Monday, April 11, 2011

Parenting to Sleep: a Spiritual Discipline

James 1:2-4 says:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Anyone who has parented a baby or toddler to sleep knows there are naps and nights when it can rightly be categorized as a trial!

Yet, it is a trial I have chosen and continue to choose to submit to and endure because of the belief that it is the right way to honor God’s command to love my neighbor as myself and treat the least of these as if they were Jesus.

From the first day I met my precious daughter, God gave me a mama heart that told me to respond to her cries and soothe her to sleep rather than leave her to cry alone and give up when she realizes no one is coming to help her.

She may not have explicit memory of these years, but my loving and (mostly) consistent response will build for her a foundation of trust all the same.

God saw fit to bless me with a daughter that has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.  She fits the definition of a “spirited” or “high-needs” baby. 

Dr. Sears offers 31 tips for nighttime parenting.  He also explains why high-need children sleep differently than others.  In the article, he suggests waiting for the "limp limb sign" before putting baby down and sneaking away.

Don't hurry. Trying to hurry your baby off to sleep is doomed to fail because babies go to sleep differently than adults. In the early months, in order to reach a state of deep sleep, babies need to go through a 20 to 30 minute stage of lighter sleep. If you try to put babies down and sneak away during this light sleep stage, many will wake up. You need to continue your ritual until you are certain baby is in a deep sleep. Here's how to tell: Watch baby's face and limbs. If baby's mouth is still grimacing or showing "sleep grins," his eyelids are fluttering, and his arms are flexed with hands in fists, baby is still in the state of light sleep. Once baby's face is expressionless, eyes and mouth are still, limbs dangle and hands are wide open (we call this the limp-limb sign), chances are baby has entered deep sleep, and you can put baby down on his back and quietly creep away. This is just one of the many facets of baby-care that teaches parents patience.

Did you catch that last sentence? "This is just one of the many facets of baby-care that teaches parents patience."  Boy does it ever! 

Over the past 2.5 years of parenting my little C to sleep, I've been humbled over and over again as I realize just how impatient and selfish I am.  C is so sensitive, that if I am at all eager to "escape" and relax with my husband or go accomplish one of the many things on my to-do list (even if it's just to catch up on Gentle Christian Mothers!), she can feel the tension in my body and will go on alert too.  It is not until I am fully present with her, relaxed in the moment, submitting myself to the discipline of stillness, patience and self-sacrifice that she too will relax and allow herself to fall asleep. 

There are a few times in particular when I find it difficult to be patient and fully relax. 

One is when I'm facing a deadline for my work-at-home job recording textbooks for visually disabled students.  To avoid undue background noise, I can only do my recording while C is asleep or not in the house.  The times when it goes well and I can fully relax are the times when I pray something like this, "God, you know how much work I have to get done, but I am a parent first.  I trust that you will make time for me to meet my other commitments if I am faithful in helping this precious girl you've given me get the sleep she needs."   And you know what?  He always comes through for me.

The times when I fail the most are the times when I am feeling irritable, tired and entitled to some space and time to myself.  Those are the times when God opens my eyes to how much I am like the snake that Roy Hession describes in his book, The Calvary Road.

Those who have been in tropical lands tell us that there is a big difference between a snake and a worm, when you attempt to strike at them. The snake rears itself up and hisses and tries to strike back – a true picture of self. But a worm offers no resistance, it allows you to do what you like with it, kick it or squash it under your heel – a picture of true brokenness.  

Lately, nap times in particular have been more and more of a struggle.  C is perhaps approaching the time when she will give up naps.  She at least would like to skip it and stay awake as not to miss a minute of all the fun and interesting things the world holds for a toddler.  But I know based on her behavior when she does not have one how much she really does need to sleep or at least to rest for a few hours each day. 

In the past few months, I have become more and more controlling in my efforts to help her sleep.  I wanted to rush her through the process by forbidding any wiggles, or anything that I perceived as her fighting sleep and thereby daring to keep me away from what I wanted to be doing instead.  My work-at-home job is done for the season, so these were purely selfish pursuits I was being denied.

So I started doing some things I'm not proud of.  I've told her if she couldn't stop herself from moving her body so sleep could come find her, I'd help her, and I held her in a gentle but firm bear hug while she screamed and struggled to get away.  While this can be a gentle technique, I was using it punitively and her reaction told me it was scary for her and yet I persisted.  When I let her go, she was compliant and ready to sleep, but it was far from the peaceful transition to sleep that I want for her to have.  Another time I got so angry with her that I had to leave the room to stop myself from physically hurting her.  While I calmed myself down, she screamed hysterically behind the door.  When I calmed down enough to return, again she was exhausted and ready to sleep.  Regrettably, I started falling back on these techniques to get her to sleep.  Not exactly consciously, but it seemed to happen more and more often that she'd either be screaming because I was holding her down or screaming because I had left the room to control my anger. 

