Confusional Arousals – AKA Why Children Wake in Tears After a Nap

I’m often contacted by parents who are worried that their children (usually toddlers) wake seemingly inconsolable after sleep, usually naps. They describe children who won’t settle (even for their usual fail-safes), can’t be reasoned with and seem in great discomfort. This crying lasts anything from a couple of minutes, to ten or twenty minutes, or more.

This pattern is characteristic of a condition known as Confusional Arousal disorder. In adults, this parasomnia (a disorder that commonly affects falling asleep, waking up, or the period during sleep) usually manifests as slurred or slow speech, forgetfulness and generalised confusion (or what some may term as ‘sleep drunk’) and affects around 2.9% of people. In young children however the incidence is much higher at 17.3%, manifesting almost always as intense crying, although sometimes it can be continued subdued sobbing or whining. Confusional Arousal is more common if the individual is woken from sleep (ie parents wake the child from a nap), rather than the sleep cycle naturally concluding, however this is not always the case. The best way to view them is like an electrical blip in the brain, where the individual is jolted out of sleep too quickly and therefore becomes severely disorientated, with their body and mind taking a while to catch on to the fact they are now awake.

Although these episodes can be incredibly scary (and hard to handle as parents), the good news is they are not harmful to the child and are usually outgrown naturally by around the age of five years. As with other parasomnias (such as sleep walking or night terrors), there is often a genetic link and children who are affected will often have a parent who used to experience the same (or another parasomnia) as a child.

What can you do to help a child who suffers from Confusional Arousal? Ultimately this is a case of waiting for the child to outgrow the disorder (and keeping them as comfortable and safe as possible during an episode), until then, the following may be helpful:

  • Make sure the bedroom (or room they nap in) is not too hot, or too cold. In general the ideal temperature to keep a bedroom at night is around 16-18 centigrade.
  • Keep artificial light out of the bedroom at night (if you use a nightlight, make sure you only use one that utilises light on the red colour spectrum).
  • Try to avoid waking your child from naps if they suffer from Confusional Arousals.
  • Try to avoid your child becoming overtired.
  • Consider their intake of Omega 3 fatty acids (a limited amount of research has shown a link between deficiency and parasomnias in children).
Ultimately though, be ready to reassure them and offer as much physical contact as the child wants, to help them to calm down when they wake properly.
This is an extract from my NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out May 5th 2020!

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Setting Limits on Junk Food for Children – Is it Possible When You’re Aiming for Self-Regulation?

I’m often contacted by people who, having read my Gentle Eating Book, ask me if I really set absolutely no limits on the junk food my children eat. I think they presume that they eat only sweets/candy and chocolate all day long and that my house is reminiscent of some sort of Willy Wonka’esque never ending sugar factory.


To answer this, I need to do a quick recap of the main ideas in my Gentle Eating Book. I’m not adding the research in here as 1. it’s all referenced in the book should you want to read it and 2. I’m writing this newsletter with zero time while our dinner cooks and don’t have time to dig them all out! Anyway – the main ideas behind so called ‘treat’ food are:

1. Labeling palatable food as ‘treats’, ‘sometimes foods’, ‘unhealthy’, or something similar can in itself make a child more likely to crave them as they get older. When we anthropomorphise something (ie give it a personality) it greatly impacts on how we interact with it.
2. Restricting palatable foods (by palatable I mean predominantly refined sugar) is shown consistently to be a large risk factor in the child being unable to self-regulate it later in life. ie: if sugary foods/junk foods are banned, or overly restricted, early in childhood, the child is more likely to struggle to regulate them as they grow and gain independence surrounding what they can eat and when. This dis-regulation often results in overeating and bingeing on the previously forbidden items in the teen and young adult years, which can and does impact on weight gain.
3. Children are able to self-regulate their food intake if adults don’t interfere with our learned beliefs and eating behaviours. Even refined sugar (and no – it’s not addictive! despite what you may read online, or in certain books, similarly it doesn’t make children hyperactive, or cause problems with sleep!). The key here is to look at what they eat in total over the course of a week, not analyse it hour by hour or day by day.

So – what does this look like in reality?

