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When it comes to childhood development, sleep is not a linear process. It’s normal for young children to have ups and downs, regressions, and growth spurts with their sleep.
Here to talk about how you can help your toddler say goodnight without the struggle is sleep specialist and RIE associate Eileen Henry.
Beyond just tips and tricks, this episode will allow you to truly understand how to use your secure attachment bond to help your child feel more at ease with going to bed, and help you feel confident that you are fostering healthy nap time and bedtime skills too.
How to realize that it’s not really a problem, that we fix it and we’re done. It’s a part of our self-care that we nurture and we love, and we touch and we revisit. And that goes on. That goes on.
Dr. Sarah (00:23):
As children grow their relationship to sleep evolves by toddlerhood, young children have much more nuance and complicated feelings and behaviors surrounding their nap time and nighttime routines and rhythms, and we see different types of regression during these period of time. I am beyond thrilled to welcome RIE associate Eileen Henry back to the podcast to talk all things toddler sleep. Eileen is the founder of Compassionate Sleep Solutions and the author of the book, The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming the Cry. From utilizing playful elements like storytelling and lullabies to addressing our kids’ dreams and their nightmares. And even to defining this balance between allowing your child to have the autonomy they’re craving while holding firm boundaries around sleep. We’re going to get into so much in this episode, and it’s going to help anybody who’s looking to foster healthy sleep habits and healthy sleep skills that can last your child a lifetime and maybe even buy you a few more minutes of coveted alone time in the evenings too.
Do you wish you knew exactly what to do before, during, and after your child’s tantrums? Not just to get them to stop, but to stop in a way that actually benefits their development, their mental health, and their relationship to you? That is exactly why I made The Science of Tantrums, a highly targeted framework created by me, a clinical psychologist and mom of two toddlers to help you understand what exactly is happening in your child’s brain and their body when they have a tantrum. And I’ll teach you the most effective tools to reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of dysregulation over time. Over my 12 years of clinical experience, I have honed strategies that I have seen work with everyone from developmentally typical children to those with some of the most severe cases of behavioral and emotional disorders. I know this works because I’ve seen it work time and time again. To learn more and to sign up for the science of tantrums, go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums. That’s drsarahbren.com/tantrums.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Welcome everyone. Today I am just super excited that Eileen Henry has come back to the podcast. If you haven’t listened to our episode earlier about sleep, go back and listen to that. But this, today we’re going to be talking all about toddler sleep, which is a whole other beast from infant sleep. Eileen, I’m so happy to see you, and I’m so glad you’re here.
It’s great. Thank you, Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (03:39):
So the reason why I was so excited to reach out to come back on the podcast was because we had this really great episode that kind of laid the foundations of how do you set the stage for sleep and infancy and all that great stuff. But I think when toddlers, I feel like as kids evolve in their relationship to sleep and their relationship to their parents and their relationship to themselves, things change drastically when it comes to sleep and sleep behaviors. And so I get so many questions about things related to delaying bedtime and moving, transitions to other types of sleeping in your own bed and staying in your bed and all kinds of things. So we can get into everything, but I’m curious, where do you like to start parents off when you’re talking about the nuance of toddler’s sleep?
So I usually start off with the fact that toddlers are capable, competent, they’re able to sleep in moving into that full-blown stage of autonomy, and so they can sleep autonomously. And that’s generally where everybody gets better sleep when the toddler transitions into their own space, be it in their own space. If the family’s really committed to room sharing, co-sleeping into their own space there, or into their own room, into their own space, that they’re really capable of it. Because we’re going with development and autonomy. However, the toddler naturally has to confront front the feelings that arise. And it’s a very human, they’re parts of the self we grapple with for the rest of our lives. And toddlers are meeting this material for the first time, ambiguity, ambivalence, paradox, all of this both and kind of situation. They have positive feelings. I want to do it myself. They get stop it, I want to do it myself. They push us away and then the next minute it’s like, wait a minute, where are you going? I want to climb back up inside of you.
Dr. Sarah (06:00):
They’re ambivalent about that. And this is where the paradox comes of how do we hold on to the attachment, to the closeness, to our presence and the bond and have that other need met that happens in family life is self-preservation, autonomy, authenticity, that the toddler is now fitting in to the family’s needs.
Dr. Sarah (06:33):
And I think that’s where parents get really sort of frazzled sometimes because obviously sleep is hard, getting your kid to sleep, getting your own sleep is hard from pregnancy and then all the way on to many, many, many years after your kid has been born. But I do think we spend a lot of time as parents kind of obsessing about sleep in those early months and that first year. Yes. And I’m sure you get a lot of people calling you to work with them through that period of sleep training and sleep learning and co-sleeping versus separate. How do you do that? But then I think we don’t give parents as many resources for understanding that the evolution of a sleep relationship goes on for many, many, many years. And there’s a lot of forward progress and what feels like backward progress, but just kind of natural progression. I take a step forward and I take one back and then I’ve got to keep, it’s an up and down process. And I think parents get really confused by that.
