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Helping Young Children Sleep

Most 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 their parents are close and all is well in their world. The need for reassurance, in addition to nourishment, is even stronger if a baby has had difficult times in his life already. I won't discuss helping infants with feelings that may stem from early life struggles in this article. I’ll focus on helping healthy children six months of age and older with the patterns of interrupted sleep that sometimes appears.

After about six months, unless your baby is ill or underweight, he is capable of sleeping through the night much of the time. 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 experience feelings that prevent them from sleeping through the night at least some of the time. Most parents 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. But other parents put in months of patient accommodation, followed by frustration and mounting stress because neither they nor their child can sleep through the night.
Children need us to respond to them when they waken in the night

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 a child cries. Children need to know that we will be there for them, especially when their whole system is telling them that something is amiss.

The “I’ll listen until you can fall asleep” approach

There is an effective and supportive way to handle a child’s sleep troubles. This approach allows your child to dissolve the tensions that wake him, and allows you to help him recover from those tensions and sleep peacefully. It's not an easy approach, but it's loving, respectful, and it works.

The principles on which this approach is based are these:

* When children can't sleep through the night (and there are no health or developmental issues such as a fever or a growth spurt), the cause is most likely some kind of emotional tension that bubbles up in the child's mind during sleep.
* Children’s tensions are 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, if a parent can be reassuring and attentive. Crying and active struggling and trembling are the child's own best way of getting free of feelings he harbors. Those feelings have sprung from some difficult, unwell, or restless time, either recent or long past.
* 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, if 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 or having meltdowns over small issues. If they can’t offload them during the day, the feelings bother them in the night.

This is why nursing or offering a bottle to a child who wakes doesn't keep him from waking again. In fact, as a child’s storehouse of feelings gets fuller he wakes more often, trying to have a good cry. Parents try to solve the problem by offering food or allowing the child to sleep with them as a way to pat the feelings down again. But over time, the pent-up tension inside the child becomes trouble for everyone. (Healthy families in many cultures allow children to sleep with parents, but the good effects of sleeping close together can be negated if no one sleeps well in that arrangement.)By: Patty Wipfler -

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2 Response to Helping Young Children Sleep

November 21, 2010 at 7:19 PM

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December 13, 2010 at 2:07 PM

Great tips, I have my two YOUNG nieces visiting and I can use all the tips I get :)