Sleep + Parenthood

In three years of podcasting, I've never shared my own views on sleep. This is not an accident. The reality is that I'm afraid to approach this divisive topic. I do have a lot of opinions on the topic, but today--I'm sharing the 7 most important things I've learned about sleep and parenthood in my own life.

Time Stamp:

7 Tips on Improving Sleep in Parenthood

  • 7:58 // Setting goals and expectations
  • 10:28 // Martyrdom
  • 13:03 // Calm Confidence
  • 16:05 // Limit setting
  • 18:40 // Thinking outside the box
  • 21:32 // Accepting help
  • 25:04 // The extinction burst
  • 25:32 // Recap

Full Episode Transcription

Hi there. Welcome back. Today, we're talking all about sleep. You might be thinking this seems like a pretty basic topic, but I've been podcasting now for almost three years, it'll be three years in February, and I have never really shared my own feelings and insights about sleep, and that's not an accident. I'm actually terrified to talk about sleep. Sleep and parenthood is such a polarizing topic. We all need it, but there are a lot of differing viewpoints on it. Up until this point I've kind of felt like it's better to keep my mouth shut.

We're not talking about infant sleep today. We're going to be talking about toddlerhood and beyond. I want to invite you to disagree with me. Simple Families is a community. It's not a cult. So, I expect that all you out there listening are going to have different viewpoints than me, and I hope that you do. I hope that you're not blindly following any one person, place, or thing. As always, with any of these episodes or any of my content, I invite you to take what works for you and leave what doesn't. Before we get into today's episode, I am going to share a quick word from our sponsor and a little bit about what's going on in Simple Families right now.

The sponsor for today's episode is Native. My husband and I have both been using Native long before they even started sponsoring the podcast. Native is a natural deodorant. Now, if you're anything like me, you didn't come to natural deodorant very quickly. I tried a lot of options, a lot of things that didn't work, and went back and forth between natural and conventional for a long time, particularly when we lived in Texas and it was like 100 degrees half the year. Ultimately, my husband introduced me to Native, and I figured if it worked for him, it would probably work for me. Yes, it in fact does, all seasons of the year, not just in the winter, but even in the summer when it's especially hot. So, I invite you to try it out. For 20% off your first purchase go to nativedeodorant.com and use the promo code, simple, during checkout. Again, go to nativedeodorant.com and use the promo code, simple, during checkout for 20% off your first purchase.

So, what's going on on Simple Families right now? This week I am launching a live workshop called Simplifying Food + Family, and we are focused on lightening the load around feeding your kids. I don't know about you all, but food can be a really heavy burdensome thing in a home with kids, from the grocery shopping, to the meal planning, to the cooking, to the cleaning, to the actually getting the food into your kids' mouths. It can create a lot of stress and a lot of frustrations. So, in this live workshop, we're going to break it down into three main parts. So, we're going to talk about simplifying meal planning, making it less painful, because I don't know about you, but I find meal planning to be pretty painful. And then we're going to be simplifying cooking. Whenever I'm cooking something, my priority is minimal dishes, because I'm already thinking about cleanup before I've even started cooking.

Lastly, we'll be talking about getting kids to eat better and improving the atmosphere in your house at mealtime. Research shows us that kids who have a more pleasant, enjoyable experience at the dinner table actually eat better. When I say pleasant, enjoyable experience at the dinner table, I don't mean you have to give them an iPad. If you want to learn more and get signed up to join us on January 14th for this workshop, go to simplefamilies.com/food. There are only 100 spots available, so jump on and grab your spot as soon as possible.

Okay. I promise this is the last thing before we get on with today's episode. I got this message from Renee after I published episode 184. You can find that simplefamilies.com/episode184. This was the episode where I was sharing about my adventure in giving up alcohol last year for my new year's resolution, and Renee responded to me on Instagram and shared this. She said,

"My last drink was on December 30th of last year when I saw your post about giving up alcohol for your new year's resolution, and I also ordered the book, The Naked Mind, all this while drinking a glass of wine, I might add. I'm a different person than I was a year ago, or perhaps I should say I'm exactly who I meant to be."

"Removing alcohol has created the space for so much growth and change to flood into me. I am most grateful for a new and meaningful friendship that wasn't born over happy hour. I don't think about alcohol at all, and I'm happy my mind is free from its grip. I might not go out as much as I used to or stay out as long, but I've still enjoyed my friendships, even in a bar setting. I'm thankful that I came across your post and more so that you shared this with your community, so thank you. I hope I can inspire some people to consider their drinking the way that you did for me."

