Recently, one of the Family Matters readers sent me a question about sleep problems with kids. I was surprised to discover that when she searched through over 650 posts, she did not find many dealing with kids’ sleep. The reason I was surprised is that in my parenting workshops, I talk to parents about kids’ sleep when I cover rules and boundaries. I have been sharing my personal trouble with my kids’ sleep for such a long time with so many parents, yet I have never written about it. Funny.
So this is the message from Julia, describing her sleep problem with her daughter. When she sent me the question, it was easier for me to give her a call and answer her question, but I wanted to share it with you too, just in case you are having similar challenges.
I have looked around your site to try and find some info on sleep problems with kids but had no luck. I know you are very busy, but thought I would ask just in case you can direct me to something that could help me?
My 8 1/2 yr old daughter cannot put herself to sleep, we have her in a single bed next to ours, and one of us has to go to bed at the same time as her, and usually we fall asleep, as it takes her a while to nod off. So as you can see, there is never any ”adult time” in our house. Things are getting rather desperate, as it creates a lot of problems as you can imagine. Hoping you might have time at some point to help me.
When we were just a young couple with a baby, we wanted to spend every second with Eden. As soon as Gal came home from work, we wanted to be together with her all the time, talk to her, sing songs, play with her and listen to every smart thing she did (and she did a lot).
One day, when she was 11 months old, we realized Eden had taken over our life and we had no time to be together, because our dear daughter went to sleep only when we did. So we decided that was it! She needed to go to sleep at 8pm so we could have a bit of time for ourselves.
But that did not work very well. Eden cried and cried. As she was a very smart girl, she started talking to us from her room and the guilt feelings ran wild.
For a long time, we tried everything we could think of. I will list the things we tried just to give you some idea, but nothing really worked for us. I read every book about sleeping problems, but in fact, Eden did not have any sleeping problems, because as soon as she finally put her head down and stopped moving, she fell asleep and slept right through the night until morning.
You see, I was the luckiest mother on Earth. While others had to wake up in the middle of the night to attend to their babies, I woke up once to breastfeed her during the first 3 months and from then on, she slept the whole night through. She is now 21 years old and I have woken up for her at night maybe 20 times since then.
Here is a list of things you can do. Hopefully, you will not have to try them all (like I did). And maybe the story after the list will work even better than all of them.
- Change eating time – Eden was so sophisticated she would get to bed and get up half an hour later saying she was hungry. I felt so bad about it I gave her food immediately, but we realized it was just one of her tricks to stay awake. She never seemed to go to Gal to tell him she was hungry at 10:30 pm, so every time she came to me, I sent her to Gal. Gal would smile at her and say, “Tough!” and send her to bed. She stopped after the third time she tried it.
- Change diet – no sugar, coffee, tea or chocolate in the evening
- Change bath time – Eden linked her bath with going to bed, so she would refuse to have a bath. We started washing her before dinner
- Sit with her – This was not successful, because she would talk to us all that time or keep moving one of her limbs so she would not fall asleep. As soon as she forgot to move her hand or foot, she would fall asleep, but that took ages
- Explain about the body and how important sleep is for good function of the body
- Have other people talk to her about the importance of sleep
- Have a night ceremony – Reading books, getting her teddy bears and “blankie”, singing “good night” songs, etc
- Have a relaxed hour before bedtime
- No TV before bedtime – Eden was born before the time of the computer, so playing on the computer before bedtime was not an issue, but if you are dealing with sleeping problems nowadays, you should make sure that computer time ends at least 2 hours before sleep, because the screen light creates the illusion of day and disturbs sleep
- Decorate her room to make it a happy place
- Tell stories about fairies giving gifts
- Tell stories about fairies giving money
- Get meditation CDs and listen in bed
- Let her cry in her room – Our book said that if a baby cries more than 10 minutes, there is a problem. Eden would cry for 9 minutes and 59 seconds and then fall asleep. It was torture
- Buy a new bed
- Allow her to go to sleep whenever she wanted
- Allow her to sleep wherever she wanted (but never in our bed!). On some weeks, Eden fell asleep on the living room carpet
- Take away privileges and favorite objects
- Buy new bed sheets with characters she liked
- Take her to family members’ houses to sleep over – This was mostly so we could have some time off for ourselves. From the age of 1 until Eden was 4 years old, we lived in the same town as our parents did, so it was easy. It helped us for a while, but as soon as she came back home, it was exactly the same.
- Make sure there were no electric things in her room
- Drink warm milk before bed – We later discovered this was very bad for her, because she was allergic to milk, so this was definitely not good
- Put relaxing scents in an oil burner
- Bribe her – “If you go to sleep on time, I will…” (Yes, I was desperate. If you can, try to avoid it. It makes kids manipulate you in return. Ouch!)
We tried every idea we read about or heard about for about 5 years. Everything worked for no more than a week. Eden was exhausted and so were we.
I want you to understand she did not disturb or prevent us from going about our business. We could do anything in the house and she just joined us – cleaning, cooking, playing and walking around the neighborhood. She just never allowed us to be together without her.
