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Friday, July 8, 2016

A Reader Says, "My Son Has a Negative Relationship With Naps"

A reader recently emailed me and asked what he could go about his 18-month-old's negative relationship to sleep. Here is what I know:

Children who don't want to go to bed may--
1: Lack correct information about sleep
2: Have a controlling relationship with the parent in regards to sleep
3: Not live in reality
4: Have an insecure attachment to their caregiver

Solution 1: Correct Information

Always assume your child will make great choices for himself if given great information.

I gave my son a lot of information when he was younger (and I still do) about his body and the care of his body. I told him how important sleep was for him and for me, how our bodies heal while we sleep, and how his grows. I helped him make the connection between how he felt at certain times and the amount of rest he had gotten. "You didn't sleep very long last night, you may be crabby today." And then later, "I'm noticing how emotional you are today. You are crying a lot--which is fine, crying is good for you, but, I think part of the reason you are so sad is because you didn't get enough sleep last night."

I talked about how I felt on days when I didn't get enough sleep. "Anders! I just realized why I am in such a bad mood! I didn't sleep enough last night!" One of my favorite things that I do as a parent is make my internal dialogue available to my son. I talk about feeling tired and feeling exhausted. I talked about how happy I am to go to bed and rest my body and how good it feels. I cuddle up in my sheets and say, "Ahhhhh. Thank goodness I finally get to sleeeeeep!" I took naps when I needed to--sometimes while he played nearby. I talked a lot about energy, "I need more energy, so I am going to go to sleep." "I feel sooooo good now, I had suuuuuch a good night's sleep."

So of course, these are all the things I heard back from him as he got older (and still do). 

I also talked about the process of getting more and more tired:

"You might notice your eyes are dry and you start to rub them a lot, that means they have been open for too long and you should probably take a nap."
"You might notice you are yawning. That is also your body telling you it's time to think about a nap."
"You might notice that you feel sad and crabby and kind of like crying. That means you ignored your body's first signs and now you better get to bed right now or you're going to freak out."

Notice that I am not telling him to take a nap. His body is telling him that he needs to take a nap. I am just noticing and newscasting reality for him. "You're rubbing your eyes. I think your body may be telling you it needs rest." "You're yawning, do you want to get some sleep?" "You're feeling very emotional right now. I think you missed your window. This is going to be hard."

Solution 2: Freedom, Respect, Responsibility

I gave my son information and helped him see the connections. It was then his responsibility to take care of himself. He certainly let himself get overtired at times, and then I would say, "You feel this way because you didn't listen to your body and go to sleep when you needed to! Now, you may be too tired to go to sleep on your own, and I may have to help you. I know you like to be in charge of your sleeping, but going to sleep when you are too tired is really hard. Your body becomes full of stress hormones because being too tired is so stressful. Your body needs to release those hormones--usually by crying. Do you think you need to cry? Or do you think you have time to go to bed right now and then you wont have to cry?"

I offer other ways I can help, "Can I take you for a walk in the stroller to help you?" "Would you like me to cuddle up with you to help you? Sometimes being able to hear someone's heartbeat can help you go to sleep." "I'm working right now, so I can't help you too much, but you are welcome to come curl up on my lap."

I was there to help, but his sleep was never my job.

Anders saw going to sleep as his responsibility. He saw himself as capable of caring for his body. "It's your body, you get to decide." I always tell him. As soon as he could scoot, he scooted himself to his floor bed and passed out. He put himself to bed often before he was 18 months. He rarely needed my help. Around 18 months we moved, so he wanted to be closer to me when he went to sleep. At nap time I would get in my bed and read a book, and he would curl up next to me and pass out. Sometimes I would read whatever I was reading out loud to him--if he asked. Sometimes he didn't take a nap and would end up super crabby, and I would support him as best I could and remind him to not miss his nap tomorrow, so he didn't feel this way. Then he got used to the new house and went back to sleeping on his own.

But it was always very fluid. He slept on his own for a few months, then with me for a few months. I loved both arrangements, so I always left that up to him.

At some point when he was 2 he often wanted to stay up later than I did, so he would kiss me good night and go to his bed. Or I would say, "Goodnight, I'm going to bed!" and go to bed. He generally only stayed up five to ten minutes later than I did, but it was his thing at that age. It didn't last long. Now he if I say I am going to bed he gets ready for bed super fast because he does not want to stay up later than I do.

I would say every six months or so he would try something new in regards to his sleep. When he was 3, he had a playhouse outside that he liked to sleep in. I couldn't let him stay in it all night as he would get bitten by too many bugs, but he would put himself to bed it in it and pass out, and I would carry him to his bed. (I of course got his permission to do this while he was awake, "Anders, it's fine if you want to go to sleep in there, but after you are sleeping can I carry you to your bed so the bugs don't bite you?")

Here is a video of that time--

Note that he is telling me he needs to go to bed to get some more energy. 

If the parent sees it as his job to "get their kid to go to sleep," his goal is to control the behavior of his child. When we seek to control another person, that person is our enemy and our relationship with that person becomes a war--Who will win?! 

If the parent sees it as his job to "get their kid to go to sleep," the child cannot be responsible for going to bed and getting enough sleep. It becomes the parent's job. That sounds so stressful! And for the kid, all he can do is be a good boy or a bad boy. How demeaning.

