Parents of anxious children face a conundrum. They know that better sleep can only help… and they don’t know how to get there. Because insisting on new sleep boundaries is only going to make both sleep and anxiety worse, right?
Sleep training does not have to be traumatic. It does not need to make anxiety worse. In fact, successful sleep training can really help anxiety.
I’ve worked with two children with anxiety in the past two weeks and sleep training was a huge success for both.
Here are their stories. After that, some tips for working with anxious children. (Note: all young children are anxious at times, and you don’t need a diagnosis of anxiety to struggle with these issues, or to use the technqiues outlined below.)
First, Liam. Liam was a skin picker when he felt anxious. He had multiple scabs on his body as a result. His parents worried that sleep training would make things worse. It was a battle to keep bandaids on him and they were worried about the risk of infection.
Here’s what his mother said after our two weeks working together,
“To my shock, his skin picking didn’t get any worse with sleep training.
And what’s more, I actually saw that setting clear boundaries around sleep really helped him. As a result, I started setting more clear boundaries at other times and you were right, when he had a tantrum about a boundary I set (he wanted more bread and I said no), I just waited. Afterwards, I didn’t discuss it with him, I just said, “do you want a hug” and he did, and after that, he was calm. I couldn’t believe it!”
Child number two, Layla. Layla is almost two-years-old and has always had a fiery temperament, unlike her even-tempered twin sister. Layla’s mother was nursing her all night long, in an attempt to get Layla the rest she desperately needed, even though it was physically painful for Mom. Any time that Layla’s mother tried to refuse to nurse, Layla got furious. She would leave the family bed and go sit in the corner of their bedroom and refuse to come back. She also had night terrors.
Less than a week after starting sleep training, Layla is peacefully sleeping through the night. In the family bed. Her night terrors have disappeared. She is sleeping many more hours, and goes to sleep peacefully at bedtime as well as nap time. While she still has a fiery temperament, her mom can see a huge change in her – Layla is more easygoing and happy now.
Tips for working with anxious children:
1. Anxious children need extra time to prepare for big changes. I recommend starting to prepare toddlers and preschoolers three days ahead of time. Have a family meeting, make a social story to help explain the upcoming changes, and continue to remind them of the upcoming changes over the three days prior to making them.
It’s important to talk, talk, talk about what is going to happen… even if your child gets mad. The anger is actually very healthy, because it means she is starting to process the changes ahead of time, which means the day you make the change will be that much easier. So don't stop talking when she gets upset!
Also, if someone took away your beloved morning coffee or evening Netflix, you’d be mad, too. You like your routine… and so does she! Let her have space to be mad…. And show her that you will love her through it!
2. Anxious children may need to make changes more slowly. This requires extra patience from you. In Layla’s case, we had her dad stay with her at bedtime to get used to not nursing to sleep. Once she was used to that, he started to gradually withdraw his presence after lights out. With zero tears.
3. Anxious children need boundaries even more than other children. It is an act of love, not cruelty, to establish and maintain boundaries. When children rule the household, it gives them the scary feeling of too much power. Young children don’t want that… even though they resist boundaries. Know that it's a child's job to test boundaries -- it's his way of figuring out how the world works -- and it's your job to maintain them. Even in the presence of meltdowns.
4. Emotions are never a problem. Let her have her big feelings… without changing the boundary. Stay close during a tantrum, stop talking, avoid eye contact. Just sit down and wait. Let her yell and cry. Stay silent. When it’s over – I promise it won’t last long, even if it feels like an eternity – quietly offer a hug. And be amazed that your child feels better after releasing those big emotions.
I know it is scary to set new boundaries with anxious children. You don’t have to go it alone. Set up a free discovery call and find out how much happier your entire family will feel – most especially your anxious child – when you all get the sleep you deserve.
We’ve been dealing with a lot of temper tantrums in my house. As my youngest gets older, she gets more skillful at being hurtful.
“You’re the WORST! I hate you! You’re not the best mommy in the history of mommies!”
Followed by a more pitiful, “Why does no one love me? Why do you hate me?”
