In Defence of Cat Naps

I’m often contacted by parents who tell me that they want to “get my child napping for longer”, they write and tell me that their child only naps for 30 or 40 minutes and that they would really like to extend this to one and a half or two hours. Unfortunately however short naps (aka ‘cat naps’) are totally normal and very common. They are usually not a problem for the child, although I can understand that they are for the parents, desperate to have some time to themselves in the day! The biggest problem however is that it is very hard to change (ie lengthen) this totally normal sleeping pattern. Thanks to the likes of Gina Ford et al our society seems to think that naps should be one or two hours long (or even longer), there is just no evidence for this though. It is not more beneficial for a child to nap for an hour or two if their body gets all they need out of 40 minutes. That’s not to say that those who do nap for a long time are abnormal, they’re not, they are just as normal as their ‘cat napping’ counterparts. All kids are different – and so are their sleep needs!

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How Long Should a Nap Be?
Naps are actually very under researched when it comes to infant and child sleep. For some reason researchers are obsessed with night sleep and the location of it, but are rarely concerned with daytime sleep. So, I am writing here from a very limited evidence based and also from experience. What we do know is that research from 2015 found that the cognitive benefits found from a baby napping occur if the nap is 30 minutes, or longer. This tells me that 30 minutes is OK as a nap length! Naps don’t necessarily have to last for a full sleep cycle (for babies and toddler we’re looking at about 40-60 minutes here) to benefit, as this research found. If we consider adult naps, we know that ‘catnaps’ can actually be more efficient and beneficial than long naps. When looking at the chart below, remember that this is for adult naps where the sleep cycle is 90 minutes long, for children these times will be even less!

So, there IS such a thing as a ‘beneficial quick nap’ and they are likely to be fine (and just a beneficial) for babies and toddlers who are natural catnappers!

Is there anything you can do to lengthen naps?
Choosing the right time, following your child’s tiredness cues, not too late and not too early. Consider whether you may be trying to get your child to nap too often. Sometimes dropping a nap can lengthen the remaining ones. I recommend that you implement a little naptime routine. First change your baby into their sleepsac, to give them a strong cue it is sleep time. Read your baby their bedtime or special naptime (always the same) story, again to signal sleep time. Play sleep inducing Alpha music for the duration of the nap. Take a nap yourself, alongside your child, cuddling up – cosleeping often results in longer naps. Use a sling to carry your baby, the close contact and movement can increase nap lengths. See my article on contact naps HERE.

Are Shorter Independent Naps a Problem?
Lots of people will say to me “if I breastfeed and hold my baby they sleep for an hour and a half, but only 45 minutes without me, so they must need an hour and a half”. Not necessarily! I liken this to swaying in a hammock with birdsong, the sun on you and a gentle breeze. Even if you weren’t tired you are likely to drop off to sleep because of the wonderful, comforting environment. I think sometimes breastfeeding and cuddling lengthens naps for this reason, not because the baby needs more! It’s likely that the 45 minutes is really what they need, they’re just lulled into having more with the wonderful comforting environment you provide!

If you have a cat napper, rest assured that you’re not alone and in all likelihood there is nothing wrong with your child’s sleep, even though other books and sleep trainers warn otherwise. The next time you doubt yourself and your child, remind yourself that there is no evidence behind their claims!

If you haven’t found my sleep book Facebook page yet, you can find it HERE. My Gentle Sleep Book is available internationally HERE and my Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters Book (for breastfed babies under 12 months) is available internationally HERE.

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Potty Problems Q&A – Part 1: Pee

Since the release of my Gentle Potty Training Book I’ve been asked many questions about specific ‘training’ problems. Hence I’ve decided to write two Q&As covering the most common. Part 1 – this piece – is about pee/wee problems and part 2 (to follow) – covers the most common poo problems.

NOTE: FOR AMERICAN/CANADIAN READERS: Nappy = Diaper!

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Before I begin this Pee Q&A I wanted to quickly cover the most common causes of problems I encounter:

