Sleep, crying, and balancing closeness with boundaries

March 16, 2011 · 55 comments

A rested baby makes a happy family

A rested baby makes a happy family

Imogen at Alternative Mama and I have been talking about sleep. She has two little ones and is seriously sleep deprived, but is having a hard time finding a solution. She’s not comfortable with CIO, and isn’t able to co-sleep for medical reasons. She asked for more details about how I managed to get more sleep with my babies, and agreed to let me share my response on my blog.

Dear Imogen,

It’s was very, very difficult for me when my kids struggled with the transition to our new routine and cried. I had to learn to allow it, and learn how to support it, but still stay firm in the boundaries I needed for my own well-being. It was hard, but I was surprised that the result was a closer relationship with them — not a more separate one.

Two changes were needed to getting more sleep

The first was changing the way I felt about routines and crying, and the second was changing our habits.

As a new mother practicing attachment parenting, I felt routines and crying were dirty words. I wanted to respond spontaneously to the needs of my child, which were expressed with cries, without relying on a clock to tell me what and when something was ok. I felt the philosophies that encouraged schedules, routines, and crying were dismissive of children’s feelings and often portrayed them as manipulative, conniving, and naturally bratty. Since this is not how I view children, I didn’t feel comfortable with those parenting methods.

I thought enforcing boundaries would tell my children their feelings didn’t matter

What changed my mind was reading Janet Lansbury’s RIE blog. At first what she said sounded uncomfortably close to BabyWise, with discussions of routines and crying as babies learned to sleep. As I became more familiar with the RIE philosophy, though, I understood the difference. BabyWise encourages implementing a schedule in order to be in charge and ensure a child doesn’t grow up spoiled. RIE encourages implementing a routine as a way to communicate with your children and give them the security of knowing what to expect out of their day.

It made a world of difference in how I communicate with my children. Before I would respond immediately to “fix” whatever the problem was. I’ve learned to stop and wait for a minute to learn more about the problem before I take action. Is it something that needs fixing, like thirst, hunger, or a dirty diaper? Or is it simply an emotional release of frustration, anger, or pain? If it’s the former, I need to do something — get water or food, or change them. If it’s the latter, I just need to be there, and allow them to work it out on their own.

Create framework to explore, grow, and learn

When we decided we needed to make a change to get more sleep at night, we started by changing our routines during the day. I established a regular wakeup time (within an hour), then made a plan for the day:

  1. Cook and eat breakfast
  2. Independent playtime while I cleaned up and spent a few minutes with email/blog/work
  3. Park/playground/playdate
  4. Lunchtime, stories, naps
  5. Errands or independent playtime while I work and make dinner
  6. Dinner, bathtime, stories, and bed

My kids balked at having regular times to do things. Naptime and bedtime were the hardest, but after two days, they changed. It started with excitement about bathtime and storytime, which was exciting for us. We love to see our boys running (or crawling really, really fast) to go upstairs for their bath.

The excitement slowly came around for bedtime, too.

There is no formula to deal with crying

We didn’t have a set plan for how to deal with the crying, other than agreeing we would listen and use our judgment do decide on action. I wrote about our sleep methods here, here, and here, if you want more details on my younger son’s nighttime routine and how we responded. He was eight months at the time, but he didn’t have much difficulty.

It was a challenge for my older son. We were consistent with the bedtime routine, but we didn’t know how to react to his unhappiness. He screamed, cried, and kicked doors and walls. I can only chalk it up to his age (he was a little over two at the time), and the fact that we were asking him to do something different than what we had before.

When he was in the middle of a tantrum, we sat with him until he calmed down. Surprisingly, the tantrums were easier to deal with than when he simply walked out of his room, over and over and over again.

We tried many ways of responding, from silently walking him back to his room and leaving again to singing lullabys and sitting with him. We still allowed him to come into bed with us in the middle of the night if we just couldn’t deal with it anymore. Eventually the consistency of the sleeptime routine won out and he started to go to bed for naps and nighttime without a struggle.

There is no magic fix

Even though we changed the way we look at routines and crying, and established our normal day, we don’t have perfection every night. This winter everyone seemed to be sick, plus there are visitors, teething episodes, and potty training. Between the two kids, my husband, and me, my goal is four to five hours of uninterrupted sleep, and at least eight hours total. That’s what I need to feel human and be the mother I need to be during the day. Most nights I get it, but some I don’t.

Imogen, I know it’s difficult because it’s so hard to hear our children cry. But if your own well-being is suffering, work on making a change. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing like we see on television shows like Supernanny. Do what you’re comfortable with, and take your time if you need to. It’s a change for you as well, and you need to be gentle with youself, too.


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Can anyone else offer their experience and encouragement for Imogen? She is a warm, loving mama who needs lots of support right now!

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