It all feels really unfair. Obviously, I’ve never said that I hated her. I adore her… most of the time. Occasionally, I don’t like her behavior and I tell her so.
She can’t see the distinction.
And so I remind her that I love her, always, and that I also need her to clean up her mess.
I’m starting work this week with the family of a three-and-a-half year old boy. They successfully sleep trained him as a baby but now he won’t go to sleep unless his father lies down with him. The boy -- let’s call him Oliver -- is clearly exhausted. He tends to throw massive tantrums. His mother said to me, “clearly we can’t do Cry It Out with a three year old.”
Sometimes children need to cry. Sometimes we all need to cry.
Crying is not a problem. Screaming is not a problem. Having a tantrum is not a problem.
Oliver is crying because he’s exhausted and he doesn’t know how to get the sleep he needs. He’s rightfully frustrated. But he’ll tell his parents that he’s mad because Mommy wants to do the bedtime routine, or he’s hungry (after skipping dinner because he was too tired to eat) or he wants to play one more game.
Oliver doesn’t know that sleep is what he needs to feel better.
Maintain the limit -- that it’s time for bed and he can’t have one more game/a cookie/Daddy when it’s Mommy’s turn to do bedtime. Let him get upset.
He also doesn’t know that he needs to empty his emotional backpack. Both he and his parents are a little scared of it. He may be carrying big emotions about quarantine, or about Daddy working from home and not being available to him, or Big Sister taking his toy in the sandbox.
Whatever it is, welcome the tantrum. It’s not dangerous. Embrace the storm. Sit quietly and wait for it to pass. Don’t try to explain to him why his feelings are wrong -- that never feels good. Sit on the floor next to him and make comforting noises if he allows it. He may not. He might not want you to even look at him.
Just wait. When the storm has passed, he will crawl into your arms and feel so much better. He will know that his emotions aren’t a problem for you, that you can handle them, no matter how big. That you are still his fearless leader. No matter what. You are the adult and you’ve got him.
So if I'm being honest, no, I don't love tantrums. They are really unpleasant. But I am practicing embracing them and letting them wash over both of us. I can see that things in our house are getting easier, gradually, as a result.
Ready to embrace some tantrums and get your family the sleep you deserve? Set up a free consult and find out how you can all be sleeping peacefully in two weeks or less. Schedule a Free Consult
During the haze of the newborn days, we all do what we have to do to survive. I remember standing in front of my stove, exhaust fan roaring, jiggling little Amelie in my arms for what felt like hours. I thought the exhaustion would never end.
Those habits that develop in the early days can sometimes go on far too long, though, and can end up costing our children and ourselves great sleep later on.
Typically what happens is parents feel like they’ve finally figured out a way to get a few solid hours of sleep with a small infant, perhaps nursing them to sleep. But then that little baby grows and those nighttime habits stop working as well. Often around four months old, your baby starts waking up more often instead of less. In a frantic attempt to get some desperately needed shut-eye, you up the ante. You find yourself nursing and rocking every two hours all night long, even as your baby shouldn’t need to eat so frequently (or at all) during the night. As your baby grows, you are both more and more tired.
This exhaustion has real consequences. Your baby is unable to focus on her play as well when she is overtired. She may be hyperactive, or cranky. Your ability to enjoy parenting is diminished Sleep deprivation is a risk factor for depression, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease. Your domestic partnership will suffer. And worst of all, as a sleepy driver, you are a mortal danger to yourself and others. Sleep deprivation is a very big deal.
We know that sleep training results in some short-term protesting, aka crying. No parent wants to hear her child cry. It’s hard for everyone. And some parents, who may identify with the “attachment parenting” philosophy, fear that allowing their children to cry can cause real psychological or physical damage. But studies have shown that the short-term crying associated with sleep training is not dangerous to health and does not prevent a strong, healthy attachment. Fostering a strong attachment is not the same as an attached-at-the-hip approach to parenting.