In our house, I order our groceries online and get a delivery that is to last us for between 7-10 days. I meal plan, so we have no wastage. What gets delivered I know will be gone by the time the next order arrives. Each week I order what many people would term ‘junk food’, or ‘treats’ (I just call them ‘food’): small chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps, fromage frais or chocolate desert pots and choc ices or ice pops usually. It usually works out so that there is enough for 1 chocolate bar, 1 packet of crisps and 1 desert option per day, per child. Plus a couple of biscuits per day, per child. These all go into our pantry or fridge/freezer and once they are delivered I have zero control over them. My control is what I buy and bring into the house. The children are allowed to self-regulate their eating of them. If they choose to eat loads the day the shopping arrives, then they have none for the next 7 days. If they eat them slowly they can have a feast the day before the new shopping arrives. If one child eats their own and their siblings’ food, well then they all have to figure it out themselves, because I don’t get involved in small sibling squabbles (I should add a caveat they are all tweens/teens, I would get involved if they were younger). Mostly, they take their allocation of food that doesn’t have to be refrigerated and keep it in their bedroom (personally, I hide my chocolate at the bottom of the vegetable drawer!). If they chose to eat chocolate for breakfast, then so be it (they invariably eat ‘proper’ breakfast 30 minutes later).

They are each free to spend their pocket money as they would like. If that’s all on sweets/candy, then so be it (it rarely is by the way, usually only when they have a sleepover or go into town with a friend and visit the sweet shop), because once I give that money to them I don’t believe I should have control of it (more HERE). If we’re out and about and they ask for a cake, or an ice cream, I will buy one if I have enough cash on me (they tend to only ask for sandwiches, sushi or cooked pasta pots though).

When it comes to Halloween, they do go trick or treating and come back with impressive hauls. I let them eat this haul with almost zero restrictions (when they were younger I used to take out the gluten containing items for my coeliac son and I won’t let them eat gumballs , bubble gum, or toxic waste type sweets – that’s a brand name by the way, google it – it’s disgusting!). If they want to eat all of it for dinner, then so be it. Usually I end up throwing away discarded sweets/candy a couple of weeks after Halloween when they’ve got bored of them, in fact it only takes a couple of days for the boredom to set in. I often find Christmas chocolate in the summer and uneaten Easter Eggs in the Autumn/Fall.

The only other way I get involved with their eating of ‘junk’, is by asking them to check in on their bodies if they’re hungry and want to eat. They tend to come home from school ravenous and want to eat immediately. My daughter in particular will grab the quickest thing, which is usually the biscuit tin. If I see her going for it I will ask “are you hungry? if you are, then some cereal or toast would probably fill you up more”. Sometimes she opts for cereal, other times she opts for the biscuits, but I make sure I have no further involvement in her choice, aside from getting her to think about why she is eating.

Is my approach perfect? Of course not, what is? Although, what I can see is that (so far) none of my children have the terrible relationship with ‘junk food’ that I had as a teen (and still do). My mother heavily restricted refined sugar when I was a child, junk food was a special treat only. I didn’t know any better until I got a little older and saw my friends had biscuits, cakes and soda streams in their homes. I would gorge on iced party rings and sweets at parties and when I went to secondary school I would often spend my dinner money solely on cake. I hope I’m raising my children to be different!

You can read more about the psychology of eating in childhood – and what the science says about raising children to have a healthy relationship with food in my Gentle Eating Book. available HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.

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What to do when Somebody Criticises your Parenting

“You really shouldn’t hold her so much you know”
“He should be sleeping in his own room by now”
“She’s too old to be having milk at night now”
“He should be sleeping through the night by now, it’s not good for him to wake so much”
“She’ll never learn to be independent if you don’t leave her”
“You need to be firmer with him, he has to learn he can’t always get his own way”
“If you don’t punish her she’ll never learn the consequences for her behaviour”
“She really should be in nursery now, socialising with children of her own age”
“You pander to him too much, if he doesn’t eat it then just take it away and send him to bed hungry”

I hear these sorts of comments so much from parents. When you practice a more gentle style of parenting, criticism from others can be all too common. So, what should you do then next time somebody offers you one of these pearls of wisdom?


1. Try to see the motivation
A lot of what we view as criticism can really be classified as well-meant concern. This is particularly true if it comes from those close to us, ie relatives. Perhaps they are worried about how tired you look, or they are genuinely concerned about your child and rather than meaning to attack what you are doing, their comments are actually aimed at (what they believe will be) something far healthier for your child, and you. The comments may come out wrong and it can be easy to perceive them as just being an attack on you, but I think most criticism is just poorly phrased concern. Of course this isn’t always the case, sometimes people are just negative interfering busy-bodies, but I find trying to look for the motivation really helpful.