I mean, if you think about just our adults, and when I look at the basic needs, I’m looking at relationship first. The attachment first, quality, relationship quality, sleep quality, nutrition and downtime, relaxation, time for the child. That’s playtime. And if we can normalize the fact in our home is that we’re raising our children that hey, life affects this. Life affects that travel, illness. People come in to visit holidays. It affects, always affects my sleep, my diet. I can’t eat a whole pecan pie all year round, but over the course of a few days, around Christmas, I get a pecan pie and I have a piece with breakfast. Now, I can’t do that every morning, but that holiday affects my nutrition, it affects how I eat, it affects my sleep. And so we want to normalize that so our children can be flexible if they’re ill, if they have the double ear infection or something and we can’t lay ’em down because their head throbs, we’re going to hold them. But what we don’t want to do is find ourselves six months, a year later still holding them all night to sleep.
Dr. Sarah (08:56):
So how to realize that, that it’s not really a problem, that we fix it and we’re done. It’s a part of our self-care that we nurture and we love, and we touch and we revisit. And that goes on. That goes on.
Dr. Sarah (09:17):
Yeah, it’s interesting cause as you’re talking, it’s even making me realize, okay, even I as an adult have periods in my life where I have more difficulty with my sleep, my own sleep independent of my children, because my children definitely affect my sleep. But if I were to try to isolate that variable out and just look at my own behaviors and my own moods and my own stress levels and how those things have seasons and impact my sleep in different ways, we do fluctuate as well.
Yes, hormonally. I mean, women know that the cycles of our hormones and that directly affects our sleeve, some of us more profoundly than others.
Dr. Sarah (09:56):
And so I think maybe there’s almost relearning of what our expectations should be because I think parents do think that there should be this sort of, if I’m doing it right, yes, my child will learn how to have consistent stable sleep. That doesn’t really change anymore. And I think maybe that’s a reframe we all have to kind of remember is like, well, that’s not realistic for your child, for you. That’s not how sleep really works.
Not really. I like the 80 20 rule. 80% of the time we’re consistent, we have our routine, things are going well, and the other 20% of the time life happens. We’re in the midst of a developmental shift and a change, and we’re kind of winging it through the shift. That to me, really demonstrates to our children that we’re human, that we we’re never going to do it. It’s never going to be all smooth, all perfect all the time. That’s a delusion. And I think the pandemic really blew the lid off of that.
Dr. Sarah (11:00):
Yeah, absolutely. That’s interesting too, to think of as kids who might have previously gotten really used to a more stable like insular existence, having to go out on vacations, fly places, have people come and stay and visit. Now their worlds are bigger, which means that’s going to also impact sleep.
Yes. And how to nurture that in a way and touch it in a way that the child can relate to that.
Dr. Sarah (11:31):
So how do you do that? Yeah, tell me more about that.
So that is storytelling, which is an ancient form of human, how humans dealt with the world through storytelling, long before written language storytelling, lullaby. I’m really into lullaby. The oldest recorded lullaby we have is like 5,006,000 years old. We was passed down generationally. And it’s the perfect primer for sleep. It meets, and in music in general, helps humans deal with areas of life that are difficult to look into. So story playfulness in a lighthearted playfulness, not the kind of active play we’re going to do during the day, but specific kind of play that gets the child into a place that their nervous system can relax. So I like to say I use the toddler’s creative medium, which is story play in language very specifically, and music, if that’s part of the family’s that’s in their wheelhouse to make up lullabies, make up a personalized lullaby. The easiest thing to do is take a tune. You love, make up some words for your child that it’s their own personal lullaby. Almost an irresistible invitation into the relational field strengthened by a creative connection with the parent and the children.
Dr. Sarah (13:16):
Yes. It’s so funny because literally my sister, they’re doing a renovation. They were living with us and their two sons were living with us for months. And so I got to live with my nephews for a couple months, and my youngest nephew’s two, and my sister sings him this made up song every night. And the benefit of having two grown up couples in the household was like, we would go on dates. So I would watch her kids and they would go out and we’d switch, but I got to put my nephews to bed a couple times and they would be like, okay, sing this song. And it was this really embedded ritual that it meant so much to their bedtime routine. And they sang it to me and they taught it to me. And the thing I liked about this is it was it’s kind of like a dialogue.
