How do you help parents that are desperate for sleep? By the time they speak to you, they may have exhausted every avenue and frankly, you don’t have anything else to offer. The last thing they want to hear you say is ‘it’s normal for kids not to sleep, it won’t last forever’.
As a registered nurse juggling night shift in a neonatal special care unit and my toddler refusing to settle, the lack of sleep was impacting not only my health but also on my quality of time spent with my son.
Months before separation anxiety and the clingy phase took a hold he was settling and sleeping well. It’s easy to think we can program or ‘train’ our kids to sleep well but in reality, the good sleeper can change in the proverbial blink of an eye.
It didn’t seem fair either. We had finally come out the other side of him being a catnapper and waking frequently. Even stepping on a persistently squeaky floorboard was all it took for him to wake up and the settling stage had to begin all over again.
There had to be a less stressful way to get more sleep!
We tried all of the usual suggestions when he was an infant and slightly visited controlled crying which was just the worst experience for both of us.
I just couldn’t bear to hear him cry and to have to time my response to meet his needs just seemed so wrong.
Controlled crying/comforting isn’t the answer!
Firstly, controlled crying it’s a high-stressful family experience. We know young children are unable to return to a normal cortisol range as quickly as adults and stress is a precursor to many physical and mental health issues. Parents also report that their kids that were subjected to controlled crying are more sensitive and less resilient to stress compared to siblings that had emotional support around sleep issues.
Babies and children don’t understand the concept of time. This begins around the age of 7 to 8 years so frequent visits to calm babies and toddlers using a timed approach them might help the parent looking at the clock, but to the child, the only experience is stress.
Many parents swear by this technique but now we understand that babies may well stop crying because they exhaust their energy supply, they feel abandoned when their cries aren’t responded to, remember they have no idea of time, so they shut down their emotions. This is can be harmful to children and their relational capacities in the long term.
But it’s not that way for all kids. Many parents find their children escalate to an extremely emotional state causing over heating and vomiting. There is always potential for aspiration of vomitus which can be life threatening.
It’s a controversial topic and I’ve certainly heard many parents guiltily admit to using it, happily say how great it is, or say it just didn’t work.
When I work with parents that speak of the latter I’m glad to hear that. We don’t want children to form neurological pathways that shut down their emotions.
The best we can offer, as health practitioners is to support parents with options that are valid, safe and support mental health. You can’t blame parents for trying everything though, when they’re desperate for sleep.
Music therapy- calms the mind & feeds the brain
My child’s settling issues changed dramatically when I started using a music therapy approach.
We had used music gadgets and musical toys when he was little but they never gave consistent results and as I said he never settled for long.
When I developed Nigh’ Nigh’ Sleepy Head I thought I had just written a nice lullaby. But, it turned out to be so much more, that it prompted a change in career.
Developing a music therapy approach to improve infant/child sleep patterns gives parents the opportunity and resources to engage with their child and offer the best mental health support. In addition to brain health, lullabying has been shown to influence physical health like stabilizing vital signs and reducing pain perception. This directly impacts a positive behavioral change to enhance and support the process toward self-regulation and leads to independent sleep, without adding stress.
Music in the form of a lullaby has three distinctive components. These are rhythm, repetition, and rhyme with music tempo produced in the range of a resting heart rate.
Studies show when a baby is sung a lullaby the infant and parent brain synchronize to the same waveform…how great a bonding experience is that!
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But just a lullaby song isn’t enough.
Although it’s well known that music elicits a dopamine effect a more complex strategy might be needed. The complexity is really related to what’s happening from a neurological perspective. New brain cells are forming and patterning on the bonding that takes place, dopamine acts to make the experience pleasurable for parent and child, the child feels loved and protected.
In my experience as a mum, a single song or a regularly changing tune never seemed to hit the mark. When my toddler was at the age where the word ‘more’ was spoken, he used it with excruciating frequency, singing and humming the same tune over and over was exhausting.
He knew exactly what was needed…more time to get to that calmer state of mind!
Is white noise just as good?
White noise is an auditory resource meant for masking sounds. It can work well for younger babies but will never provide the same benefits when compared to a lullaby. The reason is that white noise is void of a melody component. The brain needs complexity in order to process sounds and elicit a response. Research studies show white noise, cannot be compressed by the brain in the same way as music. This possibly explains why many parents report white noise stops working. As babies mature and their neurological pathways becoming more complex and demanding, white noise is unable to elicit an emotional response. It cannot produce the same hormonal benefits thus becomes a poor settling option. Put simply, more complex sounds are needed to elicit a feel-good response.
Supporting Children to Sleep Confidently
Some children need a lot of support to help them get to a point where they become confident and independent sleepers.
Getting them to this point also requires another set of 3’ R’s: Routine, Re-connection, and Relaxation. This is an approach that guides and supports the ability to self regulate from a stress response to a calm response.
Routine including actual bed times, must be regular. The millennial study of 11000 children showed irregular bedtimes contributed to poorer cognition and difficulty acquiring and retaining information. Routines usually have a number of components like a particular activity, bath, reading, singing etc. It’s important for parents to gear pre-sleep routines to the degree of tiredness/behavior of the child
This is often confusing for parents who religiously carry out their set routine without realizing they have pushed their child into over tiredness and overdrive.
The increased stress hormone response to over tiredness elicits a fight or flight response and many parents describe their child as ‘bouncing off the walls’. This hyperactive behavior finds many parents hyping their child up even more thinking they are wearing them out.
That’s the last thing they need. The aim of a good routine incorporates positive and cheerful experiences, not too stimulating, calm but with firm role modeling and expectations.
Re-Connection is a vital part of the three-step process where children are nurtured, their emotional cup is filled and they feel safe and know they are loved. This is particularly important for helping children that are sensitive to change and suffer separation anxiety. The lullaby initiative where parents hum, pat, rock or sing is ideal for emotional support and makes the settling process faster. This means more sleep hours and less sleep debt. It’s a significant step to establishing sleep independence.
Relaxation seems to be the missing link for parents that are providing great routines and support. Music helps to establish a calmer state of mind allows the heart rate to fall, breathing to become slow and rhythmical and muscles to relax.
This is also the stage of settling that parents can wean their 100% contact, to allow children to develop emotional confidence around settling and sleep.
The true fact is everyone has bad sleep nights but that shouldn’t mean it becomes a problematic and chronic issue. Music therapy is a great intervention for problem sleepers of all ages and significantly produces a calmer state even when sleep patterns are yet to be established, as in early infancy.
Parenting and life is demanding and stressful, so take the time to consider music therapy for better family bonding and sleep health.
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