Taking Children Seriously

Solving Sleep Problems

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Fri, 24 Jul., 1998, at 16:20:52 -0400

A poster wrote:

Two TCS toddlers express a strong preference for their mother during their numerous crying awakenings at night. Particularly, they state they want their mother for various reasons having to do with her breasts. Both have unlimited access to their mother and her breasts during the day. Both also spend a great deal of time with their father during the day.

Both children use bottles extensively, but do not appear satisfied with them at times, especially at night. Attempts by the father to help during most of these nightime periods are often vigorously rejected. The mother doesn't get much sleep and wants the father to help,

I think that the terminology here may indicate an unconscious false assumption: “[she] wants the father to help”, seems to be assuming that the children are the mother's job, the mother's role, the mother's responsibility, and that the father's responsibility is merely to help the mother. But that is inaccurate: in regard to the children, both parents should have a similar role, as well as a similar responsibility.

Similarly, the odd form of words, “they... want their mother for various reasons having to do with her breasts”, indicates that whole classes of options may be being overlooked by just assuming that the children's reasons are “to do with breasts” and therefore that it is the mother's responsibility and that the father has only a secondary role.

But in fact, it is not the children's reasons but their proposed solution, that has “to do with breasts”. That they should propose such a solution is natural in view of their limited experience (perhaps artificially limited by this very syndrome). That they should anxiously assume that this is the only possible solution to every problem or need is not inevitable. It is probably a theory that they have picked up from the parents themselves. Once the family as a whole has adopted the theory that there is no alternative to mother's breasts and that the children's problems are inherently insoluble without them, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: when it is tried and succeeds, it is reinforced; when it is tried and causes much worse problems, everyone's anxiety level increases and it is reinforced again!

It is simply a false assumption that because the children express a prima facie wish to have their mother, this implies that they couldn't be happy with anything else. In fact, not only could they be just as happy with something else, they would be happier if they found new and more sophisticated ways of solving problems, and if this particular problem were solved such that the mother is happy and gets enough sleep too. Preferences are not immutable!

BTW, you say that the father's attempts are often vigorously rejected rather than always. If the children are responding differently on different occasions, then there is surely scope for thinking creatively about what it is about different occasions that makes the children respond differently, and what it is that they actually want.

These are not just ‘responses’ by the children. There are reasons – problems – underlying why they ask for what they ask for. But when they suggest a specific solution, that is just a theory, a suggestion, for how to solve that problem of theirs. The problem itself might, prima facie, concern a range of things that the children might actually be wanting, such as comfort, food, company, whatever. Or they might be insecure, or unsatisfied with some aspect of their lives, etc. If the children refuse to be comforted by their father, who is genuinely trying to identify and solve the problem and give them what they want, then if it is not because they are intent on causing trouble, it must be because the father's proposed solution does not solve their problem. It is most unlikely that if the father is genuinely doing his utmost to discover what the child actually wants (the problem, not the proposed solution), that it can't be provided by the father. It is likely that it can't always be provided by the father, but that should be a rare occurrence, not a nightly, systematic one.

I think there is a sort of traditional mystique underlying this assumption (about breasts being ‘irreplaceable’ in solving children's problems). It is often disguised as being a physiological issue connected with breasts, but actually, there is a mystical theory here. The idea is that the child has a mystical need for the mother and the breasts which is over and above any actual needs and wishes that the child has; and that the mother has this mystical thing to give the child which is over and above the actual things she gives the child (food, comfort, company, etc.). If there were such a mystical thing – that is to say, something outside the scope of reason – then indeed it couldn't possibly be substituted; and that is the assumption underlying this question, I think. By contrast, any actual thing that might solve a child's actual problem – such as food, fluids, comfort, cuddles, conversation, social interaction, playing, or whatever – could obviously be provided by the father too, except where a rare combination of circumstances might dictate otherwise.

People justify these mystical theories all sorts of different ways – by saying that this is hard-wired biologically, or whatever – but the underlying feature of such theories is that they claim that something is beyond the scope of reason, and thereby they justify not solving the problem and exculpate the parent for the child's distress.

