Question: Our 2-year-old refuses to sleep in her own bed; I think we have tried everything with her.
First method: After reading the book we put her into her bed, leave and close the gate. She starts crying desperately, gets out of her bed and continues crying until she either vomits or almost has an asthma attack. Second method: The same as first method, but leaving the gate open. She runs out of her room to our room. Third method: Put her in her bed and we stay in her room with her and don’t allow her to get out of her bed. Then she starts crying desperately and cries until she either vomits or almost has an asthma attack. Fourth method and our partial solution: Either my husband or I stays with her in her bed until she falls asleep. Around 2 a.m. she runs to our bed and stays with us for the rest of the night. Fifth method and solution: Let her sleep in our bed the whole night. Please help; anything else we can do? We need to have our eight hours of sleep again.
Answer:The above question was sent to me in a live chat a couple of weeks ago.
After asking a couple of questions, I learned that the 2-year-old was in all-day day care, like so many of our kids. We have to work, after all.
“Allow the child to sleep in bed with you.”
Some readers balked. “But wait,” they cried, “isn’t that going to make the problem worse?” “How will the child ever learn to go to sleep on her own?” “This is going to become a nightmare!” “This is not convenient!”
Here’s the thing:The level of anxiety that the parents were reporting was dangerous for the child’s brain, and that was my main concern. Still, some readers were upset with me. And after reading those comments (over and over) I got it:
We live in a country where we “train” our children. “Sleep training” and “toilet training” are two of the most popular concepts that parents face with their little ones, so of course people would react with shock when I suggest the opposite.
So, allow me to clarify.
Children are born to attach to a caregiver. They are reliant on that caregiver for years and years — far longer than the young of almost any species on Earth. (Just ask your neighbors about that basement apartment occupied by their 20-somethings.) Without a responsible caregiver, they wouldn’t last a day, let alone a lifetime. Our children need us, and their brains are wired to make sure they stay close to us.
So, when a 2-year-old has faced separation all day when she goes to day care and then experiences separation again at bedtime, her young brain goes into panic mode. And that young brain is built to take her to the parent, over and over and over.
And so when the parent places a gate at the door, her brain lights up with fear and panic, and it is experienced as a physical problem. Vomiting, breathing problems: This is a systemwide panic meltdown. It is too much for her to process “Why is Mom leaving me?!” and her body starts to compensate for what her brain cannot handle.
This kind of reaction in a 2-year-old is a call to quick action. Remember that a 2-year-old is experiencing her emotions in real time, and is not able to talk to herself about herself. She can’t say, “Oh, Janie, silly girl, calm down! Mom is just downstairs.” A 2-year-old is just mastering language; the ability to reflect on her own emotions and regulate them is years off.
So what do you do?
First, you make sure there is no physical reason for her actions. Call the pediatrician to be safe. Barring that, you must relax her brain. The role of the parents is not to train a child to sleep. It is to provide the child with a feeling of safety so that sleep naturally ensues.
Is this to say that we never allow some tears during the nighttime process? Of course not. There are times that the child will fight routine and sleep and separation, and there will be times for the parent to lovingly and consistently keep the routine. Tears will be involved (maybe for both parent and child).
Yet when the child is vomiting and has become hysterical, that is a signal that the stress is unhealthy. The concept that helps me here, from developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is simple, elegant and true. “No one can grow to her fullest potential unless they are relaxed.”
I know that this is countercultural. I know that we are a country that still spanks and uses timeouts, rewards and punishments. I know we are conflicted. But we need to focus on our connection to the child as the answer to many of the parenting problems that life hands us.
So: You let her sleep in your room. You take down the gate, both literally and figuratively. If you can’t sleep with her in your bed — and oh, I know how much we need our sleep! — go ahead and cuddle and let her fall asleep in her room at book time. If she wakes later and wants you, then reassess. You are there to be her comforter and consoler. By being with her and letting her know you are her rock-solid steady presence — even though you can’t always be together — you will build her confidence in your attachment.
And she will begin to sleep on her own, but not because you trained her to do it. She will sleep on her own because she is confident you are there in every way.
This process won’t be perfect. Nothing is. But it is a kinder, gentler, happier and, in the longer run, easier way to parent.
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