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‘Myths and Facts About Night Wakings’ by Tracy Cassels, Ph.D. Candidate in Developmental Psychology – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts while She Battles Cancer

When you hear of most people talk of night-wakings in infancy, there seems to be a fear that somehow if they aren’t stopped (usually by a parent), one will be looking at long-term problems that will follow your infant into childhood and beyond.  It’s really rather dramatic, especially for something that is so biologically normal for infants.  After all, they biologically expect to breastfeed and the fat content of our human milk is much lower than in other mammals, meaning our babies need to feed frequently to simply stay alive and grow.  (This is why scheduled feeds with hours between are linked with a ‘failure to thrive’ condition in the short-term[1] and lower intelligence in the long-term[2].)

But what is the situation with respect to night wakings across infancy, toddlerhood, and childhood?  At what point do frequent night wakings pose a problem that will follow a child long-term?  Or is it simply a state like any other state?

awake childMyth: Your baby should be sleeping through by 3 months of age.

Fact: Night waking is normal for babies and toddlers.

I think we first need to be clear that night waking itself isn’t really the “problem”.  The “problem” is that when younger children wake, they often require parental help to fall back asleep, and so parents view night wakings as a problem[3] despite them being biologically normal and not contrary to healthy development.  We must also be clear that when people believe their baby or child “sleeps through the night”, they can only refer to the fact that they do not wake when or if their child wakes.  Babies and children can wake and fall asleep on their own again (though not all will) and so parents simply have no idea how often (if at all) these babies are rousing during the night.

How normal is night waking?  Well, in a longitudinal study looking at night wakings between birth and 3 years of age, the percentage of infants/children who did not signal their parents at night from 6 months to 3 years only rose from 29.58% to 37.94%[4].  At 3 years of age, 25.6% of toddlers were waking and signaling their parents 3 or more nights per week.  And notably, none of these children suffered any clinical problems or sleep disorders.

Myth: If your baby wakes regularly into the night, they will continue to wake in the night until you stop it.

Fact:  Early night waking does not predict later night wakings.

Sleeping toddlerWhat do I mean?  Well, I mean that night waking in infancy does not predict night waking at later ages, at least based on a very comprehensive, longitudinal study out of Switzerland[5] and there are no studies I have found that counter this finding.  In this particular study, which examined 493 children and their families, night wakings from 3 months of age onward actually rose consistently until age 4, when over half of the children were waking at least once per week and 22% were waking every night.  These numbers then declined slightly until age 10, but even at age 10, over 20% of children were waking at least once per week and around 4% were waking nightly.  Notably, night waking in infancy (< 1-2 years) was not predictive of night waking later, but later (> 1-2 years) night waking was associated with further night wakings.  Now, what the authors do not measure, and acknowledge as a limitation, is how long the child wakes, the reason for waking, does the child require parental help, breastfeeding, etc.

Notably, night wakings were not associated with other sleep disturbances, such as bedtime resistance and sleep-onset problems (i.e., the ability to fall asleep relatively efficiently).  This implies that they are distinct from other sleep behaviours that parents find problematic.  Though only my opinion, my take is that these other behaviours reflect social or emotional issues (e.g., anxiety around sleep, stress) while night wakings are more physiological or biological in nature.

[Somewhat off topic but fascinatingly, they found that increases in bedsharing in the toddler years was associated with less bedtime resistance or sleep-onset problems, suggesting that children are yearning for contact and experiencing separation anxiety which bedsharing provides a “fix” to.  The authors propose this as well as cohort effects found that children raised in an earlier time did not have the bedsharing rates later groups did and had much greater reported problems associated with bedtime resistance and sleep-onset problems.]

Myth: Night waking is a sign that something is wrong and you have to do something to fix it.

Fact: Night waking often reflects developmentally appropriate behaviour across all ages.

