Searching for Sleep: The Never Ending Night
After posting on sleep the first time, I had many friends message me to share that sleep is a struggle in their homes. It was wonderfully reassuring to hear that we weren’t the only ones struggling! The conversations usually continued on to strategies tried and even a small private messaging group of sleep deprived moms was formed for support, encouragement and strategy sharing.
So, I decided to go ahead and write this blog post sharing all the things that we’ve tried for sleep in hopes of reaching more families and helping them find strategies that might work for them. If you are curious, you can read my previous post here.
First, I’d like to clarify a few things.
#1. Every child and family is different and their needs very greatly. So what works for one child in the same family or children in different families is going to look vastly different.
#2. In my opinion there are two types of kids… the 1st kiddo is a “magical” sleeping child that has been graciously gifted with the ability to sleep long stretches or even through the night at a very young age without assistance by the parent. The 2nd child is vastly different and varies from “hardly sleeps at all” to “doesn’t always sleep through the night” as he/she “should” for his/her age according to the so-called “sleep experts” (a.k.a. books, doctors, etc.).
#3 There is a parenting learning curve. When you first bring home this itty bitty baby, you begin learning what “works” for this little one or what makes them most comfortable and more apt to sleep. Do they like to be swaddled? Are they warm enough? Are they full enough from dinner? But, many families face challenges with sleep that go well beyond “My child wasn’t ‘comfortable’ enough. Ill try something else”.
#4. Sleep can be a touchy parenting issue. I think the reason for this is that if the sleep to awake hours ratio is “off” enough, the rest of the family’s daily life is effected greatly. Getting your children to sleep also seems to fall in a “parenting” category and so can be viewed as “if you child is struggling with sleep, you must not be doing something right as a parent”. This cannot be farther from the truth…in my opinion.
#5. Sleep is a developmental process. We don’t expect babies to stand up at six months and just take off walking. They begin by pulling themselves up on furniture, then walking along furniture, then taking a step away from furniture, then walking multiple steps, and so on. They go through multiple steps of motor development before they are able to walk. It’s the same with sleep. Unless you’re child is that “magical” sleeping baby, children have to learn strategies to calm themselves, they have to learn strategies to put themselves back to sleep when they do wake up, etc.
Let me tell you a little bit about our history just in case this is one of the first posts that you’re reading here!
Big Sister is our oldest and at four she is just now staying in her own bed all night consistently. She does not always stay asleep the whole night and often wakes up needing us to help her go back to sleep. Big Sister has always struggled with sleep. I equate that with her being an intense, high-needs, driven, anxious, and very busy girl. I do believe that personality plays a role in sleep.
Sister Roo is two and is fairly easy-going. But because of the sleep struggles that we’ve encountered with Big Sister, it has been challenging to offer her a quiet throughout the night, routine. Sister Roo’s developmental stages, things like cutting teeth and the usual little kid colds never seemed to play out in our favor. It always felt that as soon as we were making progress with her for sleep she would start cutting teeth and or get sick. It has also been our experience that because we were sleep deprived with Big Sister’s night wakings, we had even less energy to put towards helping Sister Roo sleep through the night.
I want to share the things that we’ve tried, in hopes that it’ll help another family. I am going to try to make this as comprehensive a list as possible. I will explain if the strategy worked for us or not. But remember, things that don’t work for one kiddo, may work for another. Please remember that I am not a doctor only a mom who knows her own kiddos. If sleep is an issue for your family, I highly recommend making sure your doctor is aware, requesting his/her opinion on specific sleep strategies for your child and doing your own research!
#1. Cry it out – These strategy seems to spur the most controversy in parenting circles. I will not debate its efficacy, but will share my view and our experience. We tried this in a somewhat modified manner with Big Sister. We chose not to adhere to a strict cry it out protocal because it caused such great anxiety for me and anxiety for her as well. Big Sister was the type of baby when left in her bed by herself, would cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry. Much longer then I felt comfortable waiting out. When Sister Roo was born I had done more research and had found that studies have shown that the use of crying it out actually increases the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in those children. Because of a family history with anxiety and such I didn’t feel it was wise to continue using crying it out as a valuable sleep tool for our family. Now that Big Sister’s picture definitely includes anxiety, I realize why crying it out didn’t work for her and I’m so grateful we didn’t stick with it.
#2 Co-sleeping (room sharing and bed sharing) – This is another controversial sleep strategy. But, for many months this was our saving grace. Many families get to a place of “survival”, where it’s more important for the family to just simply get some sleep than follow socially acceptable sleep arrangements. In my opinion and with our experience within that place of “survival, co-sleeping was a safe and realistic option. Contrary to what many people say, there are safe ways to co-sleep. You have to do a bit or research, but the information is out there! I chose to and was able to breast-feed both of my girls and co-sleeping made this much easier. As they got older, I hardly woke up when they needed to eat, which decrease the amount of time I was waking during the night. The downside to co-sleeping for us was that when it came time to move the girls out of our bed, it coincided with decreasing breast-feeding or stopping altogether. That additional challenge wouldn’t be a reason not to choose to co-sleep. No matter what parenting choices you make, there are going to be a challenges. Welcome to parenthood! Right?!
