Whether you like reasoning and evidence, or prefer to solve your problems with creativity and insight, The Art and Science of Family Sleep will tap into your presonal Holmes-like way of thinking.
How we interpret the science of infant sleep can have an impact on how we are able to trust our instincts. Our hearts and our minds can align if we ask ourselves the right question: “How can I support my baby’s sleep development?”.
When nighttime sleep has been a challenge for breastfeeding mamas, many will turn their attention to the question of whether night weaning from breastfeeding will lead to a better night’s sleep.
After all, it makes intuitive sense that, as Jay Gordon suggestions, if the diner is closed, there’s no point waking up for a midnight snack.
In this article, we will take a look at what we know about night weaning and explore what may work to support night weaning in an evolutionary and nurturing way.
In addition to exploring strategies for night weaning, I’ll indulge in a bit of storytelling, too, as I share my night weaning experiences with my three children. Most of the suggestions below assume that you are considering night weaning a baby over 12 months of age, and that your toddler is bed sharing with you, or are continuing to room share with you: the effort of continued night feeds for a child down the hall makes it likely that toddlers who are sleeping in their own room are already weaned. Also, night weaning before 12 months has special considerations that include development and growth that I won’t cover in this article.
The challenge for some parents (though not all) that emerges in the toddler years is that as parent longing for some personal space goes up, so does toddler restlessness, acrobatics, long lazy latches, and nighttime nibbling. Nipples get sore, heads get kicked by flailing toddler arms, and toddlers go through periods of increased feeding for comfort, emotional connection, nourishment, and more —nothing close to the straight trajectory towards natural weaning that we pictured when we first imagined natural child-led weaning. It can feel like a return to the early days of feeding, except kiddo is three times as big, and waaaay more active. Parents who are nursing a toddler through the night probably recognize some similarities with nighttime at the 7 to 10 month mark too —a typically challenging period of time for infant sleep.
As decisions are made about if and how to night wean, it can be helpful to keep two questions in mind: what are you reasons? And what are your goals?
I want to emphasize that when we, as parents, have decided we are “done” and want to end the nursing relationship, it is ok! Sometimes this is out of frustration, fatigue, being “touched out”, or wanting some flexibility through the night (to work, to rest, to be alone). As decisions are made about if and how to night wean, it can be helpful to keep two questions in mind: what are you reasons, and what are your goals. The answers to these questions will help guide your actions, and will also help you evaluate things, and change course (subtly or significantly) if what you are doing doesn’t align with your goals. Your goals, of course, may change too!
Often, breastfeeding parents feel that night weaning will reduce night waking. That connection is quite murky —I could find no evidence to support this idea in the literature, though certainly there are some children for whom this is true, anecdotally. I would suggest that in terms of sleeping through the night, it be approached more as a developmental skill, and one that may or may not be impacted by night nursing. However, despite this, moms may still feel a strong pull towards night weaning for their own physical comfort, and their desire for some bed boundaries and personal space. These are important things to honour!
There may be sweet spots that, developmentally, can make it better “timing” —these generally happen between Plooij and van de Rijt’s popular “Wonder Weeks” in addition to other frameworks of developmental jumps. However, timing isn’t everything —your needs are factors here too.
Before we delve into how to night wean, let’s take a peak at what we know about night breastfeeding.
Research doesn’t tell us much about weaning. And research tells us even less about night weaning. What do we know? We know that:
up to 1/3 of a child’s nutrition at 12 to 24 months of age can come from night feeding (WHO, 2015);
breastfeeding beyond the first and second year of a child’s life is recommended if it aligns with what a family feels is appropriate (CDC, 2014); and
night weaning can be among “the most logistically and emotionally challenging” aspects of weaning (Cuniff & Spatz, 2017, p.93)
Night feeding and bedsharing are highly correlated
What does that mean for moms who are ready to night-wean? It can be gradual. It can be your decision. And it can be difficult. But, as with many parenting situations, being difficult doesn’t necessarily mean it is not the right decision. Weigh the benefit and draw backs, be flexible, and be gentle with yourself. This, like so many other aspects of parenting, requires flexibility and an open mind.
