I attended the 20th annual RIE Conference held at San Francisco State University this past weekend, and I had the honor of presenting a workshop on Toddlers to a wonderfully responsive group of parents and caregivers.
I talked a lot about the importance of observing, and listening to the children we are caring for, as well as the absolute necessity of meeting the child or children where they are – as opposed to pushing our adult expectations and agendas upon them before they are ready.
All learning is a process, it can’t be rushed, and it starts with the child, and the child’s readiness to participate with us in moving to the next level of mastery or maturation.
Toddlers are working on mastering many new skills in all areas, and we as adults are often anxious to help them along. But we can save the little ones in our care a lot of misery and frustration, not to mention ourselves, if we are willing to slow down, and cooperate with the child in their own process.
Sometimes, all the best advice from all the best experts in the world will be of little use if we forget to include the unique child in the equation, which is why I constantly encourage parents and teachers to go back and really take a look at the child and what’s happening for that child in the context of the question the adult is raising.
The workshop participants contributed many excellent and pointed questions around this topic, which started me thinking that it might be helpful if I shared an example from my own experience, to illustrate these principles more clearly.
To that end, here’s a story about how S. learned to sleep.
I started working with S. and her family when S. was 11 months old. Her parents had developed a good bed time routine, and S. went to sleep in her crib in her own room, and slept through most nights to wake happy and refreshed in the morning.
Naps were another story. It was clear S. needed to nap, as evidenced by her behavior, but no rhythm or routine had evolved around naps, and each day a struggle ensued with S.’s parents and caregivers resorting to ever desperate measures to help S. get to sleep. Walking, singing, carrying, rocking, stroller rides, milk, stories, car rides, and on and on. If S. went to sleep, after an adult had spent at least an hour assisting her, she’d often wake 20-30 minutes later, more tired and cranky than before her rest.
So the adults had a question and an agenda, which was how to help S. to get the rest she needed, without being dependent upon them.
I began as always, by observing S.,-looking at her environment, and her daily rhythms and routines. This is vital, because environment, and routines all work together- it’s impossible to try to solve a problem in one area without looking at what may be underlying and contributing to the disruption.
Moving slowly, we began to make some small changes to S.’s daily routines, and to note if the changes were having a positive or negative impact. A journal was a useful tool for both her parents and me at this stage.
Through observation, we learned that it was important for S. to be outside and active, early in the morning. I helped her parents begin to notice and observe S.’s particular signs of tiredness- what Magda Gerber called the “soft signs of tiredness.” We also began to create some simple rituals around day time resting- a diaper change, a story, a song we always sang, but we stopped strolling, carrying, rocking, driving etc. We included S. in the process by talking to her about what was happening. “I see that you are rubbing your eyes. You are starting to feel tired. Soon it will be time to rest. Your crib is a safe cozy, place to rest.”
This process took about two weeks. S. protested somewhat- as was to be expected. Why? Because she had been used to falling asleep for naps in one way, and now we were changing all the rules. We were asking something new and different from her. She had not learned to be able to recognize her own signs of tiredness, allow her body to relax, and to fall asleep in her crib unassisted.
She needed a lot of support, and we as her adults had to be willing to listen to her crying, and be available to reassure her. “Yes this is hard for you, but you can do it. We will help you.” “You will feel so much better, when you are able to get the rest you need.”
Over the course of a month we got it down- together! And all was well – for awhile.
At about 15 months, S. moved from taking two one hour naps a day to taking one longer nap, in the mid afternoon. Except that the transition didn’t happen easily, and suddenly she absolutely refused to go to sleep in her crib for her naps.
We went back to observing closely, keeping a journal, making small adjustments to our daily routine. I consulted Dr. Weissbluth’s book- Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child. I consulted with my teachers and mentors. We remained consistent and hopeful. Nothing was working.
S. was exhausted and miserable. I was exhausted and miserable, and out of ideas! One day, after she’d spent half an hour sobbing in her crib, calling my name, and I’d done my level best to soothe and reassure her, I just gave up!
I took S. out of her crib, and sat her next to me on the couch, and said to her, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help. You need to rest, and I need to rest, but nothing is working. I am going to sit here on the couch with you, and maybe we can rest together.”
At which point S. put her head down in my lap, went to sleep, and slept for two hours. I kid you not!
To this day, S., who is now almost four years old, naps for one to two hours every day. She goes to sleep easily, and wakes up well rested and happy, and I don’t have to lay down with her, or even be in the same room with her. She still doesn’t sleep in her bed for her naps, however. She sleeps on the futon in the office area. Go figure!
We may never know why S. can’t/won’t take a nap in her crib/bed, but the important thing is that she now gets the rest she needs. First, we had to learn to co-operate with S. as much as we were asking her to co-operate with us.
Every child is unique. Every situation is different, and no adult – not even an “expert” can hope to impose a “formula” that will work for every child. The best we can do is to be willing to really look at the child, listen to the child, ask, and allow the child to participate with us in the lofty goals that we sometimes hold for them. In their own time, in their own way- “on their own, with our help,” as Magda Gerber often said, we will get where we want to be – together!