This is not to say that there are no circumstances in which a person's physical attributes are relevant. For example, there is something in the idea that a newborn baby is better off breast-feeding than bottle feeding, but we are talking about toddlers here, not newborns, and it certainly is not true of toddlers that they automatically have a systematic need for nursing through the night. The reason it is true of newborn babies but it is not true of toddlers is that the things which a newborn baby objectively needs are objectively better provided by an actual breast, (at least at the moment, given the present state of human knowledge). But the point is, that is a practical need, not a mystical one.

A two or three year old does not have the same practical need as a newborn, because she has a much wider universe, and has a much more complex relationship with the world, and she will be wanting whatever she wants for many complex reasons. The role breast-feeding plays in her life has nothing to do with genes or “hard-wired needs”: it is what she has made it be, in trying to solve her problems. She has given nursing a certain role in her life, and that role is entirely subject to reason.

If the child has a real wish, which conflicts with some other real wish of hers or a family member's, then one can easily solve that problem, through reason. But if you assume from the outset that there isn't a way, that mistake will prevent you creating a real solution.

If you assume that the child's prima facie statement of the problem is the bottom line – if you think that the child can't be mistaken or change her preference about such a matter – then not only are you preventing the solution of the problem at the time, you are also more generally blocking off the child's ability to find things she likes – to find better preferences. She has integrated this breast-feeding into her life, but she needs a chance to integrate a million other things into her life as well, all of which can provide all sorts of new forms of pleasure, and joy, and opportunity, and so on. If you were to react like this to everything she said, then you'd be failing in your duty to offer her new ideas.

BTW, you shouldn't just be offering children new ideas when there is an emergency, you should be offering new ideas and experiences all the time.

Sometimes a child will say, after considering various alternatives, “Well yes, I see that it is difficult, but I really want this thing now,” and we all know the TCS line about such situations. But that is not the situation described here. And moreover, when it is like that, it is not distressing to oblige. By contrast, in this case, it sounds as though the mother is distressed by the situation, and as such, this is a serious problem that both parents (including the father!) should address.

but the father doesn't know what to do when he tries everything he can think of and they still want their mother.

There is no particular reason in nature why children can't be satisfied with their fathers on those occasions. With newborns that may not be so, as I said, but we are talking about toddlers here so that doesn't apply. The idea that children have some inherent need which arises day after day and which causes distress day after day is anathema to TCS. There can't be such a need.

It is important that the father not leave the mother to try to solve the problem on her own. This is as much his responsibility as it is hers, and he should play an active role in solving it, not merely “help” her. Merely “helping” her is not enough. If the mother is feeling really awful from lack of sleep then the father should, as a matter of urgency, address himself to this problem. Perhaps he should suggest that she sleep at a friend's house every now and then, just to help her get a good night's sleep every now and then. There is no law of nature saying that the children should not be happy with their loving father to care for them.

Other important questions to ask are: why are they awake half the night anyway? And given that they are, why can't they be comforted by the father? And why are they crying in the night in the first place? To put it bluntly: if the mother were to die tomorrow would that mean that the children could never be happy again, even with their loving, TCS father to help them? It shouldn't! Consider whether the father might be making himself unattractive/unpleasant company to the children when they express a wish for their mother. Anyone can make a young child anxious or upset or want someone else instead, just through body language or a lack of engagement or a non-constructive attitude to problems. If the father does that and at the same time assumes (1) that if the child says she wants to nurse, that that is the only possible “solution”, and (2) that if the mother does not want to, she is ipso facto coercing/rejecting the child, then the child is likely to pick up on that, and will automatically feel upset and anxious as a result.

Think about what might be causing problems for the children in their lives generally. What could be making them unhappy in this way? Try to solve the underlying problem.

All sorts of different sleeping arrangements have been tried. Trying to persuade them to eat more during the day has been tried. Dozens of other things have been tried. Any ideas?

Here are a few:

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