Weigh the benefits and draw backs, be flexible, and be gentle with yourself.
Here, then, are some insights for those who have decided to nudge things towards night weaning.
One of the more popular suggestions for night weaning parents is Dr. Jay Gordon’s nighttime weaning process (Gordon, 2002). For kiddos above the age of twelve months (and more than likely 18 months and older) who are ready, his process can work well. However, in practical experience, these steps can be difficult, and distressing especially at a younger age —there are gentler, more developmentally-guided approaches. Likely, if his approach (some of which are incorporated in the suggestions below) is not working, it is not good timing: pause, re-evaluate, and try again. It is ok to stop, and wait for a better time. Other strategies that can feel more respectful, flexible, and gentle, are included below and are drawn, in part, from Elizabeth Pantley’s book, “No Cry Sleep Solutions".
I don’t remember many of the details of weaning my first born. I know there were portions of the process that were not easy. And there were a few re-starts, and pauses, and “try agains”. My toddler would rather have nursed, but I don’t recall the transition being an exceptionally difficult one, and the glorious indulgence of a bed I could stretch out in was pure bliss—a welcome focus on my needs after the intensity of the first year and a half of parenting, was nothing short of amazing.
With our second, I was glad to be done with night nursing by about age 2, motivated by my own worthwhile need to have my body be my own at night. It is not a decision that I regret, though I do know there are 101 different choices, options, strategies, and nuances that can make night weaning look different for every child, and every family.
We chose what we felt was best for us, with a great deal of flexibility, and our eye on the big picture: night weaning would happen eventually whether we promoted it or not. A bit of nudging in that direction was just fine. And assertive communication from our toddler was worth evaluating and re-evaluating: was our expectation of him reasonable? Was it best to wait a bit longer? Does this feel right?
We did play some musical beds during this period: sometimes my spouse was the one cuddling our weaning toddler at night, and we did not balk at changing the plan from night to night (or part way through the night!) if what we were doing was not working well for any one of us.
Night weaning generally falls into the “can do, but don’t have to” category of parenting decisions. Weaning will happen over time, even if you do nothing in particular to nudge it along.
By toddlerhood, parents are adapting to the assertive and big emotions from toddlers who don’t (can’t) always have their needs or desires met in precisely the way they would like them to be met: no matter how much they want to, they cannot run across the road, smash a glass on the floor, or hit their sibling. Night weaning, however, generally falls into the “can do, but don’t have to” category. Weaning will happen over time, even if don’t do anything in particular to nudge it along. If the timing is right for you, it’s a matter of balancing needs, and moving flexibly and sensitively towards your goal.
Keeping an open and flexible mind allowed me to use our toddler’s room for night weaning. The time spent with him at bedtime and through the night helped me figure out what parts of night weaning were workable, and what parts needed tweaking. There were many missteps (the bruise on my forehead from a sippy cup thrown in frustration by my toddler being one of them). My “in the moment” goals around night weaning shifted depending on how tired I was. What felt most important to me was to honour the ebb and flow: to know that I was not “giving in” if I chose to breastfeed him, and to know that weaning would happen eventually. Night weaning when mama is ready, but baby isn’t quite on board, is an exercise in respecting everyone’s needs, and finding solutions that work best under the circumstances.
With our third, I needed to be on medication that, based on multiple sources, required weaning. It was, quite frankly, an awful process for both of us, as neither of us was ready: I had had my intentions to night nurse for longer than I had the other two, and the sorrow and frustration we both felt with early weaning was heavy. If you are experiencing a similar situation, Dr. Jack Newman’s International Breastfeeding Clinic is a highly recommended resource for working out the necessity of, and the details of, weaning due to medical/medication needs, particularly with the closure of Sick Kids’ Mother Risk organization. If night weaning is not your personal goal, but appears to be medically necessary, gathering all the support you can to make a workable plan. This may include strategic, professionally-supported timing of medication, as well as validation of your feelings through this process, and practical strategies for paving the way.
