Why Common Discipline Methods Don’t Work (and What to do Instead)

There is a misconception in our society that children learn best by being punished and shamed. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want children to behave better, you have to make them feel better.

Why do most ‘parenting experts’ only tell you what to do, leaving out the ‘Why?’ Surely that’s a more important place to start? To enter the teaching profession, you need to study how children learn long before you can ever begin to teach them. Yet as parents, we are thrown in at the deep end, holding a newborn baby in our arms without a shred of training. Taking some time to understand how children learn makes disciplining them infinitely easier.

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Society today takes the view that children who misbehave are being deliberately naughty – that they plot and scheme to get what they want and make a conscious decision to behave in ways we dislike. But what if they behave undesirably, not deliberately, but because they cannot do anything else? most common discipline methods focus on encouraging children to do and be better, so that they are motivated by rewards if they behave ‘well’ and punishments if they misbehave. This would seem sensible, but it makes one huge mistake. It presumes that the child is not motivated to be ‘good’ and that they have the capability to change their behaviour. But maybe they already have the motivation? Maybe they already want to do better? And perhaps their brains – their capabilities – are holding them back? Are they behaving in a certain way simply because they cannot behave in any other? Mainstream discipline methods can achieve absolutely nothing here, except make the child feel worse.

When a baby is born they have 200 billion neurons and their brain is around 30 per cent of the size of an adult’s. Each day it grows by around one and a half grams and by the age of two it will have reached 75 per cent of its full size. During the first three years of life, around seven hundred new neural connections, or synapses, are made in the brain every single second. These connections serve as the ‘wiring’ for the brain. By the time a child is three years old they have formed over one thousand trillion synapses. These connections – formed through a combination of genetics and life experience – are of great significance to the future brain architecture and have a significant impact in adulthood. As such, the environment a child lives in, including their relationships with their main carers, can have as much influence on their brain development as genetics.

Regulating our emotions is quite a mature skill. As adults, we may be able to press the pause buttons in our brains when we are tempted to shout, swear or act violently towards somebody. If we feel anxious or scared, we may be able to talk ourselves out of our emotional discomfort by rationalising and diffusing our feelings. Children, however, do not have these skills – at least not to the same level as adults. And this difference in emotion regulation ability is the cause of a lot of stress for parents who expect their children to have the same capabilities that they do. In fact, self-regulation takes years to develop, and getting to know why your child lashes out, when you yourself are able to stay calm, should be a foundation of discipline. Sometimes, children who always shout or cry just simply cannot help it.

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A good analogy for an emotional meltdown – or tantrum, if we are talking about toddlers – is to imagine a pot of water on a stove. The gas is on full and the water soon begins to boil. Soon it is boiling over, spilling down the sides of the pot. The gas is still on full, so the water continues to boil until the pot runs dry. That’s a meltdown or tantrum. Left to their own devices, perhaps in time out or on a naughty step, a child’s ‘pot’ will continue to boil over until either the source is exhausted or the child is so drained that they are ‘empty’. Some may think time out and naughty steps – or any other ‘discipline’ method where the child’s feelings and behaviour are ignored (in the false belief that this will stop it happening again) are effective. Yet how can the child learn anything, which is the true goal of discipline, if they are left to ‘boil over’ and run dry? Time out or the naughty step (which are essentially one and the same, with or without the addition of a designated step, stool or chair) rely on punishing the child’s wrongdoings by excluding them from those they love. The idea is that while they are excluded they are to consider what they have done wrong, how they made the wronged party feel and how they can behave better next time. Once they have done this and are calm, they are allowed to leave the exclusion area. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But most children who are socially excluded are between the ages of two and ten and neuroscience shows that at any of these ages a child is not capable of the complex thought that the discipline method requires. In order for them to analyse their behaviour and hypothesise about how they may behave in future they have to have a firm grasp of concrete thinking – or, rather, they need a good level of critical, analytical and hypothetical thought. These thought processes are all the domain of the frontal lobe of the brain, which is not mature until just before a child enters their teenage years. It is only at this point that their thought processes become more adultlike in terms of their problem-solving abilities and capacity to think critically. Without an appropriate level of neural connectivity in the frontal, thinking part of the brain a child is incapable of the thought processes demanded by time out and the naughty step. They cannot (and do not) analyse their behaviour and consider future outcomes. At best, they will sit or stand quietly because they have learned that it is the only way they are allowed to rejoin their friends and loved ones.

 

Understanding how children’s brains develop is one of the cornerstones of gentle discipline. Unfortunately, many of today’s most common discipline methods are not mindful of this stage in a child’s life. Effective gentle discipline should always consider the child’s current level of cognitive ability, both when looking for the cause of their behaviour and when seeking an appropriate response.

 

This is a small excerpt from 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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Schemas – What You Need to Know to Understand Your Toddler’s ‘Naughty Behaviour’

Children learn by experience. Or more specifically they learn when they reflect on something they do, or did. We can tell them of our experiences and we can give them advice, however they only truly learn when they experience something themselves.

Have you ever wondered why your child does something, even when you’ve told them not to and explained why they shouldn’t do it? Perhaps your three year old insisted on touching the oven door, even though you told him not to because it was very hot. Being told something and doing it yourself are two very different things. It is only when the child touches the oven door and experiences the heat that he truly understands and learns.

For parents, understanding the repetitive patterns in the behaviour of young children, particularly their play, can be very helpful, especially when the child is behaving in a way that could be deemed ‘naughty’. The word ‘Schemas’ is used frequently amongst early years education and childcare professionals to describe these repetitive behaviours in general, however names are given to different patterns relating to specific behaviours, these include the following:

Connection Schema
In this schema children learn how to connect things together. They will often be engrossed in building train tracks, sticking building blocks together, or laying pieces of paper on the floor to make a path.