One of the highlights of the Swiss research mentioned above was the acknowledgement that night wakings may not be negative at all, but rather reflect the individual developmental stage of any child.  As they so wonderfully put it,

[N]ight wakings must be understood in the context of cognitive, emotional, and physical changes that occur at different developmental stages.  Some children may need parental proximity during the night as during the day depending on their developmental level, individual characteristics, and attachment behavior.[5]

In the toddler years, night wakings are often associated with children coming into bed with the parents as many toddlers are first put to sleep in their own room or bed.  The degree of separation anxiety that toddlers feel can be great and they require the proximity to parents to help feel safe again[6], leading to night wakings and moving sleep locations.  This same feeling of anxiety or security can come at all ages throughout childhood, though, and a child that still demonstrates this at 8 or 9 years of age is still in the developmentally normal range.  There is also the issue of nighttime fears and nightmares which increase with age through childhood until a peak (often early childhood) then start to decrease again; these fears are considered cognitively, socially, and emotionally normal[7], but do result in night wakings that often require parental involvement.  Then of course there are the reasons we all tend to wake at night (adults included): Going to the bathroom, too much on our mind, stress, etc.  These things can affect children as well, especially school-age children who have to cope with school, evolving relationships with friends, possible stress in the household, and more.

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Lots of people today worry that night wakings reflect a “problem” and that they need to deal with it or else they will face long-term sleep problems.  Well, first let’s be clear that night wakings in infancy have no predictive power over later night wakings.  So you can put that little myth to rest.  Second, you can be sure that night wakings are entirely normal through toddlerhood and are not associated with any ill effects for your child.  Not all children will experience them, but those that do are not experiencing anything problematic.  And finally, many of the children who continue to wake do so for very normal, developmentally appropriate reasons; just as adults often wake at night too.  There may be times when parents need to seek help about their child’s sleep, but these will often be due to more than just night wakings.  Clusters of problems are what parents should be concerned with, not night wakings alone.

So the next time someone – anyone – tells you that you need to stop your child from waking in the night, you can – at the very least – smile, nod, and go ahead and do absolutely nothing.  Without worry.

Tracy Cassels is the founder and primary writer for Evolutionary Parenting.  She obtained her B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia.  She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Developmental Psychology, also at the University of British Columbia, where she is studying how certain evolutionary factors affect children’s empathic behavior. She can also be found on Facebook here.

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Parenting Through Cancer: Coping with Emotions

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‘Encouraging Safe Negative Emotional Expression (i.e. Stopping the Peeing, Spitting & Kicking)’ by Guggie Daly – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts while She Battles Cancer

‘The Myth of Baby Sleep Regressions: What’s Really Happening to Your Baby’s Sleep?’ by Pinky McKay – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts While She Battles Cancer

’12 Ways to Get Past No’ by Dr. Laura Markham – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts while She Battles Cancer

‘5 Keys to Setting Limits that Minimize Tantrums and Meltdowns’ by Amy Bryant – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts while She Battles Cancer

‘What I Believe He Will Believe’ by Abby Theuring, MSW – Friends of L.R.Knost Rock the Guest Posts while She Battles Cancer

My Cancer Story, Part 1: The Diagnosis

L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting (Release date: May 2014) the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.


12 Tips for Gently Parenting Your Adult Children (Hint: It starts when they’re newborns)

[Portions reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

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“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

All stages of parenting come with their own unique learning curve, their own challenges and frustrations, their own compromises and sacrifices, and their own flubs, false steps, and failures. From those first terror-stricken days with a newborn to the sleep-deprived months of infancy to the challenges of toddlerhood and beyond, parenting is a journey, not a destination. And when subsequent little ones arrive, the journey starts all over again as we discover that the lessons learned from parenting one child don’t always apply to the next as each have their own incomparable personalities, quirks, and individual identities.

The principles of gentle parenting (connection, empathy, respect, etc.) don’t change as our children grow, just as they don’t change from one child to the next. What does change is our understanding of those principles as we grow in wisdom and experience as parents and as human beings. The practical application of gentle parenting principles, though, can look very different from child to child and life stage to life stage. For instance, with an introverted child gentle parenting might involve a greater degree of physical proximity and emotional support whereas with a very extroverted child it may involve a greater degree of energy direction and respectful guidance.

This constancy of principles and individualized application of gentle parenting is no less true when parenting our adult children than it is when parenting our minor children. As gentle parents, we are our children’s first and best friend in the purest and truest definition of friendship. That sets the stage for the transition from the early parent/friend years to the parent-friendship that will characterize our relationship when our children grow into adulthood.

Here are 12 practical tips for gently parenting your adult children:

1.)    Begin to consciously pay attention to your own parents’ interactions with you. Mentally catalog what you find helpful and what you find intrusive, what is an acceptable level of involvement, advice, and interaction and what feels overbearing or lacking. Make a mental note (or make actual notes if you’re a list person like me) to remember those feelings when your own children become adults.

