Struggling to Sleep


An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My daughter (who is now two years old) has co-slept since she was born. I’d be so happy to nurse and snuggle her to sleep every night, but she has started hitting and kicking me. We have a set routine: bath, bedtime snack, stories, lights out, nursing in bed. After she nurses, though, she starts hitting and kicking. We’re a non-violent home and have been trying gentle methods to get her to sleep. She has never been left alone to fall asleep on her own or to cry it out (“CIO”). I feel like that might be our only option now, however. I really don’t know how to handle this situation. Like I said, I’m so happy to be snuggled next to her, but that isn’t working lately.

It is possible that she’s teething. I know three of the four two-year molars have started emerging, so that leaves one to go. If she doesn’t nap, there is no problem at all with nighttime, so maybe she is phasing out of naps. It seems early, though, to not need naps, because by evening she is really cranky. I’m pretty sure there isn’t much milk goin’ on; I don’t get nearly the let down sensation that I used to.

The hitting/kicking will start once the nursing is over (she’ll stop or she’ll start trying to somersault while still attached, which hurts!). I would like her to lie next to me while nursing instead of wiggling all around, because she has torn the skin on numerous occasions when I allowed her to nurse and wiggle at the same time.

Because she has a floor mattress, she can get out of bed and go turn on the lights. Again, I don’t mind having time to cuddle and talk at night while we lie there, but having lights off and lying down in bed is pretty important to me. We do have a little nightlight that she can turn on if she wants, but overhead lights are not allowed once we’re done reading and have turned them off for nursing. She wants to be all done (“I awake now!”) and can open her door on her own, but again – bedtime is usually lights off by 8 or 8:30, so staying up much later doesn’t work well. If I let her stay up until she totally crashes, it’ll be 11:30 or midnight, but waking up again by 7 am, so not enough nighttime sleep that way.

The hitting/kicking (and tonight biting) gets going after the nursing is done (whether she initiates the end of that or if I do), and then she wants to turn on lights/bounce on the bed/leave the room. Once that starts, I have to set boundaries.

As I mentioned before, we do not use violence in our home, so I am a little taken aback by her behavior. I try to react very matter-of-factly when she does it; I’ll say “Ouch! That hurts. Gentle hands, please!,” and I show her gentle hands. A couple of times she has bitten me so hard that she broke skin and I cried.

So that is the story of my two year old. She does have an older sibling who is almost three (we adopted the three year old as a newborn but found out we were expecting the very next month). Having two so close in age, I think they have learned behaviors like that from each other when they learned they could get a reaction from them. I am a stay-at-home mom so I’m with them all day, every day, though we go to parent-toddler co-ops three times a week and have a playgroup at our home once a week.

Any advice would be appreciated as I really don’t want to do CIO. I also don’t want to be hit and kicked, though!

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Mandy: There are a lot of changes going on that could be affecting your family’s current bedtime routine. Transitioning away from naps can be difficult for everyone involved. Personally, I have had to remind myself not to have expectations during those times, either about nap time or bedtime. When I focused on what I believed should happen, I wasn’t able to be present to what was really happening.

At the same time, your little one is getting older and has a developing concept of self. She’s no longer completely dependent on you, she recognizes that she is a different person, and she wants to try out her expanding independence. It may be time to give her some more choices at bedtime so that she can have more control over the situation – which pajamas, books in the living room or bedroom, which toothbrush, etc.

Honoring her growing independence and autonomy doesn’t have to conflict with your own personal boundaries. I know many people will say that parents need to set firm limits for their children and enforce them. I disagree with this. We can’t control other people. We can, however, set our own boundaries and enforce those. If you are being hurt, let the other person know that it hurts. If reminders to be gentle or that you don’t like being treated a certain way aren’t working, it’s okay to remove yourself to a safe place. Can your partner step in and relieve you for a bit? Tell your child that you don’t like being hurt and need to go somewhere safe for a few minutes. You will be modeling self-respect.

If bedtime comes to a fight, step back for a bit. I often take two books to bed: one chapter book to read to the kids and one to read for myself. If the kids aren’t quite ready to settle down, I focus on enjoying my book. It usually isn’t long before they are snuggled up to read. If I happen to miss that window of sleep opportunity with my younger children, I don’t continue the struggle to get them to sleep. It’s usually easier, and less time consuming, for all of us if I wait it out another 45 minutes for the next window to swoop in and get them to sleep.