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Containing Schema
The containing schema occurs when children place objects into a container of some form. For instance they may put all of their crayons into an empty bag, or inside a large box.

Enveloping Schema
In this schema children learn to cover things up. For instance they may cover their teddy bear with a blanket, or cover their food with a napkin.

Positioning Schema
In this schema children are learning about the positions of one object in relation to another. They will often move their food around to different positions on the plate, or may want to sit in a different position to the one they have been instructed.
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Rotation Schema
This schema is all about objects rotating. Children may be engrossed by the washing machine or the motion of wheels turning. They will often try to turn things that they think may rotate, such as the hands of a clock or rolling a ball along the floor.

 
Trajectory Schema
The trajectory schema teaches children about movement and direction. They will often throw items to observe their trajectory, for instance food thrown from their high-chair or water thrown into the air.
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Transforming Schema
In this schema the child is interested in changing properties of objects. They may pour their juice into their porridge and explore the resulting transformation with their fingers. Or they may pour sand from their sand pit into their hair, to feel the change in texture.

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Transporting Schema
This schema is used to describe the action of children moving objects from one place to another. For instance moving cans stacked in a cupboard to a different area of the kitchen, or pushing a cart, containing building blocks, from one part of the garden to another.

Understandably many of these schemas can be problematic for parents. The child’s learning is often at odds with social rules and expectations and can often be very messy! While parents would much rather their children didn’t pour juice in their dinner, empty a packet of baby wipes and put them all into the toilet bowl, or rearrange the contents of their kitchen cupboard, they can rest assured that not only is this behaviour normal. It is indicative of great learning

This is a small excerpt from 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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Gentle Parenting – You Mean ‘Hippy, Pushover Parenting’? Busting Ten Gentle Parenting Myths.

Gentle Parenting is a parenting style gaining increasing followers and headlines. Alongside this heightened awareness however comes increasing misconceptions and misunderstandings. In this article I would like to consider what I believe the top ten myths surrounding gentle parenting, and hopefully correct them a little.

 

  1. Gentle Parents Don’t Discipline

Perhaps the top myth surrounding gentle parenting is that those who follow it don’t discipline their children. Children are believed to be allowed to run riot (see point 2 below). Gentle parenting and discipline are perceived to be at odds with each other, a point that was highlighted to me when I shared details of my newest book ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ on my personal Facebook timeline. A friend immediately commented: “I think you should change the title, how can discipline ever be gentle? It’s always harsh, that’s the point of it.”

I spend a lot of time in The Gentle Discipline Book talking about what discipline is (in short – it means teaching, in this case teaching our children) and what it isn’t (smacking, popping, tapping, naughty steps, time out, sending to their room, grounding etc..). Modern western society believes discipline and punishment are one and the same. They are not. There are many ways to teach children that don’t involve punishing them, or making them feel bad. In fact the most effective discipline makes children feel good. It inspires them to do better, rather than shaming them. The best teaching methods are inspirational and uplifting, ask any teacher. Why would we ignore decades of research on how children learn best? Gentle discipline focusses on exactly this – teaching children why certain behaviours are not appropriate and teaching them how to do better. How do we do this? Mostly by being a great role model, after all the best teaching comes from teachers students aspire to be. Is this all we do? No, often we will use appropriate consequences, particularly natural and logical ones, rather than the illogical consequences (aka punishment) used in mainstream discipline. For more on consequences used in gentle parenting check out this article. We have boundaries and we enforce them.

I would actually say gentle parents discipline more than any other parents.

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2. Gentle Parents Have No Control Over Their Children

This really follows from point one above. In gentle parenting the children are perceived to ‘run rings around their parents’. The parents are seen as passive and permissive, letting their little darlings do anything they want. This is not true.

Gentle parenting is a dance of control. What do I mean by that? I mean it is a partnership and one that changes fluidly, sometimes one partner leads, sometimes the other. When it is appropriate, gentle parents like to give their children control. Giving control as much as possible allows children to fulfil their need for autonomy and independence and stops unwanted behaviour that commonly occurs when a child is desperate for more control over their lives (the most common control seeking behaviours are issues with eating, sleeping and toileting). Things that gentle parents may give control over include allowing the child to choose their own clothing (after ensuring that it is weather appropriate), regulate their own eating, controlling their own pocket money and how it is spent and taking control of their own play. Things that gentle parents don’t give children control over include crossing roads, touching objects that don’t belong to them (particularly if they are fragile) and complete free range over how they spend their day, especially if there are important appointments to attend.

 

3. Gentle Parents Are Too Indulgent

Gentle parents are believed to allow their child to have and do whatever they want. This is not true. Criticisms say that they “indulge their children too much”. Mainstream parents commonly believe that children are out to bleed their parents dry emotionally, energetically and financially. Right from the off they believe that babies are manipulative, crying to get their parents ‘at their beck and call’, they believe toddlers are ‘showing off to get what they want’ and believe that teenagers only sulk ‘because they want attention’. Common discipline methods here all involve ignoring the child. This is mistakenly believed to create a less demanding individual. In truth, all ignoring does is make the child keep their feelings to themselves, they don’t go away, they just stop displaying them. Gentle parents simply allow their children to always show their needs and when possible they respond to them. A crying baby, a tantruming toddler and a sulking teenager are perceived to all be showing one thing: a need for connection. Gentle parents would try to support their children and their needs. They would try to help their children to feel better by not ignoring them. If this is deemed indulgent, then so be it, but what a callous world we now live in. Gentle parents just try to remove a little of that callousness in their own family.

 

4. Gentle Parents Are All Stay At Home Parents With One Young Child

Ah, the demographic judgement. Gentle parenting is hard work, I’ll give you that. In fact any parenting is hard work. Throw in a job, a handful of children and a teenager and it gets hard, really hard. In fact there are days when we all think “I just can’t do this anymore”, but we get back up and we keep on going. Gentle parents seek to better themselves, but aren’t martyrs. They know when they need a break and they allow themselves to be ‘good enough’.

