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A Special Question and Answer on Sleep
In one issue of the e-newsletter, I asked readers for their answers to the following questions about sleep. Selected answers are below.

1. When your children were babies, what methods did you try to help them fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep through the night?
2. How well (or not) did these methods work?
3. How did you learn these methods? Books (which books?), intuition, your parents, friends, pediatrician advice?
4. Do you have any particular stories of successes or disasters about sleep?
5. As your children became toddlers and preschoolers, did you (or they) deal with sleep any differently?
6. If you have school aged children, how do they sleep now?
7. We are particularly interested in the relationship between sleeping and crying, so do you have any stories about that?

Here are a few highlights from the observations and stories readers sent in as responses to those questions:

"One thing I always did with my babies was massage. After their baths, I would lay them on the floor on a towel and gently massage their naked little bodies with baby oil. As time went on, they would smell the baby oil and literally relax. It was almost Pavlovian!....One night I was giving my little boy a baby oil massage after his bath and I was singing his lullaby to him. My 14 year old daughter came in and asked for a massage which I hadn't given her in years. As I massaged her back she said, 'How come you only sing to him and not to me?' So as I gave her the backrub I sang her special lullaby from when she was a baby. Afterwards she said, 'Thanks, Mom, that was nice." I said to her, 'Honey, if you want, I can sing to you every night at bedtime like I used to do.' She looked at me in horror. 'Mom!" she cried. 'We had a special moment there. Don't ruin it!' I guess the lesson is, take each special moment and cherish it."

"Our 10 year old falls asleep on her own, and when she can't it's usually because something is 'heavy' on her mind. Now I recognize that and use it as an opportunity to listen and try to zone in on what's bothering her, even if it is way past her bedtime."

"I found that building 'special time' into the day or evening helps with bedtime. Many times, kids don't want us to leave their bed or their room because it's the first moment they've gotten us all to themselves all day. They're warm, cozy and sleepy and what a nice peaceful feeling it is laying near mom and dad as they drift off to sleep. [if they can't get that at bedtime then] special time fills in nicely." [Note-for more info about special time, see Playful Parenting chapter 9, or go to www.parentleaders.org]

"I often felt that not getting the kids to sleep through the night was one of my big failures as a parent. However, one night I was reading the picture book Time for Bed to my four year old, and while looking at the pictures of all the animal mothers putting their animal babies to bed, I realized that humans were the only animals who put their babies to sleep all alone from birth....I started to think about all the times I read that babies don't need to eat during the night after four months, so that any waking after that is 'only for security.' Well, isn't that important too? I know if I were crying, alone and in the dark, I'd want someone to let me know everything was okay, too. Imagine crying for someone to comfort you, and nobody does, not even your mother. So now I don't worry about it so much. Sleep is overrated. Thomas Edison said the human body only needs four hours of sleep a night. And he wasn't even a mother!"

Summary of the informal sleep survey, along with my comments. Some of the quotes have been slightly edited for length. Thanks for all the answers to the sleep questions. I learned from you that many parents are quite passionate about sleep--because of their parenting philosophies and because of the desperation that comes from lack of sleep. Several people said they ignored advice that didn't make sense to them, for example, "Both our son and our daughter were rocked to sleep, despite reading various sources stating that was a bad thing. For who, I wonder." A lot of you described the importance of knowing your child, and realizing that what worked for one child often didn't work for the next. For example: "My son crabs before bed but [unlike my daughter] it's so rare for him to really cry hard after I close the door that I always go back and check on him, as it is a sure sign that something's actually wrong."

As for methods, there was a big split between the "let them cry it out" group and the "comfort group." Many people had tried the method of letting babies cry alone in their cribs or beds for increasing amounts of time before going in to comfort them. This is commonly called the Ferber method, after Dr. Ferber's popular book. Survey respondents had mixed results with this method. Some said it worked perfectly, and that their children now sleep beautifully. Others said it worked, but their children now--years later--have trouble sleeping. (This is in line with what I have seen in my practice--when parents of school-age children say their kids have sleep problems, I have found that they were almost all "successfully Ferberized" as babies.) A number of people said that the crying method worked, but it was very difficult for them emotionally to listen to the crying outside the door and not rush in to provide comfort.