Nurturing strategies can be applied to make the process of weaning smoother.
If night weaning is necessary, know that sometimes there are factors beyond your control, and that you have many other nurturing strategies at your disposal for maintaining a strong bond with your baby, even if circumstances (medical or otherwise) lead you to night wean before one or both of you are ready. Know as well that if night weaning is right for you, these nurturing strategies can be applied to make the process of weaning smoother, and respects the emotional well-being of both you and your baby.
If night weaning is chosen for your own well being, know that that is an important reason in and of itself. Night weaning before a child is ready can be challenging, and pulling in all the supports and strategies you can is important, too.
The following are some strategies to consider when night weaning your toddler.
Strategies for Parents Who Feel “Done” with the Nighttime Feedings:
Reflect first. Is this feeling like a permanent shift in your feelings around nighttime nursing? Or is this feeling a blig in the road? Are you doing this for you (great! If it’s not working change it. Your priorities and preferences matter!) or is there pressure from others? I use a nighttime weaning readiness checklist with clients to explore this further.
Eliminate barriers! Reflux, excema, tummy issues, and respiratory difficulties (apnea, environmental allergies, stuffy noses) can lead to frequent night nursing to relieve discomfort. Addressing these issues, and resolving them as best we can, paves the way for meeting night-time weaning goals. Occasionally something as straightforward as a diet change or fresher air in the bedroom can improve sleep, and make night-time weaning easier.
Change it up: the bedtime order of breastfeeding and cuddles may not have a huge impact on overnight feeding, but it can help some parents feel that they are moving in the right direction. Toddlers may wake up sooner when they first shift away from nursing to sleep (we don’t really know —and some toddlers coast right through to the usual next wake up). Regardless, with the right routines in place, and an approach towards flexibility and gradual separation of nursing and falling asleep, your toddler may surprise you with their readiness.
Close up shop: in the early days of breastfeeding, nursing shirts and button pajamas make it so much easier to breastfeed. If you are looking to wean, a change of clothes may be helpful. By switching to pull over shirts you’ve created a mild inconvenience; not enough to dissuade a child who continues to need the breast at night (physically or emotionally), but enough that a child that could take it or leave it might decide it’s not worthwhile. Button-up pajamas on backwards never appealed much to me, but by the time I was ready for nighttime weaning, the buttons on my pajamas were so loose that I may have seemed to have a flashing (no pun intended) neon sign that said “no need to knock: the door is already open”.
Different space, different parent: Shifting primary parent at night to your partner, and potentially to a different room (a twin mattress floor bed in a toddler-proof room, for example) can allow for some musical beds. For a toddler who is ready, the different caregiver and different environment can make the shift through night weaning easier. A favourite sippy cup of water might help too, and expressed breastmilk in a bottle may help bridge the change.
Shorten the meal: Keeping the nursing time to shorter and shorter intervals can still give toddlers the comfort they seek from the breast, while reducing how long they are on, and giving them the opportunity to adjust to coming off the breast before falling asleep. Your toddler will let you know loud and clear if they are ready for this! Adjust the interval if it’s not working as well as you hoped.
Shorten the hours: Choosing a window of time when the diner is closed can work well for some kiddos. Some parents have “closed” one breast, and have found that the lower flow of the other breast has led rather smoothly to less interest in nursing.
Use language to bolster your plan! Sometimes as parents we forget that our words, and tone of voice matter. In addition to reading picture books about night weaning, and explaining what to expect (in clear, simple words), having a short phrase to say at night as you unlatch or as you turn down a request for nursing, can have a profound effect. Not only is your voice one of the nurturing nighttime tools you have, but the combination of your simple, and soft words, with your actions can help move the process of night weaning forward.
If it’s not working, it’s ok to pause, and re-evaluate. Sometimes timing is everything. I know how challenging it is to set your mind on something, and then have half a dozen other factors completely knock over your carefully laid plans: two year molars, a move to a new room at daycare, family vacation, and illness, can all make your dream of a night without nursing seem impossibly difficult to achieve. Pause, re-evaluate, and try again. No parent should feel they need to continue night nursing when they feel “done”, but it is ok if it is a jerky walk to the finish line: be gentle with yourself through the ups and down, and look at the trajectory over time.
