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A Beginner’s Guide to Responding to Your Child with Empathy

I work with a lot of parents who are trying to shift the cycle of parenting. Many of today’s parents grew up with authoritarian style parenting because it was popular in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. This was a time where children were to be seen and not heard, where parent’s “ruled the roost!” and where children were a bit afraid of stepping out of line. 

We now know that this type of parenting does not help increase our children’s emotional intelligence. But, responding with empathy and striving to be an authoritative parent can help. So; how do we start with this if it is something that is totally foreign? 

On my fridge, I have this little reminder… and I thought I would share it with you today in case it helps you too! 

1. Offer acceptance 

What this might sound like: 

“You’re having some big feelings about not getting the snack you want.”

“You seem really upset we can’t watch another show right now.” 

2. Get curious 

What this might sound like:

“I wonder if you’re really upset because we ran out of cheerios?” 

“Are you mad because the next episode looked really good?”

3. Empathize  

What this might sound like: 

“It can feel frustrating when you can’t get what you want when you want it.” 

“It makes sense that you would be upset about the TV going off.” 

When you look at the scenarios above; can you imagine what your parents would have said in response to your big feelings? A response like STOP CRYING, or I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT stops the social emotional learning from taking place. 

When we see our children’s big feelings as an opportunity to connect and teach empathy, as well as, social and emotional intelligence, we shift the narrative. 

XO

Lara 

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Is sleep training the magic ticket for mom’s anxiety?

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while. But it is such a sensitive subject, I have struggled to figure out how!

I would say I was inspired by my friend and colleague Lauren Alysha Heffernan of Isla-Grace, and her post on “Wake Windows and Sleep Schedules”. She addresses an issue, that many of us in the sleep coaching industry have been somewhat ignoring. And one that is so important for us to bring attention to.

The “too lazy did not read” of this post is… Sleep training will not eliminate your postpartum depression or anxiety. 😉

Now, it may give you a focal point. A place to put your attention. A subject to think about and busy your mind with. All of those things happened for me when I was experiencing postpartum anxiety with my daughter. And it may decrease your depression and anxiety for a little while. But, it also may not. And in fact, it also might make it worse. Something very few people talk about. 

I remember telling my sleep consultant at the time, “If I could just get this baby sleeping… I am sure my anxiety would be so much lower.”

Now, if I had a dollar for every time I have heard that line since… I would probably have $50 or so. 😉

I ask every family that I work with, “is anyone in the family experiencing anxiety or depression?”. 90% of the families I work with reply. “Yes”. I then ask, “has it been diagnosed by a medical professional?” And 75% then answer, “No”.

In our consultation I always ask why this is… and many parents say that they are certain once their baby starts sleeping better, they will no longer experience these levels of depression or anxiety.  

Now, there might be some truth to this.

We know that lack of sleep is certainly related to a decrease in overall mood, and mental wellness. Experiencing regular, repetitive sleep deprivation is certainly met with increased levels of clinical depression and anxiety. We know that babies and toddlers deprive us of sleep! So making the correlation that regular sleep disruption, night wakings, and insomnia, rob us of our mental health… is a fair one to make! And one that can be statistically proven as well.

But the relationship between sleep, and postpartum mood, is a very complex one. Add in the hormonal changes, and HUGE mental shift in becoming a new mother, or mother for the second or third time, and you’ve got a bit of a crazy cocktail.

Now in Lauren’s piece, she draws attention to a new mom’s obsession with awake times, scheduling, and finding the best possible sleep schedule for their baby. She asks mothers to consider what type of person they were prior to having a baby, and how this might be presenting itself in their parenting. Were you someone who was high achieving, who set goals and could easily achieve them with the right methodologies and practice? If yes, you will likely find a lot of comfort and solace in a baby sleep schedule. *Hint – this was me at 5 months postpartum with my daughter*.

But, what about when your baby does not follow that regular predictable schedule that all other babies seem to be able to follow? It can make you feel like a total failure. *Hint – this was also me at 7.5 months postpartum*. And I have actually had moms tell me they cannot work with me because they were unable to follow the awake times I was asking of them in our consultation without feeling defeat. (Of course, I can almost always tweak things to help them feel some level of success). But, this is anxiety at work my friends! And it is a scary hairy beast! Not one to be ignored. And bringing attention to it BEFORE sleep work, can actually improve your baby’s sleep, while improving your mental health! More on that to come.

