Holiday Gift Giving: Re-thinking, Re-prioritizing, and Re-gifting

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Holiday Gift Giving : Re-thinking, Re-prioritizing, and Re-gifting
 

When we think of Christmas time we think of an abundance of joy, toys, wrapping paper scattered happily everywhere, and excited squeals of delight.

The reality may be quite different: overcharged credit cards, disappointed gift receivers who didn't get the latest toy, an overwhelming and cluttered play space, and toys that go untouched after the initial excitement is over.


It may be worthwhile, before preparations for the holidays go into full swing, to reflect on your priorities and your vision of what gift giving could be like in your family.  It is an especially good time to give this some thought if you are expecting a birth in the coming months, or if your children are very young.  Setting your family's intentions around gifts and toys early is easier, and can set the stage for many years to come.

If the idea of abundance and meaningful toys without the clutter is appealing, enjoy the links below this article about how to make the shift to more meaningful and minimalist gift giving in your home.  And if you would like exploring this idea more, send me an email ....I’d be pleased to organize a workshop to explore ideas around gift-giving in the new year (when you have lots of time to think about things for next year!). Simplicity is a central value of mine and one that can shift our thinking from how to buy the ‘right’ toy to:

  • How to choose developmentally appropriate toys that last;

  • How to enjoy the abundance of gift-giving while moving towards minimalism; 

  • The love language of gift giving and why it can be a wonderful thing and a challenge;

  • Gift giving traditions based on simplicity.

Heather

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Resources for Giving in Meaningful Ways:

https://www.happysimplemom.com/minimalist-gifts-for-kids/

Parentshttps://www.parents.com/fun/toys/baby-toys/your-guide-to-age-appropriate-toys/

https://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2014/04/30/the-five-types-of-toys-for-children-with-special-needs/


https://www.simplicityparenting.com/gift-giving-and-receiving-with-simplicity-and-relationships-in-mind/

Infant Mental Health

Infant Mental Health: A primary goal of attachment-based parenting

Early in my career as an occupational therapist, I had the privilege of participating in York University's inaugural Infant Mental Health certificate program.  The focus was on understanding the environmental and biological basis for infant mental health. 

Since that time I have studied the science of attachment theory and ecology, and learned the impact of our parenting approaches on infant mental health. What has struck me most across all of this learning was appreciating the impact that our environment can have on the developmental well-being of infants and young children. Our children’s environments are largely created but us in the early years, and we have a significant influence on how nurturing their environments are.

Nurturing, stable, safe, and loving environments can have a positive influence on children, including those with a history of trauma. Although we cannot change the past, what we do today to shift towards more nurturing environments can support infant mental health.


The passion I have for connected parenting in the early years and beyond is reflected heavily in my approach to supporting infant sleep.  Sleep deprivation can make even the most patient parent short-tempered and less compassionate.  Sleep-deficient infants are more easily upset, more 'wired', and often more difficult to get to sleep.  And yet, at the heart of it, infants need proximity to a loving adult who has the capacity to parent in a nurturing way. It is helpful to listen to our instincts about how to support their biological and emotional needs, and to seek support (from family, from friends, from skilled mental health care professionals) to do that.

My approach to infant sleep is to inform, to guide decisions, and to change the environment and expectations in order to progress towards sleep practices that support everyone's sleep needs.  For families who have additional challenges, including mental health issues, and trauma history, I connect families with local health care professionals who can continue to support families in ways that respect the family's needs and goals.

Understanding the huge impact that we, as parents, have on our children’s well being is not intended to add a burden. Rather, it can help make decisions easier: we can choose to meet the need. We can choose to connect. We can choose to be present with our children. And we can choose to take care of ourselves and to get support when we feel overwhelmed.

Key Messages:

  1. Attachment based parenting improves infant mental health.

  2. Our environment impacts our health.

  3. Decisions are easier when we know why attachment is important.

  4. Self-care is critical: fill your own cup so you can fill theirs too.

I am not a mental health professional. But there are talented and compassionate people in our community who are. If you are concerned about mental health and about your capacity to support a nurturing relationship with your child, reach out and seek support.