Imagine a parent swooping in to lift her child each time he attempts to pull to stand. We would call her a helicopter parent, and think that she is blocking her child’s biological drive to walk. In the same vein, rushing in to soothe children back to sleep at night is helicopter parenting, and is impeding their development. We can trust that children have the same biological drive to sleep as they do to walk. We need to get out of the way and let them practice and learn.
As good, non-helicoptering parents, we provide safe and supportive ways for our children to grow, even knowing it can hurt them or us. We let our children squirm and roll and eventually crawl, clearing the floor of dangerous objects, knowing a bumped head will still probably happen at some point. We let him practice climbing at the playground, even knowing he may fall someday. And far too soon, we will go on lots of practice drives before finally handing over the keys to the car, even while we fear for our children’s lives.
In the same vein, we must also provide safe opportunities for our children to learn to self-soothe. This ability allows our children to not only sleep independently but also to weather hardship when we are not there to comfort them. We can’t always be there to take away every hurt, much as we would like to. The path to self-soothing will look different for different families, but all children can to self-soothe learn in a safe and supportive environment.
A fascinating article on childhood anxiety in the Atlantic found that while parents don’t create childhood anxiety, when parents stop changing their own behavior to accommodate the anxiety -- be it lying down with the child at night or bringing the child into the parental bed -- the child’s anxiety improves. And the entire family’s well-being improves as a result. “It sets in motion a virtuous cycle: As parent behavior changes, kids will start coping for themselves. As they cope, they’ll come to feel more capable, and they will be treated as such by their parents, who will further reduce accommodation. In turn, the entire family’s well-being will improve.”
Childhood is an 18+ year journey to independence. Much as we might wish to, we can’t keep our children dependent. What we can do is provide them with a strong, nurturing connection that sends them confidently out into the world… and welcomes them back with loving arms when they need support and comfort again. It is not our job to prevent them from ever feeling pain, because that would be impossible. Instead, we teach them courage and resilience and a belief in themselves by providing them with ever-increasing, age-appropriate, challenges.
Many parents fear that sleep training can hurt their child’s attachment or psychological health but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sleep training and teaching self-soothing actually strengthen the entire family’s connection. As The Happy Sleeper says, “Warm, supportive parenting and a full night of independent sleep are not mutually exclusive… they work together naturally and seamlessly.”
If you are ready to create strong family bonds by guiding your child to stronger self-soothing skills but aren't sure where to start, set up a free chat with me and enjoy great sleep in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
You most definitely can sleep train your child and still have a strong, trusting bond. Sleep training will not harm that bond.
Attachment theory states that, "Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space." (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969)
Attachment theorists and psychologist define four types of attachment between parent and young child.
The attachment researchers merely stated that a parent should be emotionally responsive to her child approximately 2/3 of the time. This leaves lots of room for us normal parents who make mistakes. It also leaves plenty of room for sleep training.
"The 'attachment parenting' philosophy promotes a lifestyle and a specific set of practices that are not proven to be related to a secure attachment. As a result, the movement has sown confusion (and guilt and stress) around the meaning of the word 'attachment.'" https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there
Rest assured, you can most certainly sleep train your child and maintain a strong emotional connection with him. In fact, there are many ways to do so.
Some of my clients choose to stay in their children's room while the child falls asleep. At first, they start out sitting next to the child's crib or bed and touching the child gently as the child drifts off to sleep. After a few days, the parent moves the chair further away and uses just their voice to reassure the child. The chair moves further and further away until the parent is eventually out of sight. Once they are out of sight, the parent can still call to the child to reassure him, if necessary, but by that poiint, it rarely is.
This method can be reassuring to even the most anxious of parents, because the child can see the parent throughout the sleep training period.
Some parents, though, don't want to be so involved, or fear their presence may be too stimulating to their children. Some kids are more mad than comforted to have a parent so close by but not rocking them to sleep. In that case, some parents choose timed checks, where they check on a child at ever-increasing intervals until the child is asleep.
And another group of parents believe that it's easiest for their children -- though not necessarily for themselves -- when they simply don't go back into the child's bedroom during the night unless there's an emergency. I have seen through countless clients as well as my own parenting experiences that these children can easily maintain a strong, loving bond with their parents through a few nights of short-term protesting.