The song, oh, you know, say it’s like, oh, how does it go? It’s like, oh my name, oh my name. Oh my name, I love you. And then they just say someone else’s name. So my nephew would just be like, okay, do you know grandpa? Do Charlie do Sadie? And he would just call out the people that he wanted my sister to sing. I love you too. And it would just have this cute little dialogue. And now that I’m thinking about it, my dad had this song too, that he would sing to us that was about, again, it was a little tiny diddy where it was about everyone’s name and love it. It’s
Beautiful. So what this does, that is a specific thing. What it’s doing is it’s helping the child, children bridge their separateness. I get chills. I get children and my eyes want to tear up. It bridges the separateness and it recalls and reminds them of their loved ones that they get to think about and internalize all of the bonds, not just the bond but the parent, but all of the people they love. And they get to hold that and take it into the unconscious dream world. And that reconnection, I tell parents, bring in ancestors, bring in families, bring in the grandparents, have a picture of them, have something that grandma made or something that to connect them. And it bridges the separateness so that they can let go and be reunited with their loved ones in the morning. That’s beautiful. Yeah. That’s a perfect little diddy.
Dr. Sarah (15:56):
It is. And you’ve talked about this before, this idea of letting go and how that’s one of the biggest challenges with sleep, even in infancy, but I think even more so in toddlerhood, because that object permanence is there. Now they know that when you’re not with them, you’re somewhere else. And that’s very hard for kids to tolerate. And they get fomo and they get activated by the idea of not being with you in a different way than a baby. And so the sledding go is more challenging at this age.
It is, especially with language, they’re starting to make those inroads into the prefrontal cortex. And they have language. And I mean, language is beautiful. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for everything I see in this room right now, but it kind of freaks us out. We start to tell ourselves things. We start to talk to ourselves in ways that can kind of freak us out. And so that’s where language can come in to help soothe those little stories that they’re telling because, and you brought up ritual too. Ritual is super it gives it meaning. So we want to create a ritual that gives meaning, but it also helps children navigate because what they have to navigate is the conscious that liminal space between consciousness when we let go and go into the subconscious in the unconscious of sleep, which is full of the shadow material. Yes. It’s full of our shadow.
Dr. Sarah (17:35):
Can you talk more about if parents are listening and they’re like, what is shadow material? What do you mean in, what is the space in the unconscious mind? How would you describe that?
So here’s a good example. When toddlers, it’s a phenomenon in my practice that I’ll get a string of toddler. The last two weeks, all I’ve had are toddlers, and I’ve had several toddlers who have a new baby coming.
It is a phenomenon. They all start dreaming about apex predators. They all start dreaming about great white sharks, bears big animals with big teeth. And that is so everything we confront in the dreams and the unconscious and the subconscious, or they’re just elements of ourselves. There’s just parts of ourself. And so I think it’s no coincidence that toddlers are having some big feelings that could be anger, it could be frustration, it could be fear of this new being I, and they can’t quite conceptualize the true impact that a sibling is going to have on them for the rest of their lives. That context, mm-hmm. Grows and expands. It’s a wonderful part of siblings, but it’s also, there’s some conflict in challenge in the sibling relationship. And they don’t quite know it what’s coming, but something’s coming. They can see all the preparation, and then the baby comes and they all start dreaming about lions, tigers, and bears.
Dr. Sarah (19:15):
I wonder too, I’m curious your take on this, because my psychoanalytic mind is like, yeah, of course. Who is the great white shark in this? Is it them? I’m scared of how my aggression and my rage is going to come out is I feel, is it a mystery kind of threat because my parents are attending to this other being my protection’s not watching me. So I’m more vulnerable to these mystery great white sharks or bears.
Yeah, I think it’s yes, yes. And possibly I think it’s all of the above. And I find it really fascinating because when using that, and I tell this story about a little girl who had an alligator under her bed and her mom talking to her about, I don’t think that alligator’s hungry for little girls. I wonder what she’s hungry for. So in helping children navigate this space, I use, there’s a Tibetan practice of putting the monsters, any monsters that come up within, let’s say my anxiety, I call it my anxiety monster, putting it in a chair across from me and asking it what it wants. And so in that, there’s a very simple process we can do with a child. I wonder what that alligator wants. I wonder. Maybe it just wants attention. Maybe it wants regard, maybe it wants love. So my anxiety, what it usually wants is soothing and love and integration and bringing it in.
So she and her mother decided to go to the cat bowl. They have a cat, and they cut out little hearts. She was almost three years old. They cut out hearts and put it in the bowl and put it under the bed, transformed that alligator. Two weeks later, her mother sends me an email and says, wow, not only is that alligator, okay, she’s integrated into her play. And my daughter’s a bit of a dominatrix. She’s ordering that alligator around telling it to sit and stay and it can’t be. And she’s very controlling of the alligator. And that’s how she integrated. And then she’s loving and wonderful, and she’s working out her this emotional material with the alligator. And her mother noticed that she’s with the new baby. It’s less squeezing them and loving them to death. You know how they did toddlers? Oh, I love this baby…
Dr. Sarah (21:54):
Dr. Sarah (21:57):
Interesting. And also, I imagine too, as a three-year-old who has a new sibling, there’s such a lack of control. They already, three-year-olds have a solids. They don’t really get much to control at all really. But that lack of control that comes with your environment changing so drastically can activate this really intense need for control, which is where I think parents see a lot of intense, weird acting out and defiance or refusal or digging in heels because they’re looking desperately for that to control. And it sounds like this girl was able to direct that need and find that control within this imaginary, this imagine in this imaginary space with this alligator and could release that need for control and find that satisfaction and in a way that allowed her to feel less agitated and more comfortable in interacting in real life with a sibling.