As with all stages of childhood and motherhood, weaning is a natural and expected part of the mother/child relationship. As babies become older there is a shift more towards balancing the needs and intentions of both mama and babe. It is ok to move towards night weaning when you are ready. And like so many other aspects of mothering, it is a dance: with some back and forth, a shift in who is “leading”, and the occasional toe might get stepped on! You are both on the dance floor together, but sometimes mama gets to pick the next song.
Picture Books on Weaning/Night-Weaning
Havener, K. (2013). Nursies When the Sun Shines: A little book on night weaning.
Susan, M. & Low, H. (illustrator) (2018). A Time to Wean.
Saleem, J. (2014). Milkies in the Morning: A gentle night weaning storybook.
Parent Books on Night-Weaning
Wessinger, D. et al. (2014). Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and nap time strategies for breastfeeding families.
Bonyata, K, Flora, B., & Yount, P. Night Weaning, www.kellymom.com.
Sears, W. & Sears, M. Night Weaning: 12 Alternatives to the All Night Toddler Nurser. www.askdrsears.com.
Peer Reviewed Articles
Cunniff, A., & Spatz, D. (2017). Mothersʼ Weaning Practices when Infants Breastfeed for More Than One Year. MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 42(2), 88–94. doi:10.1097/nmc.0000000000000310 Accessed online June 13, 2019.
World Health Organization (2015).
Bridging to the next connection is an attachment-based strategy for separating from a child in a way that reduces anxiety and resistance, and respects a child’s developmental and emotional ability to separate. The concept of bridging to the next connection was developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist from British Columbia who co-authored the book “Hold Onto Your Kids”, and whose Neufeld Institute runs courses on understanding the emotional and attachment needs of children. Bridging is a strategy for separation that I have used as a parent, and have recommended at my workshops and private consults. It can be a tricky concept to get the hang of, and so I am describing it below so that parents who feel their child is ready for separation at bedtime have a developmentally-sensitive and attachment-oriented way to nudge their toddlers and preschoolers towards more independent sleep.
Bridging is a strategy that can pave the way for all sorts of separation situations including the separation to school, for a sleepover at grandma’s house, time with a co-parent, and even getting yourself out the door for much needed solo time. I’ll focus here specifically on using bridging as a strategy for solitary sleep in toddlers and older children but have included two children’s books in the resource list that address a broader idea of separation. Despite its usefulness in a number of scenarios, bridging is a particularly useful strategy for parents who are working towards leaving their child’s sleep space while their child is still awake, with the expectation that the child will stay in the bedroom and fall asleep on their own.
The premise of bridging to the next connection is that by focusing on being with, rather than leaving, you help your child relax because they trust you will return. The focus is on reconnecting, not on leaving. Children are more likely to fall asleep alone when they can relax in the knowledge that you will return before they need you. They will, in effect, not be chasing your attachment literally right out of the room when you get up to leave.
Although the concept works well in practice, it is somewhat difficult to explain and does require hitting a bit of a sweet spot in the yin and yang of meeting a child’s nighttime needs. So here are some ways to approach bridging, and ideas on how to implement it with your three year old or older child.
To pull off this bit of bedtime magic effectively, be in a place of surrendering to the present: you are in your child’s room, so bring your brain and future self back upstairs and be there with your child! I know this is easier said than done, but when your thoughts are on dishes or the email you need to return, or the thirty minutes you will relish when you finally can kick up your feet and watch TV, your child will know you are not fully in the room with them…And they may not relax enough to fall asleep.