Jenn: I’ll be honest, I could have written your question myself. I struggled with how to answer this since bedtime has been an issue with us off and on since my son was two years old. So as I was considering my answer it occurred to me that I am a “mentor,” and maybe the best thing I could do is tell you this is normal; a lot of us struggle with this issue!

I gently weaned at 24 months to get pregnant, but I recall how nursing had become a bit of a circus when he was tired at that age. Whenever we went through aggressive nursing or teething while nursing (and the subsequent biting experiments), I brought my husband in to help. I passed our son off to him. I felt this was a gentle way to reinforce that the behavior was hurtful and needed to stop without abandoning my son. I didn’t want him to feel shamed or isolated. This really helped with aggressive behavior, and we both had an opportunity to safely become calm again. Kellymom.com has more suggestions for curbing unwanted nursing behavior in older children.

As far as bedtime, I think you may have hit on something with nap time. My son rarely naps and when he does, forget bedtime. He could pull an all-nighter. Also I’m noticing once again that getting my husband more involved is helping. We have started trying something new. My son gets some one-on-one playtime. I realized that I needed to listen more to the “I’m not tired” message. It’s not that he’s not tired, it’s that he needs full mom attention in active play. As a stay-at-home with a baby, there’s a lot of joint activity time, errands, and chores. All he wants is half an hour to show me toys, draw pictures, or play cars – time for him to call the shots. Then I pass him back to my husband to read stories, sing, and rub his back. He goes to bed easiest on nights where he gets attention from both of us.

The only thing I know for sure is that sleep issues are constant and ever-changing. My best advice is to take a good look at what isn’t working and try something new. Routines don’t work forever, because kids are always growing and changing along with their needs. Perhaps nursing becomes an earlier part of the routine, reading comes after, and your husband tucks in? Or you just let her stay up for a few nights until the novelty of “not being tired” wears off and you can reestablish a working routine?

In the end, know you aren’t alone. It’s not always easy to be a gentle parent and none of us have all the answers.

Seonaid: I’m sorry to hear that you are having difficulties with bedtime. This a hard part of the day for many of us, and the approaches advocated by most of our culture are pretty harsh. However, you’ve got lots of options between letting your daughter kick you and CIO, so let’s explore some possibilities.

You might find that the solution is as simple as changing the order and location of your bedtime routine. When my son got into thrashing and kicking instead of snuggling, we moved the nursing to a separate space. It took a bit of effort and some saying No, but in the end I had to break the link between nursing and the bed – it was just too difficult to nurse lying down when he wanted to climb over me! When it was apparent that “nursing to sleep” wasn’t happening any more, the bed time story became the last step, but we do that in the chair or couch, and then move to the bedroom for kisses. (We’re weaned now, but the bedtime routine has held pretty close for the last year.)

If you have a partner, they might be able to take the final leg of the routine as you explore new solutions. I will confess that when we were moving each of my kids towards going to sleep by themselves, we spent months sitting next to them, patting backs and singing songs. I would suggest pulling a comfy chair into the room if you can, as I have sat on a cold floor many a night. If you haven’t already looked at them, I can also suggest the No Cry Sleep Solution (by Elizabeth Pantley), or the Baby Sleep Book (Dr. Sears). I’d actually be curious to hear how you have handled putting two preschoolers to bed simultaneously, as you’ve only talked about difficulties with one of them.

The issue of your daughter hitting you is nearly a separate problem, even if it is happening at bed time. One thing that is really important to me is that my children recognize that non-violence goes both ways. I have demonstrated “gentle touches” many times, but I also have said, “I cannot stay with you if you are going to hit me. Mommy’s body matters, too.” A more positive spin on it would be, “I can stay with you if you can calm down and stop hitting me,” but I haven’t found that particularly effective for two reasons. The hardest thing here is to actually walk away, and to stay calm in the face of the tantrum that tends to follow. It is kind of like a time-out in reverse, so it might not be a strategy that you are comfortable with. But I find that it gives me a moment to take a deep breath and get centered, which can be really helpful under this kind of stress. And as soon as he is calm enough not to hit me (which doesn’t necessarily mean that he is done crying), I go back to him to make sure that it really is the action that is unacceptable, and not him or his feelings.

I hope this helps, or at least that things start to get better soon. My last suggestion: have lots of good snuggles and nursing away from bedtime so that you remember how nice it can be. Good luck!

Photo Credit: thejbird

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