It was amazing. It was so cool. And it evolved over weeks, over weeks of playing with it. And that to me is the child’s literally playground where they get to have within as long as they’re safe, as long as it’s, but where they get the most control. That’s where I say in the play space, that’s where we want them to really go to town.
Dr. Sarah (23:18):
And one question I have for you that I can imagine maybe parents having in their head as they’re listening, it’s like, okay, you are trained in this. I’ve trained in play therapy. Parents aren’t always, and I think parents are sometimes afraid when themes, scary stuff comes up in play or scary stuff comes up. And then right before bedtime, parents are always like, I don’t want to touch that because if I pull on that thread, we are not going to go to bed. Or if we talk too much about this, I’m going to make them more scared. And so what are some things that you could, what can parents are some frameworks for parents when their kids bring up either scary or challenging material before bed. And we want to strike that balance between not pulling too big on those threads and opening a wide up, but also being able to stay with it a little bit to help them process it.
So the first thing I invite parents to do is to notice in their toddler a very human quality that we’re fascinated with fear. We are. I mean, I don’t, but people pay money to go sit in a theater and get scared. I don’t get. I don’t get that. I can do that all on my own.
Dr. Sarah (24:36):
That’s why I don’t movies. I got my imagination is way too wild to go watch scary movies because then I’m like for months taking it too far in my head.
I be careful what I read before bed. So there’s this human fascination, toddlers, even babies. Part of peekaboo is playing with that edge hide and seek. Oh, that’s really playing with it. That’s really playing. When children play hide and seek that moment, where am I going to be found? Am I going to be found? And classically, young children will pop out and give themselves away and not let themselves be found. So they’re controlling the amount of fear that they’re willing to hold in their little systems. So just kind of noticing that stuff. I notice it, parents will notice it with twins that they like to scare each other and they like to cry about it and laugh about it at the same time and allowing it and really observing it in them. I do recommend that when it comes to bedtime, if something comes up, not to ask a lot of questions about it, but to let it unfold, receive it. And we do with separation anxiety, just normalize that for children. Yeah, scary. You had some scary dreams. That’s a thing we want them to know. That’s a thing. And then gently, as the child in, there’s a moment if we’re engaging with a child about some material that’s coming up for them, and we do, we mostly listen attune. And then usually there’s a moment where the child opens, it looks different in all children, but that they’re ready to receive something. That’s when we can say, I wonder what we could give you that could help you with that.
Dr. Sarah (26:38):
I love that.
And that’s why I like to use items that the child’s interested in. And we can offer. Stuffy’s are great support animals, and sometimes they have qualities of protection. So I have two brothers who were really, they’re potty learning. And so they had to get up and go to the potty in the night and suddenly the bathroom was scary and they needed to go into the parent’s bathroom and walk through their bedroom to get there. That was handy because then they could jump in bed with them. And so we redirected the whole thing. They love construction sites. So we redirected the no stop sign on parent’s door, not in there, caution tape into the bathroom. And we’re like, what could we put in the bathroom that would create a safe space for you? And dinosaurs, just love to protect little boys. And so there were dinosaurs on the sink and there, and suddenly it became an okay space that we gave them markers of their interests in their world and what they love in the environment and a story that helped redirect them. And then it was fine. They’d get up, go to the bathroom and come out.
Dr. Sarah (27:58):
And I think at the core of that is that representation of safety.
Dr. Sarah (28:03):
Yes. I mean all of it. Stalling at bedtime. Yes. C, waking up in the night and C, crawling into mom and dad’s bed or your parents’ bed, not wanting to sleep with the lights off, not wanting to, only wanting to wear one pair of pajamas and just if they’re not clean, it’s a total…
Dr. Sarah (28:26):
The end is the end of the world. All of this is really about how will I feel? Will I feel safe? What will that feel like if I can’t have that thing or if I have to do this thing? And I think parents sometimes, and this is so, and I’ll speak for myself as a parent who very much is looking for that break after bedtime and my bandwidth is just spent by the time that fifth request for a glass of water, I’m just go to bed because I’m like, I know what’s on the other side of that bed time and I’m so desperate for it. So I say all this knowing it is very hard to be patient. It is. But that’s why I think a lot of the stuff you’re talking about are things that we’re kind of thinking about doing outside of the stalling moments, but to set it up in advance. And we could definitely talk about that. But I think we have to remember as parents, what our biggest goal in our interventions in the stalling moments is to maintain that sense of safety. And so our regulation is going to mirror and speak to their brain and their nervous system. Mom thinks this is safe because her body is saying it’s safe.