Niagara Resources:

In Niagara, local supports for infant and family mental health include:

  • Pathstone Mental Health Services, pathstonementalhealth.ca

  • Emily Pollak, Social Worker, individual and family counselling, St. Catharines, emilypollak.ca

  • Niagara Infant Mental Health website (Early Childhood Community Development Centre), http://www.eccdc.org/infant-mental-health/

Within and beyond Niagara, supports include:

  • 911 for medical emergencies

  • 411 for information about local mental health services in some jurisdictions

  • Your family physician

  • Local initiatives to support infant and child mental health

Infant Development: Play, Grow, Learn Stuff

Play, Grow, Learn Stuff

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I have been immersed in infant development my entire 18 years of practice.  Starting with my work at Peel Infant and Child Development, and continuing as coordinator of McMaster Children's Hospital's Neonatal Follow-up Clinic, my primary focus has been on assessing infant development and helping parents support infant development through play, activities, and the home environment.

Before I became a parent I figured I knew enough about infant development that my own child's milestones wouldn't be that big a deal.  I was wrong!  Watching him gain skills from day to day and week to week was incredible.  It made me realize I was in the right area of practice to fit my passion.

Since then, we've grown our family to include three young children, each of whom has developed at their own pace, and with their own strengths, interests, and motivations.  What a humbling experience it is to learn from them in a way that has deepened my understanding and appreciation of how amazing infant development is.

When it comes to supporting that development, we often cannot directly impact a child's biology.  But we surely can impact their immediate environment, adjust their activities, choose toys wisely, and support them in where they are at.

By focusing on these things, we are able to build on a child's strengths, innate curiosity, skills, and interests.  It truly is a pleasure to support families in finding ways to do this that mesh with a family's routines, priorities, and values.

To learn more about infant development, or for an assessment and recommendations to support your infant's development, reach out about my workshops or about a private consultation.

What is Normal? Six Month Sleep


Photo credit: Studio 7042, Pexel.

Photo credit: Studio 7042, Pexel.


When it comes to understanding the normal development of independent sleep, knowing the facts can make a profound difference in our perspective on the “problem”. Understanding normal sleep patterns in childhood can be incredibly reassuring. And, frequently, this involves realizing there is no problem at all!

Knowing what is typical can help us figure out if the expectations we have (or our family has, or strangers have!) match with what is developmentally reasonable. To know that frequent night waking doesn’t indicate that we have “done something wrong” to cause our babies to have frequent night waking, but rather that it is biologically normal, can take away a lot of pressure! Putting energy into coping with the phase rather than fighting our child’s nature can be a refreshing shift from trying to fit our babies into the expectations,. This way we can model our expectations on our babies’ abilities.

In my September 12, 2018 facebook interview with Built to Birth’s Melanie Farrell, we spent an hour online chatting about what is normal, how to shift perspectives on the problem, and how to manage the challenges that come with supporting infants and young children to gradually develop the holy grail of parenting: independent sleep. One of the papers I mentioned was Sadler’s 1994 paper called (most encouragingly!) Sleep: what is normal at six months?

Here is a bit more of the detail of that paper, and why it is relevant to parents of young babies.

  • Of 640 parents who completed a survey about the sleep of their infant, only 16% reported that their 6 month old “slept through the night”.

  • 16% of the infants were reported to not have a regular sleeping pattern at 6 months of age (meaning a sleep pattern maturing from within the child, rather than a lack of ‘routine’ from the parents). This suggests that the internal regulation required for a regular sleeping pattern takes several months or more to develop. This fits with our understanding of infant development and neuro-maturation.

  • 61% were sleeping in their own room by 6 months, but many ultimately shared a bed with the parents upon waking: a whopping 43% were always, almost always, or routinely (34%) brought into mom and dad’s room upon waking.

The author suggests that knowing that these sleep patterns (frequent waking, proximity to parents during sleep) are normal can be reassuring.

What may help in re-framing the perspective of night waking in your 6 month old:

  • It is normal for babies (even at the ripe age of 6 months) to wake often and prefer proximity to mom.