Renee, Simple Families Community Member

I love to hear this, Renee. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your adventure. I'm so glad that you are finding joy in life without wine, which I for one thought was next to impossible at this time last year.

Okay. As promised, here we go. We're going to talk about sleep. Like I said at the beginning of this episode, I do not expect you or even want you to agree with everything that I'm going to have to say about sleep. Take what works for you and leave what doesn't. So, I have a lot to say, as usual. I'm just the kind of person who always has something to say about pretty much everything. I preface this with the fact that we're not talking about infants. We're talking about toddlers and older kids, and mostly we're talking about us as parents. So, the one thing that I can say that pretty much everyone will agree with and the research agrees with is the fact that sleep is fundamental. It's fundamental for our physical and mental wellbeing. If we're not getting enough sleep, it's going to have an impact on us. The type of impact that sleep deprivation has on us really changes from person to person. If I say this as a broad generalization, is that if your physical and mental well-being are compromised, it's also going to have an impact on your relationships.

So, as a parent we need to be in our best physical and mental condition to be the parents that we want to be, to have the patience and have the calm and to have the sanity to face every day with kids, because it can be a lot. It can be heavy. It can be a lot of work. It can take a lot out of us, because for most of us raising kids is just one thing that we have to do. We have to go to work, or take care of our home, take care of aging parents, whatever it might be. Parenthood can be really heavy, maybe the heaviest piece in our lives, but maybe not so. In the past, I have done some consulting with families who are struggling with sleep.

Now, I've never really worked with parents of infants, mostly because I think that there's a lot of people out there who do sleep consulting and help parents with sleep interventions in the first year of life. I don't think there's quite as many resources as kids get older. Now, even though I don't work-one on-one with families in this capacity anymore, I have seen a whole variety of situations when it comes to sleep, and I can tell you that I don't think there's any one single standardized sleep plan that's going to work for every family. Every family is so unique. Every family has their own goals and their own expectations for sleep. That's the first bullet point that I want to hit here is goal setting.

1. Setting Goals and Expectations Around Sleep

So, the first thing to consider when you're trying to improve sleep in your family is what are your goals and your expectations for sleep? Now, this is going to be always changing. I think the generalized view of goals and expectations for sleep is we're going to get eight hours a night. We're going to sleep through the night. It's going to be beautiful. We're going to wake up feeling rested. But that may or may not be what you're working towards. You might need less. You might need more. This might be totally inconceivable based on your life stage. So, figure out, sit down with your partner, figure out what's going to work for you. What are you actually working towards right now? And this is going to change every month, maybe every week, definitely every year as your kids get older, and it's going to look different with every kid.

With your first child, you might have a little bit more energy to tend to them during the night, but if you have a second child that's waking up multiple times during the night and your first child is still waking up during the night, you're going to feel twice as tired. As you get older and you age, your sleep needs might change too, not to mention there can be other things that impact your sleep, like hormones, and alcohol, and stress. So, be sure to consider the whole picture.

Now, the biggest debate in the world of children's sleep is do we let them cry it out? Do we not let him cry it out? I get that a lot, and I don't have an answer for that. I think every family is unique and every family does what serves them best. I'm really not an advocate for either side of the coin. I'm an advocate for parents getting the best sleep that they can in order to be their best selves, whether that means co- sleeping, letting your kid cry it out, or responding to your kid a million times in the night. That's going to look different for every single family. I'm absolutely not here to judge based on whatever choices you've made or whatever choices you make in the future.

You can find research to support pretty much every stance on sleep, so instead of leaning too hard on the research on this particular topic, I'd say lean harder into what feels right in your gut and your intuition and your family's current needs. So, when you're setting goals around sleep, you need to consider, do you have to get up and be productive and go to work all day? Do you have time to take a nap in the afternoon? Maybe you're working towards eight solid hours at night. Maybe you're okay getting five hours and waking up a couple of times. What do you need to feel like your best self? What do you need to be able to show up and be calm and patient with your kids?

2. Sleep Martyrdom

So, that brings us to point number two, which is martyrdom. There's a lot of parents who are sleep martyrs, who say, "I'm just going to get up and respond to my kids, no matter what they need. I'll sleep with them. I'll co-sleep but them, even if I don't sleep very well. I'm a parent during the night just like I'm a parent during the day." Now, if you're one of those parents, and it works for you, and you still feel like your best self in the morning, then go for it, but if you're a parent who feels really compromised by a bad night of sleep and it has a very serious impact on your physical and emotional health, don't feel the pressure to be everything all the time, 24 hours a day.