When you are in the room at bedtime and are fully present and focused on being there, do not check your phone, or check the time. Fully suspend the thought around how soon you can leave! After finishing off any bedtime routine in ways that bring joy and calm to both of you, it is now time for you to leave. But the focus is on coming back. Yes. Just when you are feeling so close to escaping from the room after a very touched-out day, focus instead on when you will return. Tell your child you are going to step out of the room for one minute, and describe to your child what you will say when you come BACK (“I’ll come in to tell you I love you”) or what you will do (I'll tuck you in again, I’ll cuddle with you till you fall asleep). Tell them to listen for you to come back and that when you do you will be so glad to get one more hug before they fall asleep.....Then leave for as short as you need to (10 seconds? A minute? Five minutes if they -and you- are good at this) without her calling out for you. Return before she worries you aren't there. Then build from there.
What will you do while you’re gone? Go pee. Wash one dish. Tidy the bathroom counter. It’s likely worthwhile staying away from email (we know how time magically disappears when that happens!). Do anything that is short, is verifiable (they hear you), and is easy to end early (a good long pee aside). Then return before they call out! Return early as a way of shoring up their trust in you, and as reinforcing your promise to return. They may not be sure you will return initially, especially if bedtime separations have been rough in the past or they have never fallen asleep on their own. But build slowly (step into the hall to blow your nose every night if that will help) and over time you can grow their trust and help them relax in the knowledge you are coming back.
How does this actually look in practice? When our son was three and our second born was still an infant, we were desperate for a bit of separation from the bedtime routine of staying in his bed until he drifted off. I would like to say we wanted that time to relax together, but truth be told we were thrilled by the idea of cleaning the kitchen together which, I’ll point out, was actually a wonderful way for us to work together and connect at the end of the day. I had just completed Gordon Neufeld’s Making Sense of Preschoolers online course and the idea of bridging to the next connection made so much sense in terms of his development (separation anxiety was high!) and his needs (he had a great deal of difficulty falling asleep without us there).
We went through the regular routine and then I, not without trepidation, said “I’m popping out of the room for a glass of water. I’ll be right back”. And then I left. It was short, and I returned before he called out.
When I returned, I stayed with him as usual until he fell asleep. The next time, I left twice, and attempted to leave for more than a minute. It worked!
Until it didn’t. The third night I was over zealous perhaps, and thinking of what I could get done after I left. Or perhaps he just needed me more that night. Regardless, I was staying out of the room too long, and he was not relaxed enough to fall asleep, even coming out of the room before I got to the end of the hallway. And so, as we continued working on this separation gradually, we ebbed and flowed with the idea that some nights would be easy peasy, and on other nights his need for our presence would be high. When these higher-need nights happened, we suspended our expectations that this was a straight trajectory. Nothing in parenting seems to be, except the straight trajectory of our child following us out of their room when we want them to stay in bed!
I gradually, and with various excuses, left the room for progressively longer time. Within the first week, I was leaving the room for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and returning to a kiddo who was awake but calm, in bed, and happy to see me. I recall there being a joyful “you came back!” look on his face, happy that his faith in me returning was warranted. By about the fifth visit (and occasionally the eighth or ninth), he had drifted off to sleep, confident I would return as promised.
There were nights, in the coming weeks, that he called out soon after I left. There were other nights when I forgot to return, and he would call out wondering where I was. Yet more and more frequently, he would not call out at all, I would return once or twice, and be pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful sleeper with nary a peep of protest.
On the nights that he drifted off to sleep and I remembered an hour later that I hadn’t returned, I made sure to pop up and peak in on him, and to tell him in the morning how nice it was to come in and see him sleeping so soundly, and to whisper I love you. “Did you hear me in your dreams?”, I’d ask him? He never did, but I like to think that his knowing I came to check on him reaffirmed his feelings of safety and love we wanted to give him.
We have continued to use this approach for all of our kiddos, sometimes with great success, and other times not so much. When it hasn’t been working, it usually has been for one of two reasons:
We were already “out of the room” before we left, and our kids knew we were not present and focused on them.
Their needs were higher on a particular night (impending illness, a rough day, overtired, wound up) and we hadn’t adjusted our night time routine to accommodate that.
When it wasn’t working, we didn’t throw the idea out the window. We did our best not to become authoritarian and threaten separation (“You HAVE to stay in that room or I am not coming back!”) —that, if you didn’t notice, is about the polar opposite of what bridging is trying to do.
