Taking Children Seriously

Night waking, Sleep, and Serious Stress

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Sat, 28 Sep., 1996, at 18:18:37 +0100

A poster wrote:

My sixteen month old son had been sleeping through the night in his crib for the last 9 months or so. Prior to that, he slept in bed with us. We got the crib out of desperation because he spent the night awakening after 45 minute or so to nurse, nurse for an hour or more, sleep for 45 minutes, reawaken and so on. He would seem very tired and unhappy throughout the day, my wife was emotionally and physically ill due to lack of sleep, it seemed bad all the way around.

That sounds frightfully stressful. Lack of sleep is a killer. In my experience most people go through these zombie times with babies, but knowing that does not help in the least, does it?

So, you had a problem you needed to solve.

We got the crib and were quite surprised when he quickly started sleeping through the night (within a few days). We accomplished this by me putting him to sleep and me going to him when he awoke during the night. When he cried (actually “screamed” is a better word for it) I would hold him, then set him back down in the crib. If he still cried/screamed I would pick him up again, hold him, (disregarding his reaching for his mother), then put him back in the crib. After a minute or two of this he would quit reaching for his mother and quiet down. He seemed content to lay on my shoulder, eventually he would fall asleep and I would put him in the crib. All this was before I'd heard of TCS.

So (I think you're saying) you “solved” the problem to your own satisfaction by adopting a coercive strategy. And at that time it didn't bother you to use force to separate your child from his mother, making him cry or scream. I'm not trying to be nasty here, I am just trying to focus on exactly what the problem was and is. You see, if doing this did, at that time, bother you, then this was not a solution to the problem from your point of view even before you discovered TCS.

The only remaining “problem” was that he was waking up early in the morning (6 AM or so) and wanting to nurse (reaching for his mother). I would go to the crib and take him out to the living room, thus starting our day. The theory was that if I gave him what he wanted, we would start down the slippery slope back to where we were 9 months ago.

Are you saying that the situation was that he was sleeping through the night without any problem except that he woke at 6 a.m. wanting to nurse? Are you saying that although he was sleeping through the night for nine months, he was waking up wanting to nurse every morning, and for the nine months you were not allowing him to nurse as he wanted?

You say that you thought that if you were to allow him to nurse upon waking, as he wished to, he would want to nurse through the night as well. This sounds like the “give them an inch and they'll take a mile” idea – the idea that if you “give in”, the child will make more and more demands.

Unfortunately, there is an element of truth in that reasoning, namely that when the relationship is characterised by coercion, and the child feels constantly thwarted, he will indeed try to get everything he possibly can on the few occasions when the parent offers a little more, or restricts a little less. But that whole class of problems only arises as a result of the coercion itself. In the absence of coercion, there is no psychological need to push out the limits because there are no limits. This class of problems caused directly by coercion is one of the things that makes changing from a coercive regime to non-coercion “mid-stream” difficult.

But is that really what was happening, or could there be another reason for his wishing to nurse?

The only remaining “problem” was that he was waking up early in the morning (6 AM or so) and wanting to nurse (reaching for his mother).

Were the problem the time of waking, I conjecture that it would not be difficult to solve. For example –

If you have a later schedule, and do not want to be woken at 6, you might very gradually extend his day by keeping him awake a little longer each evening until his sleep-wake pattern fits yours. This does not require coercion – just do what all the child-rearing books advise parents to avoid when they want to encourage children to go to sleep: go out of your way to provide excitement for a little longer each evening, for example. You could also encourage him not to take daytime naps, or to reduce the number or duration of naps, depending upon his individual needs.

In Baby and Child, Penelope Leach (by no means an advocate of non-coercion) writes (p. 319):

“Although the child is now old enough to keep himself awake on purpose he still cannot (and never will be able to) wake himself on purpose. Waking up in the night is not a ”habit“. You cannot teach your child not to do it, either by ignoring him when he wakes or by scolding him for it. In fact, night waking has nothing to do with discipline, and parents who tell you, smugly, that their children know better, are fooling themselves. Don't let them fool you ... All children wake several times each night as they turn over. If nothing interests or disturbs them, they drop straight down into sleep again without anyone ever knowing that they have woken.”

She then goes on to suggest that whilst early morning waking is more common in toddlers than in younger babies, it need not be a problem for the parents, because provided there is sufficient light, the child can happily amuse himself with his toys for a while before the parents wake up.

But in the poster's case, his son was waking up wanting to nurse. There must be a reason for this.