2.)    Remember, parenting is literally ‘on the job’ learning. Your parents are discovering by trial and error (often lots of error) what their roles and boundaries are in this uncharted territory of parenting adults. Model giving your parents grace when they overstep or underplay their roles. This will set the stage for your children to extend the same grace to you when seemingly overnight you suddenly find yourself learning to parent your own adult children.

3.)    While your child is an infant, meet their needs swiftly, consistently, and gently. They won’t remember what you did or didn’t do at this stage, but they will always carry with them the safety, security, and love that they feel in your responsiveness, and that is they will take with them into adulthood.

4.)    When your child reaches toddlerhood, focus on connection rather than correction. What will matter most in later years won’t be whether they wore matching shoes or left the park without pitching a fit. What will matter is whether they felt heard, understood, and respected.

5.)    As your child moves into the preschool and early childhood years, focus on communication, whether that takes the form of whining, tattling, endless questions or some combination of all three. Continue to build a trust relationship by hearing their heart rather than their tone and responding with gentle guidance.

6.)    When your child reaches the middle stages of childhood, listening to the endless stories from your chatterbox or offering empathy and quiet support to your dreamer will help them as they explore who they are and who they want to be when they grow up. You are building the friendship of a lifetime in these interactions, so make them a priority.

7.)    Once your child enters the teen years, consciously begin to gradually shift your role into a supporting rather than a leading act. Listen not to their words, their attitudes, their hormones, their angst. Listen instead to their struggles, their hopes, their dreams, their fears. Remember, you are the only adult in the relationship at this point. They still have a lot of maturing to do. Practice self-control. Be honest about your own struggles, fears, and failings. You’ll be amazed at what a connection point that is as your teen discovers that they aren’t alone in their humanness. Be the first one to listen, the first one to forgive, the first one to apologize, the first one to understand, the first one to back down and try to find another way when the going gets tough.

8.)    When your child becomes an adult, let them set the pace. Some children will hit eighteen and be ready to move into a university dorm or get a job and an apartment right away. Others will need a slower transition. They may need to stay at home while going to university or while taking some time to try out different jobs as they explore this strange new world of adulthood. There’s nothing wrong with adult children living at home, especially in difficult economic times such as these, but if the time comes that you feel they need a gentle nudge out of the nest you can help them to find an acceptable roommate or two and guide them through the process of settling into independent adulthood.

9.)    Once your child is out on their own, your role will shift fully to a support system. Offering unsolicited advice is fine as long as it is briefly stated…once. After that, it becomes intrusive. Offers of help and invitations to family events, etc. should follow the same guidelines.

10.)    When your child starts a family of their own, consciously bring to mind how you felt at various times when your own parents supported you in your new role and/or interfered with the establishment of your new little family. Acknowledge to yourself (and to them) that they won’t do everything the way you did, that they will make decisions you wouldn’t make, that you will offer advice that won’t be heeded, and that they will make mistakes and have to learn from them just like you did, and remind yourself that those things are all perfectly okay.

11.)    On the subject of making mistakes, remember, just as you wouldn’t want every youthful mistake, every wrong choice, every unfortunate decision to be broadcast to the world or even just joked about privately instead of being left in the past where it belongs, be sure to practice ‘The Golden Rule of Parenting’ and treat your children how you prefer to be treated.

12.)    Keep in mind that the person you are now isn’t the person you were when you first started out on your journey into adulthood. Expecting your young adult children to think and experience and process life and events the way that you do now is like expecting a newborn baby to be able to pick up a book and read it. So set aside your expectations and just offer your support as they learn to navigate the world of adulthood on their own.

Remember, our life experience can help our adult children, but they need to gain their own life experiences. Our role as parents of adults is to find the balance between too much and too little of pretty much everything: advice, help, assistance, involvement, etc. The voice of experience has an immense amount of wisdom to offer, but only if it also has the wisdom to know when to remain silent.

 

Related posts:

When Toddlers Become Teens

The Color of Change

Backtalk is Communication…LISTEN

The Gift of a Strong-Willed Child

The Problem with Punishment

12 Steps to Gentle Parenting

Bridge Over Troubled Waters~Parenting a ‘Problem’ Child

Why Whining is a Win!

Rethinking Tattling

Two Thousand Connection Points a Day: Attachment Parenting Beyond Infancy

A Boy, A Girl, and A Baby~Journey to Gentle Parenting

Mona Lisa Smiles

 

 

L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting (Release date: May 2014) the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.


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