You may have considered Ophelia Syndrome (the feminine Oedipus Syndrome – kids seeking attention from the parent of the other sex), but that usually starts at a later stage and Eden did not want Gal’s attention more than she wanted mine. When we were together, hugging and kissing, she would come and hug and kiss us too. Or when Gal and I played “Catch” and Gal caught me, she would pull him away from me, as if she was trying to protect me.
One solution we found was to go to bed early and stay there for a while until she was convinced we are asleep, while doing our best to stay awake.
Another positive decision we made as a result of this was that once a week, we went out and brought a babysitter to watch over Eden (a decision we have kept for over 20 years now). We needed time to talk, be together, go out and meet other people. Once a week, we left the going-to-sleep battle for someone else. Surprisingly, the babysitters did not have to fight at all. Eden was cute and the babysitter did not mind sitting with her for an hour until she fell asleep. By the tame we came back, she was fast asleep and we had some quiet time. Highly recommended!
But the real solution came later.
When Eden was 6 years old and Tsoof was born (after we had lost two babies), we decided we could not afford to have this problem any longer. Tsoof was just one week old and I said to myself, “I give up!” I made an appointment with a family therapist and we went to see him with Eden. He listened to our problem and told Gal and me to come and see him without Eden.
We got a babysitter for the kids and went to see him. He said to us, “When you come home, tell her it is time to go to bed!”
Gal and I looked at each other not really understanding what he was saying.
“And?” we asked him.
“That’s it! You just tell her, ‘Eden, now it is time to go to bed’ and that’s it”.
We were shocked. Was this guy serious?
“And what makes you think she will go to sleep?” I asked him, “We have been saying this for 5 years and it doesn’t work”.
“Just go home and say to her ‘Eden, now it is time to go to bed'”, he kept repeating.
“She won’t!” I became frustrated, “You don’t know her. She will argue until the cows come home. She will say, ‘Why are you staying awake?’ and ‘It’s not fair’ and ‘I’m doing OK like this’. She won’t go to sleep. She will stay awake and argue”.
He looked at me and said, “Yes, she will argue, but you won’t”.
We left his office after an hour, feeling a bit frustrated. On the way home, we said that therapist probably had no kids of his own, because no one with kids would suggest anything so stupid.
We came home, had dinner, cleared the table and it was 8pm. I turned to Eden.
“Eden, now it is time to go to bed”.
Eden looked at me and said, “No, it’s not!”
I wanted to react immediately, but I remembered what the family therapist said and held back. “Eden, now it is time to go to bed”, I said again calmly.
“I don’t have to. You’re not the boss of me”, she said.
I wanted to say, “I AM the boss of you! I’m your mother, I’m the grownup here and I can tell you what to do”, but instead, I took a deep breath and said again in a clam voice, “Eden, now it is time to go to bed”.
As we had suspected, Eden argued for two hours, but we kept saying, “Eden, now it is time for you to go to bed”. She said she was not going to bed and in the end, she did not.
The following night, it all started again, but this time I said, “Eden, now it is time for you to go to bed” and I turned my back on her. Eden started arguing, but the sentences changed to questions.
“Why do I have to go to bed?” or “How are you going to make me?”
I told myself I would do exactly as the therapist had said (even if he had no kids of his own), so my answers were all the same, like a broken record, “Eden, now it is time to go to bed”.
I said this about 70 or 80 times that night and, sure enough, Eden only went to sleep when we did.
The third night sounded exactly the same. I used my mantra (meanwhile arguing with her in my mind) and she kept protesting. But this time, she went to bed early.
Can you imagine?
We had argued for 5 years times 365 days and she went to bed early on the third day of not arguing.
Here is what I learned from that one hour of coaching:
- Wanting to be with the parents is very typical of first born children, because they do not fully understand that Mom and Dad are different from them and think they live in a trio.
- Being an only child for 6 years only increased Eden’s belief we were a trio and doing things without her made her feel rejected.
- We had a belief that to be good parents we needed to explain things to our kids, even if it meant explaining them to death. Eden was a smart girl, so she understood this was our weakness and used it to be with us longer.
- Eden was too young to understand all the scientific/psychological/social reasons people need to go to sleep. “Do you know how many grownups do not understand that they need enough sleep?” the therapist asked us, “Sometimes, kids need to do things because you tell them to. You can try explaining, but they may not understand. Give them six months and try again, but continuing to explain is perceived by the kids as a weakness”.
This is my story of kids not wanting to go to sleep. From that day onwards, for the last 14 years, we have had no fights with Eden about going to sleep. She is 21 years old now and has two siblings, but she still thinks she is one of the grownups in the family (in terms of responsibility). Although we do not say anything to her about going to sleep, you can see her from time to time arguing with herself, debating whether to go to sleep or stay awake and read a book or cram some more psychology material. Some nights, we go to sleep before she does and she comes to tuck us in and turn the lights off.
I hope my story will help you too.