It's so important when it comes to anything in parenting that we take a look at our bandwidth and we figure out how we actually feel about the decisions we're making in parenting. One example of this is laying with your kid at night until they fall asleep. There are some parents who lay with their kids every night until they go to sleep. Good on you. I could never do that. If you love spending that time with your kid and you love laying with them and watching them as their eyes drift closed, that's great. Really, it's great. Good for you. I could never do that. I would sit there and look at my kid thinking, "Oh my gosh. I need to be doing the dishes. I need to be doing this or that." I just don't have the patience to sit there and lay with my kids until they fall asleep. I also just really love my downtime at night. So, laying with my kids until they fall asleep is just not my cup of tea.

Now, what I do you happen a lot is that sometimes in early parenthood, we really love laying with our kids until they fall asleep, and it's this really beautiful time that we spend with them, but then as time goes on, we start to kind of resent it, and we start to kind of hate it and have a hard time weaning off. So, it's really important to keep ourselves in check. What are our motivations behind this? If you're doing something like laying with your kids until they fall asleep or co-sleeping because you love it, then good on you. Keep doing it. But if you're doing these things because you feel like you don't have any other option and they are taking a toll on you and possibly causing resentment, then you have a choice.

You can do things differently. I might argue that you should. Kids are such intuitive little beings, and they can sense when we're frustrated, and they can sense our resentment. They know whether those moments that we're lying in bed with them are blissful for us or resentful, even if you're trying to hide it. You can't. They know. So, if you're spending extra time to give this type of extra comfort to your kid and you really want to, great. If you don't want to, don't. It's probably going to have a negative impact on you and possibly a negative impact on your relationship with your kid.

4. Calm Confidence

That brings us to the third point is calm confidence. Everything that we do as a parent is easier if we do it with confidence. Now, if you're trying to make changes in your bedtime routine or something to do with sleep with your kids, and you're not sure if it's the best thing, and you're kind of afraid what their reaction is going to be, they're going to sense it, and they're going to push you a little bit harder on it. For me, I find this calm confidence through self-talk. So, here's an example of this. I've taken my kids off sugar for January, because December was like a mess, a lot of sugar. I can't even tell you how much sugar and candy my kids consumed at different types of holiday events. It was pretty much disgusting. So, I said, "We are done. No sugar for January."

Now, when I said this, I really meant it and I was confident that this was the best choice for my family. That is important, because if I just said it on a whim, and I didn't really mean it, and I didn't really intend to uphold it, it'd be a lot harder. So, we went to visit a new church on Sunday, and after church they had a coffee hour, and there was a kids table with kids snacks, and the table had cheese sticks, oranges, cupcakes, and two different types of cookies. So, when I saw the table, I was like, "Oh no. This is going to be a fight." So, when I saw the table, immediately I had to start doing some self-talk, thinking to myself, "They are not having those snacks. You can say no. You are allowed to say no. You will say no. You've already said no by setting the expectation that they're not having sugar this month. You got this," end self-talk.

I knew that I wasn't going to let them have it. So, had I approached the table with this thought of like, "Oh no. There's a bunch of sugar on the table. All the other kids are eating the sugar. Should I just let them have some sugar? Am I cruel? Am I mean for not letting them have the sugar?", If all this self doubt is running through my head, they are going to smell it a mile away, but because I did that self talk, I had the calm confidence. When we walked up to the table I said, "We're not having sugar right now. You can choose from either the cheese stick or the orange." I had no idea how they were going to respond. I was actually pretty convinced that my three year old would probably try to snatch it behind my back, but they didn't. They didn't even fight me on it. They heard it in my voice and they knew this is the expectation. We're not changing the expectation. Whether we're at home or at church, it doesn't matter. No sugar. End of story. Take your cheese stick. Get on with life.

In many ways, calm confidence goes so far during bedtime. When you are confident that your child is capable of sleeping well, when you are confident that they are capable of sleeping alone, they're going to sense that confidence in you, and it's going to rub off on them. When you're feeling unsure, you don't know what's going to happen, when you're feeling nervous, when you're feeling unsure, unsure about your decisions, unsure about your kids' capabilities, they can sense all that, too. So, that's point number three. Have calm confidence when you're approaching making change in the bedtime routine or just in sleep habits in general. Make the decision about what you're going to do and stick with it. Own it.