  1. Starting before the child is truly ready physically and emotionally. The absolute key to the calmest, easiest potty training is to begin when the child is emotionally and physically ready. Science tells us that physical readiness tends to occur in quite a small time-frame between 24 and 30 months. This means that the child’s body is mature enough to potty train. Emotional readiness however is a different matter entirely. While some may be physiologically ready to start, they may be months away emotionally. For the easiest training you want a blend of both physical and emotional readiness. To quote from my book some will train much earlier and some much later. A gentle approach to potty training is based on the understanding that while there might be scientific norms, children are all individuals”.
  2. Delaying the start for too long. Some children train themselves, they will reach, 3, 3.5 or even 4 years of age and suddenly announce “I don’t want to wear nappies anymore!” and you’ll never look back. Some don’t though. Waiting for this miracle to occur and being blind-sided to the subtle, or not so subtle cues your child is giving you regards being ready to start can result in as much trauma as starting too soon. Preschoolers can be very stubborn and resistant to change, for some – learning to use the potty or toilet, coping with accidents and giving up on the ease of nappies is not an appealing prospect, for these children – the longer you leave it, the harder it can become. To me – being child-led means following their emotional and physical cues, not necessarily waiting it out. The two may coincide, but they may not.
  3. Not having enough confidence or realistic expectations as a parent. Ultimately – as with all parenting, potty training comes down to you. Unless you ‘wait it out’, the decision to start potty training tends to lay in your hands, even though it is child-led, because you are carefully following their cues (remember child-led is not necessarily waiting for them to announce they want to do it!). A little like deciding to start baby led weaning because your baby has been grabbing food from your plate for the last week and is just about to turn 6 months old. They’re showing you that they’re ready and you make the decision to start. If you go into the process full of fear, trepidation and doubt then in all likelihood you’re going to jinx the whole process. Why? Because your child looks to you ALL the time. They need to see that you have total faith in them, that you really believe they can do it. Even when they don’t. Potty training is a learning process for both of you. It can take weeks and even months. While most will see positive change within a week, by no means will everyone. Accidents happen and those accidents are going to be many. Accidents are important to children as they teach them 1. how it feels to pee without a nappy, 2. how long they can leave it until they go to the potty and 3. what happens when they don’t make it on time. You may think they’re not learning when they have an accident – you may see it as a sign the ‘training’ isn’t working. You’re wrong. Your child is learning so much from every accident. If you were teaching your child to ride a bike, you would expect them to fall off many, many times. You wouldn’t see the falling off as a negative though, you would trust your child (providing you were sure they were ready when you started) and encourage them through the accidents. You would talk about what they had learned when they fell off (do you need to hold on tighter? steer a bit lighter? Turn the corner quicker? Pedal slower?) and you’d encourage them to get back on the saddle. If they hadn’t mastered the art of riding a bike in a week you wouldn’t say “I’m just going to put the bike away for 6 months”. You would focus on the times when they’d ridden it successfully for a few minutes at a time and trust that they would get there. Potty training is the same. Accidents happen – lots of them and they will for some time. When they happen your child is going to look at you to see how to react. If you’re stressed, upset, anxious and despairing – or fostering a fixed mindset – that’s what they’re going to pick up on. It may be draining to spend a week or two cleaning up puddles of wee and it may feel like you’ll be doing it forever, but actually it’s a tiny snippet of time.
  4. Inconsistency. We tend to send children so many mixed messages around potty training. If we are totally led by them and start because they tell us they don’t want to wear nappies anymore we need to trust them and go with it. Not put them back in nappies or pull-ups after a few days because they’ve had too many accidents. If you’ve decided now is the time to start because your child is at an age where you know their body is mature enough and they are showing emotional signs of readiness you must stick with your decision. Again, putting them back in nappies when the accidents become too stressful, or to save hassle when you leave the house, or they go to nursery is super confusing. On the one hand you’re saying “I totally believe you can do this” and on the other you’re saying “but actually I don’t really trust you”. You need to send one consistent message, one that says “I believe in you!”. Using the baby led weaning example again; the inconsistent nappy free – nappy – nappy free – nappy approach to training is like starting off weaning because you’re certain your baby is ready, but then stopping again when they gag, throw most of the food on the floor and smear it around their face. Do you think they are ready or not? Were you not prepared for the mess enough? Do you feel they have ‘failed’ to wean because they only eat 10% of what you offer them with the remaining 90% on the floor? Would you go back to milk only for a few months? Or would you keep going, trusting that they are learning and will get it soon (soon being weeks, or perhaps even months before the floor is clean again!). Consistency is also incredibly important when it comes to daycare, many potty training issues occur as a result of inconsistency between daycare and home. Removing that inconsistency is paramount.
  5. Too much prompting. In the book I talk about too much prompting quite a lot, restricting it to once an hour at the most. Ideally though, you’ll prompt far, far less. Children need to learn what their bodies are telling them to do. They need to learn the signs of an impending pee – and how long they can leave until it’s too late. If you constantly prompt you take away that learning opportunity and the child often stops listening, not just to you, but to their body too. Here, accidents again are an important learning opportunity. In fact, I would argue strongly accidents are more important than peeing in the potty – certainly in the first few weeks. You’re trying to be child led, so be child led. Do everything you can to bite your tongue and let them learn when they need to go by restricting prompting as much as possible.
  6. Too little emotional preparation. While there is a mountain of physical preparation to do for potty training, the emotional prep is the most important. The book covers this in detail – but you’re looking at demystifying the toileting process, removing any fear or anxiety your child has beforehand (that includes working through memories of previous pain) and normalising it as much as possible. You also need to make a plan, together with your child, regarding the start and have a clear idea of what’s going to happen, how and when. In my experience, this area is often scrimped on, with less than positive results.
  7. Rushing to normality too soon. In the book I talk about needing a minimum of two days at home, preferably bare bottomed, to get potty training off to the best start. Yes, this is inconvenient, yes it’s hard work, no – not all children need to do this, but generally speaking – rushing back to normality (toddler groups, trips to the shops, full clothing etc) too soon can really set things back. Potty training is a big step in your child’s life. It deserves some time devoted to it.
  8. An uneven balance of autonomy. At some point in potty training your toddler is going to say “no”. No to using the potty or toilet, no to another day without nappies and no to another day of you talking about it. In all of my work I talk about a dance of control – times when the parent takes it and times when they hand over the reins to the child. This is one of the times when I believe the adult should steer. Why? Doesn’t overriding the child saying “no” mean you’re not being child-led? Yes, but only if you take it at face-value. If you presume that the child has made a logical, rational decision using sophisticated thought process such as hypothetical thought, and that they are saying “I’ve weighed all of this up. I don’t think I can do it. It’s stressing me out too much, I don’t believe I’m ready yet, let’s stop”, then in the nicest possible way you are giving them too much credit. We know that children aren’t capable of these sorts of thought processes until they are much older (which is why I’m firmly against the use of discipline that presumes a high level of concrete thinking in young children – such as the naughty step). In reality what the child is probably saying when they say “no” is “I want to focus on playing”, “I don’t like that you’re stressed”, “I got upset when you got angry yesterday”, “I got scared when you flushed my poo away”, “I got sad when I wee’d on my socks”. Young children live in the moment, we live in the past, present and future. When they say “no” it is often very, very different to when we say “no”. Would I carry on potty training when my child said “no”, or cried when I got the potty out? Yes, absolutely I would. I believe that’s a time when it’s best for my adult brain to take the lead, knowing what I know. What makes this gentle is that I would stay 100% compassionate and totally on my child’s side. I would share my confidence, not my doubt.

 

Pee Problem Q&A

Q: “In the first few days part what exactly do you say/do when they have an accident?”

A: Accidents are an important part of potty training. I welcome them! They teach the child so much. Don’t see them as failures. First, remind yourself of this. Your state of mind is so important. Your child will pick up on how you feel, as well as what you say. You need to be the rock of confidence during the whole process. I would help your child to know that you have zero anger or stress because of their accident, this is conveyed more in tone of voice than the words you say though. I would focus very much on the learning opportunity here “oops, you didn’t make it on time, can you see your pee on the floor? That’s what we’re trying to get into the potty” or “did you feel that the pee was about to come out? that’s your body saying ‘quick – time to go potty!'”. I would also ask if they would like to help you to clean it up too (with no pressure if they don’t).

 

Q: My son is 2.5. He was using the potty for about a week then he decided to stop altogether. Is this normal? Is there anything I can do to encourage him or do I just have to wait until he’s interested again? I offer him to wear underwear and he says no. He will sit on the potty before bath but no pee anymore.

A: Yes, it’s really normal. Usually this happens for a few common reasons: 1. the excitement has worn off, he’s realised that actually there’s more work involved than he expected and it wasn’t as fun as he imagined. 2. He became stressed by accidents (or more specifically somebody’s reaction to an accident) and wants to avoid it again, 3. You over-prompted him. Over-prompting often results in children withholding. 4. Inconsistency between home and somewhere else, or inconsistency in keeping him in pants and swapping to nappies (e.g: when you’re away from home). What I don’t know here is WHY you started. I’m presuming that you did because you felt he was physically and emotionally ready. If you had some success in the week he was out of nappies (and by some success I don’t mean no accidents – I would expect more accidents than in the potty) and you’re sure you started at the right time, then I would take the lead here and take some of the control back from him. For instance, I would offer him “pants or no pants (bare bummed/commando) today?”, but wouldn’t offer a nappy. Depending on his level of understanding/verbal ability I would also have a chat with him about growth mindset (not using that terminology obviously) and how proud you have been of him over the last week for trying to so hard, re-iterate accidents are OK, they are learning and they all happen, tell him you had them too. Usually what’s needed here is some emotional work – for yourself as well as your son!

 

Q: My daughter is almost 4 years old and she is still not interested in the potty. Physically she is ready, however nappy gives her a great deal of sense of security. How do you deal with it at this age?