  • “Sleeping through the night” is typically defined as 5 consecutive hours, not the 8-hours-a-night we come to expect as adults.

  • The pressure to have young babies “sleeping through the night” does not coincide with biologically normal sleep.

  • Trusting your instincts regarding sleep problems can be helpful, especially if baby is not sleeping as well as they ought to be because of colic, reflux, food allergies, sleep apnea, or poor air quality.

  • A return to more frequent night waking at 9 months, after a period of relatively good sleep, is normal. This tends to improve after 12 months of age.

  • The route to independent sleep is not a linear one.

  • Sometimes the best strategy is to anticipate the wave, hang on tight, recruit help, and ride it out. When mother nature is the one dictating the rules, changing course may be futile! Nature has a way, and we’d do well to consider that although our environment has changed a great deal, the nature of sleep has not.

So, what is a parent to do if they are struggling with their young child’s sleep but think it might be developmentally normal? Get support! Support can go a long way in reassuring you, in tweaking some strategies for sleep, and in emphasizing (giving you permission!) to focus on your own self-care. Parents who have sought my help and needed, primarily, reassurance, are among the most rewarding consults I’ve done because it puts the power back in parents’ hearts that what they are doing feels right, is supported by evidence, and, in the end, works to create healthy, and even joyful, bedtimes and a happy and confident independent sleeper. It may not take much to bring this power back to parent decision-making, but it can make a world of difference to how you feel about your child’s sleep.

References:

Sadler (1994). Sleep: what is normal at six months?. Prof Care Mother Child. 4 (6): 166-7.

Breath of Fresh Air -Reasons and Resources for Getting Outdoors

Seneca, New York (image in the public domain)

Seneca, New York (image in the public domain)

 

As an OT interested in environmental health, I am excited to see how much more attention is being paid by health professionals to the importance of being outdoors in natural environments. 

Time in nature is more than just something that 'feels good'.  More time outdoors means less time indoors, where air quality is frequently much poorer.  More time outdoors also addresses many physiological needs that improve physical and mental health, energy level, hormone balance, growth, and more.  At its most basic, more time outdoors fills our evolutionary need and gives our bodies and minds the type of environment we are physiologically designed to thrive in.

I recommend more time outdoors surrounded by trees, or with sand between your toes, or soft grass to lie on for cloud gazing for families as a balm for virtually any of the challenges young families face.  And I'm not alone.  More Occupational Therapists are promoting outdoor time as an effective and evidence-based approach to a variety of challenges.  

Kathleen Lockyer, an Occupational Therapist from California, has been 'prescribing' outdoor time for over 20 years.  In April 2018, Kathleen co-led a keynote address  at Guelph Outdoor School in Ontario, Canada on the importance of accessing the outdoors.  Her website has helpful resources as does her former blog The website RxOutside.com  focuses on her Nature-Led (c) approach to supporting children.

Angela Hanscom is a paediatric Occupational Therapist whose TimberNook.com approach to taking OT outdoors for addressing such diverse issues as ADHD and autism, focuses on nature-based child-led activities.  Based in New Hampshire, Angela's approach is now modelled through mentoring, training, and certification, with programs for children running in Calgary, Alberta, and Peterborough, Ontario

OTs aren't the only ones developing unique nature-based programs for children.  Growth in interest in Forest Schools in Canada, and in child-led outdoor programs like Erin Fleming's Little Seeds playgroup and Learning in the Woods alternative education in Hamilton, Ontario are providing ample opportunity for families who want to increase their child's time in nature.  The motivation to access these programs comes in part from the aesthetics and romance of the outdoors and in part through a desire to address health and behavioural issues beyond prescriptive and medically-based approaches.  Regardless of whether the reasons are romantic or a response to specific challenges, time outdoors is time well-spent.

