I have a problem with my two-and-a-half year old, Frank.
He won't eat dinner because he's too busy running around and then he's melting down because he's "hangry" at bedtime. I am afraid he won't sleep well because he's too hungry but then he can't decide what to eat and bedtime just gets pushed later and later.
It's often 8:30 or 9 before he's in bed and then it takes a while for him to settle down and fall asleep. I know the dinner dishes are waiting for me and I can't help but get impatient and snap at him sometimes.
What should I do? I hate yelling at him but this routine is driving me crazy!
PS My six-month-old, Lily, seems to be developing similar tendencies! She will often take only a couple of ounces of milk when she wakes up in the morning, so then I try to feed her again before her nap so she'll sleep well, but often she'll only take an ounce, reluctantly, so then I feel like I ought to feed her again as soon as she wakes up but then she's not very hungry again... I feel like I'm feeding her constantly!
I see this pattern all too often in my clients, whether the child is 4 months, 4 years, or even older.
There's a couple of issues here.
The first one, and by far the most important, is about the mindset of the parent. Sarah is taking responsibility for her child's eating.
Guess what parents? Kids are the ones responsible for their eating. The only ones. Whether or not Frank eats is up to Frank, not Sarah. As much as she may hate that fact.
I get it. One of my children was a terrible eater, just refused to eat any solid food for the first year of her life, and took less and less milk from the bottle while I was at work (and didn't nurse during the night). The doctor was concerned about her failure to gain weight, and that, of course, scared me.
But I still couldn't force her to eat. As much as I wanted to.
(After her first birthday, she slowly, reluctantly began to eat a small number of foods and today is a healthy, skinny 9-year-old who still has a limited palate but does not have an eating disorder. Skinny is fine, healthy, even.)
You can't force children to eat. And the more you try, the more they refuse.
Even now, my 9 year old has meltdowns when she gets hungry.
And you know what helped? Eliminating snacks. Letting her get hungry for meals. Believing that she wouldn't starve. That it wasn't the end of the world for to have a meltdown.
It sounds totally counterintuitive, but the more we cater to our children's capricious appetites, the worse their appetites get. Even though the process of eliminating snacks totally sucks. Many a meltdown. But there was no other way to get through that particular river of misery. (Rather like teaching a child to self-soothe. There's no way to teach it. They just have to learn it.)
Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, says that we adults control the what (is offered) and the when (timing) of meals, and children control the if (they eat) and the how much.
She points out that all humans have a genetic setpoint for weight that is very hard to change. Some children were born to be thin and some children were born to be stocky. But trying to control our children's eating will only make the skinny ones skinnier and the heavy ones, heavier. (Cutting down on junk food is healthy for everyone, however, as is increasing exercise. Both can help manage weight problems in overweight children. Without ever commenting to the children that it's about weight.)
As soon as our children realize that their parents have a vested interest in how much they eat, they exploit that power. They can't help it. It's children's job to explore boundaries and understand what pushes their parents' buttons.
There's only one way to stop it.
Drop the rope.
Stop caring about how much your child eats. Stop thinking you can control it, and that they are "sure" to have a sleep problem if they don't eat.
Set some boundaries and let your children explore them. Let them have tantrums. Trust that the world won't come to an end if they are hungry for a night. In fact, the only way to get them to eat better is to let them experience hunger and not solve the problem for them until the next scheduled mealtime.
Here's what this looks like in practical terms. Sarah decides what is served for dinner. Ideally, she includes at least one thing that Frank likes... but perhaps serves a first course of the things that she most wants him to eat. So if he loves mac n cheese and Sarah is willing to serve that, she serves a first course of chicken and vegetables. He's more likely to eat the chicken and vegetables when he's more hungry. After he's eaten some of that, she serves the mac n cheese. She lets him have as much or as little as he likes, without comment. There is no praise for eating a lot nor scolding for eating a little. They sit and eat together and talk cheerfully about other things.
Sarah decides ahead of time if dessert will be served and if so, what it will be. She serves it with dinner or at the very least, makes dessert non-contingent on eating the rest of the meal. There is no "reward" for eating a "good" dinner. Because Sarah doesn't care if Frank eats or not, remember?
When Frank gets up from the table, after one warning, "Frank, remember, if you get up, the meal will be over," the meal is over. Sarah doesn't make a big deal about this. She just says, kindly, "Since you are up from the table, I see you are done eating." She takes the plate away.
Frank has a meltdown. Sarah sits patiently and waits. When the meltdown is over, she says sympathetically, "you're frustrated that the meal is over. You wish there was more food." She doesn't argue with his feelings or try to convince him to feel differently. She lets him feel his feelings. She recognizes that big feelings aren't a problem. She also knows that he isn't that hungry, or he would have eaten, and that he certainly won't starve before morning. She remembers that she occasionally goes to bed a bit hungry and still sleeps well.