A: Generally speaking there are four approaches to potty training: 1. Elimination communication (using the potty from birth with conditioned cues), 2. Early training, heaping on the rewards and with an aim to complete in a few days (think Gina Ford), 3. Training at the point of a meeting of physiological and emotional readiness (usually occuring 24-30 months, but can – and does- happen earlier or later by several months) – this is my approach, or 4. Wait it out. Wait until the child decides they no longer wants nappies and does it all on their own accord. Number four is what you’ve (consciously or subconsciously) been doing with your daughter. Usually ‘wait it out’ works really well. On average, most children will potty train themselves around 3.5yrs with this approach and most of the time it is an easy and painless process. The biggest downside of this approach however is that some children become emotionally reliant on nappies and can be incredibly stubborn when it comes to parting with them. It’s not unheard of to find five or six year olds still in nappies. Not such an issue if you home-educate, but not particularly desirable if you go the mainstream school route. At four, your daughter is categorically ready physically – IF there are no medical conditions affecting her ability. Similarly certain special educational needs – e.g Autism/Aspergers and Sensory Processing Disorder. I think my first point of call would be to meet with your family doctor to rule any of these out – or to get specialist advice if any apply. If there are no intervening needs, then you’re looking at working with your daughter on an emotional level, lots of preparation: conversations, books, videos and so on. What is the underlying reason behind her wanting to stay in her nappy? Is there anxiety? Does she feel she doesn’t have enough control over other areas of her life? Has she recently had a new sibling or are you expecting (and babies who wear nappies get more attention in your house!). After this stage then you’re looking at motivation. For me, 99.9% of potty training should be reward free. If the child is emotionally and physically ready, then rewards are not only unnecessary, but can be counter-productive. For your daughter however, the late start may require some extrinsic motivation – or a dangled carrot to encourage her to start. I would also consider the impact of consequences on her wearing a nappy – the natural consequence, is that if you’re busy and can’t change her, then she has to sit in a dirty nappy. She may not like that (although many children this age aren’t bothered!), logically, then the solution here is for her to take some autonomy towards cleaning herself up. “If you really want to wear nappies, that’s OK, but as you’re older now I think you’re ready to clean up after yourself when you’ve used your nappy and that would really help me out”. Switch to pull-ups and get her a little ‘cleaning up kit’ consisting of wipes and nappy bags and ask her to take down the nappy and wipe and then pop the nappy in the nappy bag and put a new one on herself – as much as possible independently. Fostering her independence this way is great preparation for when she does start to use the potty (or toilet as more often happens at this age) and also, her increased involvement and taking charge of her own toileting needs means it quickly becomes a bit of an unwanted chore for her, which can inspire potty/toilet using a bit quicker than solely ‘waiting it out’.

 

Q: How do you get a child to sit and wait for longer than 30 seconds on a potty?

A:  To answer this I’m going to back-track a little. First, why is the child on the potty for so long with nothing happening? Have they chosen to sit on it themselves? If they have then you tend to find there is action pretty quickly. If you’re prompting then it’s quite possible that they don’t really need to go. So – pulling back the prompting a bit can really help. You could have a little basket of books or toys next to the potty. I don’t usually recommend this as it can take away focus from the what the child is doing, but for some children it has the opposite impact and helps them to focus. A little like a fidget toy helps a child with ADHD. Bubbles are a great toy here, because they help the sphincters (particularly anal) to open, those actually make toileting easier.

 

Q: Is there anything you can do to prevent the leave-it-to-the-last-second and run approach (which sometimes causes accidents because it’s too far) especially at nursery?

A: Not really. I’m 41 and I still do this sometimes! The world is a fascinating and fun place for young children. Going to the toilet is something that takes them away from this engagement with the world. It’s understandable they leave it until the very last minute. Actually, the accidents that happen here are really important, because – in time – they teach the child how long they can leave it for before they go. The difference between myself and your child is that – at 41 – I’ve learned what my “point of no return is” and I’m very reliable at predicting it. I know when I can read one more page, or watch to the advert break and NOT wet myself, because of all the practice I had when I was a kid. This is something that will absolutely come in time. Until then, use those accidents as a learning opportunity “Oh no, you were so engrossed in your puzzle, could you feel your body telling you that your wee was urgent?” “next time, do you think you could recognise that feeling and know that you can’t wait anymore?”

 

Q: How do you deal with a regression? My son had mastered potty training and then his baby sister was born very early and this really knocked him. 4 months on he’s still doing poos and wees in his pants. I’ve tried the method that help us to start with and trying to remain positive but nothing it working. Please help!

A: First – reset your expectations. Children have accidents for months and YEARS after potty training. There is a bit of an incorrect assumption in our society that once they’re done – that’s it, no more accidents, actually – that rarely happens. The learning carries on for months and years after the initial ‘training’ period and with that learning comes mistakes. Regression after a new baby is common, it can and does knock a toddler/preschooler for six, their world is changed over night and it literally pulls the rug from under their feet. I’m sure you know this. Ultimately the key here is to be compassionate and empathic towards how your son is feeling. He’s busy dealing with feelings of anger, grief, sadness, confusion etc.. it’s no wonder his attention has shifted away from potty training. Sometimes wetting and soiling happen deliberately, in this instance it’s almost always a cry for attention (actually it is in most cases) – what does your son need? Simply, you. The accidents draw your attention solely to him for a few minutes. Any attention is better than no attention. The answer to this is to build in one-to-one time with him away from the baby – preferably not with the baby in the same building. Feed and run and take him to the park for half an hour a day leaving your baby with your partner/parents/friend. Make sure you do his bedtime each day, give him a bath and read him a story while your baby is elsewhere in the house. In terms of how to react when the accidents happen – you’re doing fine here. Stay calm, stay compassionate and stay consistent – don’t under any circumstances threaten putting him back in nappies. This will pass!

 

Q: I have a 5 year old who is still not waking for a wee at night, he’s in pull ups but went dry in the day at 2.5years. Is there anything I can do or is night time control hormonally led?

A: Night-time toilet training is pretty different to training in the daytime. There are several physiological development stages that have to happen first (not just vasopressin secretion – the hormone that controls nocturnal urinary output). Usually night-time dryness happens 6-12 months after daytime dryness, but it can take much longer. Most children will be dry at night at either three or four years of age, however that doesn’t mean they won’t have accidents, bed-wetting is common and normal until at least seven years of age. While 90% of five year olds are out of nappies at night, that does mean that 10% are still totally reliant on them. One in ten really is not a small number. At this point, your son is clearly in the ten percent and I wouldn’t be rushing to change this. This is one potty-training instance when I do firmly believe in ‘wait it out’.

 

Q: I have been potty training my 3 year old slowly for several months with great success at home . He’s completely accident free at home & out and about but will not use the potty or toilet at Nursery or preschool. We’ve had to revert to pull ups in daycare. If he wears a pull up at home, he treats it like pants but at Nursery he uses it as a nappy! Nursery have tried putting him on potty every 30 mins (I think this annoyed him!) and we’ve taken his own potty in to no avail. It’s frustrating as we know he’s independent at home.

A: I have one word for you – consistency. When you’re potty training over different settings (whether that’s home and daycare, or two different parental homes), it is VITAL that all settings about potty training in the same way. The accidents are happening at nursery and preschool, therefore I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that nursery and preschool are the problem. First off, I really advise you ditch the pull-ups, they’re confusing your son and undermine your belief in him which can dent his confidence (do you trust him in pants, or not?). Next, you really need to have some proper conversations with the nursery/preschool staff. If he has a key worker then even better. They are prompting him way too much – over-prompting is one of the biggest causes of pee accidents (and withholding). Over-prompting is irritating and overrides your son’s listening to his body. He’s clearly switched off and their prompting is causing him to not only not listen to them, but also not listen to his body. At a maximum they should prompt hourly, but preferably less. A big problem that occurs with nursery/daycare is access to the toilets/potties. Does he have to go and get a member of staff to take him? Are they always readily available? Or are they sometimes pre-occupied and expect him to wait? Most kids this age leave going until the last minute, so waiting is not an option. Are the staff approachable enough? To introverted kids, having to find a staff member to take them to the loo is a problem in itself. Ideally he will be able to take himself, however that brings new problems – is it easy to get there? Is it scary in any way? Does he know exactly where everything is? Can he reach it all? These are the questions I’d ask these settings. I would also agree on an approach that is completely consistent with what you’re doing at home, e.g: if you don’t praise/give stickers at home – they shouldn’t do either.

 

Q: Why is my son is dry with no pants but after 3 months potty training I still can’t get him in pants?

