Wednesday 22 November 2017

How can I get my nights back before the new baby arrives?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice.
Illustration by Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from the clinical psychologist on the importance of security for your child before a new arrival and

Question: I am about to have our second baby. Our older son is very aware of this and excited. We had him at a Montessori in July to prepare him for the baby-minders he is due to go to. We also moved him into a regular bed during the summer and we toilet-trained him during the day. Night times, though, are a disaster. We need to stay with him to get him to sleep. He still wets the bed, but won't wear a nappy or a pull-up and he will only let me come into him, not his dad, during the night.

I need to sort this before the new baby arrives!

David replies: It is easy to get into a panic trying to get everything "sorted" before a new baby arrives. But there is little to be gained by rushing children through their developmental pathways, wishing them to be older, wiser and more able.

Judging by the various events that have occurred for your son, I am guessing that he is about two-and-a-half or three years old. That is a busy age in terms of developmental transitions. Even the toilet-training alone is a big deal, never mind the other changes he has experienced in a comparatively short period of time.

We know that change introduces unpredictability and that unpredictability can cause anxiety. I could imagine that your son is very anxious and unsettled with the changes that have happened and the anticipated future changes of going to a baby-minders and becoming a big brother.

We also know that anxiety can play havoc with sleep routines. We need to feel safe, secure and comfortable in order to settle to sleep. If any of these are disrupted then we can have real difficulty sleeping. So, it is no wonder, with the change and uncertainty in your son's life that he may find it harder to fall asleep and that he looks to you or his dad for company and comfort, both at the start of the night and then from you, if he wakes.

I am a big fan of using our presence to offer children comfort and security at night-time. I believe that co-sleeping (either having your child in the same room as you in their own bed, or being in your bed with you) can be really good for them. Even temporary co-sleeping can be a great antidote to lots of stress and change, as it does give children lots of security.

So, you might consider moving him into your own room for a while, until everything settles. It will definitely increase his sense of security and it may reassure him enough that he doesn't wake. It'll also be less disruptive if he does wake, as you have shorter distance to go and so might be able to settle him quicker, or he could even climb into your bed if he wants.

He may already sense that the new baby coming will change his relationship with you and so is looking for more of your time just for the moment.

If that is too intense (or exhausting) for you, then there is no harm, if his dad is up for it, for his dad to attend to him anyway in the night-time.

Your son might protest initially, but I would be confident that he will adjust as long as his dad is consistently warm and reassuring.

Bear in mind that you have two more big changes on the horizon for him, the new baby and a new childminder. So, alongside whatever sleeping arrangements you make for him, you also need to try to make the days as settled and predictable as possible.

It is quite common for children to wet the bed in their pre-school years. Staying dry at night often comes later than the daytime continence.

Because you have so much going on in the rest of your, and his, life, I would suggest that you (kindly but firmly) give him no choice about nappies or pull-ups going to bed. The additional chore of washing sheets and PJs is just too much on top of everything else.

Don't be too worried about sorting everything before the baby comes, as you may find the further disruption of the new baby returns everything to a bit of a muddled heap.

Focus on increasing your son's sense of security to help him gain the resilience to deal with the changes that happen to him. If you respond more to his need, rather than a self-imposed deadline, you may find it takes pressure off you and him.

How can I change my daughter's behaviour? At the moment, it is getting worse day by day

Question: My seven-year-old daughter's behaviour is getting worse day by day. She is very defiant, almost aggressive and very very stubborn. She won't do a thing I ask her to do and if she doesn't get her way, she has a huge tantrum. She is not like this at school or with her granny. She had a sleepover at my brother's house last week and they thought she was an angel!

I'm beginning to resent her and don't like spending time with her. I feel so, so guilty about this; what kind of mother am I? What can I do to change her?

David replies: The best clue to what to do about your relationship with your daughter comes from the fact that she only seems to act the way she does when she is with you. That strongly suggests that the difficulty lies in the dynamic of what happens between the pair of you.

The fact that she doesn't act in a defiant, stubborn and aggressive way at school, with her granny or with her uncle and his family shows us that she can regulate her behaviour. In other words, she is not a bold child, nor does she have a disorder like Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Instead, there is something about you (and your temperament) and there is something about her (and her temperament) that leads to a particular pattern of interaction. It is almost like a script that you each play out every time you communicate or interact.

The script you have is different to the script she follows in school or with other people. I would imagine that the responses of the other people probably differ to the way you respond to her.

I have a strong suspicion that the key to changing your daughter's behaviour with you, lies in you changing your behaviour before, during or after these tantrums. We parents are, usually, the most influential in determining our children's behaviour.

Even though it "takes two to tango", and your daughter definitely has a role to play in the defiance and aggression, it is much easier for parents to focus on their own behaviour to bring about change in their child's behaviour.

Your goal is to move to being firm, but kind, with your daughter. I suspect that you are already very firm. As your daughter's defiance has grown, perhaps you have become sharp, cross or punitive in your responses to her.

If so, this will be creating a negative cycle of interaction between you, where you may feel hurt and offended by her oppositionality, and she may feel hurt and offended by your sharpness and punishment of her.

Both of you may, subconsciously, be feeling like you want to get your own back on each other for these perceived hurts.

The change you want to bring about is to become warm and understanding about the impact of your expectations on your daughter. So when you ask her to do something, or to stop doing something, be considerate of the fact that she might be upset by your request.

This is not to say that you start giving in to her, or reducing your expectations of what is and is not acceptable behaviour. But, do try to empathise more with her about the effect of your expectations.

In general, I think you will find that the calmer and more understanding of her that you are, the calmer she will remain. Remember how much of a lead she may take from you. If you role model patience and understanding, you are more likely to receive that from her in return.

You are also more likely to be consistent in how you respond to her if you stay calm, since when we are calm we make our decisions more rationally. When we allow ourselves to get upset, we are more likely to say, or do, the things we later regret.

Your daughter has the capacity to be really well-behaved. Remember, for yourself, what a good child she is and you may find it easier to be warm and understanding, alongside your firmness, even when she misbehaves.

Then, if you can focus on this positive behaviour, reinforcing it with praise and acknowledgement, you will hopefully see that she demonstrates more of it at home.

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