I have full-time job and four children, two of whom are teenagers. I’m not superwoman, thousands of people are in my position and we all manage to parent gently. Yes, it is far easier when you don’t work and have only one child, particularly if that child is a baby or a toddler, however at the time it doesn’t feel easy. As your children grow, so do you. You learn together. As a parent to teenagers I have to say I can’t imagine following any other style of parenting, because it just simply doesn’t work when they are bigger than you. Teenagers don’t like stickers and you can’t intimidate them, or force them to sit them on a naughty step. The teenage years are often when mainstream, harsh discipline based parenting starts to unravel. I believe this is why the teenage years have such a bad reputation. I absolutely love being a parent to teenagers, we have a great relationship and I put that down to all of the years of gentle parenting investment.

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5. Parents Are All ‘Alternative’

Gentle parents are all hippy, bleeding heart liberals. They all breastfeed until their children are in school, that’s if they send them to school at all (for the record I did the former, but my kids are all in school). I think I’m pretty mainstream, in my lifestyle and my looks, as are thousands of gentle parents. Some are the opposite and that’s what makes it so wonderful – there is no special ‘person specification’. You can have rainbow hair, or spend thousands per year on brazilian blowdrys. You can be vegan, or eat steak every day. You can home-educate or use mainstream school, breastfeed or formula, you can wear tie-dye, Primark or Boden (I personally rock all three, often at the same time). Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Pagan – religion is irrelevant. So is age, sexuality and political leaning. One thing I have noticed, is that there is far more diversity (and acceptance of it) amongst gentle parents and surely that is an amazing thing to teach our children?

6. Parents Inhibit Their Children’s Independence

Gentle parents are commonly perceived to ‘stifle independence’. They don’t leave their babies to cry at night, so some believe they are “not teaching them to self settle” (read here for why this creates nothing of the sort), they don’t push their toddlers into nursery if they aren’t ready (though thousands do go happily – but the key is in working at the child’s pace) and they allow their children to slip into their bed at night if they are scared or anxious and need a hug. Sometimes they stay in the parental bed for several years, sometimes they pop in once or twice per month. The key is that the attachment always occurs as a result of the child’s cues. When the children are ready to detach, gentle parents open their arms and watch them fly. Independence always starts with dependence, you can’t force it to happen. It happens when children have had their needs met and as a result feel confident enough to walk out into the big wide world alone, knowing that if they need them – their parents are there for them. Gentle parenting creates, not stifles, independence!

 

7. Gentle Parents Don’t Prepare Their Children For ‘Real Life’

“….but real life isn’t all hearts and flowers. Real life is full of disappointments and demands, rules and regulations.” Gentle parenting apparently ill-prepares children for life. A life where they will have to follow rules, not bend them. A life where they will have to endure harsh discipline. Why not prepare them for it now? Why not prepare them for better? I ask. Why raise a child to blindly follow rules that service nobody other than the elite when you can raise them to question if there is a better way? Why raise children to ‘accept their place’ when you can raise them to aim for higher? Why raise children to accept the bigotry and hatred of society when you can raise them to try to change it?

Does this mean you are raising rebels? No, it means you are raising thinkers. Thinkers know when questioning is appropriate and they know when to keep their head down. Thinkers understand respect, respect for others and themselves. They know when to respect boundaries and rules (after all they have respected their family’s rules for years). Gently parented children are empathic, they understand how others feel and when certain behaviour would be inappropriate. They know when they can rock the boat a little and when they should leave it be.puni

8. Gentle Parents Are Raising A Generation Of Spoilt Brats

This is one of the saddest criticisms I’ve ever heard. Why? Because it mistakenly presumes you can spoil a child with love. You cannot love a child too much. Ever. If you love a child as much as they need, you allow them to flourish. They become more empathic and more secure. Security and empathy are the keystones of respect and understanding. They create kind, confident and compassionate individuals, the very opposite of the shallow, self-absorbed spoiled individuals created by mainstream parenting. Why? Because when the child’s needs for love and emotional support aren’t met, they spend their life trying to fulfil them, some through constant unhealthy relationships, some with food, some with alcohol, some with drugs.

 

9. Gentle Parents Never Touch Their Children Without Their Permission

Simply not true. What they do do however is to try to protect the child’s bodily autonomy. If children don’t want to kiss or hug a friend or a relative, gentle parents won’t force it (see this article for more). They understand that the ability to say “no, stop” begins in childhood. Of course they spontaneously hug, kiss and hold their children’s hands though, but if the child says “stop”, they do.

 

10. Gentle Parents Are Scared of Making Their Children Cry

Actually gentle parents probably allow their children to cry far more than mainstream parents. Crying is normal, it is a healthy way to release difficult emotions. As parents allowing your child to cry and supporting them when they do is the healthiest response. Our society is too full of dismissing tears. We say “stop crying, don’t be a baby”, “big girls don’t cry, “crying is for sissies”, “boys don’t cry”, “man up” far too much. We try to distract children from feeling and dealing with their own emotions and we wonder why they grow up to struggle with them as adults. Crying is not the problem here. When we discipline, gentle parents will often make children cry and that’s OK, because when they do we support them. Do we always revel in tears? Absolutely not, tears from a baby always need a response, whether it is day or night. Read more about crying in this article.

 

To sum up, if people ask me to explain gentle parenting in a nutshell I always say the same “treating children how we would like to be treated ourselves”. To this day I don’t understand why it is so controversial, except perhaps that we don’t treat ourselves very well?

 

If you would like to learn more about gentle parenting, particularly from a discipline perspective, check out my new ‘Gentle Discipline Book‘, or sign up for my FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER, straight to your inbox each week.

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When Your Child Will Only Nap On You.

