I realise that there’s a ton of information about different approaches to baby and toddler sleep problems already out there, and different approaches will suit different families. In my opinion, there’s perhaps less written about staying sane as a parent while your child or toddler has trouble sleeping, perhaps for years, while you do too. So rather than offer a debate on the merits of controlled crying vs. the gentle sleep teaching approach vs. aiming to meet unmet needs I thought I’d talk about how ACT could help parents stay sane while not sleeping.
Openness to experience and willingness
Depending on where you are in your sleep deprivation journey, the questions here might be different. For example, are you willing to tolerate feelings of tiredness during the day because you value breastfeeding your new baby? Are you willing to tolerate feeling tired during the day as a new dad because you want to support your partner by splitting the night feeds or helping prepare bottles? Are you willing to tolerate the tiredness of sleepless nights trying sleep teaching of some form in order to hopefully get a better sleep pattern in the long run? Whenever you’re reflecting on whether you are willing to have something, as a guiding rule it’s always helpful to check in with your values – for example, if you’re willing to be tired, does that bring you closer to living your life as a parent in a way you value?
I can highly recommend the app “Mind the Bump” for anyone who experiences pregnancy insomnia or new mum trouble getting back to sleep after a feed. I’ve been there, and the sleep audio exercise on the app worked for me every time. What I find helpful about mindfulness when I can’t sleep is that rather than get caught up in my busy mind I can just notice my thoughts are busy and then move my attention onto noticing other aspects of my experience, like tiredness and a comfy warm bed. If audio exercises aren’t your thing though, you could just try writing down any thoughts you have for three minutes and then reflecting quietly on what comes up. You could then try lying down and noticing your breath coming in and out, paying attention to whether its warm or cold, fast or slow. Then, you could aim to check in with each part of your body, working from your head to your toes, noticing any areas that are tense or sore, hot or cold, and noticing where you feel tired. Then, you could try to tune into any sensations where your body makes contact with the bed – how do the sheets feel – warm, cool, soft, loose or tight? How does the duvet feel – soft, fluffy, heavy? Are there any other feelings, thoughts or images passing through your mind to notice? Keep bringing your attention back to your breath, noticing when your mind wanders and gently bringing your focus back to the breath again.
If you’re not clear what your parenting values and priorities are at the moment, it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect on them – there are some tools on the Values page on this website to help you if you need them. It can then be helpful to consider how your values link in with your child’s sleep problems. For example, if you value being a compassionate parent, how are you showing compassion for yourself during your child’s sleep problems? How are you showing compassion to your child? If you value being an active parent, how can you use this value to help your child sleep better?
It may be helpful to defuse from any unhelpful thoughts your mind offers up about how terrible the sleep problems are. For example, if your mind offers “they’ll NEVER sleep through the night!” you could thank your mind for the concern, and tell it that “this too shall pass”, as child sleep problems do tend to, even if you don’t do any special sleep training tricks. Or, if it offers “I can’t do this!” you could try repeating this thought while continuing to do it anyway until you notice you’re having the thought that it’s ridiculous. For other ideas, you could either check out the Defusion page, or if you have a quirky, offbeat sense of humour like I do, have a look at some of Nathan Pyle’s work on Facebook – his parenting cartoon stuff usually works for me if I need to practice defusion.
There’s lots of scope for responding to your child’s sleep problems in different ways depending on your wellbeing, your child’s needs and how well you feel able to meet the needs of any other children or work responsibilities you have while sleep deprived. Different people need different amounts of sleep – my husband needs significantly more sleep than I do, so for us it makes sense that I “take one for the team” and do all the night feeds/ rescues from night crawling off the bed or rolling into walls gone wrong/ falling out of bed incidents. For other couples, sleeping in shifts might be helpful, or co-sleeping with a baby or young child either as a couple or one of you sleeping separately, even for a few nights a week, might help.
For some parents who feel the sleep deprivation is a barrier to being the kind of parent they want to be during the day, you might choose to consider some form of sleep teaching, whether you prefer the gentle sleep approach of Sarah Ockwell-Smith or controlled crying. If that’s what’s right for your family after you’ve reflected on it, try it. Another approach if your child doesn’t sleep well is to consider what needs they might be trying to meet at night that you could aim to meet more during the day. For example, are they getting enough exercise, cuddles, play, sensory stimulation, 1:1 attention, milk? How are daytime naps going? My big tip from my experience as a parent though is the classic of creating a solid bedtime routine that you can keep tweaking and building on as your children grow. It doesn’t need to be complicated – whatever combination of bath, milk, brush teeth, nappy and pyjamas and bedtime story or songs works in your family and with your combination of children and availability of other adults to help. I found the calm predictability of the bedtime routine invaluable when my daughter was ready to learn to settle herself to sleep after her bedtime stories. I’m very grateful for the peace of mind I have now when we have a goodnight hug and I know she’ll then quickly fall asleep and only wake again in another 12 hours’ time. I’m especially grateful for it because she didn’t sleep through the night until she was 2, and if I’d had a pound for every time someone asked me if she slept through the night yet as a toddler, I’d be rich. So no, I can’t pretend I have magic baby whispering sleep powers, but I have plenty lived experience of surviving sleep deprivation and ACT has been my trusted friend there.
In a sleep context, this is about noticing which of your skills to use when, and also when not to. I’ve noticed that what works in our family as a sleep solution is constantly changing and rarely what you’d find in a conventional toddler sleep guide. Since I usually like to follow evidence-based guidelines this means I’ve sometimes had to defuse from the need to do that if it doesn’t suit one of my children. For example, neither of my children has had any luck sleeping in a cot as both are too active in their sleep – they are both capable of rolling around, sitting up and crawling in their sleep to get comfy and neither likes banging their head. So, my son currently sleeps on a double mattress on the floor in a room with extra cushions and beanbags on the floor to soften his landing if he gets up to move around at night when I’m not there. Most of the time when he wakes himself up it’s because he hit a wall rather than because he’s hungry for milk (he currently eats more food than my 3 year old), so the double mattress on the floor leads to a lot less waking up at night for both me and him compared to a cot. It’s probably going to keep being helpful to reflect from time to time on whether what you’re doing works for you and your family – and if it doesn’t flex and change it around.