4. Limit Setting Around Sleep

Number four is limit setting. It's okay to set limits around sleep. In the last episode, episode 186, we talked about how to get your kids to sleep in later. In that episode, I shared more about using an okay to wake clock and setting limits around that. Even though kids tend to push back against structure, and limits, and boundaries, they desperately need it. When you're considering limit setting and sleep, it's good to go in with a plan. When you have a plan, you can be more consistent. So, what happens when your kid wakes up in the night? Do you go in, and lay with them, and end up falling asleep on the floor next to them, and end up with a stiff neck the next day? Again, if that's okay with you, then great. If it's not, then you can make a change.

So, here's an example. If you have a night wake up and you go in and lay with your kid, tell them, "When I come into lay with you, I'm going to set a timer for three minutes. When the timer goes off, I'm going to leave," so they know exactly what to expect. You go in and you lay with them. When the timer goes off, you leave. You're still responding. You're still checking on them, but you're also setting a limit. You're not going to fall asleep in there. You're not going to end up with a stiff neck the next day, because most people don't enjoy that. It's okay to set these kinds of limits.

Another example is you could do what I call the two hug rule. So, every time your kid gets up and needs your attention in the night, you can go in, give them two hugs, give them a kiss, and say good night. So is this helpful? If you choose to do something like this, this is a natural limit. This is what your kids know and what they expect from you. They know that when you come in, you're going to give them two hugs, you're going to show them some love, and then you're going to leave. They know what the expectation is. It's predictable.

So, don't be afraid to set limits with your kids around sleep, because remember, they need sleep just as much as you do, actually even more than you do. I think there's some misconception around the fact that if we are setting limits around our kids and sleep, that it's for our own purposes and because maybe we're a little bit lazy or we don't want to deal with it, but the truth is kids need a good night's sleep just as much as we do, so making positive changes around sleep is every bit as much for them as it is for you.

5. Think Outside the Box

Moving on to number five, thinking outside the box. So, I've never let my kids cry it out, but not because I'm opposed to it, because I've never had to. We worked hard on setting up good habits early and they both kind of fell into natural rhythms. It's far from perfect and it continues to be far from perfect, but overall we all sleep well. But I will tell you that as a child I had a really, really hard time falling asleep at night. I was always really scared. My mind was always racing. I would lay in bed awake for a really long time before I fell asleep. Then once I fell asleep, I would get up and go into my parents' room pretty much every night. My mom is probably the lightest sleeper in the history of all sleepers, but she said that I actually worked it down to an art, where I could actually crawl into the foot of their bed and sleep by their feet, kind of like a dog, and she wouldn't wake up, which is quite a spectacular accomplishment, because like I said, she wakes up at everything.

So, this went on until I was probably like, I don't know, eight or nine years old. Then at that time I was really just too big to be sleeping at the foot of my parents' bed. I would come in. I would sleep on the floor next to their bed. Because I was coming in quietly, and I really wasn't disrupting them, and I would go right back to sleep, we all slept better when I was sleeping on the floor next to my parent's bed. Then when I got to be probably 11 years old or so, my parents put an extra twin bed into my brother's room, so that I would have someone to sleep with. So, even though I had my own bedroom that I spent time in during the day, I slept in my brother's room at night. So, like I said, this went on for years.

So, when my son, who had always been a really amazing sleeper, started waking up in the night, he was probably about four and a half years old. I really felt for him, because I know what it's like to be a scared kid. I remember it. We have a little toddler travel cot, and I put it underneath our bed. I told him that if you want to come up in the night and you want to sleep on the cot, it's your job to come up quietly, get the cot out, and lay down, and go to sleep, and he did, and it went on for probably six months, and then it stopped.

Reflecting back, what I didn't realize at the time was probably that it had to do with toileting. A lot of times when kids are sleeping well and then they start night waking around three, or four, or five years old, if they haven't been potty trained at night yet, they might be waking up with the normal rhythms of their body having to use the toilet, but if they're still running a diaper, it's hard to know if that's the reason. So, if they're waking up in the night and they're not telling you they need to use the bathroom, they still might actually be waking up to use the bathroom and just not be articulating it. So, sudden night waking, starting around these ages, might mean it's time to night train, if you haven't already, which brings us to a whole nother topic. However, the short of it is my recommendation is to night train earlier than later. But I digress.

6. Learn to Accept Help

Number six, accepting help, particularly from your partner. If you have a partner that's willing to help in the night, take it. Now, I said I didn't ever let my kids cry it out, but my daughter did cry in the night. When she was about 11 months old, I decided that I didn't want to be waking up anymore with her in the night and nursing her, even though she was still nursing during the day. I wanted to night mean her. It was just before her first birthday and it was a decision that I made. So, when she woke up in the night, she was waking up I think twice a night to nurse, I sent my husband in with a bottle of milk, even though she never took a bottle and I know that she never took a bottle. It made me feel better knowing that she had food in case she was hungry.

