Helping Children Sleep
"People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one."
Laura attended a postpartum yoga class with Eli the first months after he was born. One morning, Carolyn, a new mother, was sharing her frustration about her lack of sleep. "Brooke's up around the clock. We never get any sleep." Three-month-old Brooke was lying innocently in her lap, asleep. "Really," Carolyn insisted. "This is the only time she does this."
Bing, the instructor, asked a few questions about when Brooke slept. With great compassion she asked, "Does she nap ?"
Silence. No answer. All of us held our breath, thinking it was a pretty easy question. We looked from Bing to Carolyn, wondering if Carolyn had heard the question or if she was just too tired to form a reply. She said nothing. The silence grew. Everything was in slow motion. Carolyn looked as if she was pondering one of the great questions of the world. "I don't know," she finally managed, her face quizzical. "Is ten minutes a nap?"
Sleep is a core issue in parenting. It is one of the first areas where we grapple with the reality that there are things about our children that we cannot control. As parents, we can set the stage for relaxation, but we cannot force children to sleep. For many of us, this fact comes as a surprising realization.
There's a range of roles that parents play in getting their children to sleep--on one hand, rocking children, singing to children, cuddling or nursing them until they fall asleep, and on the other, establishing a good-night ritual and then leaving children to find sleep themselves. In most families, there's a gradual shift between parents easing children into sleep and children learning to do it on their own sometime during a child's first five years of life. When that transition occurs and where parents are on the continuum of participation has a lot to do with parents' needs and expectations, their availability, the pressures they're under, their particular child, their perspective on children's independence, and the eventual goals they're working toward.
Sorting out these things is not an easy task, especially in the middle of the night when your thinking may be dulled by a lack of sleep. Even in the light of day, figuring out solutions to sleep problems is not always a clear cut proposition. Parents don't always agree and families' needs vary. Finding comfortable sleep routines and determining the right level of adult participation in children's sleep is an ever-changing process.
What is important for your family's success is that you do what is comfortable for you and what works for your children, not that you use a particular system or another. In some families getting children to sleep through the night in their own bed holds a very high priority. Other parents enjoy an extended nighttime ritual with their child as well as check-ins in the middle of the night. This works as long as both parents and children feel comfortable with the system and are getting the rest they need.
However, even if your family comes up with a sleep solution that works for you, one system probably won't last through your child's whole childhood. What parents are willing to do when their child is three months old, they may feel less willing to do when the child is one or two years old. As the balance of needs shifts in the family, new solutions need to be found.
Families find themselves looking again and again at where children sleep, when they sleep, how they get to sleep, and what to do when children wake up. When your child is sick or has nightmares, when you travel, or when a new sibling is born, sleep patterns change, and you will be faced with these questions anew.