Among the people who tried the Ferber method, about half gave up because they couldn't handle listening to the crying, or because it simply didn't work. Some said it worked for one child but not their next child. At the other end of the spectrum, there were many responses from people who used nursing, co-sleeping, or both, as their main sleeping technique. For the most part, people who used these methods found them very effective, but some had difficulty with night weaning or with getting a good night's sleep themselves.

The very idea of the cry-alone technique was enough to bring out very strong feelings in some parents: "My children have never, ever been left to cry alone or to cry themselves to sleep. I find this practice cruel. All the crying infant knows or feels is their sadness and their need for a person they love. To deny them that is not filling a basic need. That being said, I find that having a good cry in my arms before bed often gives them a much better night's sleep. Something about the evening: the darkness, the warmth of mom or dad's body nearby, the undivided attention, offers the child an opportunity to share what was hard during the day." Of course, we need to balance that strong feeling of protection for the child's emotional needs with the parents' emotional need for sleep.

Speaking of parents' needs, I think it is important to recognize that WE need snuggling and connection with our kids as much as they need it with us. As one mom said in the survey, after explaining why the Ferber method didn't work for her: "It just seemed to make more sense to comfort them, and even if we snuggled them to sleep every night, we were sure they'd grow out of it before they went to high school. And sure enough, finally my ten year old will hardly let me pat her to sleep anymore, and I miss it because it was a good time for us to chat. So I'm glad I did it for so long even though it was frustrating at times when I was sleepy or had other things to do."

Aside from the nurse, co-sleep (family bed) or the cry it out alone methods, parents suggested some specific ideas. One was a matter of fact attitude of, "I patted them on the back and told them to go back to sleep." One parent described using massage as part of a nightly ritual: "As time went on, they would smell the baby oil and literally relax, it was almost Pavlovian!" Another helpful hint was to not run in to the baby at every tiny sound (a condition I call "baby-monitoritis"). A few parents noted that special time during the day (one-on-one time with each child, letting them be in charge of the play) helped a lot when it came to bedtime. Finally, some parents of older kids (5-10) described giving children some control over bedtime--such as setting a fixed time for being in bed, but letting the child read or play quietly for as long as she wants before turning out the light.

To return to the controversy between comforting children versus letting them cry it out alone, I would like to propose an alternative. I tend to agree with the parents above who don't think it's right to leave children alone when they are horribly unhappy and need us so badly. But many children do have a backlog of uncried tears that they need to release before they can relax and go to sleep. And parents have a need to get some sleep themselves, not dedicate their entire life to the child's bedtime ritual. Children need feelings of independence and competence, not just safety and security. So my suggestion is to let them cry if they need to, but in your arms, not alone in their cribs or behind a locked door. Tell them you are going to leave, but if they start to cry, then hold them until they are done. This may take an hour or two the first couple of times you try it, but if they get through the full expression of their tears (which they can only do if they are with someone safe, not alone), then they will fall asleep happily.

Here's an example from a family friend of mine who happened to run into me just as she was at the end of her rope with her toddler's sleep difficulties: "Recently we were having problems getting our two year old daughter to sleep in her own room. We weren't able to even get her INTO her room without major problems and crying and throwing up. I decided to go online and do some research. I found a link to Dr. Ferber's book and read from it and then got the book at the library. I realized that while crying it out wasn't something my husband and I liked, we were at our wits end and willing to try anything. Then at a family gathering, Larry mentioned letting her cry but with one of us present, not leaving her alone to 'fend for herself', but also not getting into an endless power struggle. He suggested that crying was necessary but the strong security we were providing by being with her while she cried would go much further in the long run. Well, we took that advice and also some information I read about a 'sleep fairy' and I tried it. I told her she would be sleeping in her room, that we would read one book, brush our teeth, and then I was going to sit by her bed until she fell asleep. We tried it, it worked. That was well over a month ago, and we still are going strong. There have been a few nights where she wakes up and wants to come in our room, and as a last resort, we will allow it. But it doesn't change our routine of her going to bed in her room.'

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com