2. Understand they are speaking from their own knowledge and experience base
When my firstborn was a baby, early weaning (by 16 weeks), cry based sleep training and punishments were the in-thing. This advice was given in all the baby books, by health visitors/child nurses, official healthcare publications and television experts. Things have changed a lot in the last 17 years, imagine how much they have changed over the last 30 or 40! I have kept up to date with current research and recommendations, because that’s my job, if it wasn’t, I’d have no reason to know how much things have changed and I would likely believe that the same recommendations still applied. People give advice/criticise based upon what they know and believe to be true. Similarly, they criticise and advise based upon their own experiences; of being a child and (sometimes) raising one. This involves a lot of cognitive dissonance, because accommodating new, updated, advice, means admitting that how they were raised, or how they raised their children may have been damaging. Instead of admitting this – and working through the big feelings it brings – many people will attack the new information, sometimes consciously, other times totally subconsciously. In a sense the fact you are doing things differently may be seen as an attack on what they did, or are doing. Hence, their criticism of you is a self-protective mechanism. Basically, their negative words are not saying anything about you, but everything about them.

3. Ask questions and Talk about Emotions
If you want to respond to the advice/criticisms; my strongest suggestion is to hold back on piling the evidence on them. I see so many posts on social media saying things like “can anyone provide me with some research showing sleep training is bad?”. Providing evidence here is totally ineffective. Why? Because it just won’t get through the cognitive dissonance barrier. They probably won’t even read it. If they do read it they will dismiss it. As much as you may think listing evidence is the way forward to convince them that you are in the right, it really isn’t. What works better? Two things – asking “why?” and appealing to their emotions. The next time somebody says “he needs to sleep in his own room” ask them “why?”. Keep drilling down and drilling down. When they say “because he needs to be independent”, ask “why?”. When they say “because he won’t ever learn to be alone otherwise”, ask “why?”. At some point they will reach a dead end and simply not be able to answer, or – there is a slim chance they may realise that their criticism has no substance and what they read/saw is incorrect (though don’t hold your breath!). Another tactic is to appeal to their emotions. Here, I like to ask them to put themselves into the child’s place, or imagine how they felt/what they needed as a child. “how do you think she feels when she’s left crying in her cot?”, or “do you remember a time when you really needed your parents, but they didn’t come for you?”. Asking ‘why’? and appealing to emotions is inifinitely more successful than providing evidence in my experience.

4. Smile and thank them
Aka ignore them. Ignoring in a way that makes them feel like they’ve been listened to is key though. Instead of saying “please keep your opinions to yourself”, or “no, I’m not doing that”. Responding with “Thanks for your advice, I’ll take it on board”, or “OK, that’s definitely something to think about” quietens people a lot quicker than disagreeing with them! Sure, you have not done anything to attempt to change their mind, but I think sometimes for our sanity it’s best to smile nod, ignore and move on. We’re not here to change the world for everybody, just our children. It’s OK if somebody holds a conflicting view to you.

5. Remind yourself of why you’re doing things this way
These last two points are about keeping your confidence up. Criticism and unwanted advice can really erode it. If you’ve been on the receiving end from several people, or over a sustained length of time (I’m thinking family holiday and so on) it can be all too easy to start second guessing yourself. Take a breather to remind yourself of why you’re doing this your way, re-read the books and the articles, watch a video, listen to a podcast. Revisit whatever source convinced you in the first place. If that source was your intuition/heart, then try to switch off from all things parenting and go for a long walk, watch a movie, read a (non parenting) book, meditate and do whatever it is that you enjoy doing to take away some of the toxicity.

6. Get support from likeminded parents
It can be hard parenting in a way that is not the norm. A day or two surrounded by people doing things differently to you is hard going, especially if they criticise you. The best solution I’ve found for this is to surround yourself with like minded people. People who agree with you. Post on the internet about your experience, the replies agreeing with you and telling you to ignore the critcisms can be incredibly validating! If you’re on Facebook, come and join my gentle parenting chat groups HERE for those of you in the UK and HERE for those of you elsewhere in the world.


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The power of self-forgiveness – and why it is important for your parenting.

I came across this quote recently and it really spoke to me. Of course, this isn’t only true for women, but men too. I think it’s highly applicable to parenting.

Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to parenting. Yes, it is wonderful when we set the bar high and aim to be the very best parent we can be, but it can also be incredibly damaging. I come across far too many parents who confess their guilt to me. They worry that they make too many mistakes, yell too much, don’t find joy in every moment, wish the days and nights away, regret having children, utilise screens too much, don’t play enough, didn’t breastfeed long enough, don’t feed their children totally wholesome food and so on….you name it, I’ve heard a related guilt confession. In fact I’ve never come across a group of people who are harder on themselves than those practising gentle parenting.