If bedtime is more than 2 hours after dinnertime, Sarah may decide to offer a bedtime snack. If so, she decides whether or not to offer a snack as well as what the snack is. Ideally it is something healthy (so as not to convince Frank to skip dinner and wait for the bedtime snack). It is definitely not a food that is designed to entice him to eat, like ice cream. She offers it to Frank in his chair at the table. If he gets up from the table, the snack is over.
Frank may have another meltdown. Sarah waits patiently. Then it's bedtime. If Frank cries that he is hungry, Sarah reminds him that they can have a delicious breakfast together in the morning. She doesn't see his feelings or even his possible hunger as a problem.
In the morning, Sarah continues to maintain clear boundaries. She invites Frank to the table for breakfast. She has chosen to serve a nutritious meal with several items to choose from. She sits with Frank while he eats breakfast and reminds him that this will be all the food that is served for breakfast. They have a pleasant chat. When he gets up from the table to play, she reminds him again that this is it for breakfast, is he sure that his belly is full? The next time he gets up, she quietly takes his plate away.
Sarah plans the next eating opportunity, either a healthy snack 2-3 hours later, or lunch. She does not pack processed carbohydrates (squeezable fruit pouches, Goldfish crackers, dry cereal) for him to graze mindlessly on in the car or stroller as she knows these will dull his appetite for healthy food at lunch. If he complains of hunger mid-morning, she makes sympathetic noises and promises lunch is only an hour away.
Rinse and repeat.
After just two to three days of this, Frank is used to the new routine. Meals are pleasant and hunger meltdowns are much less frequent.
The other issue at play in this letter is that the child is overtired. Overtired children don't eat well.
Rest assured, they don't starve. They just make up for it in the morning. Or next Tuesday. Toddlers and preschoolers are famously capricious eaters. They are said to "live on air." But unless your healthcare provider has told you that your child has a growth or feeding disorder, you don't have to worry.
The best cure for this is sleep. So offer a meal or snack and if your child turns up his nose at it, start bedtime. Don't cave when they beg for food 15 minutes later. My then-four-year-old didn't eat dinner for a year. I did not offer a bedtime snack. I just put her to bed at 6 pm. She's alive and well to this day.
And as for six-month-old Lily? The same rules apply, even if all the meals and snacks consist of milk. Stop offering snacks. Every three hours should be sufficient after the first three months (in the NICU, babies never eat more often than every 3 hours) and some babies actually eat and sleep better with every-four-hour feeding schedules. Both of my children did.
Infants don't need to eat when they wake up and when they fall asleep with every nap. If you like to offer more often and it's working for your family, great. But if you are struggling with short naps, night wakings, and poor feedings... try consolidating those short feedings.
Picky eating and overtiredness often go hand in hand. But they are both solveable problems. And your family will be so much happier when you have eliminated both.
If your family is dealing with picky eating and sleep issues, set up a free consult and find out how your family can be sleeping better in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
You have unconscious beliefs and thoughts that are telling you that it's your fault that your child doesn't sleep well. You are beating yourself up.
You also think it's too hard, or not fair, or selfish. You fear that sleep training might hurt your child.
The problem with all of these thoughts and beliefs is that they are keeping your child, and you, from getting the sleep you both need.
The more you think these thoughts, the more you feel the negative feelings they create. And even worse, your child feels that negative energy, too.
A family that I worked with a few months ago was convinced that sleep training was abusive. I tried my best to convince them that this was not true, and sent them research demonstrating that sleep training is safe and beneficial to children. I showed them that misleading articles that argue that sleep training is traumatic were based on flawed research (on rat pups or children in homes with domestic violence).
But these parents were ultimately unable to let go of their damaging belief. And a result, their child did suffer with sleep training. Because he felt his parents' emotions, and believed them, that there was something wrong. Of course. Children, especially pre-verbal children, are incredibly tuned into our feelings and our energy. Especially feelings of fear.
If you want to change your child's sleep, you have to identify, first, the story you are telling yourself about the problem. You can't let go of that story until you know what the story is. I suggest you write them down. Then, forgive yourself for the situation you are in. It's not your fault. You always had the best of intentions. You are a good and loving parent who has only ever wanted to help your child.
Next, we can create a new story. You know your child needs better sleep. Depriving a child of healthy sleep is like depriving a child of food. You wouldn't let your child go hungry. And from now on, you won't let your child go without sleep, either. Your child will be healthier and happier with better sleep. And so will you.
You also need to believe that you are strong enough to support your child through a transition. You have to believe that you and your child are strong enough to withstand strong emotions about that transition. You and your child can tolerate strong, negative feelings in life, not just in sleep training. Your role is not to take away the negative emotions, but to support your child through them, to assure him of his safety despite feeling angry or sad or tired. Tell yourself and your child that all feelings, even negative emotions, are okay.