If you can discover why he wants to nurse, that may well point you in the direction of a solution. Taking the most obvious possibility first –

Does he wake up wanting to nurse because he is hungry? Is he getting enough food to last him through the night? Do you offer him food and drink before he goes to bed? Could you perhaps look at whether his evening “meal” is adequate to keep him going through the night? Are you so keen to ensure a healthy diet that you inadvertently keep him short of calories? (This is apparently becoming a common problem, so please do not take this question as a personal attack – I really feel for you and I'm just trying to think of every possible reason for this problem.) Could you leave a box containing his favourite biscuits in his crib, for him to help himself to in the night or early morning? Is he thirsty? Might it be possible to leave a bottle or trainer-cup of milk or water or juice or camomile tea or something in his crib for him to help himself to when he wakes up? You could show him where the box of goodies is each morning to help him get the idea. How's his weight? Could he have worms?

Does he feel insecure for some reason? Are you or your wife under stress which he might be sensing and finding unsettling? Could there be a problem in connection with the birth of the new baby? Does he feel rejected by his mother for this or some other reason? (This is absolutely not intended as an attack on your wife – she sounds lovely – I'm just trying to think of every possibility here.) Could your wife go out of her way even more than I'm sure she is doing at the moment, to develop her relationship with him and to reassure him of her love and interest in him? Can you arrange things so that your wife has time alone with your son every day?

Could you arrange things so that your wife has a good night's sleep often enough that she does not feel exhausted and stressed? Could you feed your younger baby instead some nights? (Whether you use expressed milk or formula, it really shouldn't have any ill-effect on your wife's milk supply. If there is a problem with your wife's milk supply already, could she be under stress? Does she eat enough? These things can causes problems.) Could you take it in turns to do the night shift, as it were, and have the “off-duty” partner sleep somewhere else – at a friend's house perhaps, if there is nowhere at home to sleep undisturbed? Is there anything you could change to make life easier for your wife? If your wife exhausts herself doing housework and does not feel comfortable letting things slide in this respect, could you hire someone to do this on a temporary basis, as an emergency measure? Or is there any friend or relative who could help?

I think your original feeling that this lack of sleep and stress was a real problem to solve was right. You should indeed take your own needs seriously, and not think that self-sacrifice is the answer. Clearly it isn't. But coercion is not the answer either.

Here's where I can shorten the story. It is 2 weeks ago. I have been attempting to be as consensual and non-coercive as I can figure to be with him, having been impressed with TCS. I reason that perhaps he has outgrown the sleeping problem we had. I reason that if he wants to nurse when he wakes up, he should do what he wants. I reason all kinds of TCS things. So we give him what he wants. 6 am, he screams, he comes in the bed, he nurses. Next night, he wakes up at 5 am, same result.

So two weeks ago, although nothing in the situation itself had changed over the nine months, you had changed, and because of some thinking on your part, the situation no longer seemed problem-free to you. You had a problem you wanted to solve. You were no longer (if you ever were) untroubled by the morning coercion.

So you tried to solve the problem. Unfortunately, your “solution” seems to have raised more problems rather than solving the problem it was devised to solve.

To shorten the story again, gradually it progressed to last night, when he woke at 10:30 pm (after having gone to bed by his choice at 8:30 pm) screaming. I attempted to lay him back down in his crib. No sir. He wanted to nurse. So he spent the entire night doing what he has been doing off and on now for two weeks: waking after a short time, nursing, sleeping for a short time, nursing, just like before we got the crib. We were willing to have him sleep in the bed with us, but not at the cost of our own health.

I don't think Jean Leidloff's The Continuum Concept is quite as insightful a book as is commonly supposed by most “child-centred” parents. I cannot see many advantages to sleeping with adults, let alone young children who wriggle and poke one in the ribs. Personally I'd be too worried about rolling over and squashing a baby to be able to sleep well if I were to have a baby actually in my bed. If a child is not happy to sleep in a crib next to your bed, there must be a reason for that. The child must feel insecure or something. So you need to address that. It does not follow from that problem, that the parents must have the child sleep with them, or even in the same room – so long as the child feels secure that the parents will come to him on demand. I don't think there is any immutable need to sleep with others.

My wife, who has been shockingly supportive of non-coercion until now, is haggard. I, who had moved to the couch in the living room, could hear screaming and crying (through the earplugs I was wearing) from my son, my wife, and my other son (3 months old who is sleeping in the bed with us without difficulty until now) throughout the night. She said she kept them in bed with her the whole miserable night.

That sounds very distressing for all of you. Problematic situations invariably seem much worse, much less solvable, when one is tired and stressed. At such times, one may not only lack the creativity necessary to solve the problem, but one may also exacerbate the current problems through meme-mediated coercive actions.

She said that non-coercion is not working and she can't do this another night.

What you have described is not non-coercion, but self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is very bad, as I have said many times before. It is, as your message suggests, painful for the self-sacrificers, and thus an unstable, ill-advised, (self-)coercive approach. It is not much better than coercing your children, since it is inimical to the consentual (I think we need to stress full, free, genuine, unanimous consent rather than “consensus”, hence the unorthodox “t” there) relationship the family is striving to build, and may well cause deep resentment on the part of the self-sacrificers to those for whom they have sacrificed themselves.