A: I always advise spending a couple of days bare-bottomed, but then trying to get into pants ASAP. For children who are potty training bare-bottomed only, it can be really hard to get them into pants. Close fitting pants (particularly briefs) can give the sensation of wearing a nappy, so it’s not uncommon for kids who have been bare-bottomed trained for quite some time to regress and have lots of accidents when they are put into them. The answers here are either 1. stick it out until they learn and remember accidents are all good – they are learning opportunities!, 2. switch to a style of pants that are less nappy like (hipster trunks for instance) or 3. embrace commando life. I don’t know if your son is just flat-out refusing to wear pants, or if he’s having accidents when he wears them. If it’s the former than those same three points apply. One of my sons was commando under trousers for about 6 months before we could get him into pants. No big deal!

 

Q: We started about a week and a half ago, after reading your wonderful book! My little boy is almost 2. He’s happy to use the potty or toilet if he’s already started to go, but he gets upset/cross if we encourage him to go before the last minute/during dash. 

A: Your son is getting frustrated with you, because he wants more control over the process. On the one hand you’re encouraging him to listen to his body’s cues and go when he needs to go and on the other you’re encouraging him to go before he feels he’s ready. Now – you and I know that he needs to head to the potty before the last minute dash, but he doesn’t yet. He currently thinks he’s going at the right time – when he REALLY feels he needs to go. In time, he will learn that actually he needs to go a little sooner than waiting for that last minute. He’ll learn the subtleties of listening for that gently ringing bell, rather than waiting for the blaring siren. That is something he has to learn for himself though. It sounds like he’s doing really well and as the weeks and months pass you’ll find he’ll take himself off a little (and I mean a little!) sooner each time. Over-prompting can really backfire though, so try to bite your tongue if you can and show your son a little more trust and faith.

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In summary, the answer to most potty training problems, especially pee related, can be summed up by focusing on three words. Three words that parents need to have bucket loads of during the process, however long it takes.

Confidence, Consistency, Compassion

 

For more on potty training – see my Gentle Potty Training book, out now in the UK, ROI, Australia and New Zealand and published in 2018 in the USA and Canada (under the title ‘Ready, Steady, Go’).

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Why Tantrums are Harder for Toddlers than Parents!

A hard knot of tension forms in the pit of your stomach as you feel your patience tested to the limit. You try to catch your breath and slow it down, attempting to stem the rising hot crescendo of anger as it bubbles inside you, scared that you will erupt in public. As disapproving eyes stare at you, a sense of shame begins to permeate throughout your body, like a heavy, cold slithering snake, filling every part of your being. Finally, follows an air of helplessness and uselessness, as you despair at your inability to control the situation.
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These feelings are doubtless all too familiar among parents of one to three-year olds. Tantrums behind closed doors are difficult enough to handle, but ones in public bring about a special degree of stress and anxiety. It’s little wonder that toddlerhood is referred to as “the terrible twos”, or “the troublesome threes”.
Parents are taught to ignore or punish their toddler’s bad behavior and pile on the praise and rewards when they are good. Toddlers are viewed as mini Machiavellian manipulators, scheming and plotting to get their own way, by grinding their parents down with their unruly behavior. Many parenting experts view toddlers as the enemy in a battle of wills that parents should seek to win at all costs, never backing down to the attention seeking behavior that is a tantrum. In today’s society, authoritarian discipline rules and at its heart is the belief that toddlers deliberately misbehave to get what they want. What if I told you however, that this sweeping assumption couldn’t be further from the truth? While the description that I started this piece with may chime with your own experiences, I wasn’t writing about parents’ emotions, but those belonging to toddlers. You see tantrums are just difficult for parents to navigate, toddlers feel just as bad, if not worse.
Why is it so rare that mainstream discipline methods consider how children feel? Most poor behavior is chalked down to manipulation, selfishness, deliberate naughtiness and attention seeking. The motivation behind the difficult behavior is always considered to be unpleasant and wrong. Solutions all seek to make the child feel bad about their undesirable behavior, whether that’s through punishing or shaming them, removing them from our loving attention (naughty steps and time-out rule here) or missing out on a reward or praise when they fail to act in the desired ‘good’ way. Parents of toddlers frequently pour over child-raising manuals and implement the ‘carrot and stick’
techniques beloved by so many. These same parents are frequently left to wonder why the discipline methods endorsed don’t have the same instant and seemingly permanent positive results shown on parenting TV programmes. The answer is simple – because none of these methods consider how the child feels. If you want to change the way children behave, you must start with changing how they feel!
A child who feels sad, angry, unloved or struggling with a lack of autonomy is a ticking time-bomb. If their feelings aren’t diffused, with parental help, they are going to explode (aka – a tantrum) – and when they do, the answer to long-term, effective discipline, is to support them to safely release these emotions in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and loved. Anything else is doomed to failure from the offset.
One simple way to implement more effective discipline, is to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What” the next time your toddler tantrums. WHY are they doing this? (all behavior has a trigger – tiredness, hunger, invasion of personal space, lack of parental attention, over-stimulation and so on), HOW are they feeling? (almost always the answer here is “pretty bad”) and WHAT do you hope to gain from disciplining them? (to teach them to respect others and their belongings and to behave in a more societally acceptable way most likely). Asking Why, How, What, predisposes parents to empathise with their children. It gets them on the same team, understanding that actually – tantrums are pretty rough for both adult and child. Most importantly it helps parents, from this position of team-work, to look for the cause of the difficult behavior, to extinguish, rather than just superficially palliate it, as most mainstream discipline methods do.
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Understanding how children feel when they misbehave helps parents to select the most effective discipline methods, whether the child is eighteen months, or eighteen years, old. Most importantly though, taking a position of empathy and understanding towards children aids emotional connection, which in turn tends to dramatically reduce any difficult behavior naturally, without having to enforce any discipline methods at all. Not only is this approach the most effective and in the best interests of the child, it tends to be the easiest for the parent too.
Sarah
If you would like to learn more about coping with tricky behavior in a way that is sensitive and respectful to your children (and most importantly, effective!), check out my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia/NZ and rest of the world in paperback, kindle and audiobook – now!
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8 Ways to Encourage Better Baby & Toddler Sleep – Without Sleep Training

When you have a poor sleeper, it can often seem as if every other child in the world is sleeping better than yours. In truth, babies and toddlers who go to sleep easily and sleep through the night are in a very small minority. Sleep is unpredictable in the early years, rather than following a constant, positive upwards trajectory, it frequently dips and gets worse (see HERE for more). The sad reality, is that ‘good sleep’ (aka sleeping through the night reliably) often doesn’t appear until the third year of life. No wonder then so many exhausted parents, trying to juggle the reality of infant sleep while living in the modern industrialised world (the two are at great odds with each other), turn to sleep training to try to fix their children.

The difficulty here is in this desire to fix something that isn’t actually broken. Sleep training tends to punish babies and toddlers for problems that don’t belong to them. They are left to cry, put down while they still need a hug, denied milk when they are hungry and ignored when they most need comfort. I don’t actually believe any parent wants this for their children, yet their exhaustion leaves them with no other choice. Or so they think. There are in fact, many ways to gently improve infant sleep that don’t involve any sleep training at all. Here are eight of them:

 

  1. Sleep Friendly Lighting

A quick google image search for “baby nightlight” returns many beautifully designed, attractive lamps and light shows. Ninety nine percent of these inhibit sleep. Many parents don’t realise that lighting is a key influence on sleep. Light that is on the blue colour spectrum  inhibits the hormone of sleep, melatonin, and tricks the body into thinking it is daytime and thus time to be awake. It isn’t just obviously blue light that is an issue though. Most white light is actually very blue, especially energy-saving lightbulbs and halogen spotlights. So too is light that looks green, blue, purple and pink. Which coincidentally tend to be the colours used in most child night lights. Research has shown that for light to be non-inhibiting it needs to contain very low levels of blue light. Naturally, our ancestors would have lit their nights with fire and candles, both sitting on the red colour spectrum. We can replicate this effect by using red light at night. If you’re not keen on red light (many toddlers associate red with monsters, or danger, and it is quite hard to read a bedtime story in red light) then consider investing in a Lumie Bedbug, a world first nightlight that features very low levels of blue light, while still producing a white/peach coloured glow. The Bedbug also features a special sunset mode, dimming gently over a period of 15 minutes, which is perfect for toddlers and older children. The cuteness of the little bug is a further winning feature, along with its sleep promoting properties.