Just as filling our plates with nature-based foods leaves less room for processed foods, filling our days with nature-based activities results in less time indoors.  Considering the well-established evidence regarding poor air quality and its impact on child health, the more time we can spend time in healthy outdoor environments the better.  Indoor Generations' compelling video on the hazards of indoor air quality on children is rather dark in its mood but reflects the current evidence on not only the proportion of time many children are spending indoors compared to previous generations, but also the reasons why indoor air quality tends to be so poor.  

With several weeks of summer weather, and a beautiful shift to fall stretched out before us, there is ample time to rejig our days to focus more on access to the outdoors.  With some attention to our routines, a motivation to shift how our time is spent, and a desire to access an effective and free 'treatment' for many of the things that ail us, summer is a terrific time to lay the ground-work for a nature-influenced childhood for our kids.  The winter, while posing some practical and psychological hurdles, is also a wondrous time to access nature --with a bit of planning, the proper clothing, and a summer of rejigging priorities, our children can benefit from outdoor access year-round.

If you are looking for strategies to incorporate more outdoor time (including camping with kids!), and feel like making these kinds of changes is daunting, I consult to families who have questions or concerns about infant development, infant sleep, and parenting.  Nature time supports all three of these areas, and I would be more than happy to support you.  

 

Resources:  

Forest School Canada http://childnature.ca/forest-school-canada/

Indoor air and child health: https://www.velux.com/indoorgeneration

Kathleen Lockyer: https://www.kathleenlockyer.com/  https://www.rxoutside.com

Learning in the Woods learninginthewoods.ca

Little Seeds https://www.facebook.com/groups/1459957610922767/

Timbernook OT program timbernook.com and timbernook.com/canada
 

Short Hills Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada (photo in public domain)

Short Hills Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada (photo in public domain)

Breathing in Anger: How to Cope with a Child's Rage

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Angry outbursts from our children, hurtful words from them, or a hurtfully hard megablock thrown deliberately at you...These can all trigger our own anger, hurt, and tempers.  

How do we handle such fiery hot emotions from our children while staying calm ourselves? 

How do we help our little ones regulate these intense feelings? 

What are we supposed to do to discipline them?

I will venture to say that developing our own self-regulation is the essence of helping our children do the same, and it is much more than child discipline: it is our own self-discipline!

When tempers from our children flair, we may be tempted to try to take the reigns, control the situation more tightly, force them to comply with our expectation, and threaten with punishment.  And we may soon discover that this fans the flames, leading to a child who feels unregulated, behaves in even more challenging ways (or complies out of fear, rather than connection) and may lead to us reaching a boiling point too.

Here are some ideas for managing ourselves in the heat of the moment.  Start here.  Start with you.  When you feel calm, and open, and able to cope, then you can more effectively help your child to feel calm, and open, and able to cope too.

 

  • Breath in, breath out.  Whether it is to slow down your heart rate, buy time to think of an action plan, or to model calmness that you hope will rub off, taking a deep breath in, and out can be a first step.  You do not need to know what to do next.  You simply breath.  And breath again.

 

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  • Make your breath count.  Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist monk, teaches the meditation of Tonglen: to send and receive; to breath in the anger and the hurt of another, and to breath out calmness, love, and joy.  Regardless of your religious beliefs, you may find this resonates with you as a way of making your breath meaningful not just in practical ways but in ways of the heart too.  If approaching your breath this way helps  you feel more open to accepting your child's anger, lovely!  If not, the simple act of a deep breath in and out still works to calm an excited nervous system.

 

  •  Know there is a reason behind it.  Challenging behaviour is a sign of a need.  We may not always understand our children's anger, but if we know that a need is at the base of it, then we can respond in a way that looks to meet that need.  Often, with negative behaviour, we look to an emotional need: fear, embarrassment, hurt, shame, insecurity.  And often this is the key.  At other times anger and challenging behaviour may reflect physical pain, illness, or physical discomfort.