This isn’t going to be a ‘how to’ article, explaining how to wean your child off of napping on top of you. It’s an article encouraging you to embrace it, and how to spend your time when it happens.

napI am often asked for help to wean a baby off of ‘contact naps’ as I like to call them – by that I mean naps with a baby (or toddler) laying either directly on top of you, or curled up at your side. While it is possible to stop this from happening (slowly and gently) and encourage more independent naps, I would like to spend some time thinking about why ‘in contact’ naps seem so taboo.

The gift of being able to get your child to sleep easily, calmly and relatively quickly is a huge one. So many parents struggle with trying to encourage independent naps, I often wonder why the message to embrace non-independent ones is not louder. The two biggest criticisms I hear are “you need to encourage independence, it’s not good for them to be so reliant on you” and “naps laying on mum or dad aren’t as good quality as naps in a cot/crib”. These criticisms are utter rubbish. We know from every single piece of psychological research that the key to creating a confident and independent child is to allow them the dependence that they need on us, when they need it. For some babies and toddlers this means the need for physical contact when they are at their most vulnerable – in the state of sleep. You can’t *make* your child sleep on you if they don’t want to and they won’t do it forever. They WILL outgrow the need and when they do they will be all the more confident for it. As for the myth of naps only being ‘good quality’ if they are in a cot or crib, I have no idea where this one came from. It is so wrong and obscure it’s almost laughable, only the fact millions of parents have been scared by it is no laughing matter. Sleep is sleep, it really doesn’t matter where it happens. Although I would say that sleep is better when it happens with a calm, secure child and for many that means ‘in contact’. Simply put, there are no negatives to ‘in contact’ naps for children and they will outgrow the need for them.

Allowing ‘in contact’ naps is perhaps the least stressful option for the whole family. Accepting and dare I say, enjoying, them is often the best option. Being pinned down under a snoozing child for an hour or so can quickly lose its appeal though. Perhaps my best advice therefore is thinking about what to do when it happens, not trying to prevent it from happening. Take some time to prepare and plan your time.

  • Be prepared – make a flask of tea or coffee, have a glass of water and a snack prepared and keep it at arms’ length. Keep your phone easily accessibly, again at arms length and not trapped in a pocket, the same of the TV remote, book or magazine.
  • Make nap time ‘box set’ time. Often TV episodes last for around 45 minutes, a perfect time for a nap. Watch an episode per nap and quickly catch up on your favourite series, or find a new one. Netflix is your friend. Consider headphones if your child is bothered by the sound.
  • Make nap time reading time. Discover new books, or read those you bought ages ago and didn’t get round to reading. Kindles can be easier to read one handed than a paper book.
  • Take time to meditate. Nap time can be a wonderful time for calmness and mindfulness. Try out the free trial on www.headspace.com
  • Listen to some music. Catch up on your favourite artist, or new recordings that aren’t baby or child music! Headphones are likely a must here!
  • Take a snooze yourself. Daytime naps can be a great time to catch up on lost night sleep.
  • Just be. We don’t spend much time being still in our busy lives, especially when we’re parents. Take nap time to really look at your child, watch their chest softly rise and fall as they breathe, smell the baby scent on their breath, look at the tiny curls in their hair, stroke their foreheads and cheeks, hold their little podgy hands in yours and feel the reassuring weight of their body molding into yours. These are the memories that will stay with you forever.

If you want to learn more about naps in the first year, my ‘Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters’ book has a whole chapter on them and is available on UK Amazon, US Amazon and worldwide via The Book Depository. If you would like more information on sleep, during the day and at night, with a ‘gentle slant’ from birth to five years check out my ‘Gentle Sleep Book‘ and Facebook page. Finally, if you liked this article consider signing up to my newsletter – to receive a free parenting support email to your inbox each week.

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Five Reasons why I Hate Elf on the Shelf

Here are the five top reasons why we never have, and never will, have a magical elf in our house at Christmas time:

  1. The Big Brother element

Using Christmas as a behaviour modification tool is fraught with potential problems. Research has shown the long-term consequences of using rewards (and lack of them) as a form of discipline. Not only are they largely ineffective, in the long term anyway, they can also really undermine the chances of the child repeating the ‘positive’ behaviour again without either the same or a better reward.

Elves that report back to Santa, or come with reward stickers may create short term compliance over the run up to Christmas, but there is a very real chance that parents can be faced with problems in the new year when the elf and the threat of losing presents is no longer around.

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  1. The Hypocrisy

Am I the only one who finds the idea of ‘a naughty elf’ who reports back naughty behaviour from children to Santa totally hypocritical, or at the very least incredibly confusing?

It’s OK for the elf to create all sorts of mayhem, break house rules, create a mess, get into things that they shouldn’t, but should the child do these things they would most likely be in trouble. What sort of a messed up mixed message is that?!  On the one hand parents send the message “you’re being watched, you do anything wrong and Santa won’t give you a present” and on the other “it’s OK for the elf to do everything that you’re not allowed to though, when the elf does it it’s ‘cute and funny’, but don’t you dare do it or we’ll tell Santa on you!”. Not reporting back to Santa doesn’t make this any better either, if you wouldn’t like your children to copy the behaviour of the elf, then don’t set it up as a role model for them!

 

  1. Things that Go Bump in the Night

How many children fear monsters, ghosts and other things that go ‘bump in the night’? Parents spend hours reassuring children that they don’t really exist, that they’re safe, that nothing is going to creep into their bedroom at night. Then along comes a freaky little doll that becomes possessed – but only at night when the child is asleep. The very thing that we try to reassure children *doesn’t* happen! Then we worry why they’re so freaked out the next time they have a nightmare. Harmless fun? I don’t think so! These things either exist or they don’t, mixed messages, just like the hypocrisy above, are confusing for children. It doesn’t matter if the elf is ‘kind’, or the naughty variety mentioned previously, they still come to life at night and do things when the child is asleep.

