that person can go with the flow. He or she can pace themselves differently during the day to deal with the sleep schedule.
It is possible that when a child is feeling stressed about the schedule, they may exhibit this in disrupted sleep. However, there is also a lot of variation in children of that age in how they handle night times. Out of my 7 children, I had 2 that were “natural sleepers.” That is they loved to go to bed and sleep until morning.
I had 2 that drove me nuts with the apparent lack of need for sleep from birth to age 4. The irony of it is that they were my 1st and 7th child. So imagine when I got through with sleepers 5 and 6 and thought, “I think I”m getting the hang of this.” Then I got number 7 and I had an epiphany. The trouble with number 1 was not my inexperience, but her needs and physical predisposition!
To this day, they both need less sleep than me! I was managing tiredness for many years, but I also have to admit that sometimes it was my fault for trying to do too much and not just going with the flow. Which brings us back to the first question I asked:
Is it the child’s fault that the parent is sleep deprived?
Let me add more about a couple of other of the kids. One two year old in particular came into our room every night in the middle of the night. He just wanted to be near us. Neither my husband nor I slept well with extra bodies in the bed, so we kept a sleeping bag handy right under the bed next to me.
On the nights our son appeared, he had a choice: go back to bed or sleep there. He often chose the sleeping bag. One night it was just the last night he came, probably around age 4. I miss that sweetness now.
Try to relax about the outcome while you problem solve
Another toddler of mine had a very hard time relaxing into sleep. This was number 3. She was a very pleasant child during the day, and she wasn’t even obnoxious about trying to go to sleep. It just made her cry, no matter what I did. So I took to firmly patting her back in the crib while she fell asleep, kind of like dribbling a basketball! Somehow she needed the firmness of that contact and her own bed to be able to sleep well.
I don’t think I mentioned child number 4 yet. She just wanted to be nursed at the breast to fall asleep, then I could lay her down. Everyone of them was unique in some way.
The bottom line is that each child is different and parenting is a very creative project. I recommend trying to relax about the outcome at the same time you problem solve. Remember that each moment with them is precious.
Who should sleep where?
The concept of a “family bed” was just coming into vogue when we started having children. We tried it, but as I mentioned, neither of us slept well with more bodies in the bed. Not even infants slept in our bed. The way my husband sleeps, he probably would have given the kids black eyes, and then you know what trouble we would have been in!
Still, we kept our children close. When they were infants, they slept in a bassinet right next to my side of the bed. When they were toddlers, they were welcome to sleep on the floor in our room. They were kids. They could handle the floor just fine.
We always kept young children in bedrooms near us. None of this master bedroom on the other side of the house stuff. They knew we would come at a moment’s notice if we were needed.
They also knew that every little noise didn’t bring us running. I remember the first time I actually slept through my baby crying right beside me. I know this because dear husband got up to comfort it, knowing I had fed the little one just a short while ago. He figured if I was sleeping through the baby crying, I was THAT tired. And the baby learned that he didn’t need me every time he cried.
This happens sometimes when a parent is tired. It happened again once when a toddler was fussing, but my husband chose to wait and listen. The toddler settled down pretty quickly. If I had been awake and rushed in to check on her, I may have disrupted her sleep more than was necessary! It is good to have another perspective available.
Can children learn to respect your need for sleep?
Perhaps we should ask first if you respect your own need for sleep as a parent? And how will a child know that you really need sleep if you don’t show them the example of making it a priority for healthy living? Also, do they see you respect the sleep of the other parent?
Children are partly selfish because they just have little to no concept of adult responsibility. However, they will observe parents being kind and supporting one another. If, say, you make a game of occasionally letting one parent sleep in, the kids will notice. If, when the pampered parent gets up, you show honest concern that the rest went well, the kids will catch on.
Can children learn to respect your need for sleep? Yes, but it takes time and tends to happen slowly. Then, one day, you will be taking a much needed nap and hear one of the older kids gently shushing the younger ones while whispering, “She’s sleeping…”