 

  • Provide your presence, not your advice. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist in British Columbia, discusses ways of being present for a young child (or adult too!) who is challenged with big emotions.  When your child is lashing out in anger, stay close but not too close, talk quietly and calmly but not too much. Do not correct, until you connect.  Dr. Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma, describes this as three steps: regulate, relate, then reason.  Understanding that none of us can process information very well when we are angry is helpful to remember when being present for our angry child.
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  • Give another outlet -a physical one- for your child to release this anger.  Ripping paper, kicking a garbage can. And yes, even emptying the garbage can onto the floor.  If you can find a way to stay calm with it, then let it happen (though I've certainly swooped in to rescue a cherished bowl or other breakable object!).  I know it seems counter-intuitive perhaps to let children destroy things, but I have found that the wider the girth I give my kids to release their anger, and the less upset I am with it, the more I see the limit of what they will do --at one point I told my angry preschooler, who was holding a book in a way that suggested he was about to rip it, that it was ok; that if he felt that angry he could rip the book. And he didn't. He almost melted into the permission as if he wanted to know just how far it would be before my unconditional love stopped. And he realized it doesn't.  It is not always easy to stay that calm --but when it happens it feels like reaching the sweet spot of parenting: remaining calm in the tempest.

 

  • Use simple language to calm the situation.   We cannot process language very well when we are angry.  And yet, calm, rhythmic, repetitive, and simple language can help us calm down, and can help give us tools for coping.  I think this is why 'mantras' are so helpful for those who meditate.  At young ages especially, talk in simple sentences (e.g. it is ok to be mad, it is not ok to hurt me, repeated).

 

  • Use simple language to "correct" the behaviour or to reason with your child.  When both you and your child are calm, then address the behaviour.  For young children this will be more direct and simple, and can include words that acknowledge their anger, their behaviour, and gives an alternative.  For older children, reasoning around why some things are not ok to do, and looking at ways they can cope with angry feelings next time can be helpful.  Physical closeness can be an important part of this.  By continuing to use simple language, we can avoid 'giving a lecture' or bringing up past behaviours.  We can focus on empathy, reflection, and problem solving instead.

 

  • Go for the long haul.    Sometimes the hard work we do parenting through challenging situations doesn't bear fruit for a long time.  Our children may make the same mistakes over and over, or take a very long time to develop enough self-regulation to stop pushing their sibling, throwing things, or biting when angry.  Think of this in the long term.  However, you may also find that the work you do in regulating your emotions gives you wonderful payoffs right away:  when I stay calm through the tempests of my middle child (which is not always!), I am often met with a spontaneous "I love you" when things are calmer.  I take this "I love you" to also mean "thanks for staying with me through that.  Thank you for not getting mad".  

 

It is a very challenging thing to regulate our own emotions when trying to help our children develop self-regulation skills.  It can trigger a lot of hurt and anger in us that makes it difficult to meet the needs of our children.  Hugs to anyone who has had to dig deep to stay calm with their angry child.  It is no easy thing.  As Laura Markham, Clinical Psychologist, has said, our own self-regulation is the foundation of effective parenting.

 

Cry-It-Out and Martyrdom: The Third Choice Mamas Ought to Know About to Get More Sleep

Cry-It-Out and Martyrdom: The Third Choice Mamas Ought to Know About to Get More Sleep

There is an impression that the two options for helping your infant sleep are to “Cry it Out” or to sacrifice it all. There is a third option: Meet the biological, developmental, and emotional needs of your infant while also meeting your own needs. It may look different than you planned, but you can find a way to do this that feels right to your vision as a family, that feels good in your heart, and that aligns with the evidence on infant sleep.

The Seven-Year Sleep Switch: Reflections on School-Age Sleep

I don't usually focus on school-age issues with sleep --almost all of my focus is on birth to three-- but we have a school-age child in our family, and because we take an attachment- and nurturing approach to sleep, our approach includes his needs, too!

Here's the interesting thing, though: I have heard and read a lot on the developmental shifts that happen in, generally, seven year increments.  Waldorf philosophy considers age six or seven a transformational age during which children will have a leap in their thinking and emotional development (give or take a year).  Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, also describes a shift around this age as a leap that affects all areas of development.  And this transformation is one that is picking up speed in our 8 year old. 