#3 Babywearing – I didn’t truly get into babywearing until I was pregnant with Sister Roo. I so wish I had known more about babywearing when Big Sister was an infant. It would’ve made life with her a lot easier. She could have been described as a “Velcro baby”. I’m sure you’ve heard that term before and it seems so negative but to me it describes the intense needs that she had to feel the closeness and physical connection to calm and keep an even keel. That’s just who she was and is. Babywearing Sister Roo made naps much easier. That closeness to mom and the safety and peace of mind it affords while still getting things done, helped me to relax. It allowed me to get through my to do list and attempt to meet the expectations of what I needed to get done in a day. I have also used babywearing occasionally as part of a bedtime routine. If I were to ever have a third baby, I would definitely utilize more during that time.
#4 Auditory Input (white noise, music, vocal, ocean sounds, fan, etc.) – This was something that took months of trial and error to find what work best for Big Sister. In retrospect, I think it was more finding music that was relaxing and then playing it consistently throughout the night, every night that made the bigger difference that whether it was music versus white noise for example. It was quite obvious that having some sort of music in her bedroom helped her sleep for longer stretches. We tried all sorts of different types of auditory input throughout her infancy and toddlerhood. But ultimately, she seemed to appreciate music so we have this rain forest lullaby CD that plays on repeat all night long. It gets very annoying as an adult to listen to it so repetitively, but it’s very reassuring and helps with consistency for the girls bedtime routine. So, it plays on!
#5 Bedtime routine – It is well documented that the more consistent routine that you can stick to around bedtime, the easier bedtime becomes. We tried including bath time in the bedtime routine but it never made a huge difference in helping girls get ready for sleep so it is not an every night part of the routine. A nonnegotiable part of our routine is the sequence of tasks that need to be done before bed. The bedtime routine looks different for every family and it changes as the child ages, but consider making the sequence of tasks as consistent as possible.
#6 Movement – As infants, both girls fell asleep easily in the car but driving around with them to get them us to sleep never really was an option for us. Neither of the girls really liked an infant swing and Big Sister liked the vibrating bouncy chair for very short amounts of time, but never for sleep. Now if I paired my movement (walking, rocking, bouncing, etc) with holding them or in Sister Roo’s case baby wearing, that was definitely a combination that helped them fall asleep. In the recent months I have again tried vibration with Big Sister to see if maybe vibration was calming to her and it actually seem to have the opposite effect.
#6 Weighted blanket – Some kids find the weight and pressure of a heavy or weighted blanket calming. It helps to “ground them”. As an OT, I could get into a detailed explanation of why this can work for some kids, but it’d make this already long post even longer! If you’re really curious, I’d be happy to do that individually with you! For our girls, neither of them really liked the weighted blanket. They will try it every once a while, but then it gets kicked off rather quickly.
#7 Tight clothes – This is another things similar to the weighted blanket that has its roots in the way our sensory system was created. Parents use things like skin tight under armor type clothing to provide a slight “compression” for a child’s body. It can be very calming. This is another thing that didn’t really make a difference for our girls, but is definitely something to try especially if your kiddo loved or loves being swaddled!
#8 Melatonin – Melatonin is something that our bodies make and one of its roles is to aid in sleep. Big Sister’s doctor suggested that we try it. I was a little reluctant to try it, because I’ve heard of research that shows that if melatonin is used across time it can affect your body’s creation of it’s own melatonin. Our doctor assured us that this was when it was used over a very long. This made me feel a little bit better and because we were struggling so badly with sleep, we decided to go ahead and try it. For Big Sister, melatonin works amazing. She would take it and 45 minutes later, she was out. I had never seen her not struggle to go to sleep, so to see her fall asleep so easily was such a relief. Unfortunately, it didn’t help her stay asleep. So the way that we use it now, is that when she’s having an evening where she’s going to struggle the most with sleep, then we give her melatonin. We don’t use it constantly and we don’t use it consistently.
#9 Good night tea – There are quite a few different varieties of tea on the market that help with sleep. The main ingredient in most of these teas is Velerian Root. It occurs naturally, but is not something our body produces like melatonin. For Big Sister the good night tea works almost as well as melatonin. So we have simply used it in place of melatonin. I think the choice to use one or the other really depends on what you’re comfortable with for your child.