So, I sent him in. He would check her diaper. He would offer her the bottle, and he would give her love, and attention, and affection. He was providing for all of her basic needs, but she did not like it. She did not like it at all. She wanted me. She wanted the boob, and she cried. So, I wouldn't say we let her cry it out, because she had her father, who loves her so much and was comforting her, but she wasn't happy about it. So, we did this for two nights, and then she really never woke up again after that. Now, if this had been my first child, at which time I was much more reluctant to accepting help, I probably would've struggled with doing this, but as I've grown into parenthood, I've really come to value this idea that I want to communicate to my kids that I'm not the only person that can comfort them.

I'm not the only person that can fix things when they're broken. There are other people who love them. There are other people who can help and support them. My husband is definitely one of those people. So, by jumping in and trying to be the one that soothes them, and calms them, and fixes everything, in some ways I'm communicating that I am the only one that's able to do that. So, if I want my kids to truly believe that there are other people who are able to comfort them and to help them when they're in times of distress, then I need to give other people the opportunity to do it. I can't jump in and try to save the day, even though it is easier for me. It's much easier for me to calm my kids when they're crying and when they're upset.

So, number six, accepting help. Be open to accepting help. It doesn't mean you're admitting defeat. You don't have to wait until you're completely spent, and broken, and done to ask for help. I know that if I wake up two or three times during the night, I don't feel nearly as rested the next day. Fragmented sleep is not the same as a solid, full night of sleep. That goes for us and for our kids. So, the goal is almost always to get a full night's sleep when you can, and sometimes to get that full night of sleep we do need to lean on others and we do need to ask for help, and that's okay.

It's not admitting defeat. It's not saying that you can't do it on your own. It's leaning on your community, leaning on your people to support you. It's knowing your limits before you get pushed to them. Know that it's okay to change your mind. If you were pregnant with your first child and said you were going to sleep this way, and you're going to teach your kids to sleep that way, and you were never going to co- sleep, or you are always going to go sleep, and you change your mind, it's totally fine. You're allowed to change your mind. In fact, in many ways you're going to need to change your mind, because you can't possibly know what your future holds.

7. The Extinction Burst

The last point that I want to touch on is called the extinction burst. Anytime we change a behavior, we often see that the behavior gets more intense before it gets better. So, if you are trying to make sleep changes and you say, "Ah. This is making it worse," you might be dealing with an extinction burst. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Just keep that in mind. File that away for all the difficult behaviors that you might encounter in your future.

The Recap

I really hope this was helpful and not too terribly divisive. So, here's a quick recap of what we talked about today. Number one, set your own goals and expectations for sleep. This is going to look different for every family, and it's going to change maybe every week, every month, definitely every year. Number two is consider martyrdom. Don't be a martyr when it comes to sleep. You have to take care of your own wellbeing. For most of us, we need sleep in order to function. Number three is strive for calm confidence. We have to believe that our kids are going to sleep well before they actually do. Believe in them. Believe in yourself, and it's going to go a long way.

Number four is limit setting. It's okay to set some limits and boundaries around bedtime. In fact, our kids need limits and boundaries in all aspects of their health, and that's really what helps them thrive. So, use that calm confidence to set some limits. Number five, thinking outside the box. It's okay to set up a cot on your floor for a kid who isn't sleeping while during the night. If it doesn't disrupt your sleep and it's okay with you, why not? Don't get stuck in old ways or preconceived notions about sleep. Number six is accepting help. Be open to accepting help. Know your limits before you reach them. You aren't the only person who can comfort your kids, and if you are, they might actually benefit from you finding other people who can help to comfort them and to calm them as well. When available, kids do benefit from having more than one loving, supportive figure in their life. Last, but not least, understand the extinction burst, that sometimes when you're trying to change behavior, it gets a little worse before it gets better. So, keep that in mind when you're making changes.

It's funny, because I say that I don't really have an opinion about sleep, but I do have a lot of opinions about it, and in many ways I don't really have an opinion about the way that you get your kids to sleep or about the way that you sleep. So, this isn't meant to be personal, because you have to find the right balance that works for your family, whatever that looks like. Nobody else is going to know that except for you. What works for my family certainly isn't going to work for your family. I hope this episode has been helpful, and if you have questions or comments, you can leave those in the show notes. Go to simplefamilies.com/episode187. As always, thanks for tuning in.

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Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.