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2. Bedroom Temperature

Our modern homes tend to be well insulated, retaining heat and saving us money on our fuel bills. Central heating quickly and efficiently heats our homes too. This can and does cause a problem with sleep. The optimal room temperature range for the best sleep is 15-18C, or 60-65F. Unlike most infant room thermometers indicate, 18C/65F isn’t the best temperature for sleep – it’s at the very top end of the optimal range! Trying to cool the bedroom to somewhere in this optimal range can really help sleep. If you have air-conditioning and are in a hot country, you’re not going to get this low obviously, but turning the AC down a degree or two is worth thinking about. This doesn’t mean the child should be cold at night. The aim is “warm body, cool room”. More on this later!

3. Humidity

Temperature aside, air conditioning and central heating can cause trouble with sleep in another way. Playing havoc with room humidity. Anything that dries the sleeping environment can mean that the child wakes more for milk. Where an adult may take a glass of water to bed to place next to their bed, babies and toddlers tend to wake and cry for milk if they have a dry mouth. This doesn’t mean that fixing the humidity will stop the child from needing to feed at night, far from it, but it will remove those extra humidity related feeds. This tends to be more of an issue for children who are mouth breathers, sleeping with their mouths open. The best humidity for sleep is around 30-50%. If you use air-conditioning or central heating, you may consider adding a humidifier to the room.

4. Bedding

Remember in point three, we discussed “cool room, warm body”? This is where what you dress your child comes in. Sometimes adding an extra layer of clothing, such as a long sleeve vest, or upping the tog rating of a sleepsac can really help sleep. Generally speaking, in the optimal room temperature zone, you’re looking at 2-3 togs. While sleepsacs can help to keep kids cozy, by avoiding loose blankets and duvets that fall off the bed (I don’t recommend either under 4years), they can also inhibit sleep when the child rolls over and gets caught up in the huge amount of extra fabric around their legs. Some children also really hate having their feet covered by anything, unsurprisingly since we tend to sleep better with the ability to have our feet exposed. For this reason, I always recommend sleepsacs that have separate legs and uncovered feet, like these, or these (tip: leave the booties off!).

5. Music

If you sing your baby to sleep, or use a mobile, or stuffed animal that plays music for fifteen or twenty minutes at bedtime, you could be causing your child to wake more. Why? Babies and toddlers have very short sleep cycles, lasting for 40-60 minutes depending on age. At the end of this sleep cycle, one of three things may happen. 1. They move straight into a new sleep cycle, 2. They wake fully and need your help to start a new cycle, or 3. They rouse slightly, but not fully, and if all is well they start a new cycle independently. Number three is where it is important to consider any constants in the room. If a child goes to sleep with music, that music needs to be present ALL NIGHT. At the end of a sleep cycle, that slightly rousing child needs to hear the same sounds as when they went to sleep, if they don’t, then the sharp change in environment may cause them to wake fully and need your help. Some companies try to get around this by designing noise and motion activated music players. These rarely work and I don’t recommend them. Because they ‘catch’ the child too late, when they are already roused and moving/crying. They have already woken properly by the time the music cuts in again. If you sing your child to sleep, consider recording yourself and playing your recording on loop all night, or consider playing a special alpha music for children recording all night. Alpha music for children is recorded to a resting pulse rate of 60 beats per minutes and includes elements of white noise, heartbeats and simple repetitive music, which aid sleep far more effectively than standard ‘sleepy’ music. This is mine (it’s on iTunes too). Pop the music on during the bedtime routine and turn it off the next morning. If you have an older child (2yrs plus), who sleeps through, but the issue is more getting them to sleep independently at the start of the night, then consider a children’s meditation recording instead. This is mine (also on iTunes)

6. Scent

This follows on from point five. The smell in the world that relaxes your child the most is the smell of you. If you could bottle your smell and spray it around your child’s bedroom it would surely comfort them. Many people pop muslins in their tops to absorb their scent and then leave the muslin with the child, or one of their t-shirts or pyjama tops. This can work well for some, but some – most – need more. To get more, you need to condition a smell. ie. you need to take a scent and make it yours. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to select an aromatherapy oil that you like (and is safe to use around babies and children). Lavender and chamomile are particularly good for sleep, blended together. Pop some of this oil on as scent/perfume each day for a month or so and then diffuse it in an aromatherapy diffuser in the room your child sleeps in for an hour or two before bedtime. You can get some diffusers that double up as humidifiers and red night lights too, like this one. Note, this is only recommended once your baby is at least 12 weeks of age, before this it’s best to keep any scent that isn’t you away.

7. A Consistent Bedtime Routine

Scientists unanimously agree. If there is one thing that has the biggest impact on child sleep, it is a consistent bedtime routine. While a similar bedtime each night is important for setting the child’s circadian rhythm (body clock), what is more important is doing the same thing in the same order each and every night. For instance a bath, followed by a massage, followed by a story, followed by a breastfeed or bottle. Try to keep the bedtime routine calm and play free (it is preparing for sleep after all!), but before you start the bedtime routine, try to fit in at least 30 minutes of playtime, especially if you work or have more than one child. Taking time to reconnect before bedtime starts has a great positive impact on sleep. Bedtime itself is important, particularly for toddlers and older children. In western culture we seem to have an obsession with a 7pm bedtime, however research suggests that we’re probably putting our children to bed too soon. A more biologically appropriate bedtime is around the 7:45-8:15pm zone (the time to aim for the child to be asleep, not to start the bedtime routine). Putting a child to bed before their body is chemically ready to sleep can result in bedtime resistance, more night waking and earlier mornings.

8. Bedtime Snacks

For older babies (well established on solids – ie eating 3 meals a day for a couple of months or more) and toddlers, introducing a bedtime snack can help sleep. Aim for the snack just before the bedtime routine starts, around an hour before the child goes to sleep. Bedtime snacks can not only fill up tummies that may be hungry, but they can also help from a chemical point of view. Incorporating a snack that contains tryptophan, an amino acid that influences the production of sleep hormones, is a great choice. Child friendly sources of tryptophan include cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds and wholemeal/wholewheat bread. My favourite bedtime snack is almond butter on wholewheat toast, with a few banana slices on top.

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Following these eight tips may not magically encourage your child to sleep through the night, but hopefully they should have a positive impact, without the need to sleep train.

If you’re interested in more gentle solutions to child sleep issues, check out my Gentle Sleep Book (for 0-5yrs) and Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters (specifically for 0-12mth breastfed babies). You can also learn more on my Sleep Facebook Page, where I run monthly Q&A sessions.