 

  1. Commercialism

Every few years a new parenting ‘must have’ comes along. These toys, sleep props, books and nursery items quickly develop a cult like following. Parents can quickly get sucked in, often feeling left out, or rather worrying that their children are left out if they don’t jump on the trendy train. The truth is children miss out on nothing without an elf. Christmas is no less magical without them. Expensive products marketed to create Christmas magic don’t make Christmas magical, what makes it magical is the spirit, the love, the family, the hygge.

We underestimate children if we think that they need us to create magical objects to inject this spirit into the holidays. When I was a child the magic of Christmas came from making my parents maga card with a whole tube of silver glitter, a piece of tinsel wrapped round my head and tinfoil covered cardboard wings on my back in the school nativity, watching my mum set light to the Christmas pudding in wonder and hanging homemade decorations on the tree.  When did it get so complicated? We underestimate ourselves and the simple power of making peppermint creams or cards together, watching a Christmas movie, or reading a festive book with our children. These things are the real magic, magic is not expensive, magic is not a retro styled, expensive, smug looking spying elf. It is so much more simple than that. Everytime we pin our Christmas spirit hopes on a product we devalue what we, as parents, give to our children.

 

  1. The Pressure.

The run up to Christmas is busy enough as it is for parents, do you *really* need to add another task to your list? Reaching the end of the day exhausted, ready to climb into bed only to realise “oh no! I forgot to do something with the elf!”. Remembering isn’t enough though, on no, not when your friend is outdoing you on their daily ‘elf escapades’ on social media. Do you really want to feel like an inadequate elf organiser? Isn’t it be better to spend that time chilling out and trying to enjoy some Christmas spirit yourself?

Sarah

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Is it Possible to do Gentle Sleep Training?

GENTLE

A fashionable buzzword in the ‘sleep training industry’ at the moment. It is everywhere you look. On every sleep trainer’s website, in the blurb on every baby sleep book, in the names the trainers call themselves, or their social media descriptions. Gentle, gentle, gentle, gentle.

On the one hand I am incredibly happy and excited that so many baby trainers have realised that a shift is happening, parents don’t want to leave their babies to cry. Cry-based sleep training is definitely on the wane, gentle is the new order of the day. This makes my heart sing. Perhaps the long overdue compassionate and instinctive paradigm shift is coming? Perhaps even the harshest and coldest of baby trainers is having second thoughts? – A gentle sleep revolution, led by parents, is my dream.

cryThen comes the cynicism in me. It has a loud and pessimistic voice. GENTLE is a buzzword, a marketing term, a PR dream. Gentle sells where crying once used to. Promise to get a baby sleeping through the night gently? Well surely that’s the miracle recipe? What parent could possibly refuse? Where is the regulation surrounding the use of the word ‘gentle’ in relation to sleep training? Which advertising organisation steps in and questions the gentleness? Sadly in the sleep industry advertising is as ill-regulated as the profession itself. It just doesn’t exist. Why does this matter? Because there are far too many proclaiming that their methods are gentle when they are anything but………they are far, far from gentle. They dupe parents, who only realise that the advice is not as gentle as expected after they have paid for it. By then their money is spent, usually money they could ill afford in the first place. They are left with the same old advice: cry and don’t pick up, reduce contact, put down awake, reduce or stop night feeds and stop bedsharing. Sure they may be told “pat her back”, “rub his stomach”, “stay in the room and speak to her”, “comfort him, but stay firm and don’t pick him up”. None of this is gentle though. It is the same old behaviourist approach wrapped up with a new ribbon and called ‘gentle’ because the parent stays in the room. It means nothing. It is no more gentle than controlled crying or cry it out. Each week I have at least five families contacting me telling me “we paid to work with somebody who said they offered gentle sleep training, but it really wasn’t gentle, it was the same old stuff”. Buyer beware, buyer beware!

I am often asked if it is possible to do ‘gentle sleep training’. Yes, I believe it is, although the use of the word ‘training’ is a little erroneous, for it is really the parent that is being trained (I use the term for my own services purely for SEO reasons). Sleep is a biological development, a milestone, you can no more train a baby to sleep in an age inappropriate way, than you can teach them to walk as a newborn. You can only train them to not signal to their needs to their parents. I don’t believe any parent really wants that.

Is it possible to work with a baby’s sleep gently? Absolutely, because in every case it is not the baby that needs changing or fixing, it is usually something the parent is, or isn’t doing. That said, it is only possible to change sleep gently to a biologically appropriate level. The fact remains that babies don’t sleep through the night, while that may be a problem for parents in our busy world, the reality is there is normally nothing wrong with the baby.

What should you look for when considering  if sleep advice really is gentle? Well, my own beliefs and ethos for my sleep work are as follows:

  • You must start with realistic expectations. Are you looking for sleep that is not normal for the age of your baby? Any true gentle sleep trainer will tell you if what you are looking for at a specific age is not appropriate. I turn as many clients away as I take on for this very reason.
  • The approach needs to be holistic – this means the sleep trainer should consider what is happening in the daytime (classes and activities etc..), what the baby is eating, the birth – and psychological and physiological effects from it, the environment the baby sleeps in during the day and night, naps (where, when, how long), evening routines (not just the bedtime routine), how the parents are feeling and what support they have and more…..if these aren’t mentioned then the advice is not gentle.
  • You should be given realistic expectations in terms of improvement. I always tell my clients they will need to wait 6-8 weeks for a good improvement and in that timeframe they have some hard work to keep up consistently. Gentle sleep work goes at the pace of the baby, slowly. Working with, not against, the baby. If it offers quick results, it is not going at the baby’s pace. It is simply not possible to change sleep gently in less time than this. Anybody who says it is, is not truly  offering gentle advice.
  • True gentle sleep advice does not blame anything, or anybody, for causing sleep problems. You can change sleep gently no matter if the baby is breast or formula fed, bedsharing or cot sleeping, without having to stop doing anything. Babies can still be feeding at night and can still fall asleep at the breast. None of these things are problems, none of these things need to be stopped. Any advice to stop them (especially night feeds and feeding to sleep) isn’t truly gentle.
  • Gentle sleep advice should never, ever, ever encourage the parents to allow the baby to cry. If the baby does cry (which should always be absolutely minimal, seconds or minutes at most) they should always be ‘in arms’. Any advice to ‘settle the baby in the crib’ is not gentle. We know from research that a baby has a very different physiological reaction when they cry being held by their parents. It doesn’t help them if you are standing next to them and patting them if they cry, you need to pick them up!