But to just kind of validate that doesn’t feel safe. I wonder what we could do to make it feel a little safer.
I wonder what would make it feel safe? Because the safety and security is really our responsibility to infuse imprint on both the physical and the emotional environment. And you bring up a really good point because at the end of the day, that’s when we are least resourced. And so if we can save just enough resources to be gracious, to be lighthearted, to be a little playful and to be and when we can’t, because there are plenty of times we can’t our remember. It’s like just go to sleep. Gritted teeth, right? Yes. And honestly, I think it’s okay that they feel that sometimes too.
Dr. Sarah (30:37):
That’s perfectly. It’s honest because that’s how the world will respond to some of their behavior. So it’s okay if we show them that, right. The good enough mother. Yes. Definitely fall into that category. Human. I told my children they were home for the holidays and I said, they’ve been sharing with me what they’ve been noticing in college, kids in college and how most kids are on anti-anxiety meds and stuff. And they said, so what was your plan? I said, it was just good enough so that you would be interesting, have a good sense of humor and, and that you knew you were raised by human beings and not flawed human beings. They’re like, you pulled that off. Well done, mom.
Dr. Sarah (31:26):
It’s a good compliment. You were flawed, mom and I am. See you for that. And still love you. Your kids can say that. At the end of the day, we’ve done a good job.
So where were we on? I got off track a little bit on that. Graciousness saving. So when we can’t be fully gracious and playful and lighthearted that we can find a place of confidence, like you just said, mom’s. Okay. And so I know I’m okay because mom’s okay. And that Janet Lansbury calls it confident momentum. I love that. That we have that confident momentum that we can fill ’em up, do the beautiful connection. Your sister connects her children to all the loved ones, release them into the night and step away knowing that there’s an imminent return coming together in the morning, reuniting going on with our day. And that’s that bridge.
Dr. Sarah (32:33):
That’s that bridge that we’re creating, but giving them that place. Now, what I do tell parents also is if we say the safety word too much, you’re safe. You’re safe. It starts to sound a little insecure.
Dr. Sarah (32:49):
Why are you saying it so much? If it’s true? It’s like when I work with parents and potty learning, I have full confidence that you’re going to go on that potty when you’re ready. Yeah. You say that a couple of times because if you say it every day, it doesn’t sound confident.
Dr. Sarah (33:07):
And I think this is true. A lot of sleep stuff is either a form of or just very adjacent to anxiety stuff. I do a ton of work with families who have kids who have anxiety, whether it’s impacting their sleep or not. Right. Although it often does. Right? Yeah. There’s usually something there. But one of the things that we talk about with anxiety treatment is one, the goal of working on treating anxiety and reducing symptoms of anxiety is not to not feel anxious. The goal of that treatment is to increase tolerance for anxiety. And one of the ways we do that is by not taking it away from our kids, not rescuing them from the feeling and to communicate, yes, I see that you’re feeling anxious right now. That’s a hard feeling, and I know you can handle that feeling so that we’re communicating also some confidence that they can tolerate this feeling. And that’s sort of the embodiment we want to hold as parents. And that plays out with sleep too, I would imagine. Very much so. Because you doesn’t even have to be anxiety. You don’t have to say the word anxiety to a kid. You can just say, oh, it’s really hard to say goodnight.
Yeah, it’s hard to look in the day.
Dr. Sarah (34:24):
And I know you can handle this feeling. I will see you in the morning.
Yes. Our behavior is really showing them they can handle it because it’s not just anxiety. What they’re really it. It’s anxiety is part of it is grief. So the big change from infancy, what we were talking about before, the big change from infancy to toddlerhood is going from a natural healthy enmeshment to untangling that slowly over the course of months, years into autonomy. And to make that bridge, our children lose part of the enmeshment. And I think on some level, hu is so human. There’s a part of us always that has a longing to get back to that enmeshed womb cared for. Oh my God. How I would love someone to come into my house and fix everything they need fixing and just do it all for me. Yeah. They lose that and they go through grief and they, boy, there’s nothing like a toddler that can rapid cycle through the stages of grief, deny bargaining.
Oh, that’s bargaining, everyone, bargaining, sadness, anger, and then come into acceptance. And you used the word embodied. I think what is a better time in human existence? And when the natural, all of these things are rising up in the toddler to meet it in a full embodied place that they can embody this and learn through embodiment, because we are all up in our heads. And then we talk about it. And then we all have to get to the embodied somatic practices to really undo it. But while they’re confronting it, to let them feel the energy move in and out of their body and learn, oh, that passed.
