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When Nights Turn Sleepless: What's a Mom Got to Do to Get Some Z's?

One of the most challenging parts of becoming a parent is dealing with sleep deprivation. This week the Moms Council talks about sleep, or lack there of, from Ferberizing to the family bed.

There are all kinds of reasons why children don't sleep through the night - age, fear of the dark, nightmares or terrors - or - just plain stubbornness. This week, the Wakefield Moms' Council shares their strategies for - and frustrations with - getting a good night's sleep.

Regina Martine:
I have the dubious distinction of being the “inspiration” for this week’s column, since I have spent the last two weeks battling a six-year-old boy who refuses to sleep. All three of my kids go to bed pretty easily, with the usual “can I just have a little drink of water?” “Can you sing me one more song?” “Can you wait upstairs for a few minutes?” — but after that, all is quiet. But not for long …

My son has always been a bad sleeper who found his way into my bed almost every night until he was about five. He didn’t like being alone at night, and truthfully, if all my child wants is to snuggle with mom and dad, there are worse problems to have. However, it went on for way too long. So we let him have sleepovers with his sisters, we bribed him with sticker charts and the promise of prizes if he would stay in his own bed all night —and at long long last — he did. All night, every night. Once in a great while he would sleepwalk out into the hallway and we would just turn him around and put him back to bed, but our sleepless nights were finally over. Hurray!

The trouble didn’t start with him. My middle daughter had night terrors 2 or 3 (or sometimes more) nights a week from when she was three until she started kindergarten. Night terrors are what I think must have made parents think their children were possessed by demons. She would scream, kick, punch, run through the house, obviously terrified, crying hysterically, and yelling things like “I NEED MY MAMA!!! YOU ARE NOT MY MAMA!!!” all the while with her eyes open and seemingly awake. On a good night this would go on for an hour. Most of the time it went on longer and nothing would wake her up. We took her outside, we put cool washcloths on her face, we held her, we sang to her, we tried to comfort her while she thrashed and screamed and clawed at us like a terrified animal. It was truly horrible to watch, and when it was over, she would look sweetly at me and say “Hi, Mommy,” and fall instantly back to sleep. The next day, my husband and I would be rattled and exhausted and she would have no memory of what went on the night before.

So about 2 weeks ago, my son started sleepwalking into our room—not once, but four, five six, times a night.  As always, we brought him back to his room, tucked him into bed and within seconds he was sound asleep. By the fifth or sixth time, he would follow us out of the room, refuse to stay in the bed, refuse to let us leave the room, jump out of bed and follow us if we tried to leave all the while yelling that he did not want to sleep by himself. Fine. I’ll sit and hold your hand until you fall asleep. He would refuse to lie down, refuse to close his eyes—if he did close his eyes and almost fall asleep he would jolt upright and scream “MAMA!!!!!!” at the top of his lungs. This went on every night for a week and a half. On the worst night, he got up the first time at 10pm and finally fell asleep around 5. In the week and a half, no one slept more than 4 hours a night, and never more than an hour at a time.

I cried and I begged for suggestions from anyone who would listen to me. We tried Ferberizing him again. I took him to the doctor. I gave him warm baths before bed and sprinkled lavender oil on his pillows, I played soft ocean sounds in his room all night. He still woke up. He fought and screamed and refused to sleep. Hour after hour, night after night. 

So we gave in.  If he wants me to sleep in his room, I do. We gave in so we could sleep, and so he would stay asleep—and it was the best thing we could have done. We all got a full night sleep. Then another, then another.  We were calmer, he was happier, and each night he sleeps longer and longer without waking up. Is this a perfect solution? Not really.  However, since sleep deprivation was making me hallucinate, yell at my kids constantly, and burst into tears at the supermarket, it is the right plan for us for now.  Have we solved our sleep problems? Ask me in a week when we try to take the air mattress out of his room.

Holly DeSouza:
Sleep is for wimps, not mothers.  At least, that is what I am telling myself after two pots of coffee and eyelids currently being held open with toothpicks.

Yes, I have a non-sleeper on my hands.  My daughter took the equivalent of a catnap when she was an infant, qualified only as resting her eyes when she was a toddler, and quit the whole daytime sleep thing when she was two and a half.  That’s compounded by the fact she wakes up at least twice during the night and is up for the day between 5 and 5:30 AM.  She is otherwise extremely healthy and happy with a double dose of energy. 