What matters for creating a strong bond is being a loving and consistent presence in your child's life most of the time. Rest assured, evolution has made sure that children can survive less than perfect parenting.
The phrase "good enough mother" was first coined in 1953 by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. Winnicott observed thousands of babies and their mothers, and he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers "fail" them in appropriate ways.
"The process of becoming a good enough mother to our children happens over time. When our babies are tiny infants, we try to be available constantly and respond to them immediately. As they get older, though he believed that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. Children need their mother (or primary caretaker) to fail them in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they can learn to live in an imperfect world. This teaches them resilience. Building our children's resilience is the gift of the good enough mother."
Children are built to survive and thrive in this unpredictable world. They are best equipped to do so when they eat nutritious food (most of the time), get great sleep (most of the time) and get unconditional love from their caregivers (most of the time).
If you would like help getting your family great rest -- through any approach -- set up a free chat and see choose the option that works best for your family.
Are you ready to reclaim your bed as your own? Tired of waking up with a small foot in your face? Exhausted from middle of the night bed musical-beds or every-two-hour feedings? Maybe Valentine's Day has even inspired you to pursue a little romance and "adult time" in your life?
Whatever the reason, it's never too early, or too late, to stop bed-sharing. If it's not working for one of you, it's not working for any of you. You can't be the parent you want to be if your sleep is frequently interrupted. And most likely, your little one will feel a lot better once her sleep isn't so broken, too.
(If your family is bed-sharing and everyone loves it, there's no problem. Just be as safe as you can possibly be. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend bed-sharing under the age of one, due to the increased risk of SIDS.)
The most important thing to focus on is connection... during the day. Many families bed-share because they love feeling connected. But there are many ways to connect, ways that don't compromise sleep. Whenever you make a big change to your child's routine, you will want to focus on connection even more.
For working parents, before you greet your child after work, take a few minutes to breathe and center yourself. You might even want to have a snack so you aren't ravenous and can focus on your child. When you get to him, let your face light up at the sight of your child. Offer a big hug but don't insist on one. Spend the first few minutes at home together completely focused on your child. Set a timer on your phone so you won't be checking the time. Let your child pick your activity together.
Roughhousing (as unappealing as it sounds, I know!) is a fabulous way to reconnect. Children love it when they are bigger, stronger, and faster than their parents. Chase your child around the table, and let her win the race. Wrestle and let her pin you down. This physical contact and reversal in roles is hilarious to children, and all that laughter helps them empty their emotional backpacks. If they are too wound up to play and keep pushing limits, hold the boundary and let them cry. Crying also helps to empty the emotional backpack so that children can release all the big feelings they've been feeling all day while you were gone. Once they've released all those emotions, you will be much more able to enjoy your time together. Please don't feel guilty about enforcing a limit, even when you've been gone all day. Children test your limits because they need limits to feel safe in the big, scary world.
For parents who have been home, you may want to do something to mark the end of the day as well. Perhaps a quick walk around the block or a bath before dinner will do the trick.
I suggest that you do not try to cook anything complicated or open mail or make phone calls while you are spending the early evening with your child. Try to focus on them instead. By focusing on them now, you'll get a break a little bit later in the evening.
If you have an older child, you'll want to have a family meeting before making a big change like changing beds. Talk about it on the weekend, when everyone is well rested, and not at bedtime. Give your child time to adjust to the idea. Make a sticker chart and let him decorate it. Promise a small reward for staying in bed each night, and a bigger reward at the end of a few weeks of stickers earned. Let your child pick out special sheets or a new stuffy for his bed.
When the big day arrives, be prepared for big feelings. Plan on an early bedtime for your child. Spend plenty of time cuddling and reading together. Give her a warning before bedtime. When bedtime comes, stay strong. Do not lie down with her while she falls asleep as she needs to learn to sleep alone. Otherwise, she'll wake up during the night because she won't know how to put herself to sleep. You can sit next to her for a few minutes, if desired, but try to do so without continuous physical contact. On future nights, try to sit in a chair and each night move the chair a little closer to the door.
