Can I tell you a secret?
When other parents try to talk to me about sleep, I get itchy.
As mothers, we are inundated with information about “how” to parent, and “when” to parent, and “what” we should be doing. While this can be helpful for someone who really has no clue about what’s going on, it can be downright maddening for those of us who have tried.every.goshdarn.thing and are still struggling. Often we have kids who are atypical when it comes to sleep, or eating, or attachment. And sometimes we prescribe to parenting philosophies that are not mainstream. So in an effort to create peace on online forums and in playgroups everywhere, I offer up “What Not To Say: The Toddler Sleep Edition”.
1) “Have you tried….?” Do not give any advice that starts with “Have you tried”. We have. If our children are not sleeping, we have probably already tried earlier bedtimes/more snack/less snack/longer bedtime routine/bath/books/new blankets/melatonin/chiropractic/quiet time. While those things may work for some kids, they do not work for all. And if all that your child needed to fall asleep was an earlier bedtime, then you are LUCKY. And you have a child who was already wired to be a great sleeper.
2) “You really need to set some boundaries for your child“. On behalf of toddler parents everywhere, I have to say that making a judgment call about what we “let” our child “get away with” is the perfect way to get us to tune out everything that comes next. My child has a genuine, stumpthedoctors, sleep issue. Combined with a genuine needsmedicationforit health issue that makes him uncomfortable when he sleeps. When I drive him around so that he falls asleep for a nap, it is not because I’m coddling him. It’s because he can not physiologically turn off his “awake state”, and he will continue to play all day long (and run into things, have huge tantrums, and go glassy-eyed) because he is so tired. Just like you can’t “teach” a child to not have diabetes or a cold, some sleep health issues are physical and physiological. They are sometimes laced with behaviors rooted in sleep psychology, but the physical and the emotional are hopelessly intertwined. A doctor or a specialist can help a family to sort this out. Not you. I’m his mom. I know best. I have tried everything you suggested. When Max was awake at 3 am (for the day) and I was driving him around town in the middle of a rainstorm, I was delirious and bawling my eyes out…but I was not babying him. I was being an excellent mom. An excellent mom who had been tested, and pushed to the edge, and left alone, time and time again. Doing that is harder than “shutting the door at 8 pm” on a screaming child. We’ve tried that. Enough times to know that something was physically wrong with our child. Perhaps it was the incessant puking that tipped us off. Or maybe it was the fact that no matter how hard he cried, or for how long, he never (never, never, never) fell asleep.
Wait….that’s it. That’s all that I don’t want you to say. But here’s the best part. When a parent tells you that their child is having a hard time sleeping, whether it’s a baby or a toddler, here’s what you SHOULD say:
1. “I’m Sorry”. I’m sorry that you’re having such a hard time. That must be really hard. You must feel really lonely.
2. “I’m Sorry”. I’m so very sorry that your child isn’t sleeping. You must be exhausted. That must be so frustrating.
3. “I’m Sorry”. I can imagine that you have done everything in your power to make it better. I can’t fix it for you, but I can listen.
It’s like when you come home from a crappy day at work and you vent to your partner. They go on and on about how to fix it, until you’re so pissed because they weren’t really listening. You don’t want anyone to fix it. You just want someone to say “I’m sorry. Sounds like you really got stepped on today. That sucks.”
4. “How can I help?” Can I bring dinner over this week? Would you like me to stop by and bring my Johnny for a playdate? You can go upstairs and take a nap and I’ll watch the kids. Can I drive your older ones to soccer practice for you? Hey, I’m making muffins for Emma’s class tomorrow and I’m going to bring an extra batch by for you. I’m headed to the store, text me your list. Can I take you for coffee so that you can vent? Here’s some fresh fruit from the Farmer’s Market, going to leave it on your doorstep.
5. “You are such a wonderful mom”. I’ve watched how hard you’ve worked to raise your sweet boy. I know that you’ve been dealing with a lot of unexpected things. Even with all of his health issues, he is an amazing, creative, loving, brilliant child. THAT is your doing. YOU get credit for that. I know that our parenting styles are different, but that’s ok. We both know what is best for our child. I don’t mind that you don’t Cry It Out. I don’t breastfeed. You don’t give a pacifier. I don’t do time-outs. You don’t formula feed. We all do what works best for our own child. And you know how we know that? We listen to them. You are such a great listener, Mom.
6. “I’m going to walk this road next to you. I’ll hold your hand. You won’t be alone.” This is scary stuff, this parenting gig. Throw in an illness, or a life change, or a move, or another baby, and it’s like adding fuel to a raging fire. Don’t worry, friend. I’ve got your back. When you are up at night with a screaming newborn, think of me. I’m cheering you on. When you are awake at 3 am with a toddler who won’t go back to sleep, look outside. Someone else’s light is on, and you are not alone. I may not be on the same journey, but I will leave my light on for you, so that you know that there are other moms who are sending you hugs and courage in the middle of the night.
Perhaps what I should’ve said before, is that you ARE a parenting genius. For your very own, unique, special, humanly flawed, incredibly perfect child. Be the genius for your own child, not for mine.