Monday, February 1, 2010


I firmly believe that a person’s approach to sleep is part of his temperament, one of those hard-wired elements that make us who we are. So one of the challenges that I face in parenting is how to work with rather than fight my child’s sleep temperament. I found the first nine months of N.’s life at night quite easy. Although he would never nap out of arms in the daytime and even in arms slept usually for no more than 40 minutes at a time, N. nursed to sleep easily at night, and when he woke to nurse he usually fell back asleep easily.

After nine months, as he became increasingly engaged with the world, he woke more frequently and often found it difficult to go back to sleep even after nursing. I am militantly opposed to any form of “crying it out,” so I did whatever I could to help him fall back asleep in those days. He hated his crib, so he slept with us from 9-12 months, after which he slept on a futon on the floor in his room, which adjoins ours. I made a conscious effort not to focus on “sleeping through the night” as if it were a significant goal; Meredith Small's ethnopediatrics helped me remember that “sleeping through the night” is nothing more than an American cultural norm, and that far from having any scientific basis, the “sleeping through the night” ideal probably runs counter to evolutionary logic of children’s sleep and the child-parent attachment. Despite all my efforts not to focus on this, I can tell you that N. slept without waking exactly 5 times between age 1 and age 4.

Until he weaned himself at age 3, N. always went to sleep by nursing.It was the only thing that worked for him. I worried a lot about this at the time, but now I am glad he had this, since it clearly helped him to relax and let go of the day. An effect of his nursing to sleep was that bedtime was (and remains) exclusively Mommy’s domain unless I have to work or travel. Once he decided he didn’t want to nurse, we instituted a Pavlovian routine of reading and singing lullabies, then quiet as I lie with him on his futon till he falls asleep. This routine often works well. But the times when it doesn’t work are really challenging. N. is remarkably self-aware about his resistance to sleep. Once when he was 3 ½ or so, and we were wrangling about going to sleep, he cried out, “But I can’t go to sleep, Mommy! I still have so many questions!!!”  He is intensely alive and he just doesn’t want the day to end.

Why is this a problem? I gather that the radical unschooling perspective on sleep is not to enforce a bedtime but to let children control when and where they go to sleep, thus learning self-regulation. Even Mrs. Piggle-wiggle cures the “Never-want-to-go-to-bedders” by recommending they stay up as long as they want until they are so exhausted they beg to go to bed at 8 p.m. In Mrs. Piggle-wiggle’s world, however, this only takes a weekend. In most of the radical unschooling parent accounts I’ve read, it takes about six months, and neither Tim nor I can handle six months of a sleep-deprived child. We tried it for one month, and then decided it didn’t feel right for us or N.. I feel like a neglecting parent when N. doesn’t get enough sleep, because the effects on him the next day are so obvious. One of the reasons we don’t send him to school is our resistance to the overscheduling and early morning start times that lead to increasing sleep loss among American kids, so I want a home routine that fosters sleep for fully engaged learning and general happiness. N. can’t take full advantage of the homeschooling that he so enjoys when he is tired and cranky. His natural waking time right now is around 8 a.m.; if he is asleep by 9 p.m. he is fully rested the next day.

So, we’ve tried many strategies for the times when the bedtime routine doesn’t work. Sometimes we try to wake him up earlier. I tried to come up with a metaphor that would help him conceptualize what it means to get ready to sleep; drawing on his passion for vehicles, I would tell him it was time to turn off his engine. Because N. doesn’t go to school, he often isn’t completely exhausted or sensorily overloaded by day’s end, and I think that’s a good thing. But to compensate for this, we try to make sure he gets a lot of physical activity during the day playing outside or taking long walks with Tim; in winter weather this becomes a bit harder. When he is clearly just not tired yet, lately we’ve let him turn on his reading light and look at books by himself until he is tired. (I worry that this is a further incentive for staying up, however.) When he reads, I leave the room because I do a lot of work preparing my classes etc. at night and I can’t hang out with him till he’s tired. Occasionally he falls asleep with his head on a book (which I later remove!) and I think this is great practice for him as he learns to let go and fall asleep by himself. The challenging nights are when he doesn’t fall asleep by himself but asks me to come back in his room. Sometimes I resist this because I don’t want to reward him for staying up late with yet more Mommy time. Or I simply have a ton of work to do before my morning class and don’t want to lose my work time or to risk falling asleep myself before I am done (and I hate when my work interferes with my parenting). If I refuse to return to his room (and I can be stubborn when I am frustrated), N. gets upset, which in turn upsets me, because even though he’s not a baby I still hate for him to cry himself to sleep. At the same time, I worry that he is 5 ½ years old and he almost never falls asleep by himself. I can’t decide whether it is important that he learn to do so more regularly (though how I would make this happen I have no idea) or whether, like so many things, N. will go to sleep by himself when he is ready to and not on anyone else’s schedule.

Further reading: Meredith Small: Our Babies, Ourselves
Elizabeth Pantley: The No-Cry Sleep Solution
William Sears: The Sleep Book
John Butler: Hush Little Ones (the last book we read every night!)


Mom and Kiddo said...

Interesting... we are so obsessed with babies sleeping through the night. There should be less judgment towards parents whose children don't sleep easily or who are unwilling to "shut the door" on their child. Kiddo still sleeps in our room (thankfully now on his own mattress) and we have to lie down in the room with him until he falls asleep. I am happy to say, however, that he has expressed interest in moving to his own room now. We'll see how the reality of that dream (so to speak) goes.

Fanny Harville said...

M&K: It's nice to hear I'm not the only one who has to lie down with my child till he falls asleep!

Megan said...

I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, but I still have to lie down with David almost every night to get him to sleep. He becomes extremely anxious when forced to settle himself for the night. I don't know what the long-term solution will be-- I mostly just keep repeating to myself a variation on the "nobody goes to college wearing diapers" mantra :). Because that's really been the case with D all along: he makes transitions to independence on his own timetable, which is generally much, much slower than "normal". But he gets there eventually, and it just makes the situation worse if I try to push him.

Fanny Harville said...

Thanks Megan, you are my role model, as always!

Anne said...

have you ever tried to make a connection between dinner and inability to fall asleep easier? maybe there are certain "I can't fall asleep" foods you could avoid, so as to avoid struggles and guilt when you have tons of work.

Fanny Harville said...

It's a good point. We've definitely observed salty food has that effect, as does taking a bath before bedtime (not that he does that too often!). But I haven't looked closely at foods themselves, just salt content. I'll start paying attention to this... it's an interesting idea!

Anne said...

...or, on the flip side, find out which foods are sleep-inducing and use those to your advantage when you have loads to do!

Fanny Harville said...

Last night's supper: kasha, spinach frittata, a glass of whole milk, a homemade whole wheat/oatmeal cookie and 3 natural-dye gummi worms for dessert. Should be sleep-inducing foods, right? He was up till 10.

Anne said...

maybe he just wanted to watch the male figure skating contest ;) interesting. Fiona has had a "sad" morning post-shots and just wants to be in the sling all day like when she was little. It's clearly her "comfort" zone. I have book club tonight and can't decide whether to go with her, leave her with dada, or just skip it.