When your child leaves his room in search of your company, you need to be prepared with a strategy. Do you want to do "silent return," where you bring him back to his room without any response, as many times as it takes? This method works but it takes a lot of patience. You have to outlast your child. And you have to not react at all to the popping out of bed. Any reaction -- besides the silent return -- reinforces the behavior, even negative reactions.
Other parents prefer an extra-tall baby gate in the doorway, or a Door Monkey, a gadget that holds the door very slightly ajar, so that the child can't leave the room. Some families do a combination -- after two pop-ups, the baby gate or Door Monkey goes up. The important thing is to be absolutely consistent in your approach. Once you've set the expectation and the rule, you must stick to it. As soon as you make an exception, your child knows he can wear you out.
With preschoolers and older children, an OK To Wake clock can be very helpful. You can tell your child that when the light turns green, he can join you in bed for early-morning cuddles. If you are nursing, please don't nurse in bed, though, at least for the first few weeks of the change in beds. Nurse in a chair -- where everyone stays awake -- and then offer cuddles in bed afterwards.
Understand that this may be an unwelcome change for your child. Prepare yourself to be extra patient, and make space for her big emotions. Holding a boundary -- in this case, sleeping in her own bed -- while she cries does not mean you are making a mistake. If you are consistent, I promise she'll get over it. Younger children generally adjust more quickly than older ones but all will get used to it in the long run.
The end of the family bed does not mean the end of your strong connection. Many parents feel they are actually more able to connect with their children when everyone gets a break at night.
Of course, all these changes are easier said than done. I am confident any family can make these changes, but some parents appreciate coaching and emotional support through the transition. If you'd like some support, schedule a free chat and let's see if I can help.
Some folks claim that children can't be well-attached to their parents if the parents choose to sleep train.
This is wrong.
The happiest families are those that are getting their biological needs met. Just like being fed when you're hungry, you need good sleep to be feel your best.
An exhausted child and parent are not at their best. A tired mom or dad who feels guilty about their low energy, propped up on too much cafffeine, definitely isn't getting the most enjoyment out of their parenting experience. And if you're anything like me, odds are you are more short-tempered with your child when you are exhausted.
And the poor exhausted child who is waking up multiple times a night to nurse or cuddle back to sleep? Her body is on overdrive, pumping out stress hormone in a desperate attempt to stay awake during the day. Unfortunately, this strategy backfires and keeps her awake during the night, too.
Toddlers who don't sleep well become preschoolers who don't sleep well become adults who don't sleep well.
Here's a few not-so-fun medical facts to further convince you that sleep deprivation is a real issue:
Clearly getting enough sleep is a biological need, just like being fed. But parents still worry that sleep training will damage their children. This is a great article demonstrating that crying associated with short-term sleep training is safe.
Even beyond being safe, after sleep training, parents enjoy their children because their children aren't alternatively wound up and acting like the Energizer Bunny or cranky, irritable, weepy, and defiant from exhaustion. Parents have more to give and are more relaxed when their own cups are full after a good night's sleep.
Here's a lovely quote from a client that exemplifies the changes I see in families after sleep training, "before Abby’s help, it was taking my daughter 2 or more hours to fall asleep every night. We had hours of fighting and screaming before we got to that point, and she ended up in my bed every single night, where we both tossed and turned and kept waking each other up for the rest of the night. She was chronically exhausted and so was I! Now my daughter sleeps in her own bed, falls asleep in as little as an hour (we’re still working on that!), stays in her room all night long until her ok to wake comes on, and we rarely have tantrums at night or in the morning!" Cyndi, mom of C, age 3
Meeting the biological needs of a child and his parents makes everyone happier and more able to enjoy each other. It actually strengthens family bonds. Sleep training is a gift to the entire family.
If you'd love to give this gift to your own beautiful family, let's schedule a free chat and get you on your way to sweet, sweet dreams.
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.