Friday, January 6, 2012

The division of responsibility in sleeping

cosleeping toddler

In my November Carnival of Natural Parenting post, I talked about Ellyn Satter's book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, wherein she speaks about her concept of the division of responsibility in feeding:
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter
  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where to feed
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether to eat

I've lately been struck by how much this division of responsibility applies to another parenting matter: that of sleep. Like many an attachment parent, I've at times fallen prey to the expectation that I must get my child to sleep. This is, if anything, a sort of delusion. I can't make my child sleep. All I can do is help get him to bed. The rest is up to him.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because of how bedtimes have been going for our four-year-old, and what it's revealed about both him and me, and about my parenting predilections and room for growth.

Mikko's a night owl, like his parents. I don't mean just that he prefers to stay up late, but that he increases in energy at night, making it a challenge to wind him down, unlike morning people like my dad, who sometimes literally falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at 8:30 p.m.

We have a bedtime routine — it's a mite haphazard, as our routines tend to be, but it includes jammies (most nights), brushing teeth, last-minute requests for water, some bedtime stories, the all-important nummies (he's down basically to bedtime and morning now), and then lights out. I sit beside him in the dark, working on my laptop or reading a book with my new USB-powered book light (a Christmas present I bought myself for just such occasions! I'm amazed at how much more reading I've gotten done already).

For awhile, I thought my job then was as sleep police. "Stay in bed! Lie down! Put the covers over you! Close your eyes! Stop playing with your toys or I'll take them away!" I had an idea for how sleep should occur, and by golly, I was going to make sure it happened as efficiently as I knew how.

But one night, I was either tired of policing or distracted by something else (maybe a good book?), and I just sat there, silently. Mikko played with some of his toys on the bed in the darkened room. Some of the time he was sitting up, sometimes flopping this way and that, sometimes on top of the covers and sometimes beneath them. He sang and chatted to himself, and I thought he'd never get to sleep. Suddenly, it was quiet. I looked over — he was out. From 60 to zero, and it had taken maybe 10 minutes all told.

boy sleeping on bed with toys piled next to him
I know it's a little hard to see what's going on here, but this is a good and recent example of what he must do before sleep consumes him. This night he built a huge pile of his stuffed animals, dolls, bedtime books, errant clothing (I had to search through it later for my pajamas), and other toys, before falling awkwardly asleep in front of Mount Mikko.


I was astonished at his swift and painless capitulation from play into sleep. But then I considered my own sleep habits. I'm a night owl, too. It can take me upwards of an hour after turning off the light before I fall asleep, and that's on a normal night (not a high-energy-level night where something's wiring me further). And, frankly, I like that it takes so long. I love lying awake in the dark, daydreaming about the future or about parallel existences, carrying on conversations with imaginary people in my head (this is all normal, right?). Sam, on the other hand, is a hit-the-pillow-and-snore type of guy, so he gets irritable if it takes himself ten minutes to fall asleep. When he tried to assist in putting Mikko down, I noticed he did the same sort of policing I was prone to, so I explained to him what I'd noticed and how maybe Mikko has a winding-down process that's more similar to mine.

All of this made me think some more about my responsibilities in putting to bed vs. my children's responsibilities in falling asleep. I think it's most understandable in babies, but then I suppose I lost sight somewhere along the way.

For Alrik, I dim the lights, I rock, I breastfeed till he's drowsy, I cuddle him near — whatever he might need to soothe him. Maybe it's easy to mistake this for making him sleep, but I know from my first child, who was a much more reluctant sleeper as a baby, that all I'm doing is creating an environment conducive to sleep.

For Mikko, we have the routine, and the dimmed lights, and the white noise and the signals that it's time for bed. Part of my responsibility is to set limits (akin to the gentle limits Ellyn Satter suggests for feeding such as eating together at the table at specific times, and offering family meals with no other food options). For bedtime, those limits can be staying in the bed, keeping lights turned off, and not playing with loud or active toys. But the sleep — the sleep itself is all his doing.

Sometimes even our easygoing Alrik chooses not to sleep within our sleep-encouraging conditions, and there's nothing I can do to force it. I am more aware of this with babies but somehow forgot with older kids — sleep is the sleeper's choice and no one else's. I refuse to set up conditions where I punish and isolate my children for not sleeping (crying it out in whatever form), so I have to continue to set up the conditions that are best for them and then let the sleep come as it will.

I write this post just to share the revelations, not to insinuate that now we've got it down. For one thing, I often still fall into sleep-police mode. (It's very ingrained!) Particularly if I'm frustrated or sleep is taking forever to come. And that's the other thing, sometimes it takes him 10 minutes to fall asleep — and sometimes two hours! I'm thinking that as he gets older, I'll be able to gently say, "I'll stay with you for half an hour, and then I'm going downstairs. You may continue to play or read quietly until you fall asleep, but you must stay in bed." But he's not comfortable with this approach yet, and will follow me out of the room, so I'm not pushing it. I don't (usually) mind some time to work on my computer or catch up on my reading as he drifts off. I've already made it a condition that once it's going-to-sleep time, I'm not available for conversation.

So that's my sleep-related epiphany for the division of responsibility, for what it's worth. I hope it might help your bedtimes be a little sweeter, too.

Do you have a working division of responsibility when it comes to bedtime and sleeping? Do your children take a long or short time to fall asleep? How about you?

