Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Sleep Challenge

I'm out on a new limb here. It's part of parenting authentically but it's scaring me a little.

No bedtimes. For anyone.

I call myself a co-sleeper, but sleeping next too my nursing baby and laying down with my 6 1/2 year old until she falls asleep are two scenarios at completely different ends of the co-sleeping spectrum. Until this week I had been combining these two activities in order to make my life a little easier. That means that I was laying down to nurse the baby to sleep and all the children would go to sleep at the same time. Sometimes I had to stay in the room for an hour or more until everyone was asleep. I didn't mind because I figured there was a pay-off: an hour or two of time in the evening with all the children asleep.

But for the last month Anna has been complaining every night that she's not tired at bedtime. Some nights she would lay down, complain that she wasn't tired, and then be sound asleep in 5 minutes. But other nights she would lay there awake for an hour or more and I would be ready to get up (to do my own thing for a while) but I would stay and stay and stay until she fell asleep. I started to feel bad for me and bad for her and I knew that I needed a new solution.

Yes, it's been pretty nice to be able to put all my kids to bed at the same time every night. I keep a strict policy that no one at my house should ever have to cry themselves to sleep (well, I've cried myself to sleep a few times, but not at this house...). The baby nurses for 20-30 minutes while I sing to Jasmine. Anna and Holly typically sing or talk to themselves or their stuffed animals for a while before falling asleep. And I rarely leave the room until everyone is asleep. I've enjoyed my evenings spent at the computer or watching TV or reading or talking on the phone. Sometimes I even give Partner-Guy a little attention.

So it took me a month of listening to Anna complain for me to be willing to look for a solution. There were a few problems I had to figure out. First, if she stayed up later, then Holly and Jasmine would almost certainly want to stay up later too. Second, when Anna was ready to go to bed she would want me to lay down with her and I couldn't picture giving up 'my time' in the evenings to lay down twice. Third, she would likely start wanting to stay up until I went to bed and then she would end up too tired and miserable the next day. Fourth, my private time with Partner-Guy is already pretty limited and letting her impose on his quiet evening might create problems between he and I.

But the thing about Authentic Parenting is that parents have to trust and respect kids. I didn't feel good about controlling Anna by making her go to bed at a certain time just to accommodate me. And my list of problems is really just a list of my own fears. So I decided to face my fears, let her stay up and just see what would happen.

So the first few nights Jasmine and Holly wanted to stay up too. As it turned out, Julian was fussing around and he stayed up a little later too. By the time Julian was ready for bed, Jasmine was ready to go to bed too. Holly was afraid she would miss the opportunity to lay down with me, so she came to bed at a reasonable time too. I was relieved that Holly and Jasmine were able to listen to the cues of their own bodies telling them that it was time to sleep.

But Anna is really committed to doing things her own way. She knows when she is feeling tired but, as I kind of predicted, she wants to stay up until I go to bed. So far I am finding the patience to let her do as she pleases. I have told her that I need the evenings to do the things that I enjoy and that I can't do during the day when all 4 kids need my attention. She will figure out whether she wants to stay up or go to bed by herself (with her sleeping sisters, of course) or go to bed earlier when the others are going to bed. I am willing to let her figure this out for herself and hopefully she will sort it out in the next couple of weeks.

I admit that it's hard for me to let go of bedtimes. Ultimately, bedtimes are a mainstream idea which mainstream parents use to control their children in order to fulfil their own belief that they deserve time to themselves. It's getting rid of the children under the guise of 'they need their sleep.' And I agree that children need adequate sleep for all the same reasons that mainstream parents would list. But maybe it's OK for children to get their sleep on their own terms? So just like I don't make Julian take a nap just because I think he must be getting tired, maybe I shouldn't make Anna go to bed just because I think she must be getting tired. And I have a big advantage over mainstream parents--my children don't have to get out of bed and race off to school every morning. If we go to bed later at night we simply sleep later in the morning. Now that's freedom and joy, isn't it?

Parenting is not meant to be done in a way that is convenient for the parents but shows no regard for the needs of the children. I am learning this. And I admit that it is hard for me to let go of this aspect of control. I have a lot of fears and letting any of them go is a challenge. I have had to carefully consider the topic of sleep now that my children are not babies anymore. Putting a 6-year-old to bed against her will is no different than putting a baby down to cry himself to sleep in that both are done to serve the parent's agenda and not for the good of the child. I must not be a hypocrite in this regard.

I am grateful to Anna for teaching me this lesson.

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