Thursday 22 March 2018

Ask the expert: My 11-year-old daughter won't go to sleep without me there

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Q: I've an 11-year-old daughter who won't sleep at night. I think I gave her a bad routine when she was younger. She used to cry every evening, worrying about going to bed, and wouldn't stop unless I got in beside her. It was so bad I went to a sleep therapist and that got the crying stopped. I've been on a chair every night, gradually moving it out of her room. I'm on the landing now but she's refusing to let me move it anymore. If I do, she loses it again. Some nights she'll fall asleep quickly, others I could be on the chair for hours. Can you give me any advice please?

David replies: When it comes to children and sleeping we need to constantly consider what they need in order to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep.

The easiest way to think about this is to reflect on our own sleep experiences. We need three core circumstances to be fulfilled in order to sleep soundly. We need to feel tired, we need to feel comfortable and we need to feel safe/secure.

So, if you haven't been active enough in the day, or have had a particularly lazy day, it can be harder to fall asleep at your usual time that night. The amount of energy we expend, or rest we get, makes a difference to our readiness to sleep.

The 'comfort' requirement refers to physical comfort, like being too hot or cold, or the feeling of the sheets, firmness of mattresses etc.

When we feel unsafe we will also find it hard to switch off. So, if we hear an unusual noise as we are settling to sleep it can disturb us. Carrying anxiety or stress from the day can also keep us awake at night. Children can have very similar experiences.

Your daughter, it sounds like, suffers with her sense of security. She has relied upon your presence in her bed to feel safe and secure. She may have also liked the comfort of your body there to snuggle up to.

You have been weaning her off that intense physical support and security, and at her age, she should be able to cope with it. However, I do wonder about the speed with which you are weaning her?

I know you say that you have been gradually moving the chair further from her bed, and now out into the hallway. But I do wonder if the moves have been happening too soon, before she has really become settled and comfortable with the increased distance?

Have you discussed the plan with her? I think it might be helpful to talk about the overall goal, of giving her independence regarding her sleep, and to talk about the stages that are involved.

What about returning to the sleep therapist for more advice and guidance? You may want to bring your daughter to the sleep therapist, with you, so that she becomes an active participant in the process.

As things stand, she may feel that you are itching to get away from her! It seems like she doesn't trust that you are still going to be available to her, now that you are out in the hallway. Greater involvement in agreeing the stages of the weaning process may help with this.

There may also be more to her anxiety about your increased distance from her at night. This is worth exploring, in case there is something going on in school or with friends that is upsetting or distressing her.

As part of the plan to help your daughter fall asleep independently of you, you may want to institute a series of 'checking visits' that will increase her sense of security that you are still around and still thinking about her.

By checking her every five minutes you reduce the need for her to come and check on you (to see if you are still sitting outside the door).

The regularity of your checks should also increase her experience of your reliability.

Try not to be in a rush to get her into fully independent sleeping. She has had a different habit for 11 years so far and so it will take her some time to adjust to the changes you make, even if you make them gradually.

But, if she fears that you are speeding up the process, over which she has no control, then she will probably continue to resist as she may not feel secure in the knowledge that you are reliably available to her.

Everybody has an opinion on how I should be  raising my baby and it's driving me crazy

Q. I'm a first-time mum and my daughter is eight-months-old. I don't have any issue with her. She is just beautiful and wonderful. My problem is that I'm getting constant advice from my mother, my husband's mother and father, my sisters and brothers. It feels like everyone has an opinion on what I am doing. It's driving me crazy as I feel that I don't know my own mind about how to look after her best. Everything I do is monitored by them and commented on behind my back. How can I go about getting more freedom to be a mother?

David replies: I could imagine that many new parents will have shared your experience of their extended family trying to 'help'.

There are times that it is helpful to get advice, especially about situations that are entirely new to us. I am sure that you have welcomed some advice when you have looked for it. But, the unasked-for advice probably seems like a criticism of what you are currently doing.

Getting many opinions about your daughter can also add to your confusion about what is best to do. It can undermine any confidence that you do build up. Conflicting opinion and advice could even lead to friction between you and your husband.

Of course, most people who offer comment and opinion do so with good intention. They, too, only want what they see to be best for you and your baby. A real difficulty arises, however, when their advice conflicts with your own opinion and with the other opinions being thrown at you from the rest of your extended family.

It is easy to feel like whatever self-belief we had, before parenthood, is undermined just by having the baby. We may have been supremely confident, assured and competent in other areas of our lives, yet fall apart when we are faced with a screaming baby whose needs we can't understand.

But, add in the apparent criticism that comes with everyone else suggesting alternative courses of action, and I could imagine that you could easily feel like you are a useless mother.

So, I think you are wise to address the 'advice-giving' of your extended family. While some advice may have been a help near the beginning, it is time now for you and your husband to assert your own opinions.

You and he have created a new family unit with your daughter, and it is okay for you to stand apart with your own views and beliefs about how to rear your daughter. But you need to be a cohesive unit, especially if you are challenging the status quo of how your respective parents raised you.

So, do talk a lot together, about your hopes and dreams for your daughter, and find the common ground between you. Then, note those areas where you disagree about what to do, and see if you can find a compromise approach.

Once you both feel confident, you have to dig deep into your reserves of self-esteem and self-worth. Parenting requires self-belief (as well as bucketloads of patience and understanding) so spend some time reaffirming yourself and the choices you know you can make.

Remember that you are an adult who judged risk, analysed situations and probably made 'good enough' decisions in the past. Remember that occasional mistakes in the choices you make for your daughter are bound to happen, and just help you learn how to parent better.

Your in-laws and extended family may not even realise how much unsolicited opinion they throw at you. So let them know, firmly (but perhaps with humour), when their advice was unasked for. Make the distinction clear for them about the difference between seeking help and having it shoved at you.

Your instinct about what is right for you and your baby is a powerful thing. This natural affinity you have with your baby needs expression.

Relying on your own instinct is a good thing, and don't be worried if you ruffle some feather in the process of doing things your own way.

You cannot control whether your relatives are commenting behind your back so best not to focus your energy on worrying about this. You need all your energy to look after your baby!

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