Sleep hacks for tired parents
of babies and children who are just "more"
When I was pregnant with my first child, I remember asking
someone how long the sleep deprivation would last.
“Oh, six weeks or so…” Ha HA ha ha.
My first baby came into the world wide awake with her eyes laser focused.
I remember thinking, “That’s not totally normal, right?” She never slept. We had to vigorously bounce her on a ball to get her to sleep. I remember nights when she was about nine-months-old, she would be up and going strong as The Tonight Show came on and then went off. I again thought, “This isn’t normal…. right?”
If you have an intense, sensitive, alert, non-stop child, almost nothing is easy or goes the way you think it will. There’s more persistence, more pushback, more joy, more meltdowns, more questions, more interaction…. just more of everything (except sleep). As a parent, you may feel defeated or lost or incompetent… but it’s not you. Really.
It’s likely temperament — your child’s unique wiring and way of taking in the world. Temperament directly affects what you can (and can’t) do as a parent to manage certain behaviors . Which is why much of the parenting advice you’ve read about or tried doesn’t work for you. Advice (or other parents) will tell you, “If you just do A, then B, then C, your child will learn to go to sleep. It’s really not hard.” Parents of spirited children do try A and B and C, as well as 15 other letters with no success.
Here’s why sleep is so hard.
Low sensory threshold. Sensitive/intense children feel things deeply, partly because they have a lower threshold for detecting outside events or stimuli. Sounds, textures, light, etc. can bother a child and keep them from disconnecting so they can sleep or it attracts them, causing them to pay attention to it. Sleep requires a retreat from outside input. For spirited children, this can be really difficult.
Persistence/Intensity. These little ones fight for what they want, and they can really dig in their heels. As a result, parents can be worn down by all the pushback and then don’t have the bandwidth to make changes. They end up agreeing to bedtime routines or behaviors that feel endless and exhausting, but the alternative (pushing through the pushback) seems even more daunting.
Perceptiveness. Sensitive/intense ones (even infants) appear to be quite attuned to patterns. They can perceive variations in routines and it can throw them off. The notion of “just this once” doesn’t compute, and they seem to reason, “If it was okay last night, why not every night?” and they then lobby for it.
These are all amazing qualities…really. We want our teenagers to be assertive and persistent and perceptive. But the qualities that are assets as they grow older are darned inconvenient when they’re 9-months-old and you just want them to sleep for longer than two hours at night.
Parenting workarounds that really work
There are a few “tricks” specific to working with these kiddos that you won’t read about in sleep books. These strategies involve understanding your child’s unique abilities — sometimes working with them and sometimes working around them.
Uber (almost rigid) consistency. Persistence and perceptiveness combine to test the strength of limits. It’s like they mentally poke at our rules — what about this? What about now? Any wiggle room opens up a window for negotiation. So, don’t start anything you don’t want to continue. “Just this once” is not in their vocabulary. Consistent and repetitive patterns are key. Once they can detect the pattern/routine, they seem to settle in.
Know when it’s okay to draw a line. Being responsive and following cues may be great…but for kids that are “on,” you may find yourself following their cues right off a cliff. Know that you have to be able to function, and if that means having a limit on what you do, that’s okay. You don’t need to read five books before bed if you really only want to read two.
Pick your battles but fight the ones you pick. You may have to settle for “manageable” on some issues and that’s okay. If there are behaviors that you want and need changed (e.g. you just can’t do a two-hour bedtime routine anymore), then really commit.
Push through the pushback. When you first do something different to change their behavior, I guarantee you they will HATE IT, and they won’t understand why things have changed (these kiddos often hate change). The only way you can communicate a “new way” is through support and consistent repetition. As long as you are using an approach that’s age appropriate and that you feel comfortable with, pushback is okay.
For as long as it takes (at first).You do have to try to soldier through those first few days of freakout. The worst thing to do is try for an hour or a couple of days, think you’re doing it wrong, and just go back to what you were doing before. This process actually cements even more and longer protest next time. Pick something you know you can do, buckle up, and just do that for at least three or four days.
Parenting these little amazing curveballs is not for the faint of heart. However, if we can harness their considerable abilities and understand both the upsides and downsides of it, everyone can get through this time in one piece.