We parents have a hard time allowing our children to feel pain. We love them so much; we want to take away the pain. But we can't prevent children from feeling pain. We can only support them through it, and teach them that they are strong enough to feel all the feelings. Feelings can't hurt us.
We are having a great example of this right now with COVID-19. We can't keep our children from feeling sad, or anxious, about the changes the pandemic has brought. We can acknowledge that our children are missing their friends, their routines, their birthday parties and trips to the beach and hugs from loved ones. We are sad alongside them. But we can't make them not be sad. To tell them, "you aren't allowed to be sad about missing your old life" would be ridiculous, right? So why can't we give them space to be sad about a change in their sleep routine? We can. Our children can be sad without us doing something wrong. Sometimes, life is hard. We can get through it, together.
Next, we focus on building up our children's confidence, and our connection with them. Special time, cuddles, playing hide and seek or tag, praising desired behaviors, maintaining limits, even letting them have tantrums and staying close by for a hug afterwards all strengthen your connection with your child. If your child is anxious, make time to discuss the anxious thoughts well before bedtime. At bedtime, gently enforce a limit that anxiety-provoking topics will be discussed the next day. Offer to write down all the anxious thoughts on a notebook next to the bed so your child knows she can let go of those thoughts without fear of forgetting them. Then, practice mindfulness or sing a song or listen to a meditation recording. Make bedtime a reassuring, relaxing time.
In the morning, after the separation for sleep, show your pride in your child's new independence. Be joyful. Greet him with smiles and hugs. Show him that you know he can learn new habits that will keep his body feeling well-rested and healthy. Push the fears away and remind yourself of the story that you believe, that your child is so much better off with healthy sleep.
It can be hard to change your child's sleep habits. Hard isn't bad. You were built to do hard things. And so was your child.
If you would like emotional support during the process, or if you need some practical advice, set up a free consult and let's get you and your child the sleep you need. We can have your entire family sleeping soundly in two weeks or less.
Despite it being only mid-morning, this toddler is overtired.
Early wakings and nighttime wakings are the number one reason families reach out to me for help. And the culprit is one that always surprises them.
You are putting your child to bed too late.
I know that seems crazy. You put your child to bed at what feels like a very reasonable hour, based on your family's schedule. It feels impossible to put her to bed any earlier. Your days are so hectic.
Plus your very reasonable fear: you are afraid your child will wake up too early. I know. I get it. I am having exactly the same struggle with my five-year-old who just gave up her nap and needs an earlier bedtime. Even though I know better.
Here's the deal: overtired children don't sleep well. They wake up more at night and they wake up too early in the morning.
I suggest roughly twelve hours in bed each night for children under 6. (Maybe slightly less for preschoolers who still nap).
The sleep before midnight is the most restful. So sleeping 8 pm to 8 am is not as good as sleeping 7 to 7 and will generally result in less overall sleep.
My ideal bedtime for most children under six years old is actually 6:30 pm. Especially knowing that if you aim for 6:30, you might actually achieve 7 pm.
If this sounds too hard... think about your disrupted nights and way-too-early mornings. How much would you like those to go away? Are you willing to push your schedule to make it happen? Even if it means you have to work in the evenings to finish work earlier? Remember that when your child sleeps through the night, you will be more rested and thus, more productive. So you may find you are able to finish your work in less time and not need to continue to work in the evening!
This tip, moving bedtime earlier, has worked with every child I have worked with. Even my own. I put her overtired five-year-old self to bed at 6:20 last night -- the earliest in weeks -- and she woke up at 7:20.
A warning: this doesn't always work the first night you try it, though it often does. I tried it for the first time a few days ago and my little one was up at 4:30 AM. Sob.
But two days later, my efforts paid off and she started to sleep later.
Most of my families see results in two to three nights, and often even faster. So give yourself a few days, at least, to try this radically simple suggestion: an earlier bedtime.
If you want to put your child to go to bed earlier and sleep all night long but aren't sure how to make it happen -- maybe you struggle emotionally even if you have the book knowledge of what needs to happen -- set up a free consult and get your family the sleep you deserve.
Holiday travel and sleep schedules.
You had the best of intentions, right?
And then it all went out the window. Because you weren't in control of mealtimes, and thus couldn't control bedtimes. And now your little one is going to bed too late and waking up too early and maybe even sleeping in your bed. You are afraid that all your hard work with sleep training has gone out the window.
Deep breaths, tired parents.
It hasn't all gone out the window.
And no judgment. We've all been there. Me too.
Once you have done the hard work of sleep training the first time, it'll never be this hard again. I promise!