More positively, you could view this as an unsuccessful attempt to solve a problem. We all make mistakes. You could not know in advance that this would not work. You thought it might. But clearly, this proposed solution to your problem is not a solution. Now obviously I can't possibly know what would be a solution, but I have tried to give you some ideas to consider, above.

She said that non-coercion is not working...

If you have been thwarting the child every morning for nine months, non-coercive educational theory predicts that when you desist from coercion you may nevertheless have ghastly problems for a while. Those problems are the cumulative effects of the earlier coercion. Changing from coercion to consent does not work like a magic charm, with everything breezily falling into place just like that. Many of the effects of past coercion do not vanish overnight. If it were that simple, then the arguments against coercion would be much less strong! One could just coerce the child throughout his childhood, and then adopt a non-coercive approach just before he leaves home, and hey presto, the damage would be repaired. It is precisely because it is not that easy that non-coercion is so important.

Coercion impairs creativity. Its effects are cumulative and effectively permanent. Coercion destroys a person's ability to think and solve problems in the affected areas of his mind. Every instance of coercion, being a failed attempt by the victim to resolve psychological conflict by bringing in new ideas or changing his perspective, tends to widen the problem as more areas of thinking are brought into conflict. Such failures are painful and in order to prevent the conflict widening further, the person has to adopt a coping strategy. This is usually an unconscious psychological strategy with the property of entrenching the whole existing tangle of conflicting theories in that area. This it shuts down – or “kills” – the thinking in the affected area, preventing any further widening of the problem.

When a family changes from coercion to non-coercion, they are not so much bringing “dead” areas of their minds “back to life”, as nurturing remaining areas of thinking, or giving birth to new thinking, and thus working around the dead areas. Much of the damage caused by the past coercion is still there, in their minds, but given great effort and creativity, the family may build their way around the dead bits, and may build consentual family decision-making institutions which powerfully facilitate future problem-solving. Once a way has been found around a shut-down area of the mind, it is occasionally possible to return to it and resolve the once entrenched conflict from some other direction, as it were, but this is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and one can't do this many times in one's life.

So, to sum up this bit –

(1) your suggestion that your current problems refute non-coercive educational theory is false. Indeed, the theory predicts that there will be problems arising from the earlier coercion. You should not expect non-coercion to “work” smoothly when the family is, as it were, building its way around the damage caused by this earlier coercion: that process requires great creativity and is very difficult. (2) One failed attempt to solve a problem is no reason to think that there is no solution possible.

In a later message the poster writes:

We had the problem solved in one sense. Do you think that the seasoned advice on [the parent-l] list would object to the situation as it existed?

>(Taking the child into the living room instead of to his mother at 6am.

Unfortunately, going back to what you did before is no more a solution than the failed solution you have been trying. Also, it is probably not even possible to go back. Things have moved on. You have a new problem-situation now, and it is most unlikely that you can return to the earlier problem-situation just by willing it. Getting back to that is itself a substantive problem requiring great creativity. What you need to do is to solve the problem you have now.

It only became a problem when we started giving him what he seemed to want most. [...] I can solve it with coercion, easily. Just go back to what we were doing before.

Ah, but could you? I think not. Your suggestion that everything was fine until you discovered TCS and thereby made the mistake of trying to adopt a non-coercive approach can't be true, can it? For if there had been no problem with the way things were, there would be no problem to address, so why would you be trying to solve a non-existent problem? Why would you have been attracted by TCS ideas if you had not been dissatisfied with the traditional, coercive pattern of child-parent relationships?

I think it is simply not true that you were quite happy with things as they were during the nine months. I think that you genuinely care about your son and, wanting to build a good relationship with him rather than destroying whatever you have, you were genuinely troubled by this daily morning coercion. I think that although discovering TCS may have been a catalyst to your own thinking on this, the extent to which that is true reflects the extent to which these ideas addressed (or are addressing) your own problem-situation, your own questions etc., in this area. So I think it never was true that everything was fine by your own lights. Discovering TCS merely crystallised or made explicit something you already felt – that this daily round of coercion was deeply problematic to you.

So you see, going back won't solve the problem – not by your son's lights, and not by yours either. You need to address the problem you have now, from here, not go back. But the fact that you made this (albeit, for the moment, unsuccessful) attempt to solve the problem is a very positive, good thing. It suggests that you and your wife are genuinely striving to find a consentual solution, and that suggests that in this area you are both open to criticism and seeking truth – rational, in other words. This must be an incredibly difficult time for you both, particularly as you have not one but two under-twos, but the problems associated with babies are only temporary. You won't still be suffering early mornings or broken nights when they are a little older. This is the toughest time by far, I think. For TCS parents, things get easier and easier the older their children get.

Good luck.

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