So much is changing within him right now.  His humour has taken a leap.  His maturity and ability to empathize is evolving.  His concept of himself, his strengths, and his challenges, is changing.  His physical strength and competency is increasing in leaps and bounds.  He has a tolerance for doing things he doesn't want to simply because it needs to be done.  He is growing his natural tendency to care for his brothers simply because they need him.  His leadership abilities are emerging.  And also, not least, his sleep needs are changing.

We have, up until now, generally gone to bed as a family (with the adults frequently 'rolling ninja-like out of bed and quietly exiting the room' so that we can watch something on TV or clean up from dinner!).  But lately, wow!: the entire day will be going so smoothly, and then as they each get tucked in a switch goes off and our eldest begins behaving in ways that are the bain of the 'night time parent'.  In short, he is mean, disruptive, and disagreeable.  His behaviour becomes what every parent who feels she has coasted through the day on top of her game, dreads: thoughts of "what?  Not now.  Not at bedtime!  We're nearly there!" creep up and parental patience is thin.  And it seemed to be happening nearly every single night for several days.

After getting over the initial let down that the day is ending like a lion, my mind tends to go to ruling out medical and health issues, because it hasn't been a 'one off' single event.  But the wonderful and complicated thing about humans is that we are much more than our physical selves.  We are inquisitive, emotional, curious, energetic, intuitive, and social.  When problems happen, it could be health-related, but it could be any of these other emotional intangible things, or a combination of them, that cause the challenge, and resolving it requires an open mind.

When mayhem became the theme at night, and it was clear that he was having a great day up until then, my husband's attention turned to looking at whether we needed to re-jig our eldest's bedtime.  As I type this, it seems so obvious now: he's been going to bed when his brothers do, despite never having needed as much sleep as they do, and up until now, a long Narnia-chapter or two has kept him in bed as his brothers drop into slumber.  But something was not cutting it anymore.

It was time for a change in perspective.  So, we did a bedtime overhaul and changed our approach, and his bedtime, to fit with his own needs for sleep.  It's been quite a dramatic improvement.

Here's what sort of thinking helped (and, as it turns out, they apply to any age, really!):

  • Resistance is Futile: If we are feeling resistant to 'meeting the need' because we feel he is too old to need help at bedtime, we shift back into the mode that we were in when he was little: meet the need, and be flexible.   We remind ourselves that we don't always know why our kids behave a certain way, but that we can always be open to doing something different that works better for everyone.
  • "By the Book": We appreciate that his temperament was not laid out in the text book of child sleep.  He may feel anxious, or be bringing worries to bed that make bedtime challenging.
  • The 'make a sandwich' concept: Being able to do something independently does not mean always doing it independently.  I know how to make a sandwich all by myself but it sure is nice to have help sometimes.
  • "The Long Game": We keep our eye on the long term goal: that sleep, and bedtime, even for an eight year old, ought to be enjoyable, relaxing, and safe so that he continues to have a healthy relationship with sleep (and so that we can enjoy it too, even if it is different than we expected).
  • Things evolve: We don't consider this a step back but simply an evolution, and a basic human condition of not being or feeling the same every day, every year, and at every age. 
  • No bad habits: We do not believe that meeting the need will create a bad habit. Sleep routines will evolve, and if they evolve in a direction that we don't like, and that doesn't work (or no longer works) for us, we can change them.  If none of the usual 'strategies' are working, consider that it may be an unmet need. 
  • Collaborate!  Ask our child what may work to solve the problem (but not ask at bedtime, when his ideas couldn't be explored or discussed fully and with patience).  Kids are learning to know themselves, and understand their own needs.  Being asked to contribute to a solution that they are a part of is powerful --and can be surprising!
  • Practical magic: We divided bedtime -young kids first with one parent, our eldest downstairs doing table top activities (drawing, writing, math: things he enjoys and seems to gravitate to in the evenings).

The last suggestion (a split bedtime) is perhaps the most tangible suggestion on this list, but it is not the most important.  It is what we came up with to try, and it worked like a charm.  If it didn't work, we'd know that all the other ways we were 'thinking' on the problem were going to help in coming up with a workable solution.  

