Helping young children sleep

by Patty Wipfler

Most infants, toddlers, and pre school age children struggle at some time or another with sleeping through the night. Of course, when infants are quite young, they need to wake several times in the night, eat, and be reassured that Mommy and Daddy are close and all is well in their world. The need for reassurance, in addition to nourishment, is even stronger if a child has had a difficult birth, or medical struggles before or after birth. I won't try to discuss helping infants with feelings left over from early life struggles in this article, but will skip to address children six months of age and older.

After about six months, unless your baby is ill, he is capable of sleeping through the night if he's not frightened. Children vary greatly in how much sleep they thrive on, but by this age, most parents can hope for a good 7-hour stretch of sleep without waking. However, many children carry fears that prevent them from sleeping through the night at least some of the time, if not all of the time. They wake because this collection of fears makes them restless, unsure of the safety of their surroundings, or downright frightened in the night. Most parents of young children who keep on waking many times in the night do the expedient thing to get their little one back to sleep--they allow him to nurse or have a bottle, and hope for another few hours of rest. For some babies and lucky parents, there's a slow progression toward less waking in the night that ends in all-night sleeping. For many others, parents put in months of patient accommodation, followed by frustration and lots of stress.

We parents want to help our children acquire the ability to sleep through the night, but are faced with a recommended method that requires letting the child cry, frightened and alone in his own bed, without response from us. Many parents can't bear to do this. It doesn't sit well with our instinct to help, to care, and to be trustworthy and available to help when our child needs reassurance. I think that we parents DO need to respond every time our child cries. Children need to know that we will be there for them, especially when their whole system is telling them that something is badly amiss.

  • When children can't sleep through the night (and there are no medical or unusual developmental needs such as a growth spurt or a stuffy nose), the cause is most likely feelings of fear or sadness that bubble up in the child's mind during sleep.
  • Children's emotional stresses are deeply relieved when an adult can stay close and listen to how the child feels. The crying, struggling, perspiring, and trembling that children do actually heal their fear and grief. Crying and active struggling and trembling are the child's own best way of getting free of feelings that are left over from some unsafe, unwell, or unhappy time.
  • Children's systems are built to offload feelings of upset immediately and vigorously. And our training as parents is to stop them from offloading their feelings! We are taught to give them pacifiers, food, rocking, patting, scolding, and later, time outs and spanking, when the crying or screaming goes on for more than a minute. We are taught to work against the child's own healthy instincts to get rid of bad feelings immediately. So our children store these upsets, and try many times a day to work them out, usually by testing limits and/or by waking in the night.

This is why nursing or bottle feeding a child who wakes doesn't really keep him from waking again. In fact, as children's feelings pile up inside, they wake more and more often, trying to have a good cry about it. We keep using food or allowing them to sleep with us as a way to pat the feelings down again. In the end, it doesn't lead to good sleep for anyone in the family. The pent-up tension inside the child becomes trouble for everyone.

To help your child, and yourself, you need to assist him to offload the feelings that wake him up.

This is easier to do during the day than at nighttime, so one strategy to try is to listen to your child's crying when you're sure that the issue he's crying about doesn't involve hunger. Simply get close, say loving things to him, offer warm eye contact and gentle touch, and let the crying happen. Children pick lots of safe little pretexts to hang their inner feelings on. They will cry about a shirt being put on over their heads, or about a shampoo, or about you moving six steps away to do the dishes, or about how their mittens don't fit into their coat sleeves the way they want. When a big cry begins, stay close, be interested in all the feelings they have, and don't try to fix the safe little thing that's happening. Just hear how they feel about it for as long as you can. When children feel you listening, they then cry harder. If you keep listening further, they bring up the most desperate, frightened feelings they have. So when you're doing a great job of listening, the crying will become very intense. This relieves big feelings of fear and grief, and helps your child's whole being relax, trust you, and see the world as a safer place. All he needs is for you to be confident that all is well, while he remembers how frightened he felt.

For nighttime work on fears, here are the measures I think work very well. You may need to take a week to set things up so you can get an extra nap during the day, or buy earplugs for the rest of the family, or warn the people in the apartment next door (earplugs for them might be thoughtful).