Did you know, a recently published study in The Journal of Early Child Development and Care found a positive correlation between the use of infant books that promote strict routines and increased levels of maternal depression, and decreased levels of self efficacy? (Please don’t hand your new mom friends Babywise… yes I might get some backlash for that). But it can feel like you are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. And often new moms can’t handle this level of pressure! Heck… many experienced mamas can’t handle it either.

Now some level of sleep training, or sleep coaching, or sleep shaping, or whatever route you so choose, may help your family get more sleep. And as a result, you might start sleeping more.. And you might find you are better mentally fit to work through any remaining feelings of depression or anxiety you are experiencing. Or, you might find that yes… poof.. They are gone with the wind!

But I can tell you – for many, sleep coaching is not a magic ticket out of anxiety.  

I have worked with MANY families, and with every family I have worked with.. I have been able to increase the amount their child does sleep. But I can tell you, this doesn’t always mean that mom and dad begin sleeping well. For some, the anxiety and depression remains just as high as before we started. And for many, this is a defeating moment as well.

Now I have a sleeping baby, and I can’t sleep?! What the f*ck is wrong with me now?

Or their baby starts to sleep, but they are still analyzing every movement their baby makes in the night. Obsessing over every little detail, because it brings some level of comfort and confidence to analyze and problem solve. Two habits leftover from a successful pre-child adult life, and leftover from having a baby who DOES NOT SLEEP.

Now what I will tell you, is working on getting your anxiety or depression medically diagnosed and supported, can actually help your baby start to sleep better.

Hey now, what now?! Working on my own mental health might actually help my baby sleep better? Even without any form of sleep coaching or behavioural intervention?!

Yes.

Yes, it may!

You grew that baby for 10 months. It is connected to you on a cellular level, and it feels every feel in which you feel. Now, I am not trying to say you are projecting your anxiety on your baby (although a few of you might be nodding along now going.. Um… yup.. I’m totally doing that..), but what I am trying to say is.. If you are anxious about your baby going to sleep, they know that. If you are holding and rocking your baby in arms, riddled with anxiety about it going to sleep, it will feel that anxiety, and then also become anxious about transitioning from awake to asleep, and then not sleep, and the negative feedback loop continues!

But the good news here… making small changes to your own mental health and well-being, may help baby go to sleep more easily. It may help your expectations become a bit more realistic, and as a result, you might even enjoy that little 14 pound cutie a little bit more than you already do. You are feeling the love, baby is feeling the love, and bada bing bada boom.. Baby’s sleep improves.

Now, the intention of this blog is NOT to guilt anyone who did sleep train their baby in direct response to the anxiety they were experiencing. (I’m raising my hand here guys.. I was that girl!). And if sleep training did help alleviate all of your postpartum stress or woes – good for you, more power to you!

But, the purpose and outcome I am hoping to achieve here is that no new mother will put all of their “eggs” into the “sleep training” basket. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Take care of YOU first, and baby will follow. 

If you do need some postpartum support, and you are in the Vancouver area, I recommend the Pacific Postpartum Support Society as your first touch point.

Thank you to my girl @stacielynnphotography for the beautiful photos you see here. 

XO

Lara

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Why is my child waking up at night?

Why is my child waking up at night?

How come my baby can sleep 2 hours uninterrupted some nights? And 5 hours the next?

I have seen her sleep better than she is!!! Why isn’t she doing this every night?

Pretty much the million dollar questions, I know! And ones I am still answering daily, even after I have started working with a family, and we are problem solving to find out what exactly makes their baby “tick”.

The truth of the matter is, babies do not sleep like adults.

As adults we sleep in 3 – 4 hour stretches at nighttime. Typically we connect two sleep cycles such as these and form our 6 – 8 hour night. Sometimes this is with little to no disruption. Other nights, we are wide awake middle of the night and wondering if we should get up and be productive! 

All of us wake up at night. Me. You. The nextdoor neighbour. The guy who walks the dog. Yes! We all wake up at night. We might nudge our spouse over. We might wake up to pee (one can only hope..).  Or we might get a glass of water.

Babies also wake up at night. However, their sleep cycles are much shorter than adults. These range from 30 – 45 minutes during the day, and are more like 90 minutes to 4 hours at night.

Since we know that the transition from “awake to asleep” is a vulnerable change of state for most humans, with infants being no exception – it is natural and normal that a baby might need some assistance to connect from one sleep cycle to the next.

Inconvenient for us. Yes.

Inconvenient for baby. Probably much less so.

Of course there are other factors at play beyond a baby’s sleep cycle being shorter on average than an adults, that can contribute to night wakings.