The split bedtime also took some enticement for the younger two --they wondered why our eldest was downstairs, and what he was doing.  So we upped the interest in bedtime routine, introducing a new tuck in routine that focused on each of them individually, and we switched from Narnia to graphic novels about ninjas.  So far so good.  

We also remind ourselves that this is never an end point.  Our son will continue to shift and change, mature, and grow.  And his needs will change, too.  By focusing on problem solving and meeting the need, we know that we will be more prepared for the next challenge.  And so will he.

How Becoming a Mother Changed My Practice

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I have been an Occupational Therapist for almost 18 years. Most of that time I have worked with families of infants and young children, many premature, and each of them with some risk factor or developmental difficulty that led families to seek support from our government-funded home-visiting program or hospital-based clinic. I was surrounded by strong, nurturing intelligent women service providers who had empathy galore, and whose hearts and minds were focused on the needs of vulnerable families and children. I couldn’t ask for better mentorship.

I had also studied attachment theory and connected parenting, infant mental health, and maternal mental health. I had the book smarts, and nurturing mentors, and yet I still, when I pictured parenthood for myself, I had an image of a Dr. Spock-inspired authoritarian parent, and my advice on parenting reflected that. Despite whole-heartedly believing in attachment theory, and its importance, I had no real sense of just how that applied to figuring out how to meet the need of a tired moms and dads who needed practical advice right now that didn't contradict their baby's needs.

It was not until I became a parent myself that my perspective on nurturing and attachment and what that means in practical terms shifted dramatically. My views became more child-focused, and was more aware of the evolutionary needs that babies are born with, regardless of the books that are published, the advice that family physicians give (which, generally, was as naive and self-oriented as my own), or the plans I had.

I also had a baby who would not sleep. And very little support on how to manage this. My sweet and lovely baby boy would finally fall asleep at the breast late at night, only to wake up the instant I lay him down beside me. I would pick him up and start again. When he finally ‘crashed’ into a reasonably deep sleep at close to midnight, I’d nearly start to cry at the thought of wanting to get dressed for bed and brush my teeth: I was exhausted, and I knew that getting ready for bed was eating into the precious short time before he awoke again. I counted his sleep time in minutes, not hours, hoping somehow that a sleep interval that was two minutes longer would somehow mean I was doing something that was working.

Eventually we got through it. With reflux medication, baby-wearing, positioning, and diet changes. And also with patience, and an eye on the long game of wanting sleep to be a state that our son felt comfortable falling into, and staying in. We got through. But we would have gotten through with a lot more grace (and a lot more sleep) had we had more support.

What I needed as a new mom was a professional who could help me navigate things: who could value my knowledge, put that knowledge into perspective, and couple it with drawing on the instincts and goals we had as parents.

With so much conflicting information out there (both on-line and from health care providers), parents are left feeling over-informed, overwhelmed, and under-supported. Parents need help finding evidence-based information, and may need help uncovering the instincts and knowledge they already have.

Now that I run my own private practice, I see much more clearly how my roles as an OT and as a mom allow me to draw on the evidence, the experiences, and the empathy, to help families. Parents benefit from support in gathering information, problem-solving, and finding the joy in meeting the needs of infants in personal, unique, and empathetic ways.

Parenting transforms us. A little help to get through the tough spots can make a big difference.

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Preschoolers: Reflections on Nighttime Parenting

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If you'd asked me when I first gave birth what kind of night-time parenting my child would need when he was three, I would have guffawed.  Three seemed so far away, so hypothetical.  And besides, don't all three year olds fall asleep on their own, and sleep all night?  The kids I babysat did.  Surely it will be bath, book, and to bed, lickity split.  More to the point, I really would have had no interest at all in speculating on the sleep of a three year old --I had a newborn baby to contend with!!

Fast-forward eight years and three babies later, and my view on preschool sleep needs has evolved quite a bit.  We're at the tail end of our 'official real time learning' about infant and preschool sleep, and we've had three very different teachers along the way!

Currently, my youngest is three and a half, and I've had a bit to reflect on how sleep needs have shifted for him in the last several months.  In the spirit of sharing experiences, I've written down a few observations that I have had around night-time parenting my youngest. 