8 comments:

panda said...

I just sort of found this out, too, or made this realization. Niko, as he's adding days upon days to his age total, is becoming more and more like me - up late, late, late; rise early (with an occasional sleep-in). He's weaning slowly off of the naps, which are being replaced with "Quiet Time" in his crib when he doesn't want to sleep. He has a few toys to occupy him, and even at night, I let him quietly play for a while (my mom got him this shark that has lights that spins and sort of vibrates resultant of the spinning... he loves it - it like hypnotizes him to sleep). Anyways, I realized that I can't force him to sleep - I can make it more comfortable and at the very least provide him with an opportunity for some downtime.

Thanks for posting this and giving me more insight into the sitch at home! <3

Adrienne said...

I'm right inbetween Mikko and Alrik's stages of going to sleep with my son. Burkley is too young to be left to just play and read (14 months old) so if he's reluctant to sleep, just crawls off the bed and walks around and tries to escape the room. Yet, if he's not tired, he won't just nurse and snuggle to sleep like he did when he was a little baby. So, I've taken to just letting him get up and play even though I *know* he's tired as I don't really know what else to do. However, when he gets to get back and play for a bit, he usually goes down about 30-40 minutes later *much* more easily.

miss fish said...

My son is nine months old and so active! I was definitely leaning towards sleep police with him, and then it struck me: he can get on and off the bed safely in the dark now and the room is a safe place for him to explore. The lights are off, there is quiet music and I can relax myself while he gets the squirms out of his system. I usually tell him that he has ten minutes to go exploring, and then five and then two and then one. He almost always comes back to lie down before I say one, but if he doesn't, I don't say a word, at least for a little while. He gets bored or tired or hungry and then climbs up on the bed ready to nurse and fall asleep.

Kel said...

When I was little, my "bed time" was at 8:30, but it was more of a "room time." My parents would say good night, and close the door, and from that point I just had to stay in my room, except for bathroom visits, etc. I would read, play, listen to the radio, color, sometimes rearrange my furniture (it shocked my parents the first time I did this, at age 4), or whatever I wanted, and then go to sleep. I think most of the time I went to sleep not long after 8:30, but I have a few fond memories of trying to stay up all night, and eventually going to sleep after the rest of the family-- so maybe at 10:30 or 11. (I don't know what my bedtime routine was like when I was cosleeping, which was until I was 3.5 or so-- I plan on having a "room time" tradition once my little one is sleeping on her own.)

My 8mo is currently a night owl (going to sleep most nights at 2, lately) and I am trying to influence that by waking her up at 10 in the morning and keeping the day active. I figure eventually, her bed time will return to 10pm. But there is NOTHING I can do to make her sleep when she doesn't want to sleep. I just have to go with the flow. Which is okay.

Liz May said...

I too have a night owl four year old. After a few years of sleeping issues trying to get it over with quickly I came to the realisation that I needed to teach him how to go to sleep. Now we've slowed the whole process down so he can wind down more naturally. We go up at 7.00pm, bath & clean teeth, read loads of books, he chooses the books (10-20 per night) and he chooses what order we read them in, after we've finished reading them then I give him warning that it's time to go to sleep. Lights off, baby night light on. I always say the same thing to him "night night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite" then I "pretend" to go to sleep myself and he copies me. We don't talk after this point. I creep downstairs when he's sound asleep usually about 9pm. I used to try to rush bed time but now I cherish these two most special hours a day that I spend with him with no distractions.

Helen said...

What a great post - thank you! I'm in the middle of Ellyn Satter's "how to get your kid to eat" and I love her principle of division of responsibility but it hadn't occurred to me to apply this to sleep. I think it might help my sanity to tell myself that if I provide a conducive environment, dropping off is up to him (even for an 8mo).

melissa said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! Your mention of this very realization when I was looking for bedtime advice for Annabelle was just what I needed to hear. We're still having a bit of a hard time, but I feel such relief at the idea that it's not my job to make sleep happen quickly. It will come in due time. It seems so simple, but it was such an earth-shattering idea for me!

Momma Jorje said...

Hooooly crap! Did you read my gripes on this topic and write this post special for me?! Ironically, this is the first night I threatened and then gave up on Sasha keeping her eyes closed in my lap. I "sent her to bed." (Her bed is 3 feet away from me.)

I, too, am very much a policing type. I've barked at her to close her eyes! How relaxing, right? But really, even when she was an infant, we'd have nights where she'd stay awake for HOURS while we tried to walk, bounce, bottle or nurse, etc. to soothe her to sleep. Once we moved and she was more mobile, since our home was Sasha friendly, I'd simply lie on the couch and doze off while she played. She would always climb up with me when she was ready. Elmo would find us asleep together on the couch the next morning.

I can't really do this NOW because she can open our bedroom door and this house is NOT toddler friendly!

So I think I was on my way to a similar revelation, but that made this post SO timely. Here's hoping I find a sleep arrangement that works well for us - soon! We're also working on the stay-asleep part!

I can not spend all night and all of my milk on getting her to sleep over and over again all night. She is currently requiring more time, attention, and nursing than Spencer! I'm trying to remember the simple transition aspect, too. Yet another life change has been forced upon her.

When I first saw the title, I thought you meant between parenting partners. I'm so glad someone pointed me back to this post tonight!

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