Dr. Sarah (36:29):
Yes, that is exactly what I say. So my daughter has a lot of tantrums, especially at night. This is when she lets it all out. And what I always say to her after, and some, she has a very sensitive nervous system, and when she will really melt down and it gets really intense for her. And then afterwards, there’s this moment where it’s almost like she bursts, she reaches through this wall of stuff and kind of pulls herself out through it, and she’s like her again, and happens kind of instantly. It’s a bit of a fade, but then it’s like, boom, she’s her again. And in that moment, she’ll like want me to hold her, and she’ll kind of just fall into me. And I always say to her, I goes, that came and it went, yes, back to you again. And she’ll nod and she knows exactly what I’m three, she knows exactly what I’m saying. She’s feeling that. And I think what I always am really hoping to communicate to her, for her to internalize in those moments is that she’s going through an experience. She isn’t, it’s not her or it’s not about who she is. It’s that something is passing through her and it comes and it goes. She’s always her.
Yes. So what an amazing seed of resilience in her that she’ll be able to take through full brain development. Because I remember one of the most powerful things when I started working on my anxiety really seriously after I had children, I was like, Ooh, boy, I better work on this. Was not to identify as I have anxiety or I am anxious, but that I have this experience with anxiety. And it immediately kind of flipped my brain into curiosity. And that’s the child state, curiosity, creativity. How can I creatively work with this experience that I have in my nervous system that I can make it more fluid and more flexible? And yeah, it was really changed. It changed it for me pretty quickly. And then working with my children and their separation, their natural separation anxiety that came up working with them through that was really healing on a deep level. So I invite parents to also, the material that comes up in themselves is coming up to also heal as they’re working with the child. And I look at parenting. Parenting is kind of a parallel process. It’s that thing that I guess as a therapist, you’re not really supposed to do with a client as I get too deep into the parallel process with them to have enough to feel with them, to feel alongside of them, but not get in there and get too much deeply and feel in all their stuff for them.
Dr. Sarah (39:54):
But as a parent, it’s totally, one: fortunately as parents, we are not our child’s therapist. We are enmeshed with them in a way that is appropriate, healthy. Sometimes we are too enmeshed and we need to figure out a way to tolerate that separation ourselves. Because I work with so many parents who their kids are having trouble sleeping, or their kids are having trouble separating before bed or in the middle of the night when they wake up. But then when I talk to them about, okay, so how do we shift our behavior as parents? How do we change the accommodations that we might be doing to help take away that feeling of anxiety for them? And then they say, but they’ll feel anxious, but they’ll feel scared or they’ll feel they won’t be able to handle it. And I think there’s a very big difference between they will feel discomfort and they can’t handle it. And I think our own anxiety around letting go of our role of then meshed I, I feel your feelings for you. I take them away for you so you don’t have to feel them. Which comes from a really natural instinct in a parent too.
It’s so well intentioned. It’s like that old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s so well intentioned, but you end up in this, hell.
Dr. Sarah (41:26):
Where you don’t sleep
Verbatim. Parents say that to me, but then they’re going to feel this, and then they’re not be able to handle it. And I was like, well, what about if they feel this and they can handle it? And then they feel that and they can handle it. And at that moment where they can’t handle it, that’s where you come and hold the space for them and reassure them and realign them and co-regulate with them and help their nervous system come to a place where then they can have the feelings and handle it, and then they can handle it. And then they can handle it. And that moment they can’t handle it. They know we’re there for him. Them parents will often say, but if I go to them when the cry gets intense that we’re helping parents to discern struggle and suffering, if I go to them when the cry gets intense, doesn’t that just teach them that I’m just going to come to them when they cry? And I’m like, yeah, absolutely. We want our beloveds any beloved. If I get really upset written, all humans get to a point where we’re out of our zone, a tolerance, and I can’t handle it. And as much as I’m being a grownup and taking charge of my own nervous system, we need co-regulatory being our loved ones to come and sit and either a good girlfriend or a partner or a dog. Someone to…
Dr. Sarah (43:05):
To see us and to soothe us.
And see us. If I’m crying, my cat comes and gets on my ass. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes I need a hug from my partner.
Dr. Sarah (43:17):
This distinction that you bring up between struggle and suffering, if to an untrained ear, it’s all crying or it’s all protest, right? So how do you help parents start to learn the nuance of the difference between a struggle, which is, in my opinion, I think we would agree. We want to let them stretch into that struggle without rescuing versus suffering. In which case we want to protect that sense of attachment, safety. Right. When I’m suffering, the person who keeps me safe will come and be with me and will, they might not take the suffering away.
Exactly. They’re not still not going to fix it, but help me in myself soothing through other soothing to get to the place where then I can manage myself and fix it. And my nervous system gets to a place where it can relax again.
Dr. Sarah (44:24):
So how do you help parents, one, learn the distinction between those things in their children, and then two, have a strategy for what to do in those different situations?