What time you are putting your child to bed, and what their daily rhythm looks like will play a part in this process.

I certainly do see children have more trouble sleeping when they are put to bed for the night overtired. I also see them struggle to sleep when their day has been super busy, or full of events that are out of the norm. 

When we get behind the child’s eye, and think through what a busy day might mean for that child.. some of their night waking behaviour sometimes becomes more clear.

For example; baby is taken to a large family dinner.

These are all hypothetical, and by no means am I saying you shouldn’t take your baby out to a family dinner once in a while. Your baby will certainly benefit from going out to a large family dinner once in a while!

But, I am using this as an example of how the repercussions of this might actually present themselves in your child’s sleep.

  • Baby’s nap is cut short so that the family can ensure they are on time for the start of supper.
  • Baby’s post-nap snack of fruit, veggie, and dairy is cut, and a granola bar is offered in the car instead.
  • Baby spends time in arms at the gathering; going from person to person who oodles at their cuteness.
  • Baby does not spend any time on the ground crawling around, because the family has a large dog, and parents are nervous about this.
  • Baby spends very little time crawling, furniture cruising, and maximising energy output.  
  • Baby is fed a food item for dinner that they have never had before.
  • Mom is nervous about breastfeeding babe in front of her cousin, and therefore skips a regular feeding time without even noticing this.
  • Baby falls asleep for a minute or two in the car seat on the way home, and then has difficulty transferring to the crib.
  • Baby wakes frequently overnight as a result of x, y, z.

When our days follow a regular rhythm and predictability, baby does get used to this. And it also makes it easier to troubleshoot on those difficult nights what exactly might have gone wrong, if anything.

Night wakings are for many reasons. We know this.

Thirst. Hunger. Milk. Extra touch-time. Cuddles. Comfort. Checking you are still there.. just to name a few!

Now what I will say is this;

Many babies do seek to recreate the way they fell asleep at bedtime, to transition from one sleep cycle to the next.

There is nothing wrong with this. It is natural. It is normal.

But, if the “thing” you are finding your child “needs” in the middle of the night is the same thing they required to fall asleep at bedtime, you may want to help them learn to fall asleep in a few different ways, and see what comes of this exploration?!

And as always, I am here if you prefer to make the line a little straighter, and journey to sleep in a way that is a little more concrete. 

XO

Lara

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Toddler Waking More Than the Newborn

Is this your life? Get new baby to sleep. Fight the toddler to bed. Baby wakes up to feed. Toddler wakes up for water. Baby wakes up to feed. Toddler wakes up to tell you about Star Wars. Baby wakes to feed. Toddler wakes and insists she needs to pee. Baby wakes to feed. Toddler wakes and needs a cuddle. Everyone is up for the day! And everyone is seemingly well rested.. well.. except mama!

Honestly. I can remember this time in my life like it was yesterday. It wasn’t yesterday… it was almost a year ago now, but I do recall the sheer sleep deprivation that is having a toddler and a newborn baby.

The birth of a sibling really shakes things up! This is a huge transformative time in a family. Everything you once thought you knew is no more. Everyone is just adjusting to their new roles. And since we know sleep does not exist in and of itself, there are going to be some repercussions to welcoming this beautiful little creature earth side. Your toddler has been sleeping through the night for weeks, months, years, maybe even… and now you are suddenly engaged in a game of “whack a mole” every night bringing them back to their bed.

Just going to take this opportunity to tell you all that after I had Theo I did not sleep for 36 hours. This is the longest I have ever not slept in my life. And I am alive to tell the tale. Haha! But, I will save that for another blog post at another time and stick to the task at hand which is, explaining what is happening when your toddler is sleeping worse than your newborn.

If your toddler was sleeping well before baby was born, I know this is a difficult transition to make. Your go-to strategy may be to draw a hard line in the sand, fire all systems up, and nip this in the bud before it becomes anything worse.

But, you have been following me a while so you probably know this won’t be my recommendation! Hehe.

Our children wake in the night for a number of different reasons.

First of all, they don’t sleep like adults. Their sleep cycles are not comparable to adult sleep cycles, and they spend more of their time in lighter sleep than we do, even at 3 and 4 years old.

Toddlers are also beginning to decipher the difference between real and make believe, which makes some of their nightmare experiences downright terrifying.

And another reason that our toddlers wake is for attention. They used to be the baby. They were the ONLY apple of your eye, and now they have to share you. Wah wah wahhhhhhh… not exactly what they signed up for. The amount of attention they previously received has likely been cut by more than half and so they begin to seek this attention wherever they can get it. Often this means more prolonged requests at bedtime, and various visits in the middle of the night. When you are their captive audience, they absolutely will seek you out. The baby is sleeping mom…. I can have you ALL to myself – and I will!

