Sleep and emotional well-being are synonymous. If our children are feeling insecure, overwhelmed, misunderstood, or they have been unable to express their feelings freely in the moment by day, it’s almost a guarantee you will see this behaviour ‘play out’ in sleeping difficulties at night: bedtime refusal and/or stalling, screaming, crying, tantrums at bedtime, dependence on mum or dad to go to sleep and get back to sleep, heightened clinginess, and frequent night waking (to name a few).
Inspired by Aware parenting and Parenting by Connection, the following are key tools I recommend to parents to build trust, security and connection, and as a result, improving sleep ability, behaviour, confidence, and increased resilience at times of change.
10 simple ways we can nurture our children’s emotional wellbeing:
1. Connect: “Our children’s sense of connection is the foundation of their confidence. Connecting with children when they express their emotional experience supports the essential elements of the parent-child relationship.” ‒ Hand in Hand Parenting.
With the exception of medical conditions, at the core of most sleep difficulties is fear – often disguised as insecurity, anxiety, grief, withdrawal and/or aggression which often peak at times of transition, during developmental leaps and milestones, and when a child is faced with change to their sleep routine, habits or patterns. Consequently, we experience separation anxiety (fear of separation or abandonment), irrational behaviour (insecurity/un-safety), and resistance to (or grieving the loss of) something or someone to which they have become attached. Children are highly sensitive and aware. They are biologically programmed to release such uncomfortable and painful feelings freely and vigorously in the present moment – predominantly by crying, but also through laughter, trembling and perspiring. The most effective antidote for fear is to build safety, and we do this by supporting our children through their everyday struggles; free of judgement, with full acceptance for the “as-is” landscape of infancy and childhood – which is ever-changing. Nurturing the parent-child connection builds safety, trust and confidence; the essential skills that children need to experience long-term healthy sleep patterns.
2. Support tears and tantrums: “Let feelings be. Accept tantrums, meltdowns, whines, neediness, disappointments, sadness, major and minor complaints without judgment. Our children’s feelings and desires are involuntary and do not belong to us. Managing, calming, or otherwise “fixing” them is not our responsibility, nor is it helpful to them’’ – Janet Lansbury
Children either cry for two reasons:
- To communicate an immediate need such as hunger, holding, and stimulation.
- To recover (or heal) from emotional stress and/or physical pain e.g.
frightening events such as loud noises;
separation from parents and parental stress.
When we have met our child’s primary needs, crying serves as an innate healing mechanism which allows children to obtain emotional equilibrium. When held in the supportive and loving arms of their parents, and not left to do so alone, crying promotes healing of past or present hurts, fears and trauma, and is an is an effective release for everyday stresses and tensions – especially beneficial in the early years when our children are evolving so rapidly, and transition, change and developmental frustrations are inescapable.
Through our own upbringing and parenting, most of us have been conditioned to stop our children from crying by way of distraction, dummy use, or feeding, holding, rocking, and patting (often to sleep), which are the main issues on which I provide advice in my sleep practice. Albeit that we are often driven by instinct (different from intuition), and we may have the best intentions at heart, such actions become our children’s sleep crutches, needs, habits and control patterns, which impact their ability to self-settle. Unreleased tensions and feelings are stored away in a child’s ‘emotional backpack’ and can impact a child’s developmental progress, emotional well-being and psyche. These feelings often resurface as irrational behaviour, tantrums, excessive crying or screaming at times when a child is feeling distressed, overwhelmed or overtired, or something in the current moment triggers painful emotions from a past event – e.g. feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, injustice, disappointment, grief and sadness. If not released by day, these feelings bother them at night when they are in an altered state of consciousness and unable to exert the physical energy required to keep these feelings suppressed. Repressed feelings become the catalyst for bedtime resistance, nightmares, night terrors, fear of the dark, habitual catnapping, frequent night waking, and ongoing, long-term inconsistencies with sleep in general.