#10 Physical Closeness – We have chosen to help our girls go to sleep by being in the room with them. This looks different at different ages. Big Sister can now go to sleep with us in the room but not in her bed with her until she goes to sleep. She is just now getting to the stage where we will tell her that we will come check on her and we will leave the room for a short period. Now if she is really struggling to go to sleep, we can’t leave the room. The reason we have chosen to do this for her, is that she really struggles with anxiety and when she is separated from us, her fears really play havoc on her mind. So for us, it’s worth the time it takes to help her to go to sleep peacefully and calmly then to be upset when she falls asleep. For Sister Room we made the same choice. We help her go to sleep by laying in the bed with her until she goes to sleep and then sneaking away. I know to some parents that might feel that this is too much assistance. That a child should not need a parent to be lay down with when to go to sleep. But in our family this is what helps everybody sleep better. We have been sleep deprived for long enough that sleep and more of it, is our main goal. Just as we slowly remove the amount of help we provide when a baby is learning to walk, we will be slowly removing ourselves from this routine as time goes on. Slowly we will remove ourselves from this routine by sitting on the edge of the bed versus laying with her. Then sitting on the far end of the bed, instead of sitting next to her. Then sitting by the door instead of sitting on the far end of her bed and so on. I know that my girls won’t always need or want us to lay with them at bedtime, so I’m cherishing these moments and reminding myself that they do not last forever.
#11 Essential oils (EOs) – I am all for natural options to help with sleep. I have enjoyed using EOs in my home. I do not know enough to go into detail about how and why different oils do different things so I will just tell you the ones that we’ve tried. For quite a while, diffusing lavender and ylang ylang worked really well to help Big Sister fall and stay asleep, but after a while it just wasn’t working anymore. I have heard that that can happen with essential oils. It’s like your body gets used to them and so the effectiveness wears off. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it certainly was our experience with that combination of oils. We have also tried a variety of calming, sleepy etc. roll-on EO mixes (cedar wood, lavender, Serenity, etc), but haven’t been able to find another combination that work as well as diffusing lavender and ylang ylang did. I have read that it really is about finding the right combination, because they affect each person’s body a little differently. So again it’s another instance of trial and error. As you might know you can diffuse EOs or apply them topically. So not only do you have the opportunity to try different combinations of oils but you have the opportunity to try different combinations of oils offered in a different way.
#12 Sleep Patterns – I really don’t know very much about this. It was introduced to me just recently. My understanding of this is that there are different levels of sleep and so what you do is you pay attention to the time when your child is waking up at night. So let’s say they wake up every night at midnight. What you would do is go into their room a little bit before midnight and “rouse” them. You don’t fully wake them up, but you rub their back or tell them you love them, just enough to see them take a deep breath, rollover, or move a bit. What this does is restart their sleep cycle. Around midnight they are coming out of one sleep cycle and instead of moving easily into the next one, they are waking up in between. By going in and “rousing” them, you restart that sleep cycle of them drifting back down into deeper sleep. Instead of them coming up out of deep sleep and waking up. For Sister Roo this seems to work. She wakes up right around midnight every night, but this did not help Big Sister as she wakes at random times.
#13 Sticker chart and rewards – This by far has been the most effective strategy thus far for Big Sister. I think though that we tried this at just the right time. At four, she now fully understands the process and can think ahead to anticipate the reward. Although Sister Roo really likes the idea of the stickers and picking a prize, she doesn’t fully grasp how her actions 12 hours before effect the outcome. What we did is set up a sticker chart for each night of the week. We also bought a bunch of cheap little toys (that we knew would probably end up in the trash sooner than later, but the motivation they gave was worth it) to put in a prize bag! When we started out, all we expected was that Big Sister sleep in her own bed all night (not to be confused with sleeping through the night). If she woke up and came to our bed, we’d remind her that if she wanted a sticker and prize she needed to go back to sleep in her own bed. It didn’t take long and she’d wake up, come to our bed and ask for us to help her go back to sleep in her bed. She wanted that sticker and prize! Thankfully this middle of the night going back to sleep doesn’t take too long! In the morning, she gets to put a sticker on the chart and pick a prize. After roughly 2 weeks of this, she has on her own begun sleeping through the night!! It feels like a miracle and I really don’t want to say it out loud, but it has been wonderful! I think her body is recognizing that it needs sleep! At the end of the week, if she’s gotten 7 stickers she gets a bigger prize. Right now, she is very much into the Toy Story characters, so last week she earned Jessie and this week she is working on earning another character. At the end of this week, we will phase out the small morning prizes, keep the sticker chart and she will still earn her end of the week prize (she has Bullseye, Buzz Lightyear, and Woody yet to earn). Our hope is that by the time these 4 weeks have past, sleeping through the night in her own bed will be enough of a habit that we can then phase out the weekly prizes. It may seem like a lot (money, time, etc) for us as parents, but it has totally been worth it for our family!
Wow, that was quite long! If you are still with me, your head is probably spinning from the amount of information and options that we’ve tried and that your family can try. Just know that we didn’t really start out with this list of all these things to try. We started out hearing about a couple strategies and trying them, then moving on to try others after we felt we had give those our best effort. So, please remember that it’s a journey. Know that it’s a developmental process. Be encouraged that at some point the constant search for sleep will end and just to trust the process.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me via Facebook or in the comments below and I will do my best to answer any questions.
If you feel comfortable, please consider leaving any questions in the comments of this post. Maybe your question and the following discussion can help another parent as well!
Edited to add: If you’d like to read an update (Sleep: Sometimes you just lose it!) on our search for sleep, click here!
Love and magical sleepy dust to you and yours!