Now the other struggle you may find yourself in come middle of the night is the “power struggle”. Your toddler has essentially just lost a lot of power with the introduction of the new baby. He used to get what he wanted when he asked. Now he is being told to, “wait until the baby is done nursing,” or, “share your toys with your sister,” or, “don’t hit the baby!”. He used to rule the roost! Wait for a snack he did not. Share his toys he did not. He could play with what he wanted, when he wanted, and all the time he had a captive audience. Now suddenly you may see some powerful requests come middle of the night. “I NEED my Star Wars pajamas!!!” “I NEED my RED water bottle not the BLUE water bottle, and I don’t care if it is 2am! Find the bottle MOM!”.

Yeah.. you get the idea. Have kids they said. It will be fun they said.

And while you’re trying your best to be empathetic, I also know you just can’t deal with the fact that you are up more at night with your toddler than you are with your newborn. The new baby just wants to feed. She’s not making demands about pajamas, night-lights, or the like!

So what can we do to help our toddlers in this transition?

1. Don’t expect them to make big changes before baby arrives.

  • If you’re one of the smart ones and you are reading this BEFORE the birth of your second baby – here is my advice. If it is less than 6 months before baby’s arrival let them keep their comforting items. Keep them in the crib and order a second one for babe if necessary, let them keep their pacifier, and their bottle of milk before bed. Otherwise you are likely setting yourself up for a power struggle, followed by a sleep regression. And as you probably know – once you’re in a power struggle with a toddler, you’ve already lost. Your dignity. Your sanity. You know the drill.

2. Increase opportunities for attention.

  • Really hard to do at first. I know that. But it gets easier, and you will become a pro at this before you know it! Give your oldest child as much focused one-on-one time throughout the day as you can. Play at their level. Let them lead you through play, and engage you how they see fit without the distractions of phone, TV, cleaning, or the like.
  • Think about how much time they are spending with you in the middle of the night, and try to match that in the daytime. Ensure they are getting lots of positive attention in helping to do things for baby as well. “Thank you for getting brother’s blanket, you’re such a helpful big bro!” All these little thank you’s will add up to a big confidence boost, and a love bucket that is just a little more full.

3. Increase opportunities for power.

  • If power struggles at bedtime or middle of the night are part of your equation, increase your toddler’s ability to call the shots.
  • In their bedtime routine; do you want the red toothbrush, or the blue one? Purple pajamas or pink? Straw cup or sippy cup?
  • You can also give them a few cards to use at bedtime to make requests. A card they trade for one more hug, an extra sip of water, milk, or a cuddle. But once you have fulfilled the request, take the card away and return it the next morning. Show that the boundaries you do set are meant to be respected, but allow your toddler to know where these boundaries lie before insisting that they fulfill an expectation they know nothing about.

4. Ensure your toddler is not waking because of an environmental factor.

  • Do they know how to find their soother in the middle of the night? Can they pull their blankets back on when they are cold? Or, should they be in a sleep sack with foot holes like this one made by Halo. Are they falling asleep with a nightlight on, and when they wake in the night it is turned off? Can they turn it back on themselves?
  • Look at the things you do for your child at bedtime, and ask yourself if your toddler can be asked to re-create this come middle of the night. If the answer is no.. you may need to make some changes, or teach your toddler the skills to fulfill these requests and guide them in the middle of the night to do these things for themselves. I know it would be easier for you to just switch on the nightlight tonight – but then this becomes the expectation for tomorrow night too. Guide your child to do this in the night, and they will learn this is something they should start to do for themselves as well.

When it comes to making sleep changes everyone is usually playing the “short game”. The game that is going to get you back into bed as fast as possible on any given night. But I assure you, with a quick fix, a problem persists. I would encourage you to look for the root of your child’s behavior, and begin to work around resolving that need in particular. Lead with your heart. Treat your little one like the human being they are, and surely you will be able to troubleshoot this one in a way that works for both of you.

And a couple of last minute suggestions if it’s still not working out for you…

Repeat the mantra “this too shall pass”, and maybe tattoo it on your forearm so you see it at every turn. 😉

Or consider booking a toddler consultation with me. This is probably my favourite age group to work with and I would love to help you out.

XO

Lara

Thank you to this beautiful family, and feature photography by www.stacielynnphotography.ca.