Yes, introspection and awareness of our flaws is a really important part of gentle parenting, but too many people let it get in the way, because they treat themselves so poorly. The irony that gentle parenting highlights children should be treated fairly, with empathy and respect is not lost on me when I think about how heavy some parents are on themselves.

I have made parenting choices that I am not proud of now and I would not make again if I knew then what I know now. I’ve also slipped up, many times, ‘in the moment’ and said and done things I regret. Everyone has, but I welcome my guilt for it teaches me to be a better parent. When we know better we do better. Life is about living in the now, parenting is about living in the now, not dwelling on what happened yesterday. If you don’t feel you have enough patience today, that’s OK, because tomorrow is a new day and everybody can change!

If you’re up for it, I’d like you to try something. For the next 7 days I’d like you to pay close attention to your thoughts. Every time you catch yourself feeling negative about your traits and parenting related qualities, I’d like you to stop and correct yourself. Remind yourself that you’re learning, you are doing your best and that you can – and will – be better with practice and a little self-directed empathy. Cut yourself a break, try to direct some of the nurturing you are constantly aiming at your children at yourself instead. If you’re an affirmations type of person, try repeating some of these to yourself when you feel most in need:

“I am still learning and I am doing the best I can”
“I am a great mum/dad”
“I can do this”
“Today is a new day, what happened yesterday is in the past, it’s time to move on”
“I am good enough as I am”
“Perfect doesn’t exist, real does”
“Today I will be kind to myself”
“It’s OK if I don’t know all the answers”
“We are learning together”
“All parents have bad days, some just hide them better than others”
“It’s OK to focus on my own emotional wellbeing”

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Starting Childcare When Your Baby has Separation Anxiety

Leaving your baby or child in the care of others can be a stressful time for parents, some children take the transition in their stride, but others struggle much more with the separation. While some settings and childcare providers offer brilliant support and advice to ease the transition, others are less helpful. Much is made of attachment theory in early years settings, yet I’m not certain that some truly understand its implications.

I have often seen well-meaning nursery workers peeling a sobbing child or screaming baby off of an equally distressed parent with reassurances of, “It will be okay, don’t worry.” The parents walk away with tear-stained cheeks, desperately trying to not look back, whilst the childcare workers speak in jolly voices trying to cajole toddlers with the promise of a sticker or story, or bounce babies whilst playing peekaboo.

Understanding attachment theory is so important here, for both parents and professionals. In the case of a securely attached mother-infant dyad, both will be experiencing trauma in the above situation if it is not well handled. The abrupt separation of the child from his or her ‘secure base’ is not something that can be ‘got over’ in minutes or hours. The child will stop eventually crying for its parent, but perhaps because of ‘learned helplessness’ or distraction, rather than being truly calm and reassured. It is important to realise that the potential trauma of separation is very real and valid, and to acknowledge, rather than try to silence it. Only then is it possible to move on to the ultimate goal – that of a truly happy child and a happy parent whilst using childcare.

So, How can you help to smooth the transition, mindful of attachment?

1. Empathy and respect
Listening is so important. Don’t be tempted to tell your child: “don’t worry”, “don’t be silly” or similar, all of which dismisses feelings. Instead, you could say, “I can see you’re very upset, that’s okay, it’s a really big thing. How can I help?” which validates feelings and shows your genuine concern. Of course, in the case of a baby or young toddler, this sort of conversation won’t be possible, but you can still empathise and ask yourself if there is anything you can do to make it easier for them. I think, more than anything, it’s important to face this transition as a unit, recognising that your baby, toddler or preschooler is not behaving this way to deliberately make things harder for you.

2. Questions, questions, questions
Asking lots of questions about the setting, what happens and when, how it happens, who is responsible for what  etc can help. Especially if you can make up a visual timetable of sorts to share with your child (again, suitable for older toddlers and preschoolers, but less so for younger). .Don’t be afraid to ask anything that is on your mind, especially something you feel might be silly to ask – it is often these points that bother parents the most and are therefore the most important to discuss. Also, make sure the staff have as much information about your child as possible. Tell them what their favourite toys and activities are, what television programmes they like, what craft activities they enjoy, what their favourite book is, how they like to calm if they are angry, or settle to sleep. The more information you provide, the easier it will be for the childcare staff to meet your child’s needs in a bespoke way. You could even consider writing this information down as a sort of plan, over a couple of sides of A4.