To this day, when the boys ask us to stay with them to fall asleep we know that for some reason they need us more that night, and we do it (mostly) with an open heart. But more nights than not we can check on them a few times after lights out and find that like candles burning themselves out, the boys quietly fall into a relaxed sleep at some point when we are not in the room; even when they are certain they are not the least bit tired and will still be awake when we come check on them.
And that, for us, is a parenting win.
La Leche League’s 2014 book, Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family, is a book for families of infants which focuses on attachment-oriented research evidence and strategies for understanding and addressing sleep challenges. The intent of the book is to provide breastfeeding-friendly infant sleep knowledge, support, and problem-solving and, as I describe below, the authors have succeeded in meeting this aim.
Writing in a calm, articulate manner, Weissinger, West, and Pitman are appealing to educated and informed parents who are at least somewhat familiar and open to attachment-based parenting approaches to sleep. Likely the La Leche League publication naturally draws the attention of those already inclined to providing nurturing measures, in general. Although not an academic paper, the level of education required is rather high. The book’s strengths lie in its use of evidence and research balanced with clear descriptions and case studies that highlight the key points.
It is quite a lengthy book that takes several hours to read, something that may be a challenge for all but the most motivated sleep-deprived parents. Despite this, the depth and quality of the information and evidence provided make this my new primary recommendation to clients who are keen to read about infant sleep. Unlike other books on infant sleep, this books looks specifically through the lens of breastfeeding. However, it is still appropriate for non-breastfeeding families if shared in a sensitive way to those not currently struggling with breastfeeding or with previous decisions/necessity of weaning. There is enough valuable information to firmly entrench this as an infant sleep book for professionals to consistently draw from when providing eager parents with detailed information or references scientific evidence.
Reading this book now, as a weaned mother of three children who now sleep well, I was so excited about the evidence they include that supports attachment-based sleep support for families. In particular, their section on bedsharing (detailing La Leche League’s Safe Sleep Seven principles) is both evidence-based and instinct-focused: you, as a parent, must weigh the information available to you in the context of your own infant, yourself, and your family.
The references and citations are the real strength of this book. Subtitles and indexing make it fairly easy to navigate the kindle version. The richness of the content makes it likely that families would benefit from a print version, rather than kindle version, in order to mark particular sections and to use the index more freely. I suspect most families who are so inclined will have print versions decorated liberally with sticky notes.
There was a time before kids when I was not as attachment-focused in my sleep approach. And if I am completely honest with myself, there have been times even after becoming a mother where I have struggled with attachment-based approaches to supporting sleep. Shifting my perspectives and expectations this much has been a process.
But now, with my youngest at age 4, and with my two older boys, I’ve hit my stride (without perfection, but with calm intention) when it comes to supporting their sleep most nights.
Tonight’s bedtime routine (with all it’s imperfections, and bumps) feels like a story worth telling, in that it reflects how profoundly I’ve shifted my priorities around night time parenting. I don’t dismiss the importance of sleep (enough of it, and of good quality). But I do know that more often than not the best way for our kids to get good sleep is to meet (and exceed) the need with an open heart and a calm, unhurried state of mind.
Perhaps some nights an open heart and a calm, unhurried mind are a struggle. On those nights it’s a challenge to dig deep and meet the need. It becomes a war against our intentions, which often comes out looking like a battle against our kids: them resisting sleep, and us trying to overpower their resistance.
But tonight there was no strong arm, no temptation to coerce, and no resistance. Instead, the evening started with rather feeble efforts on my part to start the routine, and ended with a sense of such connection that I am smitten.
At the usual bedtime, as I do on nights when I am distracted and trying to get work done, I was verbally guiding my two older kiddos (6 and 9) to bed. But as with so many pieces of parenting, you’ve got to walk the walk….and actually walk with them upstairs! Instead, I was giving instructions about shutting down screen time while tapping on my laptop, and listing off bedtime steps without modelling them myself. Hardly “leading by example”.