Sarah

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The Three Biggest Mistakes Parents Make When Disciplining Children

Parenting is hard work. Even when everything is going well. Parenting when it isn’t, can sometimes feel impossible. Parents who have committed to following a more mindful, gentle style of parenting can often be hit with ‘discipline burn-out’. Or as I call them the “I can’t take any bloody more” moments. You know the moments; where you wonder why you ever had kids, the ones were you think about dropping everything and running away to join the circus – child-free and the ones where you wonder why in the hell you ever thought you would be a good parent. These are the moments where parents chuck in the gentle towel and resort to yelling, punishing, shaming and everything else they swore they wouldn’t do and feel bad for when they do. For anyone reading who is just about at that level, or already there – here are three points to read and keep in mind, to keep yourself on the gentle path.

  1. Over-Estimating Children

Sometimes the most common reason why kids misbehave and discipline doesn’t seem to be working, is because the behavior expected is just not in-line with what is appropriate for a child of a certain age. It’s just not reasonable to expect toddlers to not tantrum, a three year old to not lose their temper and hit, kick or bite a baby sibling, a four year old to share all the time, a seven year old to keep their room tidy and a teenager to never yell, sulk or slam doors. If you expect any of these you’re doomed to fail from the off. That doesn’t meant these behaviors are OK, or acceptable. They aren’t. But kids aren’t adults and actually adults aren’t that great either. All adults have off days, days when they’re rude, days when they lack impulse control, days where they say something unkind, days when they sulk, days when they can’t be bothered to tidy. It’s just not realistic to expect kids to never have off days. It’s even more unrealistic to expect to be able to make them behave in the same way an adult behaves. Because they don’t have the same level of brain development as an adult. Lower the bar a little. Understand that your kid isn’t misbehaving deliberately, they’re just doing the best that they can with the level of neurological development that is appropriate to their age.

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2. The Fix-It Mentality

Understandably parents want to solve behavior concerns. They want to be able to stop their baby throwing food from their highchair and their toddler from  touching the expensive ornaments on the fireplace. They search for ways to stop their three year old from throwing objects in the house, stop their four and six year old siblings fighting and stop their teen from sulking. Any failure to extinguish these behaviors is seen as an ineffective discipline method. We need to move away from the ‘fix it’ desire. Sometimes, in fact a lot of times, behavior can’t be fixed. It’s not like diagnosing an electrical fault, changing a fuse – and bingo, problem solved. We’re talking mini people here, not wiring. Human behavior, especially that of the little kind, is grey – not black and white. It would be nice to tidy up everything and fix behaviors, shutting away away in a locked drawer forever but real life doesn’t work like that – it’s complicated and messy. Change the narrative – don’t think “how can I fix this?”, but “Am I being realistic expecting this to stop right now? Can I use my adult brain and divert it, rather than fix it?”.

Shifting from a ‘fix it’ to a ‘divert it and use my adult brain’ mentality makes you look at things differently. The baby throwing food from the highchair can’t be fixed, a better solution would be to ditch the highchair and sit them on a mess mat on the floor. The toddler touching precious ornaments can’t be fixed. A better solution is to put the ornaments out of reach or in a locked cupboard until the child is older, with developed impulse control. Switch from fixing to diverting and using your adult brain to bypass the situation, when discipline just doesn’t seem to be working.

 

3. Taking Supposed Failures Personally

Let’s clear this one up right now. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Everybody messes up. Nobody is naturally calm at all times. Nobody has endless levels of patience. We all mess up. Stop taking everything so personally. Most of the time, this isn’t about you. It’s not about how you act, or how you’ve raised your child, or which method of discipline you choose. It just is. Most of the time, it’s the luck of the draw, with a bit of biology thrown in.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an authoritarian parent, hot on punishment and reward, or a gentle parent, focused on connection and empathy. Your kid is going to misbehave. Because that’s what they do, because – see point one. You’re in this for the long haul. What you’re doing now, in honesty, won’t have a huge impact on how your kid behaves today, or tomorrow, or next week. You’re parenting for results you’ll see in the next twenty to thirty years. While that lack of instant gratification sucks, it doesn’t mean that your effort is in vain and it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t working.

The other problem here, aside from feeling demoralised and ready to throw your gentle parenting manual in the fire, is that this self-blame is poisonous. It eats away at you, gnawing at your confidence with the jaws of self-doubt and blame. When you allow these feelings to grow, you treat yourself badly and when you treat yourself badly your temper and tolerance get shorter. The result? You become the parent you’re not proud of and that’s what your kids will copy. For the best discipline results you must work on your confidence and well-being, because in those years of delayed results, they are key.

 

How do you dig yourself out of a discipline rut? My favourite solution is to take a parenting break. I don’t mean getting away from my kids (though if you can do it and you want to – then go for it!), I mean I try to stop thinking about it. Switch the parenting books for chick lit, thriller, drama – or whatever floats your boat. Take a social media break, or at least a break from parenting related social media (and especially avoid any ‘perfect parent’ pages or Instagram streams, you know the ones that make you feel inadequate. Stop analysing what you’re doing and saying around your kids for a few days, let things slide a little, ignore the behavior that’s really bugging you and try to just have fun again as a family. Then return to everything when you feel more relaxed and recharged, but remember: lower the bar, stop trying to fix everything and stop taking it all so personally!

Sarah

If you liked this article, check out my new Gentle Discipline book – for more on changing the way you – as well as your child – behave (hint, it’s all about understanding and shaping, rather than fixing and instantly changing!)

gentlediscipline

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The Rollercoaster of Real Baby Sleep

I cannot tell you how many times I hear the words “s/he slept so well between 10 and 16 weeks, we were getting five, six, even seven hour stretches in the crib/bassinet/basket and s/he would settle back to sleep easily and quickly after a feed. Things started to go wrong at around four months, I don’t what we did wrong, s/he was such as good sleeper, but since then it’s all been downhill. I just don’t understand”.

We (‘we’ meaning society) seem to think that baby sleep is linear. By that I mean we seem to think that it gets better as babies grow older. Or at least we believe it is static, ie. it won’t get worse again. The thing is, it’s not linear (certainly not in an upwards trajectory) and it’s not static. It goes up and down (mostly down in the first year). This is entirely normal and very, very common (that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong if your baby’s sleep got better and better, you’re just in the lucky minority!).

This chart is far more representative of what happens sleep wise in the first 18 months. Yes it is depressing, but it’s realistic and once you know that something is totally normal, not your fault and most importantly *not permanent* it is so much easier to relax a little.

chart

As it happens, 3 months is the peak of sleep in the first year, that means it’s as good as it gets. There is a very, very high likelihood that your baby will sleep the best they are going to sleep until their first birthday (and later) around the age of about 3 months. It’s really not uncommon for 3 months to be happy to be put down, to only wake once or twice in the night and to go to sleep easily after a quick feed/cuddle.

Then 4 and 5mths happen, they’re not fun months. You get lulled into a false sense of security at 3mths, then suddenly your baby is waking every hour, won’t be put down and is awake for an hour or more refusing to go back to sleep. This is normal development, it is temporary and you didn’t do anything wrong! You also don’t need to do anything to change it, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t be scared of bad habits and especially don’t consider sleep training. It’s temporary!

You often get a blissful little blip of better sleep around 5-6mths, then just when you think “finally, it’s getting a bit better”, bam, thinks get worse again, usually not as bad as they were at 4mths, but still far worse than you’d hope.

7-8/9mths are often months that promise hope, with any luck you’ll be back somewhere to where you were around 3mths (but probably not as good), but then – oh my goodness – 8-10mths hits. This is the worst sleep gets in the whole of the first year. At this age 84% of babies are waking (and feeding) regularly at night. Who would have thought that your baby would sleep significantly worse at 10mths than they did at 3?!!