I, on the other hand, am exhausted 24/7.  Out of desperation and hopefully an explanation I have dragged us both to the pediatrician.  I have whined to my network of Facebook friends to try and find answers from the non-medically trained community.  Because she does not suffer from any other symptom, the answer has always been the vague response any parent of a non sleeper will not want to hear: “Your child does not need a lot of sleep.”  As grateful as I am she healthy, accepting the diagnosis (or lack thereof) has proven to be yet another challenge.

The only thing I have found that works for my family is to continue to create atmospheres which maximize an environment for sleep and wait it out.  Establishing a bedtime routine that is consistent and allows for a calm atmosphere is highly recommended by everyone I’ve spoken with ~ medically trained or otherwise. 

As long as your pediatrician is not alarmed and there are no other signs of a problem, giving yourself an avenue to discuss with other moms is a huge help emotionally (This site is my top pick). 

In the meantime… my best guess is I have roughly fourteen more years before I am begging my daughter to stop “sleeping the day away” while I attempt to wake her up at 3:00 PM on a Saturday.

Laurie Hunt:
You see the picture with this article of the two adorable sisters sleeping all cozy together in a bed?  Now imagine two large adults in the bed with them.  Yup, that’s how we slept most nights when the kids were little.  One day my oldest finally realized it was not always comfortable and decided to sleep in her own bed and has very rarely looked back.  My youngest took a bit longer to get there and will still wander into “the big bed” if she wakes up in the middle of the night.  

Yes, there were/are times I wish it weren’t that way but the majority of the time I was, and still am, okay with it.  They are only little for so long and I also really believe there is something primal about children wanting to share sleep with their parents.  It’s funny to me that most parents/adults don’t sleep alone but we expect our kids to.

In many cultures sleep is shared within the family unit.  In Japan this is referred to as “the river” – the parents are the banks and the child(ren) are the water in the river.  It is not uncommon for families in Japan to sleep like this well into their children’s teenage years.  In most cultures children share sleep with their mothers at least until they are weaned, and the age of weaning in most cultures is much older than what we are accustomed to.  Some cultures will place baby in a hammock or basket in the room, others share a matt on the floor. An interesting fact is that SIDS occurrences are among the lowest in Hong Kong where co-sleeping is extremely common.

For those of you interested in natural parenting sleep styles here is a great website with more information. For those of you that are having (extreme) difficulty with sleep and are looking for an option other than the family bed I would recommend looking into the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

I think the most important thing is that you, and the rest of your family, are all getting a restful night sleep and enough of it.  There is no right or wrong way for a family to reach this goal. 

Peggy Barresi
The hardest part of parenting little ones, for me, was the sleep deprivation. I kept looking forward to the days when my kids would sleep until noon and leave me the heck alone through the night and in the morning. With two teenage girls in the house, those days have arrived and, of course, brought new issues with them.

Studies indicate that teens should ideally get around nine hours of sleep every night. To get a full nine hours, my kids would need to be asleep by 10:30 pm. Ha! I don’t know what happens to teenagers, but they are exhausted in the morning, more exhausted after school/sports/dance, and very perky at 10:00 pm. My girls want to discuss their life problems at 11:00 pm, when I’m catatonic. Just as I’m going to bed they’re doing homework, downloading music, and planning outfits. If they get 6 hours of sleep a night, they’re lucky.

Quantity seems out, so the best I can do is make sure they get quality sleep time. My girls are usually in their bedrooms by 10 pm. They’re not asleep, but at least they’re having some relatively quiet time. This means no cell phones. At three in the morning nobody needs to know that Ashley broke up with her boyfriend. Really. The cell stays downstairs. There are also no televisions in my kids’ bedrooms. If they have to be awake, at least they can be productive or read a book. 

When my eldest daughter’s alarm goes off at 6:00 every weekday, I can hear it through her and my closed doors. It wakes me up. She sleeps right through it. It takes physical contact to wake up my teens, so at least I know they sleep soundly. They also have vivid dreams, so I can also surmise they are also getting the very necessary REM sleep.

On weekends, I let my girls sleep as late as they want, which is probably not as late as they wish they could sleep. They’re used to waking up early, so it’s rare they sleep past 10:00 am on Saturday or Sunday. Poor things. Payback’s a …. rhymes with witch.

Tasha Schlake Festel
To be perfectly honest, there are very few things that I actually do right as a mother.

Sleep, however, is one of them. I do not, never have and never will mess around with my kids’ sleeping habits. Sleep is the most important factor you can impact in your child’s young life. Where there is sleep, there can be health, happiness and learning. For everyone in your family, not just your children.