3. Listen: When we offer our loving presence and truly listen to a child as they express their emotional experience (without judgement or prejudices triggered from our own upbringing), we communicate to them that they are safe, they are loved, and they are accepted. Whether infant, child, or adult, having someone listen to us allows us to effectively offload tensions and stresses, and heal trauma from our past – that otherwise depreciates our intelligence, and compromises our physical and emotional well-being. Effective listening helps a child self-regulate by encouraging the release of heavy feelings, restoring their overall confidence, innate enthusiasm for life, and learning ability. Safety, validation, and a loving presence are powerful tools for changing sleep patterns.
4. Regular self-care for parents: Parenthood is the most important job on the planet, yet the most severely under-resourced. “To give to our infant on demand is an enormous psychological and emotional responsibility that has the potential to drain us of energy and sanity – especially if we have no additional help. If we are also juggling a career, it can exhaust us beyond all conceivable limits, pushing us to our psychological edge” – Dr Shefali Tsabary
Consequently, postnatal depression and anxiety are all too common among new parents. This can naturally affect a parent’s feelings toward their baby, and their level of energy, consistency and commitment towards achieving their sleep goals. Infants and children rely heavily on their parents for emotional regulation, and will often mirror their energy states, emotions and behaviour. Consequently, our children’s emotional state is a direct reflection of our current inner state. Awareness of this fact shifts our focus from the external (our child and their behaviour) to the internal (what we are feeling, our triggers, what we are lacking – commonly support and self-care – and what we need to counteract this to achieve a more balanced emotional state). Where possible, remaining calm during your child’s bedtime routine will encourage them to relax, and can help diffuse or eliminate any undesirable behaviour at these times.
As parents, our stress response when engaging with our children at bedtime and during the day can be heightened if we are overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed or anxious. All good parents have bad days, however, parents who commit to regular self-care (i.e. taking time out to nurture oneself, pursue passions, meditate, eat well, rest, and have a listening partner to confide in), are less likely to burn out or become triggered by their children’s behaviour – ultimately, making for a happier family unit.
5. Play: Promoting laughter through play builds trust, connection and confidence, consequently, releasing stresses, fears, and tensions from the day – which may otherwise cause our children to wake overnight. Ideas include: pillow fights, jumping on the bed, hide and seek, role play with toys, chasey, and horseback rides. Any time is a great time for play, just avoid any excess stimulation or vigorous play 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime if you notice that your child has difficulty falling asleep after such activities. Again, it’s common for laughter to turn to tears when a child is feeling safe and connected to do so -be prepared to listen, and encourage any emotional release during their waking hours (before bedtime is especially effective to aid sleep quality and duration).
6. Establish limits without punishments: Albeit challenging for many parents, children need us to set kind, but firm limits for them to feel secure, and to keep them safe – both physically and emotionally. It is important that we empathise with, and validate our children’s emotional experience, and acknowledge the various catalysts for ‘acting out’ such as: disconnection from a parent, insecurity, fear, isolation, hunger, low blood sugar, overtired-ness, lack of routine, life transitions, and dehydration.
There is no such thing as a naughty or bad child; it is not our child’s intention to be hurtful, manipulative or disrespectful at these times – in fact, the majority of undesired behaviour is unconscious. The tradition in most cultures is to blame, scold, lecture and enforce punishments – however, this does little to change behaviour long-term instead it shames and isolates children and ignores the root of the undesired behaviour. These are lost opportunities to connect with your child, intensifying (not improving) undesirable behaviour over time. If we want to create a long-term change in behaviour and bring our child back from this space lovingly and respectfully, we must move in close and offer our unconditional love and acceptance. Physical touch can expedite the healing process, so if your child responds positively to a cuddle or holding at times of upset, then do so. Keep in mind some children may desire space or become physically aggressive (fear) if you attempt to move close. Honour their need for space, and hold a loving presence at a short distance, using gentle validation, acknowledgment, and reassurance that they are safe and loved. You can put aside the teaching and preaching for when they have calmed down, and the prefrontal cortex (thinking part of the brain) is back in the driver’s seat.