buyI can pretty much sum all of this up by saying “if it feels wrong to you, then it probably is”. You have instincts to nurture your baby for a reason, don’t be fooled by an expert who promises that their advice is gentle if your instincts are screaming that they aren’t. When I work with clients I view my role as supporting them, just as much as their babies. True gentle sleep work focusses on helping parents to feel empowered and supported. If you do not feel either of these then you have a right to question the advice you have been given. Please, listen to your instincts and don’t be guilted into anything, however desperate you are, there is always another way. Don’t be sucked in to ‘the gentle trend’, beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Sarah

Author of The Gentle Sleep Book and founder of www.gentlesleeptraining.co.uk 

Gentle sleep ‘training’ advice that really is gentle.

Please note: I have NEVER trained any sleep consultants and never will, please be wary of anybody who says they have trained with me, at most they have attended a three hour workshop with me intended for parents.

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It’s Time to Stop with the Sleep Guilt

It’s time we stop guilting parents about bad habits, sleep crutches, unhealthy bedtime props and sleep mistakes. Almost every day I am contacted by a parent who is worried that they are creating bad habits, or inhibiting their child’s independence. They have been warned (usually by healthcare professionals or sleep trainers) that in feeding or rocking their child to sleep, they are creating problems for the future. They are told that they should teach their child to ‘self soothe’ (read here for why there’s no such thing), they are told to stop feeding their baby at night (and that these feeds are negatively affecting sleep, teeth, daytime eating, confidence and more) and they are told that they are mollycoddling their child by cuddling them to sleep. These parents are led to believe that their child has a very serious sleep problem and they believe that this is a problem that they have created. The truth? A problem is only a problem if it is a problem for the parent, or the baby, if the family is happy who on earth are these people to insinuate otherwise?

being

These sleep warnings and sleep guilt are widespread, not surprising given that the messengers often make money from parents believing in them (after all, if there are no problems, no fixing is needed). Sometimes, where no profit is involved, the messages are spread out of a degree of ignorance, a lack of true understanding of human norms. Often there is a sad mix of both. They get under the skin of parents, the niggling doubt eroding an already fragile confidence and self-belief. Parents start to believe that they do have a problem and worse, that they are the cause of it. In truth they are anything but.

There is no evidence that shows rocking, holding or feeding to sleep is damaging in any way whatsoever, whatever age the child is. There is no evidence that shows feeding at night (beyond an arbitrary age) causes long-lasting sleep problems, or any others for that matter. I cannot shout this loudly enough. These things are not problems *unless* they are a problem for you, or your baby.  Don’t let the sleep guilt spreaders get under your skin.

Will you need to rock, hold or feed forever? Of course not!  (read here about why these things aren’t habitual). In time, your child (baby or toddler, perhaps even preschooler) will outgrow the need. This natural independence is magical, if a little sad for you, in one fell swoop it proves the naysayers were wrong with a capital W! (read here about when you may expect independent sleep onset). We are the only mammalian species in the world who try to force our offspring to be independent before they are ready. Nobody tries to train mother cats to not sleep curled up with their kittens, or chimps to not feed their babies to sleep, or during the night, because these behaviours are innate, natural and normal.

habWe must stop trying to guilt parents into ignoring the same instincts, whether for profit, pride or productivity. Parental instincts aren’t wrong, guilting parents into ignoring them is. Parents should be advised to cuddle, feed and rock to their hearts’ desires and be encouraged to ignore any thoughts of problems, habits and crutches. If we feel inclined to give them any advice it should always (and only) be:

“There are no problems, unless it is a problem for you and your baby. You’re doing a great job, keep on doing what you’re doing, for one day your child will be grown and not need you anymore”

 

Sarah

p.s: If you’re looking to boost your confidence about your child’s sleep (and finding reassurance for improving sleep naturally without worrying about habits, crutches or mistakes), check my The Gentle Sleep Book or sign up to my free weekly newsletter HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Your Baby Will NEVER ‘Sleep Through the Night’!

Ask anybody who has ever had a baby how they found the early months and the word “tiring” is guaranteed to feature strongly. Babies don’t sleep like adults and they certainly don’t sleep as adults would like them to. The quest for a magic fix to get babies ‘sleeping through the night’ is ever-present and constantly sought. This quest is however completely in vain, because there is no such cure. There is absolutely nothing tired parents can do to get their babies sleeping through the night, because they never will!

babys“Wow, that’s pessimistic” you may be thinking….others may say “but, my baby DOES sleep through the night, you’re wrong!”

It is however a simple matter of fact. No baby sleeps through the night, they never have and never will. Ever. Similarly, no adult has ever, or will ever, slept through the night either. Why then is so much time and money spent on trying to achieve something that is totally impossible?