I am pretty hardcore when it comes to sleep. I owe my philosophy in large part to my wise and rational sister, Heidi. (Thanks, Heidi!) The day my babies each came home from the hospital, they slept in their own cribs, in their own rooms. I am proud to say neither of my children has ever spent a night in my bed. In fact, I can go one step further and say that neither of my kids has ever even attempted to come in to my bedroom at night. I have never slept in their beds with them, on their floors, in a chair in the corner or in the hallway. We each have a bed. We each have a room. And we will each spend the night in our own spaces.

I am lucky to have good sleepers, but I’d like to think that I have had something to do with fostering that. I have always been consistent with bedtime routines and stuck to my guns, even if the sky is falling all around us. It doesn’t matter if it’s naptime or nighttime. Bed time is bed time. When I say you go to sleep, you go to sleep. End of story. And while my children are strong-willed and do their own thing in just about every other facet of their lives, I think they appreciate the consistency and constancy of going to bed, on time, the same way, every night, forever, with very few exceptions.

My techniques for sleep-training don’t just work because of some genetic fluke within my bloodline. I occasionally help out as an overnight nanny, tending to the needs of infants, babies and toddlers overnight while their exhausted parents get some sleep. In working with these babies – many of whom must be “sleep trained” due to the terrible habits their parents have introduced – I can immediately see the benefits of consistency and routine. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. When they get up, see what they need, deal with it – or ignore it if it’s frivolous – and get back in your own bed. Nighttime is not the time for negotiations or discussions. It’s the time to sleep. Send that message clearly. It’s hard. It’s so much easier to give in and let your child get in bed with you, stay up late, get rocked to sleep, etc. It’s the middle of the night. You’re tired. You need sleep too. I get it. But you are the adult! Take control, suck it up for a few days, and reap the benefits for a lifetime.

In my own chaotic life, sleep is the first thing I sacrifice. I know how it makes me feel when I don’t get the sleep that I need. I am irritable, depressed, easily confused, achy and lethargic and I look like hell to boot. I don’t ever want my kids to feel like that. Creating good sleep habits for your kids is one of the best gifts you can give them. Don’t deprive them because you are too tired to do it right. I’m hoping that the groundwork I’ve laid with my kids will serve them well as they get older. If they’re well-rested, they’ll be so much more equipped to deal with what life throws at them.

Sleep resources:

  • Nannykins - A local nanny service, run by a mom who has seen it all, offering overnight coverage for exhausted and overwhelmed parents.
  • Sleep For Kids A website for kids that discusses the importance of sleep in a way they understand. Also includes some tips for parents.

Check out how much sleep you need at various ages. Are your kids getting enough? Are you?

Regina Martine April 07, 2011 at 01:13 PM
I also would like to point out that even thought I slept with all three of my babies when they were small and still nursing, they have been going to bed the same way, in their own beds with the same routine ever since. We are big believers in consistent bedtime routines, and for the most part, our kids go to bed just fine every night. We have had the same routines with all three kids all their lives and had three very different results. My oldest goes to bed and nothing short of a bomb going off in her room will wake her up until the next morning. My middle child doesn't have night terrors anymore, but she still talks and calls out in her sleep. However, she sleeps all night. My youngest is the worst sleeper and lately has been waking up many, many times a night and refusing to go back to sleep. All the best intentions and bedtime habits don't always make good sleepers.
Lisa Paglierani April 08, 2011 at 02:11 AM
Great article, ladies! I liked seeing the differing approaches and philosophies. I am also a subscriber to Dr. Weissbluth, with varying success in practice. As Regina said, each child is innately different in terms of sleep needs and behavior. I'm counting my blessings that we're all sleeping these days. That hasn't always been the case, and I know it won't always be going forward.
Tasha Schlake Festel April 08, 2011 at 10:58 AM
I agree that there is not a "one-size-fits-all" solution to sleeping. Every household is different, and each child is different. I hope we all end up sleeping well with whatever choices we make. And Lisa, you get to start from scratch in a few months. I can't wait to hear how that goes! :)
Lisa Paglierani April 08, 2011 at 11:05 AM
Luckily, I know a good night nanny...
Erin Calvo-Bacci April 14, 2011 at 12:42 PM
Great article ladies, I'm shocked there aren't more comments because I think more of us are in the same boat. Regina my husband and I still say our kids are possessed in regards to night terrors or waking up before the birds! I truly believe "when your good to momma, momma will be good to you!" Sleep is good for momma. Sleep deprivation, bad very bad. We stick to a schedule for all three so everyone can get a good nights rest, but if the schedule is disrupted, heaven help us!

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