Thankfully from around 11mths things start to improve again, fairly steadily for the next 6mths or so (although not the golden heyday of 3mths!). You can still expect nightwaking and night feeds at this age though.

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I didn’t draw the rest of the chart, as it’s a bit depressing, but when can you expect ‘good’ sleep fairly reliably? somewhere between 2-3yrs of age (there is a common dip at about 2.5yrs however). That’s a *lot* later than most people think and certainly a lot later than most professionals advise, but it’s the reality, it’s just such a shame that we’ve lost touch with reality when it comes to infant sleep! The secret to all of this is you – what you can do to stay calm, rested and able to cope with this normal sleep pattern. Having realistic expectations is a huge start.

 

For more on baby and child sleep – see my Gentle Sleep Book.

Sarah

 

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How to Gently Wean from a Dummy/Pacifier

I’m commonly asked for help and advice surrounding pacifiers (I’ll use this term as this is the most used around the world). Pacifiers can be a Godsend to some parents and a nightmare to others.

If you’re currently pregnant and reading, my advice in general would be to try to avoid using a pacifier if possible, but if you do use one then to try to wean your baby from it by six months of age if possible. This avoids having to specifically use some form of weaning as the child gets older. Pre six months pacifiers can work well to improve the sleep of fractious babies, particularly the initial falling to sleep phase. Post six months I find that they often become increasingly problematic when it comes to sleep and are the cause of many sleep issues. If the baby can keep the pacifier in their mouth all night, or they are able to find it and – most importantly – put it back in themselves without parental help as soon as they wake, then sleep is usually not negatively affected, in fact it can be really helped. In reality however these two points rarely apply to most babies, or even toddlers.

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My tips to wean from the pacifier are as follows:

1. Only ever give a pacifier to your child if they are very upset and you cannot calm them down any other way (including feeding). If they are calm do not offer it to them. Once the baby (or toddler) is calm remove the pacifier ASAP.

2. Once you have followed point one for a week or two and your child has become accustomed to settling with other methods, select either days or nights to wean the pacifier. I would always suggest starting with daytime naps initially as this is usually easier than nighttime and you will usually be less tired and desperate too.

3. At the selected sleep time allow your child to have the pacifier if they are crying and not settling in any other way. Once your child has been asleep for ten minutes gently remove the pacifier from their mouth. If they start to cry reinsert it and try again in another 10 minutes.

4. Once you are able to remove the pacifier successfully after 10 minutes (which may take several days), move on to removing it after five minutes.

5. Once step four goes well, try to remove the pacifier after a minute or two of your child falling asleep.

6. Once step five goes well, aim to remove the pacifier at the point between your baby relaxing deeply and falling asleep.

7. Once your have achieved point six for a couple of days you should be able to soothe your child to sleep without the pacifier.

Remember – you are doing these steps for either daytime naps OR night sleep, not both, initially.

Once you have successfully removed the pacifier for naps, progress onto following the same steps for night sleep (following the points for each waking).

Usually it is possible to wean from the pacifier gently and completely over a four week period. At this point remove all pacifiers from your house and change bag so as not to confuse or upset your child if he or she sees them.

p.s: It is always good to introduce other cues to help your child to calm, particularly if you are removing one. Here I would suggest calm, rhythmical music, such as my Gentle Sleep Music, a calming scent in the room, such as lavender, and using a small very soft and sensory blanket to hold around or against the baby. I would also softly speak key words repeatedly while the child falls asleep (e.g “close your eyes little sleepyhead, it’s time for sleep and time for bed”).

Remember though, if the pacifier is not negatively affecting your child’s sleep, dental and speech issues aside, I see no reason to rush weaning. Some children really do benefit from the extra comfort that they provide for longer.

 

Sarah

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Why it’s OK to NOT be a Perfect Parent!

I am the first person to admit that I make mistakes as a mother, lots of them. I am absolutely not perfect, far from it. It is really important to me that people understand this. I have always been uncomfortable being referred to as a ‘parenting expert’ (although the term is necessary for SEO/marketing/PR), because an expert to me is somebody who gets things right most of the time and rarely slips up. Although I find experts inspirational, I don’t view them as ‘real people’ and often they can de-motivate me, when I think “I could never be as amazing as they are”. I don’t want people to look at me and think that I don’t make mistakes, because I do. Everybody does. Perfection just doesn’t exist, real does.

Stressed mother with child
What does a real parent do? They try their best, but there are always times when they wish they had done better, times they slip up, lose their temper and act in ways towards their children that they are not proud of. There are two paths real parents can take and it is these paths that matter more than their mistakes. They can either ignore their flaws, become blinded to them and blame their sometimes ineffective parenting on their children. Or, they can accept their flaws, forgive themselves and learn from them. Teaching their children humility and apology. The latter is the parent I aspire to be and the one that is most beneficial to children.

If you aim to be perfect, you will fail. The pressure you place upon yourself will be too much. One day you will slip up and you will struggle far too much with your guilt. It is better to aim to be ‘good enough’. I have previously written about my 70/30 ratio HERE, in my book it’s OK to be proud of seventy percent of your parenting and feel that thirty percent could be improved upon – so long as you do try to improve it.

Not only are parental slip-ups inevitable, they are also incredibly important. Because if you don’t make mistakes, how will your children learn how to react when they make one? We spend our lives teaching our children, mostly through modelling appropriate behaviour to them. When you make a mistake, when you yell at your child, lose your patience with them and snap at them, they learn that ‘perfect’ is not a goal to aim for, they learn it’s OK to make mistakes and most importantly of all – they learn how to rectify them. When you lose it with your child and you apologise to them, explaining why you acted in a certain way and attempting to rectify the damage, you teach them an incredibly important lesson. How to apologise and make things right. If you don’t make mistakes, you deprive them of this important life lesson!

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This doesn’t mean that it’s OK to mess up in a big way everyday, this is what my 70/30 ratio is all about. You need to strive to do your best, but recognise that sometimes your best is enough, even when you don’t feel that it is.

For more on fighting your own parental demons, rectifying your mistakes and controlling your temper, see my new Gentle Discipline Book – out now in the UK and coming soon in the USA and Canada,. 

 

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How to Praise Your Children in a Gentle and Effective Way

Praise is a controversial topic in Gentle Parenting circles. Many mistakenly think that gentle parents never praise their children and eschew any attempt to show children that we are proud of them. In fact, this is simply not true. Praise can and does form a role in Gentle Parenting, however it looks different to the praise that most people know and use.

So, what’s the problem with praise? Surely everybody likes to be praised? Doesn’t it help us to feel good and appreciated? Not, so. Research actually shows that certain types of praise undermine intrinsic motivation, that is it can make a child less likely to repeat a behaviour (that they have been praised for) because they want to. This is because praise works on raising extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation just means that children behave for external reasons – ie to receive praise, it doesn’t mean that the children are behaving in a certain way because it feels good, or because they want to. The more we extrinsically motivate children, the more we risk undermining their natural desire to want to help and ‘do good’ and creating ‘praise junkies’, children who only ‘do good’ to receive verbal rewards. Damaging intrinsic motivation is not the only problem with praise though. Research also shows that certain praise can damage children’s self-esteem. This may sound bizarre, surely praising helps children to feel better about themselves? Actually, it doesn’t. It can actually cause them to struggle when they don’t receive praise, doubting their capabilities.