First, we need to consider why it is impossible to make a baby (or adult for that matter) sleep through the night. The answer is two little words: sleep cycles. We all, no matter our age, sleep in cycles. These cycles take us from being awake, to a light, medium and deep sleep and back again. Adults have between four and six of these cycles per night (depending on how long they sleep for). In adults a sleep cycle totals around ninety minutes. Babies on the other hand have around twelve to sixteen sleep cycles on an average night. The length of a baby sleep cycle is around half that of an adult’s. That means that it is normal for babies to wake fifteen times per night, every night! At the end of every sleep cycle, whether we are speaking adults of babies, one of two things may happen:

  1. The individual will immediately begin a new sleep cycle, giving the illusion that they have ‘slept soundly’ for a long chunk of time (two connected sleep cycles would mean sleep of around three hours in adults and an hour and a half in babies). Sometimes the individual connects all of their sleep cycles that night, or what we believe to be ‘sleeping through’.
  2. The individual wakes at the end of a sleep cycle. This can be due to an infinite amount of causes, but the most common are thirst (or hunger in babies), being too hot or too cold, being uncomfortable, needing the toilet, hearing a noise, anxiety, worry or stress, fear – perhaps after a bad dream, light pollution, pain, over-stimulation and not being tired anymore. Sometimes we have no idea why we have woken as an adult, the same is then surely true of babies!

cycleIf an adult encounters any of the problems in point two, ie they have been disturbed by something and have not connected sleep cycles for some reason, they are able to ‘fix’ the problem in most cases. They have the mental and physical capabilities to independently connect sleep cycles. Babies on the other hand are rather helpless to ‘fix’ any of the problems causing them to wake at the end of a sleep cycle. They need their parents’ help for this. Perhaps they need a parent to feed them, sort their bedding or clothing, change their nappy/diaper, adjust light or noise levels, give them medicine or give them comfort (ie pick them up and cuddle them, note I said they *need* a cuddle, not *want* a cuddle!). These night-time parenting needs are all equally valid, babies don’t conspire and manipulate to create problems that stop them from connecting sleep cycles. They just aren’t anywhere near as developed as adults, in brain or body, and so need our help. Or, in other words, babies are neurologically and physiologically incapable of ‘self soothing’ or ‘self settling’ any problems they do have in the night.

sleepcySadly, there is nothing parents can do to lengthen their baby’s sleep cycles, they lengthen as the baby grows, its simple development. This talk of ‘sleeping through the night’ must end, it is factually inaccurate. This myth and misinformation pathologises normal infant sleep (ie: many short cycles with frequent wakings and need for parental intervention) and turns it into something problematic that needs fixing. The more unethical the person or organisation offering this intervention, the more they spread fear among parents that their baby will not grow to be strong and healthy in body and in mind unless they sleep for longer and deeper at night. The fact is, the baby achieves nothing from being taught to be quiet while they transition between sleep cycles, the benefit here is solely for the parents.

Does this mean parents can’t do anything? Should they accept they will be up every hour every night? Not necessarily. Here we need to think about the babies who seem to be able to connect sleep cycles without adult help (those babies people mistakenly say are “self soothing”). Some babies will have been trained to be quiet, despite experiencing problems between sleep cycles, by behaviourist sleep training (which teaches them that there is no point in continuing to cry to express their needs, as the parent does not respond), other babies however will be able to naturally connect sleep cycles. It is these babies that should be the most interesting to us. Why can they connect sleep cycles? The answer here is a usually good dose of luck, mixed with being present in an environment where nothing is ‘wrong’. This is what parents should focus on to improve sleep, the blips between sleep cycles that can inhibit a quick and independent transition to another cycle. What do we need to consider here? Our aim should be to create an optimum sleep environment, where the baby’s surroundings are as ‘sleep friendly’ as possible both internally (physically) and externally, this includes considering the following:

  • Comfort (bedding and internal comfort e.g: no pain or digestive issues)
  • Temperature
  • Lighting
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • The right time for sleep for that individual baby (and their bedtime routine)
  • No hunger or thirst

Next we need to consider the more psychological causes of not transitioning between cycles:

  • Presence, or sensing presence of parents
  • Need for physical touch, or comfort met
  • Reduce anxiety, stress, over-stimulation, or fear as much as possible

nineUnfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ here (beware of any ‘experts’ or methods who claim there is!). All babies are different, the key is in finding what your individual baby needs. All sleep solutions are unique. The most important ‘solution’ I haven’t mentioned yet however is simply: time. Baby sleep will not stay this way forever, as the baby ages so their sleep cycles will lengthen and they will be able to resolve more physical and emotional causes of not being able to transition between sleep cycles independently. In the meantime, parents need to stop worrying about ‘bad habits’, ‘creating a rod for their own back’ and  forcing independence too quickly. Ironically, the more the parents nurture their baby in the early months, the more likely the child is to develop the emotion regulation skills necessary to connect sleep cycles independently when they age.

We must understand that there is no such thing as ‘sleeping through the night’. There never was and there never will be. For many parents, just knowing this simple fact, is enough to make a huge change to their state of mind and thus their family, even if their baby’s sleep doesn’t change.

If you’re interested in some more in-depth ways to connect your baby’s sleep cycles (without behaviourist, superficial, sleep training, or causing your baby to cry), The Gentle Sleep Book covers several elements in detail.

Sarah

 

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Gentle Parenting: the Myths, the Misquotes and the Mis-reporting.

Yesterday I was contacted by a journalist who was writing an article for The Sun newspaper (a large UK newspaper) asking me about gentle parenting for an article. This would have been a good opportunity to present a factual, evidence based article, instead she went down the route of stereotyping and poking fun in the name of entertainment.

HERE is the article that this journo wrote, after I spent a good chunk of time sending her responses to her questions yesterday, you’ll note she didn’t even reference ‘The Gentle Parenting Book’ correctly! Sometimes I really feel like giving up.

HERE is the article shared on The Sun’s Facebook page. You can see that most of the comments are from people who, thanks to this article now believe gentle parenting has 1. no discipline, 2. no boundaries, 3. no routine, 4. no rules, 5. the child is always in control and 6. the parents are lazy. I did try to respond to the comments until The Sun blocked me from their page!

