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:
- 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.
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?