Getting the Support You Need to Resolve Sleep Issues

One of the mothers in my ongoing support group has a 2-year-old daughter who had a really hard time falling asleep. This is her story:

Ever since our sweet little daughter was an infant we had to help her fall asleep, which meant sitting by her bedside for two hours (every night!), patting her head and back, giving her water, and feeling like we were there against our will. And in spite of this bedtime routine, she usually woke frequently and demanded our presence during the night as well.

Ever since she was a baby our daughter has been going through many different medical procedures that have made her life and ours pretty challenging. And I kept feeling that, as her mother, I could not cause her additional pain and frustration. Watching her cry for a long time in bed was hard for me to handle, and this was keeping me from doing what I needed to do, and knew I should do. 

For a few months I worked on my own feelings about this issue in my listening time in our support group. And then I felt like we were ready to move forward and bring some change. It took both my husband and me to be there with our daughter and our older son. We started by telling them over dinner: “Tonight, we are going to try something different at bedtime, something that will help you sleep better in your bed without mommy and daddy staying in the room the whole time.” Then, after taking a shower, both kids got to do some Special Time (5 minutes for each child with each parent). Then there were some more stories and a few songs, followed by a hug and a kiss. And then we suggested that we were going to go to the other room and fold the laundry.

The first few nights this suggestion was not really accepted (as can be expected…) and there was a lot of moving around and going in and out of the room. Some nights there was crying and resistance to our leaving the room. At that stage, I generally tried to stay as close as possible to allow the crying to flow and to reassure my daughter, saying, “Mommy loves you,” and “Mommy will always keep you safe, even when she’s in the other room.” Bit by bit, over many nights, I moved farther away from her as I listened to her feelings pour out until the crying subsided and I could leave the room. I always had to keep the “right distance” for the feelings to come out, because if I came too close then the crying would stop but she still couldn’t fall asleep without me.

During this process I had a lot of feelings of my own, including uneasiness and fear about what this process was going to look like and for how long it would last. How much more crying would we have to face? I was getting a lot of help and support from my husband as well as my Listening Partners.

After a week or so there was no crying (!) at bedtime, but there were still some difficulties in falling asleep. What I tried to do then was to stand at the doorway and tell her some reassuring words and leave again. After a few days you could tell by the look in her eyes that her bed felt like a safe place to her, and she wouldn’t want to get out of it.

Today, a month after we started this process, my daughter falls asleep quietly and happily, and the quality of her sleep has improved significantly. She wakes up very relaxed and does not cry as she used to before.

This whole process helped me, and my partner, enjoy our evening once again. On top of that, we feel empowered in our ability to make changes in our family and move things forward. It reminded us that our role as parents is to lead our family and not get “trapped” by our kids’ behavior.

As for me, I feel that helping my daughter through this hurdle has allowed me to finally see her clearly with joy and vitality, without any filter of anger, guilt, or the need to go easy on her to compensate for the medical procedures she has had to go through. All I can see now is how proud I am of her and how much I love and admire her.

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart (as well as the three other hearts in my family) for this precious support that we are getting from you and from the support group you’re leading. This has made this whole process so doable, sensitive, and real. And thank you to all the moms in the group who are also a big part of this great gift!

Yes! I would like more free resources on helping my children sleep. Click here.

Ravid Aisenman AbramsohnRavid Aisenman Abramsohn, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor in Israel

How I Got My Daughter to Give Up the Pacifier and Settle in to Deeper Sleep

My daughter Leah was an extremely agitated infant who slept very poorly. Our pediatrician assured us that the problem was not a medical one, but we never fully understood what had her so upset and out of sorts.

By the time she was three months old, my entire life was focused on helping her get some good sleep. I hired two sleep consultants, read every book on sleep available, but found no answers or magic cures. What I knew I could not do was leave her alone to “cry it out.” Instinctively I knew she was struggling with something that she needed my help with, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave her alone.

