Sunday 17 November 2019

How can I get my 3-year-old son to stop waking for a bottle?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist advises on how to establish a good night-time routine for a three-year-old and tackling a twelver-year-old's boldness.

Question: My son, who's almost three, still wakes two to three times a night for a bottle. I give him one when he wakes first but try to refuse after that. He is very strong-willed and doesn't give up easily. I'm parenting alone, and working, so I find it hard not to give in when he could be crying for an hour. If I go in to the room and try to comfort him, his demands are even more forceful. I sometimes get away with pretending I am going downstairs to get him a bottle and he falls asleep soon after. How can I get him to sleep through the night?

David replies: Children fall into habits and those habits can become very firmly established. It sounds to me like your son is in a habit of seeking a bottle at night when he wakes as it comforts and soothes him.

This is probably because the sucking action is associated with other times of comfort and pleasure, when he was held and cuddled as a baby while being fed. During the feeding, he probably felt safe, secure and loved.

In order to fall asleep, we also need to feel safe and secure. If we have anything distressing or anxiety-provoking on our minds, we can find it hard to fall asleep. Similarly, if we feel uncomfortable in the bed (too hot, too cold, itchy PJs, lumpy pillow), it can distract us enough that we find it hard to fall asleep.

Children are no different in this regard. So, when we want them to be able to soothe themselves to sleep, we need to ensure that the environment is as conducive to sleep as possible.

For your son, check that his bed (or cot, if that is where he still sleeps) is comfortable for him. For example, does he manage to wriggle out from under his covers and end up cold such that he wakes? Could he have too many layers and be too hot? Is his room too bright (if he insists on having some light, for example)?

Then, consider what it is that you do when he wakes. The more consistent you are the better. Does he like your company (with the bottle) or is it simply the bottle that satisfies and soothes him? Maybe he is just thirsty?

If it is just the bottle, then it may be the sucking action that he wants. If so, then you could give him just water in a bottle (which will also satisfy a thirst), or even give him a soother to suck on.

Part of the difficulty is that he can't satisfy his own needs when he wakes, and so, calls out to you to help him.

If he was able to reach for a bottle, knowing that it was there for him, then he mightn't have to wake you when he wakes. Similarly, if he can find a soother and pop it back into his own mouth, then he may settle again.

If you are determined to get him off bottles, soothers and any other comforter, then you will probably have to increase your own investment of time during the night, even though you are solo parenting.

Since he is nearly three, you can explain to him, in advance, that there will be no more bottles at night, but that you will come into him and help him to settle to sleep.

Make sure, too, that when he goes to bed at the start of the night, that there are no bottles associated with the bedtime routine. Perhaps, instead, you could try to introduce a special cuddle time, or comfort time, for him, before bed.

Then, if he wakes, you need to go straight into him. Don't leave him in his room crying for any length of time. The longer he cries, the more distressed he becomes and the harder it is for him to calm down again to be able to fall back asleep.

Even though he gets upset, you need to stay with him, using soothing words, strokes on the head, or even cuddles, reminding him that it is sleeping time, not feeding time.

Even if you are exhausted, you need to stay calm and patient with him.

In time, he will fall back asleep. You need to be really consistent, though, in your presence - such that he knows he is safe and secure and that you are there minding him.

It might take some time, but, if you can stay consistent, he will eventually settle into the new habit of not having a bottle, such that he either doesn't wake to feed, or he can settle himself back to sleep if he does wake.

How can I deal with my 12-year-old daughter's  boldness? I try taking her phone but it's no use

Question: My daughter is 12. She is a gorgeous child but she can also be horrendous. She will scream and shout if she doesn't get her own way. She often pushes my buttons so much that I end up shouting back at her. I feel like I have no way to punish her, other than taking her phone from her (which she is surgically attached to), but even that just leads to bigger rows, followed by tears and pleading. I do sometimes give her back her phone, but all her promises to be good fade away and I have to take it again. How can I stop her being so bold?

David replies: The best place to start is to reconsider how you are thinking about your daughter. At the moment, you consider her to be a "bold" child. This negative perception of her will colour all of your interactions with her.

Once you view her as "bold", you will always be more vigilant for behaviour that confirms your belief. So, you will notice more "bold" behaviour and you will be primed to respond to that.

It may seem like a small thing, but thinking about your daughter as a "gorgeous" and good child who occasionally does bold things will give you a different, more positive perspective on her. In order to achieve this, you need to search for and acknowledge the good things that she does.

"Catching her being good", in this fashion, will highlight her positives and will provide an appropriate balance for the times when she misbehaves, or is demanding.

You also need to think about the role modelling that you show. I can understand that you feel provoked by her shouting and demanding, but it still doesn't make it okay to yell at her.

All this will teach her is that, indeed, when people don't do what you want, you are right to shout and roar.

If you want her to learn how to regulate her frustration such that she can express it more appropriately, then you have to be able to demonstrate the same skill. So you need to learn ways of calming yourself down, such that you can react in a calmer, more rational, manner.

The concept of punishing children always bothers me. I don't really believe in punishment, because I think that it always carries overtones of retribution and revenge. A lot of the time when parents punish their children, they do it to make their children feel bad, not necessarily to teach them a lesson. A lot of punishments are doled out in the heat of the moment, when parents are very angry, and so, they don't necessarily have any connection, or resonance, with the misbehaviour.

However, allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their behaviour is a good thing. It is important for children to learn that when they do "bad" things, that there are often negative consequences.

So, for example, if a teenager is rude and disrespectful to their parent in the way they ask for something, then it makes sense for the parent to refuse to deliver on the demand until their son or daughter is more polite or appropriate in how they ask.

The reason that your daughter is fighting with you about her phone being taken away is that it will feel, for her, like you are just taking revenge on her for her shouting. There is no natural connection between the misbehaviour and the consequence.

In any event, if ever we threaten a consequence for misbehaviour, we must be ready to follow it through.

It also sounds like you may be quite inconsistent and unpredictable in when, or if, she gets her phone back. Naturally, she will always feel that it is worth the fight, or the pleading, to try to get it back, since these techniques do work with you sometimes.

So, focus on her positives and her good behaviour. Stay calm and firm in the face of her screaming demands, reminding her that when she speaks politely, you can consider her requests.

Then be open to really consider her requests if they are discussed appropriately and she may then learn that talking gets her further than screaming.

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