Below is the email the journo sent, and my replies to her questions. You can see that in the article, she cherry picked quotes out of context and conveniently missed out comments about discipline and scientific evidence.

journ

Hey Sarah,

I’m writing a feature about the rise of gentle parenting. I have a load of questions if that’s ok!

Journo: Why do you do gentle parenting?

Me: In short, because nothing else works, or makes sense. I treat my children how I would like to be treated myself. When they are little you may be able to scare them by shouting at them, smacking them, sending them to their room, taking things away from them or rewarding them with stickers and the like. When you have older children, especially teenagers who are bigger than you, this ‘fear of God’ parenting, or constant bribery just doesn’t work, this is why so many parents struggle with the teen years. I absolutely love them, I have really close relationships to my teenagers and we resolve any issues by talking.

Aside from this type of parenting feeling instinctively right (and everything else feeling wrong), there is a mountain of scientific evidence supporting the idea that the most effective parenting focusses on empathy, connection, respect and support. I love that my instinct is backed by neuroscience.

Journo: Is it true ‘gentle parents’ always ask their child for permission before being touched?

Me: No, sadly there are many myths surrounding gentle parenting, most of what you see or read in the media is a complete fallacy. We’re not all vegetarians, we don’t all have dreadlocks or henna tattoos, we don’t all homeschool and we don’t all breasfeed. Once again, we treat our children how we would like to be treated ourselves. I love to be hugged, kissed, to have my hand held, or to have a pat on the back if I’ve done well. This sort of touch is spontaneous, how on earth would you not do it? What we do do however is to make sure that our children are happy with being asked to touch people. A classic example is “give uncle a kiss goodbye”, so many children are forced to kiss relatives against their will. If the child says “I don’t want to kiss him” then we would respect that, just as we would if another adult said “I don’t want to kiss you”, we wouldn’t force it.

Journo:Do gentle parents ever tell off their children?

Me: This is quite a poorly worded question. We don’t “tell off” our children, “telling off” is ineffective. If someone “tells you off” you instantly stop listening to them, imagine your boss “giving you a telling off”, you don’t respond well. We DO discipline our children, of course, but we do it mindful of their brain development and age, with clear reasons and goals for the outcome, this may involve talking with them, using consequences of some form, setting and enforcing boundaries, or showing them what to do. Whatever we do, it’s all about teamwork, the parent stays calm, so there is no shouting or hitting. If you want to make somebody behave better the worst thing you can make them do is feel worse. Again, really it’s all about thinking how we would feel in that situation. We are not pushovers, or permissive, our discipline is just more informed and more intelligent than just ‘telling off’.

Journo: Do you have to start gentle parenting from birth?

Me: No, for many people they just do gentle parenting naturally. I often think it is ridiculous that it has a specific name or label! Other people instinctively feel that this is how they want to parent, but society says they should do otherwise, so they get sucked into a cycle of punishing and rewarding their children, or trying to enforce independence well before the child is ready. That’s really hard, when someone’s heart tells them to do one thing, but their head (or the books they’re reading, or the advice they are being given) says to do something else.

Some people turn to gentle parenting with school aged children, or some with teenagers, when it becomes apparent that fear and control based parenting just doesn’t work. Obviously the earlier the better when it comes to starting, but it is never too late. Many people find it actually helps their adult relationships too!

 

Is it any wonder that the public have such an inaccurate view of gentle parenting?

Here are some previous articles that I have written that explain gentle parenting and the science and proof behind it, as well as mythbusting some common misconceptions:

What is Gentle Parenting?

How is Gentle Parenting Different to Mainstream Parenting?

What is Gentle Parenting and Why Should you Try It? (includes lots of research links)

What is Gentle Parenting? An Excerpt from The Gentle Parenting Book

Gentle Parenting and Body Autonomy/Getting Permission to Touch

The Gentle Parenting Book covers this all in a lot more detail and shows you how to apply the principles at each age.

 

 

 

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My Top Toy Recommendations

My Top Toy Recommendations

toys

I am often asked if I can recommend toys for different stages of childhood. I have to say however that I’m not much of a toy person and actually neither are my children. Nature and the everyday world often is a far better entertainer (cardboard boxes surely come top of the list!). Most toys inhibit imagination and have a very limited range of play, no wonder that so many parents say “he only plays for a minute or two”. A ‘good’ toy needs to involve an element of control in terms of how a child chooses to play with it, ie: there needs to be more than just one action/motion/use. Ideally it will be gender neutral too.

If you do want to buy your child a toy or two, here is my (very small per age group) list of items I recommend, from personal parenting experience. What I will add here is that every toy is infinitely better if you join in with the play too.

Babies

Treasure Baskets (click on this link to be taken to an article to create your own).

  Rainmakers

 Skwish

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Cotton Reel Threaders

  Wooden Blocks

  Brio Trainset (yes, Brio is really worth the extra money!)

  Grimm’s Rainbow

  Peg Boards

  Messy Play Tray (fill with paint, shaving foam, water, ice, rice and more!)

  Bilibos

  Stickle Bricks

  My Mummy’s Bag

4-8 Years

  Gears Gears Gears

  Sea Monkeys (not strictly a toy, but fascinating to watch hatch and care for )

  Stomp Rockets

  Marble Runs

  Lego

  Insect Lore Butterfly Garden (see Sea Monkeys above)

8-13 Years

   Labyrinth Game

  Hot Wires

  Kano

  Lego

  Dr Zigs Bubble Set

 Flibberty Adventure Den Building Kit

 

Note: I have linked to Amazon products so that you can read a description of each product, but most can be bought freely elsewhere on the internet and in local shops. The links are to the UK version of Amazon, so apologies to those of you reading who are outside of the UK, in many cases you can overwrite the .co.uk with your country’s domain (e.g .com) and it will show the the page from your country.

Lastly, some of these are affiliate links, the small amount of funds I receive from these go towards my costs for the upkeep of this blog and my newsletter.

 

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