So… I spent hours a day sitting in a rocking chair in a darkened room with her in my arms. Blackout shades and a sound machine made our bedroom a sleeping haven (at least it seemed that way to me!), but she could not succumb easily to sleep and could not stay asleep for more than ten minutes without my arms around her.  I had found that sucking appeased her quite well, and I had allowed her to grow accustomed to nursing or taking a bottle, and eventually sucking on a pacifier to stay asleep. The problem was that she couldn’t stay asleep unless something was in her mouth to suck on. I had to stay with her and keep the pacifier in her mouth or it would fall out and she’d wake and cry until I put it back in.

I knew the pacifier—and the need to suck in order to fall asleep and stay asleep—was a habit I had allowed her to develop, and that the only way she was ever going to be able to sleep deeply and independently, was if I helped her give up the pacifier. I tried some different methods I had read about—gentle ways to help a baby “ease off” the nipple so as not to require it for sleep, but the methods never seemed to work.

Around this time I learned about lovingly listening to babies cry by reading Althea Solter’s book, The Aware Baby. It reminded me that, years before, I had been introduced to Patty Wipfler’s approach to helping children with their feelings, and so I looked her up. I found that not only was Patty still working with parents and children, but she was starting a Building Emotional Understanding class for parents the very next week, and only a mile from my home! The class was where I learned about “Staylistening,” and got the support I needed to be able to listen to my daughter’s deep feelings.

I realized right away that I needed to help my daughter with the feelings that were being held in place by the pacifier. One night when we were doing our bedtime routine (bath, bottle, pacifier and rocking in the rocking chair), I told her after she finished her bottle that I wasn’t going to give her the pacifier anymore, but that I would stay right with her while she had her feelings. Holding her little body in my arms that night while she thrashed and cried, arching her back, turning all red, sweating profusely, and screaming in what sounded like agony, was the hardest thing I’d done as a parent. It was even harder than giving birth! Tears streamed down my face while I held her in my arms, offering her eye contact, and telling her gently but with conviction that she was safe, and that I wouldn’t leave until she felt peaceful. That night I listened for an excruciating hour and a half. When she was done crying, her body relaxed and she slept more deeply than she ever had.

The next night, and for three more nights after that, I listened lovingly to my daughter cry for forty-five minutes before she could sleep. It was still quite hard for me and I needed to cry afterward in order to recover from the experience.  But her sleep was improving—she could now stay asleep for a two-hour stretch (at night) without me holding her, and without sucking on anything! It felt like a miracle. And knowing that I had found a way to help my daughter made me feel much, much better about myself as a parent. For the first time I felt the sweet confidence that my love and attention could indeed make a huge difference for my child.

After that, my daughter would still cry in my arms before falling asleep, but her cries were much shorter and far less intense. Her dad started taking turns putting her to bed. He agreed to listen to her in the way I had learned: offering eye contact and speaking to her gently. We noticed that when he put her down she would cry intensely again for long stretches—sometimes for a half an hour or more. This was interesting since she didn’t cry as much with me anymore. We realized that there were feelings she could get at with her dad that she was unable to reach with me because my body had become a sort of “comfort” that soothed her away from her feelings. During these times of listening, my daughter and her father began to develop a deep bond that they both enjoy to this day—deeper than what I’ve seen many children get to have with their fathers.

Sleep continued to be an area of challenge for us as a family, but taking away my daughter’s pacifier and listening to her cry those first times was a dramatic turning point in our steps toward improved sleep. We still had a long road to go, and many hours of listening to do, but her sleep continued to improve as we listened through her upsets. In addition to improved sleep, through the listening, my daughter became more relaxed and content as a baby. With our help she was able to “offload” a pile of fear that had had her in its grips in those early months.

Today she is almost three-and-a-half. She is a bold, confident, adventurous, loving child who is delightfully and delightedly herself.  She also—gratefully—sleeps a deep twelve hours almost every night!

Yes! I would like more free resources on helping my children sleep. Click here.

Join Certified Instructor Angela Jernigan in one of her classes or local groups in the East Bay.