Does this mean praise is strictly taboo in Gentle Parenting? No, it doesn’t. However praise should be used carefully and mindfully. There are certain ways to praise that not only avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, but genuinely help children to feel good. Let’s look at some.

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1. Praise should be specific
Much of the praise children receive is unspecific and insincere. ‘Good boy’, ‘Well done’, ‘You did it’, ‘Clever girl’. Praise in this manner is actually dismissive. It shows the child that you weren’t really looking at what they did. It is akin to praising a dog, it may work for a dog who doesn’t have the same depth of thought as a human, but humans need more. If you are pleased with your child, tell them exactly what for. “I saw you give the ball to the little boy because he was sad he had nothing to play with. I felt really proud of you for being so kind”. Hopefully you can see why that is so much more preferably to “good boy”.

2. Praise should be effort based
When we praise children only for their achievements and ignore their failures, we run the risk of causing anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. If your child has tried hard to remember their three times tables, but has struggled for months to get there. Don’t just praise them when they finally succeed. The three months of ‘failure’ is ultimately what caused the success and it matters far more. The effort is what you should notice, not the outcome. “Gosh, you are so dedicated to learning your times tables. I just know you are going to get there soon with all this practice” is far better than “yay, you did it!”.

3. Praise should focus on what children can change
There are certain things in life children cannot change. Their looks being one. Praising children for their looks, or fixed characteristics that they have no power to change, can actually cause issues with self-esteem as they grow. Praising children, particularly girls, for their appearance is dangerous territory. It can actually cause issues with body image as they grow, particularly in their teens (something I have covered in depth in my Gentle Eating Book). Praise only what they have control over.

4. Praise should be descriptive
This follows on from point number one. Descriptive praise shows a child that you are really watching them and appreciating what they are doing. If you child shows you a drawing that they have done, don’t be tempted to say “it’s lovely, well done!”, instead try to focus on specific aspects of the drawing “I can see that there are two birds in the sky and some lovely big pink flowers. Why did you choose to colour the flowers in pink? Where do you think the birds are flying to?”. Children thrive when you really ‘see’ them.

5. Praise should focus on what the children can repeat and learn from.
Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Harvard University, famous for introducing us to the concept of Mindsets. She differentiates between a growth mindset (when children accept they are not good at something – yet, but believe that they have the ability to improve) and a fixed mindset (when children believe that ability is fixed and give up because they feel they are not good at something). Praise, scarily can and does encourage a fixed mindset. A way to shift towards a more growth mindset is to focus more on the effort, not achievement, as in point two, but with an important addition – asking the child WHY they think they managed to achieve something this time? Ask them what they did differently and what they have learned that can help them when they are struggling with something next time.

Don’t be scared of praise and don’t berate yourself too much when you slip up. Even the most practiced gentle parents (including myself!) slip up sometimes. You will still find yourself echoing the non-specific achievement based praise of your youth. I say “well done” far more than I would like, however being mindful of praise should hopefully see you shift slowly to that which is more gentle and effective.

For more on praise and mindsets see my new Gentle Discipline Book – out now in the UK and coming soon in the USA and Canada.

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Five Steps to Effective Discipline

Have you struggled with knowing how to discipline your child? Perhaps you’ve tried several methods that have had little results, or perhaps they worked for a while and then the behaviour returned. Perhaps you have found yourself confused about the best approach to discipline, or exactly when and why you should do something? The following five steps can help to achieve discipline that is not only gentle (yes – discipline can be gentle!), but effective.

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  1. Be Mindful of Why You Feel the Need to Discipline

The next time your child behaves in a certain way and you find yourself wanting to discipline – pause. Ask  yourself why you feel the need to discipline. Has your child done something that you find unacceptable? Have they broken one of your boundaries? Do you want to use the moment to teach them how to behave in a more appropriate way next time? Or have you just been triggered by your past experiences? Far too many parents discipline their children because of conditioned responses from their own upbringing. Just because your parents disciplined you for something, it doesn’t mean you have to discipline your child for the same thing. Or perhaps you feel the need to discipline because others are watching you and waiting to see your response. Again, remember that the only right time to discipline your child is when you believe that they need it, whatever anybody else thinks. Mindful discipline ensures that your child is clear in your expectations of them.

 

2. Ask Yourself Why, How, What

The best discipline happens when you work with, not against, your child. In almost every case, ‘unacceptable behaviour’ happens when the child is feeling some sort of emotional unease, or when adults simply expect too much of them. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviour is perhaps the most important task for parents. Before your respond, take a minute to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What’.

Why did my child do that? What triggered the behaviour?

How is my child feeling? What emotions could have caused the behaviour?

What do I hope to teach my child with my discipline?

There is no point jumping straight into the discipline unless you are clear on why your child is behaving in the way they are – and what you hope to achieve by disciplining them.

 

3. Understand the True Capabilities of Your Child

Far too many children are punished for being children. Punished for not having the impulse control and emotional regulation abilities of adults and punished for adults having expectations of them that are far too high. Punishing a child for an emotional meltdown, because they have immature regulation skills won’t help them to learn to regulate any quicker, but it may impede it. The next time your child behaves in a way that is undesirable, ask yourself “could they have handled this any better, with their level of brain development?”.

Being mindful of neurological development is critical when you discipline. Most mainstream discipline methods – time out, naughty steps, exclusion, shaming and loss of privileges – expect cognitive abilities from children that they just don’t have. Toddlers won’t sit on a naughty step, contemplate their actions and vow to do better next time, simply because they can’t. Preschoolers won’t hypothesise about future actions when they have been sent to their room, because they can’t. Effective discipline always starts from a position of understanding the neurological development of children and what they are capable of at any given age

 

4. Teach Through Modelling

The old Victorian adage of “do as I say, not as I do” couldn’t be more wrong. Children learn how to behave by watching their parents. The most influential discipline method of all is how you, yourself, behave. If you shout, or hit, in the name of discipline you teach your child that problems should be resolved with verbal or physical violence. If you rely on exclusion as a means of discipline you give your child a clear message that you are unwilling to be with them when they’re not feeling good. Every minute of every day, how you behave influences your children. If your child is constantly behaving in a way that you dislike, look to yourself for that same behaviour – they learned it somewhere.

For the best discipline, try to epitomise the greatest teacher you ever met, as much as possible. What was it about this teacher you admired so much? What qualities can you mimic? You simply have to be the behaviour you want to see from your child. A tall order indeed. Does this mean you have to be perfect all of the time? Far from it, the times when you make mistakes are perhaps the most valuable of all, because your child is watching to see how you handle them. Learn to be humble, admit wrongdoings, apologise for them and make them right. Especially when the wrongdoing is towards your child.

 

5. Reflect and Learn from the Experience

Have you ever noticed how many parents say “I’ve told him a million times and he just doesn’t listen”? Those same parents use the naughty step, or time out, several times each day, they fill up countless reward charts and yet the behaviour continues. Surely this should indicate that their current discipline methods aren’t working?  Walter Barbe once said “If you’ve told a child a thousand times and he still doesn’t understand, then it is not the child who is a slow learner“, we would all do well to heed this advice.

Reflection, reflection and more reflection is key for effective discipline. What worked well last time and why? What didn’t work so well – why was that? Having a flexible approach to discipline, one that mimics a ‘growth mindset‘, is the only way. The best teachers are always analysing their teaching methods and results. Reflecting and learning from past experiences of discipline is key. Each day teaches us, as parents, something new and often it is our children that teach us. The day we think we know it all as parents is the day our discipline becomes ineffective.

 

If this article has piqued your interest in gentle discipline, check out my new discipline book.  It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada in the summer. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way

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