So it’s the difference, and I think you teach this. You go over this about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. Yeah. So it’s in that. So sometimes children have to go through a tantrum and Oh, I want to remember to tell you the story, my new favorite story.
Dr. Sarah (44:53):
About one of my clients. Oh my gosh, it’s my favorite thing. I’m so excited. Anyway, so he had to have a tantrum. So tantrums, usually there’s a goal. They want something. And underneath it, the child come going to bed is letting go. They’re letting go to the parent. They want more connection. They want more reassurance. They want, they just want more. And so there are a lot of words coming out, and there’s a lot of that. That would be probably the bargaining stage of grief. Yes. Letting go. And they’re bargaining so that we can come and go from that. And we can tell the child, I hear you. I know you’re having a hard time. I’m going to go do X, and then I’m going to come back and check on you. I’m going to go do Y. I’m going to come back, X, Y, Z. We’re telling them where we are in the house. That also gives them an expanded sense of the home as all here. No one ever in the child’s mind. I mean, no one ever just leaves them in the house at night. There you can hear us. So we’re coming and going to support that a meltdown as they’re really just kind of out of their either overtired, overwrought, they’re out of their zone, and there’s usually no words coming out. They lose language
Dr. Sarah (46:22):
Or it’s a kind of phrase that they repeat, repeat, repeat.
Yes. And exactly.
Dr. Sarah (46:29):
It’s not like a communication. It’s just, I can’t stop this thing.
Yeah. And it’s almost like they get stuck in a loop and they’re just too, their nervous system’s too activated. So that needs more presence, grounding, holding, coming in and really being with them during that, the struggle, if they’re going through a tantrum, that struggle phase, sometimes I say, if they’re really struggling, intensely come and just sit down and just be with that. Just, just hang there and breathe and be with it. When it starts to lighten up, that’s where we can lighten up. And when we leave, we can say, you know what? I always have three more kisses. Where do you want coming back? Where do you want those kisses? Do you want ’em in the levee? Do you want ’em on your hand, on your face? And so we can get a little lighthearted. We don’t want to meet the feeling that’s happening. We never want to try to, the challenge with using play and story is sometimes parents get into this kind of hype session. I’m going to make this so much fun and I’m going to make, and we miss what’s really going on. We want, if the child’s sad, we don’t want to be in this kind of whaaaa.
Dr. Sarah (47:55):
Yeah, that’s the attunement piece. We want to be attuned to the emotional state of our kid and match it.
And accurately mirror it. And so we can mirror it in our coming and going or our presence in our staying. And then when we’re tuned in, there’s a moment where, and that’s our cue. And we give it a beat, and then we start the coming and going again. So I had a client with, he’s almost three very verbal, almost three year old. And when we started, it was all the things, he was in bed nursing all night long. Yeah. Not nursing all night long, because by then maybe he’d latch on a couple of times just for comfort. And so we had done the whole transition. He was sleeping in his room. And I recommend gates because it gives the child more access to the rest of the house. And we do a process where we incorporate the gate into the story. It was a garden, and he had his monkey, and I forget what his other lovey was. So everything was great. And then they went away for Christmas. And I love it when this happens. So I said, you’re going to go away for Christmas consciously on purpose. Get off of the plan, and then we’re going to get back on when you get home.
So he went there and he was, all, the family was there, and he got to sleep with grandma because I grandparent relationships. That is a sacred relationship. And we just let ’em do whatever the heck they want to do. Grandma’s style, it’s special with grandma. Well, he came home and they went back in the room and the gate was up, and he just said, no. And he was like, no, I want it. It was, and he had to go through a big tantrum, arched back doing that when they get on the floor and they go and spin in circles on the floor. So his dad just walked in and sat down with the end of his bed and just stayed with him. He said, I know it was really fun. And now we’re back home, and this is, we’re going back to the way it was. I mean, he just lost it. And then his dad said he suddenly, he just stood up. He took a deep breath and said, okay, I’m ready for my story.
Dr. Sarah (50:34):
Got in bed. And then he looked at his father and he said, I’m still having some big feelings. I think you better take that lamp out of here. I want to throw it against the wall. I was like, oh my gosh. And I said, what did you say? He said, all I could do is thank him. I said, thank you for telling me that. I’ll do that. I’ll take the lamp out. It that was like is so profound that in almost three year old boy can have that much access to his anger and aggressive rah, and then calm down and then go, wait, you know what? I still want to throw that lamp against the wall. Could you help me with that.
Dr. Sarah (51:24):
Yeah. But the presence of that father in this story to me is the real. Yeah. Wow. That three-year-old has some real amazing insight and ability to articulate and inhibition of impulse, which is really impressive in a three year old.
I know I was blown away.