Here are some tips for getting your little one back on track quickly:
Rest assured parents, we've all been there. Travel, and visiting family, is a beautiful thing. Even when it messes with their sleep. If you follow these tips, you should be back on a predictable, restful schedule again very quickly. Don't forget to include an early bedtime for yourself, too! All that travel and social interaction is exhausting for everyone.
Need some help getting back on track? Or maybe your child's sleep wasn't ideal to begin with? No worries. I'm here to help -- no judgment. Just schedule a free consult and we'll get your family the rest you all deserve.
Now that we’ve all theoretically survived the transition back to Standard Time — I know some of you are still struggling! — the next challenge many of us face is traveling with small children for the holidays.
Travel is never easy with little ones, who are thrown off kilter by any change in the routine. Most of us can expect extra sugar and processed carbs, extra screen time, limited opportunities for exercise and structure, and as a result, extra tantrums. (To those who are able to avoid those “necessary” evils of travel: I applaud you!)
The first thing I suggest to any parent who is traveling with a small child, especially over the holidays, is lots of kindness and forgiveness for yourself. Please don’t start sleep training or do anything else challenging while you are traveling.
That said, if you have already established good sleep habits for your child, trying to maintain them as best you can — while not making yourself too crazy — will really help the whole family survive this challenging time AND the ensuing aftermath when you get home.
Here are some ideas:
1. Try to maintain as early of a bedtime as you can. Explain to your relatives that if Johnny goes to bed late, he wakes up extra early… and the rest of the extended family will be up extra early as a result, too! If you make an exception and let him stay up late one night, try to get him to bed early the next night. Little ones can handle one exception a lot better than night after night of them.
2. Consider feeding Alicia an early dinner at your temporary new "home" before you go out to a meal with relatives. She will eat better if you offer familiar foods in a less stimulating environment. If she’s starving when you arrive at a restaurant, it’ll be stressful for everyone and she’ll end up filling up on less healthy food. Better to give her chicken and green beans, for example, at home and then the buttered roll when you arrive at the restaurant.
3. If your little one is used to sleeping by herself in her own room, try to maintain that while traveling… even if it means setting up her Pack n Play in a closet (leave a door open a bit for ventilation) or bathroom. These spaces are great, too, for keeping her sleep environment dark and quiet.
4. Consider bringing his car seat on the plane if you think it may make him more likely to sleep there. Some children do better in that familiar cocoon. Others prefer to curl up on the airplane seat. (Of course it’s always safest for a child to travel in a car seat on an airplane… but many families are intimidated by the thought of lugging a car seat onto a plane. If your car seat at home is heavy, consider a lightweight travel car seat like this one -- I use it myself for travel with my preschooler).
5. Bring your white noise from home. If you don’t have one you love, or if yours is bulky, I love this one by Homemedics. It’s lightweight and can be powered by batteries if the power goes out.
6. Pack light — I’ve learned the hard way that my kids never play with the toys I bring when they are in a new environment — but bring along a few favorites. Make sure to pack any loveys and pacifiers your child uses at home. I keep a couple of nightlights in my travel toiletries kit so that I can instantly transform any “too dark and scary” bedrooms and bathrooms. I also bring along my kids’ owl nightlights — they are battery powered and turn off within a few minutes, so I know the nightlight won’t keep them awake. But being able to carry the nightlight to the bathroom makes my little ones feel a lot more secure.
7. Get your little one outside for fresh air and daylight every single day. Even if it's just in an empty parking lot. This will help him adjust more quickly to a different time zone. Fresh air and exercise also tire kids out, helping them nap better and sleep better at night.
8. Limit screen time. With the caveat that all bets are off with on travel days. Whatever keeps them quiet is great. But once you arrive at our new destination, turn off the screen and encourage exploration and movement. Screen time tends to make children's brains wired, even while it keeps them quiet. And screen time in the hour before sleep can make it harder for children to fall asleep. Let them play and run and interact with Great Grampa Joe instead. Save the screen for when you really need it.
9. If you have the opportunity to do so, stay in a hotel with a pool. Pools are amazing for wearing little ones out. And with a pool around, you really don’t need toys.
10. Be prepared to “abort mission” if your little one is falling apart at the family dinner. Children act out as a way to communicate that their needs aren’t being adequately met. It's not their fault. It’s not your fault. It’s just hard for little ones to accommodate the needs of their older friends and relations. They will be more flexible as they get older.
11. And when you get back home, revert back to the old routine immediately. You may experience some protest crying, especially if you indulged in some less than ideal sleep behaviors while you were traveling — like sharing a hotel bed — but if you revert back to the old ways as soon as you get home, your little one should be back on track within a few days. Until the next trip, anyway!
Need some help getting back on track after the time change or recent travel? Totally understandable -- it's not easy! Let’s schedule a free chat and get your family back on track.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.