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Childhood Sleep Problems - Ask Lori!

I am at the end of my rope and am out of ideas. My son just turned 2 and while he used to have no problem going down for naps and bedtime, those times have recently become the bane of my existence. I have tried EVERYTHING, from old school parenting styles of telling him what to do and being very stern and calm, to trying to make deals, to the attachment style of bringing him into my bed, to NVC methods of communication with understanding and describing mine and his needs and feelings. None of it is working.

It started about a week and a half ago. The only thing that has worked temporarily is me laying in his crib-bed but as soon as I get up (with him sleeping or awake) the tantrums and screaming return. He seems only to be content when I am holding him, but I obviously can not do that all night. I feel like he is needing closeness, as that is the only thing that seems to help, but I am in need of sleep and comfort as well. It's beginning to bring me to tears out of frustration. The process of getting him to sleep has been taking almost 3 hours, and naps have been missed altogether with that time slot spent in hysterics. Please help! I am at a complete loss at this point. Thank you!!! - ABBY

Dear Abby,

I certainly can hear your frustration and as the parent of a four-year-old who had many phases of pulling "all-nighters" and weeks on end of repeated wakings, I can say that this is most probably a phase and not a serious or life-long sleep problem. Bedtime issues and separation anxiety have long been at the top of most parenting-dilemma lists.

I think it is imperative to not ignore the fact that children, before the age of seven, very often need to be near their parents to sleep comfortably and securely; to be in close proximity to our caregivers is a basic human need.

While this may not always be a realistic option in the minds of modern parents who are over-worked and who treasure those precious few moments of peace and quiet at the end of a long day, the reality is that bedtime can be scary for small children and they don't want to do it all alone - in the dark. It doesn't have to be a struggle, if you are willing to drop your parental agenda.

If you can approach this phase with no expectations, except to support your child and his needs, in the best way possible, then you will save your sanity. You mentioned that your son just turned two. This is a pivotal piece of information for you to recognize and understand. The brain is growing rapidly in the early years and by age three, your child has developed millions of scattered unorganized brain pathways or connections.

Right now, his brain is going through spurts of development about every six months. What this means for you as a parent is that around your child's birthday and around his 1/2 birthday you will probably see or experience a period of what seems like developmental regression. "But he just did this all by himself last month," a parent might say.

But when brains are reorganizing to achieve higher states of functioning, regression is likely and normal. In small children this presents as needing lots of extra love, attention, time, cuddles, and connection. What is happening is that the brain connections that are not being utilized and reinforced are being pruned away and this means that some newer or more complex brain functions may be less available to your child during times of developmental growth.

Think of it like moving to a new house. This new house will be bigger and allow you more access to things you didn't have before. However, while you are in transition, all of your personal belongings that enable you to live and manage life efficiently are packed up and stored away, awaiting your newer and more useful location. During this time, your access to many necessary items is temporarily interrupted and limited... and so is your child's.

Barring developmental stages, I would also look to see if there have been other major changes or stressors in your son's life. For example, going back to work, moving, a new baby etc., are the kinds of changes can activate a need for more security and connection in a young child.

Also investigate the amount of screen time, if any, that your child is exposed to. Video games and TV present a sizable challenge to restful sleep and your child's ability to calm down his system. And finally, diet and nutrition - look for artificial colors and preservatives which can affect behavior. Cereal bars, yogurts, fruit roll-ups and kid's vitamins are notorious for hiding brain disrupting chemicals and colors.

Some kids who have sensory integration issues or who experience over-stimulation can have trouble stopping their minds or falling asleep. Look for what soothes your child in other situations - is it music, soft tones, colors or lights, a head/foot/leg massage?

I would definitely encourage you to meet your own needs as best you can. If you are losing sleep, then your reactions to your son may be clouded by your own stress, which can lead you to reach your breaking point much earlier and thus make it harder for you to appreciate and empathize with his experience.

As a general rule, it is unrealistic to expect a child of two to be able to go to sleep on his own. This doesn't mean he will not learn to do so eventually, but that you cannot force this kind of independence when he is not developmentally ready. At his age, the need to be rocked or held to sleep is quite natural and necessary.

Attachment is one of the first neural networks that is set up in your child's brain. It is a uniquely individual process which is necessary and vital to providing the foundation for your child's future independence and unfortunately it is a process that cannot be rushed.

Conscious parenting doesn't mean we employ magical ways to make our kids to do what we want, when we want them to do it; it means we recognize that our children are trying their best to meet their needs and it means that we are aware that our kids motives are not to try and "push our buttons" or "get attention" to be manipulative but that they are truly trying to make sense of a fast-paced and sometimes confusing world.

My daughter gave up her naps at age 2.5, which was crazy to me, but it was what she needed to go to bed at a reasonable hour. She literally needed to run ALL day before she was tired enough to rest. Start uncovering your child's temperament preferences and unique schedule needs.

Since you have already noticed that being close is the only thing that currently "works," take this - not as a defeat - but as a valuable clue to your son's basic human needs right now, at two years old. Your touch may be all that is needed - for now. Provide as much of YOU as you can while knowing that this [stage] too, shall pass.

You will one day long for the times when he curled up in your arms as they do go by so very fast.

MORE RESOURCES:

The NO CRY SLEEP SOLUTION printable handbook - full of great tips!

Lori Petro is a Mom, Children's Advocate and Speaker. She is passionate about transforming our world through conscious parenting compassionate communication, and peaceful conflict resolution.

For weekly tips, tools, articles and information on conscious parenting connect with me on:

Twitter: @TEACHthruLove
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TEACHthroughLove
Blog: http://mamablog.teach-through-love.com
Website: http://www.teach-through-love.com

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