Dr. Sarah (51:44):
But the dad’s ability, and this is what I feel like is so hard in parenthood, is the dad’s ability to sit on that bed and just tolerate his discomfort in witnessing his child’s discomfort, his discomfort in perhaps all the thoughts that might be going through his own mind. Am I supposed to be doing something about this? Am I, he’s he, am I permitting something? Am I being permissive? Am I not teaching or disciplining appropriately? What is he going to be learn? We have to shut all that noise off. And for him to just be able to do that and sit and tolerate that moment for as long as it takes, and then the child could actually have the space to move through the whole thing. If the dad had interrupted that process by disciplining or getting mad or teaching or lecturing or…
Or leaving him.
Dr. Sarah (52:39):
Or leaving him. The boy wouldn’t have gotten to that place where he was like, all right, I’m ready now.
I’m ready. And yet, I’m still pissed off about it.
Dr. Sarah (52:51):
With so much permission to be mad.
Yeah. It is extraordinary. I, and so I invite parents to, another thing that’s really helpful is if the parent had big feelings as a child, and not through any malice or anything, but just weren’t really allowed to have that kind of expression. Or they could have that expression. But the classic thing done with toddlers when they did that was Just ignore it. Yeah. Just ignore it so that the parent wasn’t truly seen or heard in that intense emotional expression that if you can get in touch with almost a little bit of joy, that you’re allowing your child to have it, that it helps like a little bit of, I’m giving, this is a gift that I’m giving you. I know it’s tough. I know you can handle it. And I know on the other side, it’s like when you hold your daughter and tell her on the other side, you got through it. That’s a gift.
Dr. Sarah (54:09):
That’s a gift.
Dr. Sarah (54:12):
So it’s so powerful.
So powerful. The two biggest gifts of RIE that I see in my children is their ability to hang with difficult conversations, difficult moments, challenge, really hang in there, go through it, express their feelings, move on. And it’s like, yeah, we had one at breakfast. Well before breakfast. My daughter came down and let all of us have it. My son, my partner, he got it too. I got, and then we just worked through it, move through. It’s like, okay, everybody sit down. Let’s have some breakfast. It was wasn’t that big of a deal. That and strong embodied boundaries of knowing where they’re No, thank you.
Dr. Sarah (54:58):
And I think both of those are results of a child having the permission, both explicit and implicit permission to have the feelings and not nice, but also not always the behaviors. So this, and this is same with sleep, right? Yes. You can have the feelings, but we are going back to the routine.
Yeah. We’re going back to the routine. And that gate’s going to hold. Yeah. The boundary’s going to hold your feelings, your expression. Cause I think that’s an equal need attachment and authenticity expression. You can have that, but it doesn’t change my job. Right. My job, I’m still going to be here and be with you, and I’m still going to hold the boundary.
Dr. Sarah (55:42):
And I could do that with so much warmth, with so much emotional attunement, with so much confidence. And I think that’s the sweet spot right there.
It is. And it’s not going to la The fear, I know that. I remember that fear from as a parent, it’s like, oh boy, if I let this cat out of the bag, if I let this really come to full fruition expression, it’s going to go on and it’s never going to stop.
Dr. Sarah (56:08):
Yes. That’s the fear
Here for hours. That was my fear. And it never actually, the more space I gave to it, the less time it took.
Dr. Sarah (56:18):
Right. And I think that’s, we could talk about the nuance of that all for a whole nother episode. Maybe we should have more. We’ve got to do more, I’m sure. And if people are listening and you have more questions for Eileen, we’ll just send them to me and we’ll get her back because we could really talk about this for a long time. But if people want to know how they can work with you, or to get in touch with you or learn more about the work you do, where can they find you?
Dr. Sarah (56:49):
That’s where you can find me. And I do offer a free introductory 20 minute, just kind of meet and greet, get to know each other and see if we’re a good fit.
Dr. Sarah (57:01):
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for being here. I am. I just love talking with you always. And this was really illuminating. I hope that parents got a lot out of this.
Thank you. I always get so much out of our conversations and your information. I, I love your work a huge fan. So thank you.
Dr. Sarah (57:23):
Deeply appreciate that. Oh, coming from you. All right. Well, thank you.
This episode really laid a nice strong foundation for understanding how to use a relational approach. So leaning into attachment theory and your parent-child bond to help your toddler or your young child form a really healthy relationship to sleep. However, sometimes you just need concrete strategies that’s going to make bedtime run more smoothly. And that is why I created a free toddler sleep workbook with seven things you can start doing tonight that will help you create a more peaceful and effective nighttime routine. Plus pro tips to help you take these techniques to the next level and apply them to your unique kiddo.
(58:11):So to download my free guide Addressing Sleep Struggles during the toddler years, go to my website, drsarahbren.com and click the resources tab. That’s drsarahbren.com/resources and get started turning your child’s sleep struggles into solutions. So thanks for listening and don’t be a stranger.
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