Surrendering to biologically normal toddler sleep

“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists. … Surrender is the simple, but profound, wisdom of yielding to, rather than, opposing the flow of life.” ~ Eckhart Tolle, author

jane kilmerNo other concept has helped me more as a mother than the concept of surrender — surrendering to the pregnancy process, to the birth process with all its twists and turns, to meeting my daughter where she is at each developmental stage and, overall, just surrendering daily to all the big and small changes that parenthood brings!

So when an article about giving a small child 1 “pass” to leave their room at night was making the rounds around the parenting cyber-world a few weeks ago, it got me thinking of how much it helped me to not pick sleep as a battle and to instead, surrender to my daughter’s needs and rhythm.

It should be said that I am not a fan of behaviorism! I don’t think trying to get my child to change a behavior without first trying to figure out why they are behaving in that way is effective or caring. I felt immediately frustrated after reading the article: It stated that crying and coming out of the bedroom were reduced to 0% rates after imposing the 1-pass rule. But I want to know, at what cost? If my child is following the 1-pass rule, they would still have the same needs — they would merely be trained not to communicate them to me, similar to sleep-training methods for babies. My toddler still might be anxious, she still might need the closeness of an adult body and, for heaven’s sake, what if she already used the pass and then actually had to pee! This 1-pass rule teaches children to ignore their emotional and physical needs.

I’d rather be asking myself:

  • Why is my toddler coming to me for water, snuggles or to help fight off the monsters?
  • What is the underlying need that makes it so hard for her to stay in bed?
  • Why do babies and toddlers wake up so much?
  • Why do so many of my friends’ children have these same “sleep problems?”
  • And wait, why are we calling them “sleep problems” at all when the vast majority of babies don’t “sleep through the night” and the vast majority of toddlers struggle to go and stay asleep on their own?

Artwork by Katie M Berggren, www.KmBerggren.comWhat if what our child wants is actually what they need? And how would things change if we learned that this behavior is biologically normal? Because according to many psychologists, anthropologists and researchers, it is. Would we be more open to surrender to their normal biological needs and rhythms and give our kids what they’re asking for?

I don’t want to oversimplify the difficulty of adapting to wake-ups and tending to our children at night — it’s a huge change, and lack of sleep affects our bodies, minds and emotions so much. And I don’t want to call out desperate parents just trying to cope. If a family feels that this is what is needed for their family as a whole to survive, then do what you need to do. I just feel wary of the growing culture of “sleep experts” and pediatricians encouraging us to train our babies and toddlers to not call out for us at night as the default strategy for handling nighttime parenting.

This is what makes me the most sad — that behaviorism techniques are becoming the standard method, so much so that parents think that they are being manipulated or being too soft if they do normal and natural things like respond to their children, sleep with them or use so-called “crutches” like rocking, bouncing or breastfeeding. On a parenting forum I’m a part of, a new mother recently asked if it was bad to nurse her baby to sleep! This is how much this training culture has permeated our culture. Breastmilk has sleep-inducing hormones in it — it is made to put our children to sleep!

Surrendering, of course, will look different from family to family, but the knowledge of what is healthy and normal sleep for our children could hopefully give parents more confidence to follow their natural nurturing instincts. Then there wouldn’t be this overall pressure to control, fix or make our children conform to an adult standard. We could get creative about how to meet their nighttime needs, instead of placing the majority of the burden on them to meet our unrealistic expectations. Maybe if we accepted this behavior as normal instead of viewing it as problem, we could relax into their natural rhythm and flow and let go of the sleep battle altogether.

*Artwork by Katie M Berggren, (permission given)


APM 2015 logoEditor’s note: Welcome to Attachment Parenting (AP) Month 2015! This year, we celebrate the theme: “Parental Presence: Birthing Families, Strengthening Society.” Beginning this year, APtly Said is the new home of AP Month, so check the blog each day of October for inspiration through our Daily Tips and other posts centered on the theme. Want to tell your story of how you balance(d) financial/career needs with being a new parent and providing presence in the early years? Send us your story!