  • When your child wakes the first time, go to him and turn on a low light so he can see you and see that he's safe. Make close physical and eye contact.
  • Tell him it's OK to go back to sleep, and it's not time to nurse or have a bottle or come into bed with you right now. Keep talking to him, telling him that all is well. "I'm right here, sweetie." "You're safe as safe can be." "You have everything you need, darling." I'm not going to go away."--these are things he will be reassured to hear from you. But don't bring him into your arms. Keep moving him toward lying down again.
  • Listen to him cry. If he trembles, writhes away from you, arches his back, shuts his eyes tight, and makes lots of motion, things are going WELL. All the above signs indicate that he's offloading big fears, the ones that won't let him or you rest. All he needs is your confidence that all is well while he does this. It looks and sounds AWFUL, but he's accessing a deeply healing process, one he was born to use, and he'll be able to sleep well afterward. Some babies will work on their feelings for a whole hour before they've taken care of a discreet chunk of upset, then they fall dead asleep. You haven't abandoned him, you have cared and loved and reassured and allowed him to be a powerful expeller of his own upset.
  • The more arching, screaming, and perspiring your child does, the more fear he is offloading. Children working through their fears usually cry without many tears, look terrified as they cry, and struggle constantly, as though they wanted to try to get free of your embrace. In fact, if you let them go, it breaks the safety they need to keep working on the feelings. However, they don't need to be held tightly. They need to struggle mightily, with you giving them a "corral" in which to act powerfully. The memories they are working through are times they were both frightened and utterly helpless. They can't offload those fears while lying passively in your arms. They MUST struggle while they cry, to counteract the awful memory of being so helpless.
  • Remember as you listen to his big upsets that he has everything he needs. He has you watching over him, he has your warmth, and he is safe in your arms. He can't tell all is well because of feelings inside, not because of some real lack in the present moment.
  • Once he is crying vigorously, you can bring him into your arms to hold him while he cries. If this stops him from crying, try telling him that it's time to go back to sleep, and move as through you're going to put him back to bed. Keep moving until he remembers the feeling of fear or grief he's working through. He'll begin crying it away again.
  • Allow him to cry until he either is happy to be put back to bed, or until he falls asleep in the middle of crying in your arms. This may take up to an hour, sometimes more.
  • Observe his behavior the next day. Generally, children who get a good chunk of crying done are able to make visible gains in confidence, closeness, and relaxation in the presence of others. Sometimes you'll see gains in their physical skill and courage. Sometimes, when a child has a big issue and this was his first big cry, his instincts say, "At last! They're listening!" and he finds ways to try to have another big cry the next morning. If you can listen again, his load will be lightened once more. It might take several listening "sessions" before he is back to his cheery self, but you will see some positive changes in his functioning when he's not trying to offload big feelings.

How many nights of crying your child will need to do depends on factors you can't know ahead of time. The size and depth of the fear he carries is determined by what has happened to him in his life up till now, and by how much crying and upset he's being given help with, through listening, during the daytime. Children who've had scary times before birth, during birth, or during infancy sometimes keep working on their fears in the middle of the night for months. (The early childhood community calls this "night terrors.") Other children need to be listened to occasionally, especially during and after illnesses, or when there's new or increased stress in their lives. In any case, your child will make gains in his confidence in himself, in you, and in the safety of his world if you can listen to his fears, whenever they arise.

You may need to cry, too, while your child is crying about his feelings. In fact, our children's crying often brings up the strongest feelings we have! This is because most of us never got a chance to cry away the hurt feelings we had to store and manage as children. When our children cry, something inside us says, "Wait! I have big feelings too! Here they come!" So finding another adult to talk to and cry or laugh with about the feelings you have is an important part of preparing for and doing this favor for your child. You'll be a better listener for having been listened to.

Working On Sleep Brings a Great Day At School

Delia was a young three-year-old who was having many days in child care during which she was OK, but not connecting in a lively way with the other children. She "waited," in a sense, marking time until her parents came to pick her up. She also was having lots of trouble sleeping in her own bed at night.

Her parents, after consulting with me, decided to try to help her with her fears of being in her own room. They played vigorously, cuddled, and made a special effort to connect with her before bedtime, to insure that she had a full sense that they were on her side. Then, they read her the customary story, and said, "OK we're going to go now. Good night!" She raised her usual complaint and began to feel fearful. They said, "We'll just be in the living room, where we can tell that you are safe." She began to protest, and her Mom, whose attention she was most attached to at bedtime, began to leave the room. Her Dad stayed at her bedside with her. She began to cry for her Mommy. When she began to cry, her Mom stopped and turned to face her, reassuring Delia that she was safe, and that she wasn't going to go far. Her Dad held her in his arms and she cried for a long time. When she would stop crying, her Mom would say, "OK, I'm going to go a little farther now," and take another step toward the door. Delia would remember the fears she was working through, and cry some more. When her Mommy was out the door, there was a long cry. Her Mom talked to her, but stayed where she couldn't be seen. Then, her Dad began to get up. This brought more crying. It was a long "session," which ended with her crying until she fell asleep, with her Daddy part way out of the room. The parents had listened to her feelings, and had stayed close, but not so close as to stop her from working through her fears.

The crying had been so intense and so long that her parents were very worried about the effect it might have on her. She was so young, and seemed so fragile. They told me later that they went to sleep almost sure they had done the wrong thing, and had put her through a very traumatic time. They worried about how to help her the next day.

But Delia woke up bright and ready to go to day care. She seemed fine, and her parents were relieved. When her Dad picked her up from day care that afternoon, the teacher made a point of seeking him out, and said, "You know, Delia had an exceptional day today. She was outgoing, she set up games that included several of the children, and they all laughed a lot and had a great time. We've never seen her have a day like she had today." It was then clear how useful her big cry had been, not just on her fears around sleep. She had a few shorter cries about sleep in the next week or so, and then could tell she was safe in her own bed.

Reproduced with permission © 2004 Parents Leadership Institute