We bed-share with our three and a half year old.  With a few bumps in the road, my son has generally slept through the night since two and a half years old, if we are there when he stirs.  When he sleeps with us, he likely stirs and falls back to sleep without me being fully aware that he has woken up.  When he sleeps alone he tends to wake up some time in the middle of the night, upset and looking for us, settling quickly when I join him. 

However, there are times when I am up far too late (past midnight!), forgetting all about my OWN sleep needs in my attempt for some quiet 'me time'.  Staying up as late as that has had one wee benefit: it has allowed me to see a bit of a trend this spring: at midnight, nearly without fail, my preschooler was waking up enough to call out for me, and would not settle till I am settled in next to him.  I knew that this would not happen forever, and I knew that he slept well with me there.  I figured, however, that until that happens, midnight is obviously a time that he has been aware of being separate and alone, and has not felt safe or relaxed enough to fall asleep on his own.  

Most recently, however, as we move towards summer,I have slept in my own bed (at a decent time!), or stayed up past midnight (oops!), and have expected to move into his bed around midnight when my son wakes up.  This has led to the discovery of another new trend: in the past month or so he generally sleeps through the night with no support or night-time parenting from me at all!  As the sun comes up, he wakes, crawls into my bed, and falls asleep: and we get some nice slumber, lots of cuddling, and even a book or two, before we both wake up fully.  It is progress like this that gives me confidence that nurturing the need, even when it doesn't fit with my own "Dr. Spock" upbringing, is the way to peaceful sleep.

Seeing these changes emerge gradually, I am reminded that independent sleep develops at a pace that is much slower than the frantic pace of our lives in general.  It reminds me that no matter how hectic the world is around us, infant and child needs have not changed much at all.  They are still the same as in pre-history!  If I keep this idea in mind, I can be the parent my child needs me to be, and I feel good about meeting that need.

The following ideas may be helpful for those who night-time parent their preschooler:

  1. Generally, three and four year olds have stopped napping (but not always, and not consistently!), and are sleeping 11-12 hours per night.  This is 'average', which means that many three and four year olds will sleep more or sleep less than the average, and that it is still OK!
  2. Flexibility, especially for those  who still occasionally nap, or who fall asleep in the car late in the day, is key.  Adjusting bedtime to fit their readiness can be more enjoyable and less frustrating than trying to put a preschooler to bed who is simply not tired.
  3. No matter what is going on, routines can help.  Having a flow of activities, turning off screens, and keeping noise and activity level lower can help everyone wind down into bedtime readiness.
  4. Your chatty, reflective, observant, and aware preschooler may use conversation to wind down at night.  Lean into this connection: fighting their nature and their need to wind down can be more frustrating than taking a deep breath and listening to what they are sharing.  You might discover some very interesting things about how your three year old thinks!
  5. During times of change in sleep needs/timing, it can be helpful to have a partner or other caregiver to help keep older siblings engaged in play outside the sleep space, or to take care of the bedtime routines of older siblings when your preschooler is up later because they napped.  There are ways to roll with these changes without a partner, too --it may take more creativity, patience, and flexibility, as well as a reminder of what the long term goals are.  Support in one way or another (including chatting to someone who listens and understands) can make a big difference. 
  6.  What works for your family may be entirely unique, even if the values and parenting goals are the same as other families who believe in night-time parenting.
  7. If it doesn't work, change it.  If you are resentful, over-tired, and frustrated, come up with a new plan.  Although any new parenting approach or routine takes a bit to 'try out', do not continue with a failed experiment.
  8. Stubborn habits that cannot seem to be changed may actually be needs.  True habits are more malleable.  If you're hitting a lot of resistance, re-evaluate, and consider changing your approach.
  9. Trust your instincts: if you feel sleep may be being interrupted by a health or medical issue, speak with a knowledgeable Health Care Provider.
  10. If in doubt, let love rule.  Preserve the relationship, even if it means taking time to figure out a bedtime routine that works for everyone.
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