One of those times happened while my husband was home last weekend.  C prefers to have both parents there while she transitions to sleep if we are both available, so he was in her room with us.  She flopped around the bed, asked for water, asked to go potty, kicked the rail of her bed, asked for covers, kicked off covers, asked to be held, climbed out of my lap, asked me to lay down with her, refused to lay down herself ad nauseum.  All while yawning and rubbing her eyes.  She needed sleep, and I told myself she was fighting sleep on purpose.  I thought, "I'm not putting up with this anymore," and "She can't get away with this," and got locked into forcing her to hold still and stop talking.  I only succeeded in riling her up.  Seeing C's distress and my rising temper, my husband insisted that I leave the room. 

While I was gone, the Holy Spirit impressed on my heart how wrong I was and had been to be so controlling and angry.  I did not like how I was treating my child and it needed to stop. 

Stopping this unkind behavior and selfish thoughts has not been easy and I still have failures.  C is still having a particularly rough time transitioning to sleep.  Daily I must face the struggle to choose to be the worm instead of the snake.  To choose to trust God to fulfill my desires to be elsewhere in His timing.  To choose to submit to the task at hand and be fully present in the moment.  To choose to stop the self-talk that agitates and embitters me against my daughter, and instead choose new thoughts and attitudes that enjoy the moment for what it is: precious time with a girl that is growing so fast. 

The rewards of faithfulness have been great:

On one succesful night, we went through our bedtime routine and got to the point where we were in C's room and all that was left was for her to go to sleep.  I sat in the chair by her bed where we nurse.  She climbed off her bed and into my lap, and started talking and asking questions.  Rather than insisting she stay on her bed, or shushing her and saying it was time for sleep, I engaged in a low key conversation with lots of snuggles and kisses.  She got down out of my lap and turned the nightlight off and then on again, and came right back.  She climbed up, nuzzled her head to my chest and fell fast asleep.  I held her for a moment, then gently put her down on her bed and left the room.

Another night, I sat on her bed with her while my husband sat on the chair.  After a few minutes of snuggling and quiet talking, she moved to her dad.  In the past I would have insisted she stay on the bed and gotten into a physical struggle to keep her there.  Instead I watched to see what she would do.  She gave her daddy a hug and kiss, then snuggled down into his arms and fell asleep.  It was a precious moment to witness, and one I would have missed had I tried to over-control the situation instead of trusting my God and the instincts and abilities He gave my daughter.

And yet, the struggle still continues, and I could use your prayers, dear reader. 

Last night, it took 90 minutes for her to finally drift off to sleep.  She was tired, even laying still, but just the sight of her open eyes began to anger me, and I had to turn my face away and ask God to help me die to my self once more.  Today I felt I had to leave the room to control my anger again, but I came back more quickly than before.  I am so grateful that Grace is for mamas too.

God is using her struggles with sleep to draw out and show me the ugly places where my heart still needs work to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.  It is a daily opportunity to make the choice to take up my cross and follow Him who laid down his life for me.


  1. thank you for being so open. I have always wondered why it was so hard to parent Maximus to sleep, and this gave me new perspective. <3

  2. You're very brave for baring it all like that. Good for you. We all have those 'bad mommy' moments we wish we could take back. Jack is a horrible sleeper as well. He stays asleep for the most part (unless he's teething, which for these stinkin' 2 year molars is for months on end it seems) but he won't GO to sleep. I've reverted to driving him around for his naps, letting him skip naps every few days -which works for him, we just move up bedtime. At night though, he cries that he's afraid of his crib, the rails specifically. I stay in the room with him until he falls asleep, but I'm not holding him in my lap. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what he needs to make him comfortable. Parenting is an ever evolving learning process!

  3. I didn't want to let Charlotte snuggle in my lap for a long time. I worried that it would be a "step backwards" after she'd been falling asleep on her own bed. I worried that if she fell asleep that way it would be harder to put her down without waking her.

    I was so worried about letting her get away with things or having too loose of boundaries that I ended up being too tight/strict.

    She still has boundaries around bedtime. The only light is a night light. I won't let her leave the room or get out her toys. But I'm giving her more space to fiddle and wiggle and talk and wind herself down.

    When I relaxed and let her do what she needed to do to be comfortable (which apparently does include snuggling in my or Adam's lap), I was surprised at how easy and pleasant it was. There really isn't that much more time before she will be too big to hold like that. <3

    But even knowing that, I have trouble being patient in the moment. I'm slowly recognizing that my efforts to rush the process are part of what prolongs it. I need self-control to stop myself from interfering so much!!

  4. Thank you for sharing! I really needed to hear this and know that others have the same struggles.


There was an error in this gadget