Anders's sleep was not my problem. It was his. You may think, "But when my tired toddler is having a meltdown, it becomes my problem!" I think, when my toddler has a made a poor choice, I will help him get through it. It is our poor choices that teach us how to make good choices. Better to make poor choices now than later! 

Your toddler will not choose to be an overtired, melting person very often. Every six months or so he will do an experiment to confirm that yes, not getting enough sleep is a terrible choice. And every three months or so he will just forget. But that is a heckuva lot less drama than a power struggle every day at nap time and every night at bed time.

Unless of course you are a supreme and benevolent dictator like I was when I was a nanny, training children that they had no option but to be automatons, and do what they were told. But even then, Anders is still easier to put to bed.

At 4 1/2 Anders still experiments. For example, right now Anders has camp in the morning and to be on time he needs to be awake by 7am. To wake up by 7am he needs to be in bed by 7:30pm. In the evenings, I let him know what time it is. He gets ready for bed, and then we read. He usually gets very involved in the story, and then I say, "It's 7:30!" and he rolls over and goes to sleep. Literally, it's that easy 90% of the time. He knows that 7:30 is the ideal time to go to sleep because one night he went to bed late--8:30. We were having too much fun, and we (mainly he) decided to do an experiment and see what happened. Well, he woke up at 8am the next morning and was 45 minutes late to his camp. He asked me why I didn't wake him up, and I told him that rest for his body is more important than being on time for camp, and that I would feel very uncomfortable waking him. He understood and was late for camp. He did not like being late.

When I picked him up, he asked if I would wake him up at 7am if he ever overslept again and made it quite clear that he never wanted to be late again. I said, "I know you want to be on time to camp, and I want to support you in that goal, but preventing your growing body from getting the rest it needs is not how I want to support you. I would rather we just go to bed by 7:30." We talked about this for a while, and in the end I did agree to wake him if he ever slept past 7, but he agreed to try really hard to be asleep by 7:30. It has been 6 weeks of camp now, and he has always been asleep on time.

Even if I am not there to put him to bed. He goes to bed at 7:30 because that is HIS goal. For example, one night I was exhausted and went to bed at 6:30pm. I showed Anders the clock and told him that when it said 7:30, he should turn out his light and go to sleep. I got in bed, and Tom called. We talked for a while, and then I saw Anders's light go out in the other room. I looked at the time. It was 7:03. When I went to check on him ten minutes later, he was fast asleep.

I do think any kid can do this. Anders has been putting himself to bed for years. Even when he was just a year old, I trusted that he was capable of this task. Actually, even when he was an infant it was his job. I never rocked him to sleep or carried him or swaddled him. I stayed with him while he was sad, curled up next to him or with my hand on his chest so he knew he was not alone. But carrying or rocking or swaddling--these are all distractions. To feel my emotions and feel okay feeling my emotions, the support I need when I am crying is not words or movement, but just the presence of someone who cares. Note that this way of being with infants is taught in RIE parenting books like Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect.

But back to how Anders learned to go to bed at 7:30pm. As much as it kind of sucked to rearrange my morning that one time, I am so happy that Anders got a chance to make a solid connection between what time you go to bed, what time you wake up, and "being on time." Better to learn this lesson at four by being late for summer camp than learn this lesson later by being late to something much more consequential.

Solution 3: Reality

Besides freedom and information, there are other reasons why Anders may have a positive relationship with sleep. He has been raised in reality--there are no monsters, no witches, no villains with magical powers, no dragons. He has never had nightmares except for one in which someone took his cookie.

The kids I cared for had nightmares often, almost every night, usually about fantasy creatures they had seen in movies. They were scared of under their beds and their closets. They were scared of shadows and the dark. Raising Anders in reality has made him not scared of fantasy at all. Older boys will sometimes try to be mean, and say things like, "If you do that, Santa Claus won't give you any presents!" He laughs and tells them, "You know Santa Claus is not real, right?" 

Solution 4: Secure Attachment

I am not a supporter of "attachment parenting," but I am a big supporter of healthy attachment.
I am pretty sure Anders feels very secure in our relationship, but he does like to hear that I will be there when he wakes up, that I will not leave him. It almost offends me that he likes to hear these things! But he does, so I tell him. 


  1. Nice write up! Having to understand sleep importance at such young age can really help as you might not be tempted to compromise it. Especially when we how now all the options to entertain ourselves even after nightfall people tend to forget that having a good night sleep is more relevant then just watching a movie past midnight...

    I'm interested what do you think in terms of sleeping environment itself. What I find having a completely dark room helps me to get a better good night sleep. Also I try to avoid any active electronics to be present in the room. Are there any other factors you consider?

    1. Oh totally! I had terrible insomnia for so many years that I don't even think about all these details anymore, they are just such ingrained habits, but they are absolutely worth mentioning. At the farm I am outside as it gets dark, and I don't turn on lights (only the little red light on my headlamp if I truly need it). In the US I close all the curtains and use minimal light in the house until bedtime. I don't do screens after 5pm. If I drink something with caffeine or alcohol I can just expect a poor night of sleep for 2 to 3 days. I take magnesium before I go to bed as well. Getting in bed an hour before I plan to be asleep and reading really relaxes me as well. Though that can backfire as some books get me really riled up! And then just getting enough exercise and natural light exposure during the day helps too. I sleep WAY better when there is no electricity nearby as well (like when I am camping).

  2. That was a really great article. Even with all of the information I have on authentic parenting, something new clicked for me. Thanks!