Other AP Month events include the annual API Auction and Photo Event, plus an Oct. 19 API Teleseminar with Simplicity Parenting‘s John Kim Payne. Follow along as we read his book through API Reads, also housed here on APtly Said. There will also be special articles in the Parent Compass enewsletter from API’s cofounders and The Attached Family online magazine.

For this first day of AP Month, Yvette Lamb helps us remember that our challenges in providing parental presence in the early years are but moments that we will remember fondly and that help shape our child’s perception of what love is.

yvette lamb 2Children must go through almost a million phases, particularly in the early years. Sometimes I could barely get used to my baby’s latest pattern before he had moved on to a different one! Some phases — especially regarding sleep, settling, behavior or needing more attention than we are able to give — can feel never-ending at the time.

But of course they do pass, all of them.

And when we look back at testing moments — at days that seemed to stretch on forever — we mostly remember them differently: fondly, with love. They are just moments after all…moments that will pass…moments that become memories sandwiched in our hearts, reminding us how much our children have changed and grown — and how we have, too.

My son is only 2 years old, but recently I have found myself starting so many conversations with my husband with the words, “Do you remember when he used to…?” It might be about him refusing to sleep anywhere but on us or only at the breast or when rocked for at least 30 back-aching minutes, or cluster-feeding him every evening, or how he used to cut up my dinner so I could eat it with a spoon.

We told him about some of these memories this morning as he sat dawdling with his breakfast, smiling ear-to-ear at the little person he used to be but can’t remember.

“And when you were a tiny baby, you couldn’t speak. Everything was just ‘Waaahhhh’ until we rocked or fed you — sometimes all day.”

He laughed delightedly at us, “All day, all day, waaahhh!”

I do acknowledge that, back then, it didn’t always seem like much fun. I sometimes felt like I was living in a state of constant exhaustion, almost afraid of the baby I had made but didn’t understand. And yet, though I haven’t forgotten this, I know it was how early parenting had to be for me, for him. The rocking, the feeding, the tiredness, the uncertainty — it was necessary for me, and it was mere moments in the grand scheme of raising our boy.

We built foundations. We learned to adapt. And also to eat one-handed and survive on mere crumbs of sleep.

And now there are other phases, other challenges. There’s daycare and separation anxiety. There’s fussy eating and kicks at diaper changes. There’s lying down every night next to his crib, him demanding our hand be wedged uncomfortably through the bars while he unwinds from his day and eventually drifts off. Any gentle suggestion he go to sleep without us, or with us sat near but not practically inside his cot, are firmly and loudly rejected.

We are not going to leave him when he doesn’t want us to. But it can be difficult. We are always tired from our day by this point, and we want to have our dinner and unwind, not to mention finish any necessary jobs before our own bed calls. Sometimes after I’ve been on bedtime duty, I practically stagger down the stairs, disorientated from an uncomfortable 10-minute sleep on the floor or grumpy with hunger and the weight of the things I had planned, but will not get to do, for my evening. I have witnessed much of the same from my husband.

But last night I realized that my stress and concern over this current issue is completely misguided. We won’t still be doing this in 5 or 10 years. I know we won’t. Perhaps with some gentle encouragement or perhaps completely naturally, our son will learn to fall asleep without us near. Right now, though — in this moment — he needs us. He needs us until the day he doesn’t any more and all we have left is the memory of his slowing, rhythmic breathing and occasional checking of our presence through the brushing of his tiny, soft hand against ours.

Despite the practical downside, these moments are beautiful. He is our wonder, our masterpiece. He wants to be with us — just for a little longer — and really, how is that anything short of wonderful?

So although moments like these — when our children need almost more than we are able to give — can be frustrating and challenging, they are just moments. And when we tell our son about this particular phase in a few years, when his oh-so-grown-up exterior refutes our claims of him needing us, there will be no frustration attached. The desperation to get downstairs and eat dinner will have long since passed and we will be left with just the good parts: the closeness, the being there, the love.

We will remember these moments, even though he will not. But what I hope he is left with is a warm glow of being loved, of feeling love, of knowing love — for him — when he needed it.

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