Now I do know that my children are capable of walking up stairs independently. Of brushing their teeth independently. Of getting dressed independently. Of climbing into bed and crawling under the covers independently. But I have learned well both through research and through parenting experience, that the ability to do something independently is not the only factor in accomplishing a task. Not by a long shot. Coming alongside, and “doing with” are powerful strategies for connecting and accomplishing.
So instead of escalating the volume of my voice, getting sharper and snappier and frustrated, I paused, and heeded the call from my spouse to please come upstairs and help usher them to bed (we both play integral parts in the bedtime wind-down) —tonight things weren’t going all that smoothly. There seemed to be a frenetic energy in the upstairs loft (full moon?!). A lot was happening that had very little to do with bedtime. There were push ups and jumping jacks, karate punches and kicks into cushions, building of forts, requests to make elaborate paper plate faces to tape to these “punching bags” (yes that sounds terrific; yes, it will have to wait till tomorrow), and a lot (a lot) of talking.
But step by step, slowly and calmly, we made our way to their beds where story time was pulled off the roster but gratitude questions and a review of their day remained intact. By now it was very late and despite having more work to take care of, I lay with them a while, and I closed my kindle (did I say screens shouldn’t be part of bedtime? Direction not perfection!), and just lay there as my middle child told me elaborate explanations of how things work. He chatted while holding my hand. His volume was louder than usual, and we kept having to remind him that his little brother was sleeping. He talked with excitement and enthusiasm and while he talked he played with my hair. And then, interrupting his story, he requested that I get the detangling brush….so that he could brush the knots out of my hair.
Now the old me —before I became a mother, or before we got to a point where I was getting enough sleep most nights to make flexibility and patience easy— would have said no, it’s bed time, good night. But tonight I paused, considered how comfortable and content he was: he was getting one-on-one time with me as he peered at the full moon out his window and lazily shared contemplative explanations of zombies and werewolves.
Here was a kiddo whose one-on-one time often gets squeezed out between the needs of his younger brother and the activities of his older brother. The kiddo who sometimes stops talking out of frustration that no one is listening, or that he’s been interrupted again. Here he was chatting to me, connecting with me. So I did what I felt compelled to do: I got the comb, I brought it up, and he combed my hair while talking, while solving dilemmas of his day, while unwinding for sleep.
When all the knots were out I said good night, gave the boys kisses, and left. They both fell asleep without another peep.
There is something liberating about approaching night time this way. For all the conflict, or upset, or missed opportunities to connect during the day, night time has fewer distractions. Night time is a chance to put a cherry on top of the day, no matter how bad the day has been. Night time could be (and often is!) a stressful, exhausting ritual of resistance when we as parents can be maxed out. But by “finishing strong”, and finishing with connection, I’ve made up for some of the less-than-ideal parts of today.
Whatever needs he had not had filled during the day seemed topped up well by my spending this time with him as he lay in bed. And his need for sleep is fulfilled too: maybe not as early as ideal, but certainly as smoothly as I could ever wish for.
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.
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.
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Trust your instincts: if you feel sleep may be being interrupted by a health or medical issue, speak with a knowledgeable Health Care Provider.
- 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.
Saturday May 12 2018
As I prepare for Wednesday's Sleep Workshop, I am getting excited about meeting 10 moms with 10 little babies (and siblings too!). Getting ready for the workshop has meant taking time to remember our own family's sleep journey (which is still in progress!).
I remember the blissful moments of watching my babies' chests rise and fall, and wee baby sighs. Of feverish toddlers falling asleep in my arms, and of my older boys cuddling into me at night for comfort.
I also remember the physical and mental pain of sleep deprivation in the early days; the struggle I had with balancing their basic biological need for nurturing with my need to sleep; the sacrifices I am glad I made that I know now could have been made with better balance. I remember what advice helped us through, and I remember what advice was inadequate or hurtful.
Through all of that, I am so reassured that my primary goal, even through bumps and doubt, was to give my kids what they needed. This photo was one I took this morning of my 3 and 6 year old snuggling together. It can be a long long road to get to this point. But I'm happy to be where we are now, and to be able to share some wisdom, knowledge, and strategies with those still in the thick of it.