7. Avoid cry it out (CIO) approaches to sleep training where possible: If we want our children to sleep well long-term, we need to communicate to them that they are safe. By implementing any method which would allow them to cry alone with limited or controlled responsiveness, we directly negate the trust and security we intend to instil. Children don’t form sleep habits or control patterns independently of their parents. We must assume personal responsibility and acknowledge our part in the problem if we intend to find a solution. Many parents resort to behavioural methods of sleep training such as “crying it out”, or controlled crying, in a desperate attempt (and often sleep deprived state) to “correct” the very habit/s that we, in fact, have created for our children.
I have worked with many families who have experienced delayed sleep regression after implementing a controlled crying method (otherwise known as controlled comforting or responsive settling). Whilst crying initially may lessen and sleep may improve, it’s usually only temporary, and many professionals claim that it may in fact lead to learned helplessness. The degree to which this impacts a child’s emotional well-being throughout childhood and well into adolescence is unknown. Unless our children can release ‒ and heal ‒ their fears and insecurities through crying in the supportive presence of their parents, rather than being left alone to do so behind a closed-door, these feelings will continue to be repressed, and remain brewing for another day. It is only a matter of time before these feelings resurface, commonly during life transitions (e.g. beginning childcare, the arrival of a new sibling), a change in routine (e.g. ceasing a pattern of co-sleeping, moving into their own cot and/or room), and developmental milestones – manifesting is sleep regression and behavioural difficulties.
8. Communication and respect: It is important for us as parents to be transparent, and to communicate any changes to sleep patterns and routine in advance if we want our child to continue to feel secure, and, when we implement these changes, ensure that we do so in a kind, respectful, and gentle manner that encourages their cooperation. Forewarning children of our intentions also ensures that we don’t distract or interrupt our child from any task they are highly engaged in – as this may rob them of vital learning opportunities. At times of change and transition, feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, apprehension, uncertainty, and insecurity are common. Consequently unsettledness, crying and tantrums can be heightened at these times as children will attempt to efficiently offload these heavy emotions in the moment. Planning ahead (e.g. by allowing an extra 15 to 30 minutes prior to leaving the house, or before bedtime), enables parents to listen more effectively to their child without time restraints and the inextricable feelings of frustration and anger that ensues.
9. Form a secure attachment: The ability to listen and read your child’s cues and give them what he/she needs in a timely manner (especially basic needs such as hunger, cold, pain and comfort or discomfort) is ultimately the cornerstone of secure attachment – e.g.
a) Dunstan baby language: is a great way to decipher between your infant’s different cries, so that you can respond to their needs appropriately:“NEH” is hungry, “OWH” is sleepy, “HEH” is discomfort, “EAIR” is lower gas and “EH” is burp.
b) Identifying your baby’s hunger cues: will give you the confidence that your baby is well-fed and content. Common early cues include: smacking or licking their lips, opening and closing their mouth, sucking on fists, rooting around for the breast, fidgeting, squirming and fussing. Crying may be an indication you have missed your infant’s early hunger cues.
c) Pay attention to your child’s tired cues for their optimal sleep window: Common cues include: rubbing eyes, yawning, sharp jerky movements of limbs, increased fussiness, crying, losing interest in activities, red eyebrows, ear pulling and staring into space.
10. Introduce some quality one-on-one time: Remember: quality, not quantity. Just 10 to 20 minutes per day of quality one-on-one time can work wonders to build connection, trust, and confidence – effective in reducing off-track behaviour during the day, and disturbed sleep overnight. This is time without distractions or doing something like morning and bedtime routines or house chores. Allow your child to choose and lead the activity and refrain from using this time to preach, teach lessons, correct, or manipulate the play. Encourage silliness, laughter and the opportunity for them to control, win or be the master of their chosen activity. When children are given the opportunity to direct the play, you will notice that they quite literally ‘act out’ their own fears in an attempt to emotionally self regulate, integrate and heal from the things that bother them. Therefore, it is common for some big feelings to arise either during or following quality time – be prepared to listen if laughter turns to tears – it’s better for these feelings to be released during the day than overnight! For young babies who can’t choose an activity (i.e. under 12 months), you can engage with them by using plenty of eye contact, age appropriate physical play/touch, singing, reading, and affection. At times of transition, or when changing sleep patterns, increasing the amount of quality time per day can help children adjust with greater ease and increased cooperation.