3. Speak with other parents who have been through similar
It can be tremendously helpful to access peer support from those who have been in a similar situation. You could ask the setting if they have a parent there who had a tough start but whose child is now thriving that you could talk to, or consider asking parents with a similar parenting ethos to you online what helped them (you can join my Facebook chat group if you’re in the UK HERE, or HERE if you’re outside the UK).

4. Make sure your child has a key person
A key person becomes a replacement attachment object for the child, so it is vital that they form a good bond with the child in advance of the child starting. Both the parent and child need to meet their key person several times before starting day. I recommend a minimum of 3-4 times, for a minimum of 30 minutes per time (though more is usually better). It is also helpful to take a photo of your child’s key person (with their consent of course) to take home and refer to, building recognition and bonding at home.

5. Visual cues
Young children do not process and store information in the same way as adults. Using visual props can be very helpful, e.g. a small scrapbook with pictures of the nursery and staff that you share with your child at home, in order to familiarise.

6. Transitional objects
If your child already has a comforter, a cuddly toy, for instance, this should always come with them to the daycare setting and should never be taken away. If your child doesn’t have one, try to condition one a good month before daycare starts (or immediately if already started) – do this by involving the comforter in hugs and cuddles and feeds if the child is a baby.

7. Ask for honesty
Ask your childcare provider to always be honest with you. If your baby or toddler has had a bad day tell them that you would like to hear the truth, however hard it is. If they tell you today has been especially hard, ask to have a conversation about why this may have been (what happened that day? Did anything different happen? How did your child sleep? What did they eat? Can you spot any patterns over time?). Try to use the bad days as an opportunity to discuss how you can improve things with the childcare provider.

8. Consider who does the drop off
Children of all ages are usually ‘better’ at the drop off (by that I mean less upset) if it is not the primary attachment figure (and here this is usually mum) dropping them off. If you live with somebody else and they are available to do drop offs, it may well be calmer and more successful. If you are alone, or nobody else can do drop offs, try to really work hard on your own emotions. Babies and children definitely pick up on our own anxieties and emotions. Practice some positive affirmations, deep breathing and mindful for a few minutes before you leave the house and again just before you get to the daycare setting. Aim to be as calm and positive as you can be. On this note, unless you absolutely MUST leave at a certain time (eg to make it to work on time), it is not better to make a quick dash and leave your child crying if you can stay for a while and help comfort them, whatever anybody may tell you at the setting. If you do have to leave by a specific time, consider arriving earlier if possible, to build in some time for a slower drop off.

9. Ask the provider to consider babywearing
Using slings and carriers can be an amazing way to settle fractious babies and young toddlers, especially if you babywear at home. Ask your childcare provider if they would be willing to carry your child for a short while after the drop off, especially if they have other children to care for. We know from research that a child crying ‘in arms’ does not suffer the same toxic stress effects as a child who is crying out of arms. Babywearing allows a childcare work to have free arms to support other children in their care, whilst ‘holding’ your child through their upset. This is a good article to share with your setting if they are not sure of the idea.

10. Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives
If your child is persistently failing to settle into the setting, don’t be afraid to consider alternatives. This is really pertinent if it is relating to a toddler starting preschool. I believe many toddlers are forced to start before they are ready and that waiting just another few months can make a dramatic difference, although this of course only applies if you don’t *need* to use childcare. If you need to use childcare because you are working, then consider other providers – e.g: some do much better in a home based care environment, such as a nanny share or childminder. Or if you are already using home based care, it may be that your child will form a better bond with somebody else. If your child is in a nursery and you want them to stay there, or there are no home based alternatives, perhaps they may do better with a change in keyperson. If you use childcare part-time, consider if it’s possible to switch the days, for instance, many do better if they attend on concurrent days, rather than spacing care out by a day or more over the week. There is usually something you can consider here, so don’t be afraid to think about alternatives.


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How to be a Gentle – Not Permissive – Parent

I was chatting with a journalist recently who was writing an article about forcing children to say sorry (based upon a piece I wrote for the HuffPost a while ago). In the piece I talk about the importance of parenting mindfully, leading by example and teaching children well – but not enforcing discipline because of societal rules, if those rules don’t fit with what we know to be a good fit for the capabilities of children. She asked me what I would do instead, or more specifically she asked “but, what happens if you don’t make them say sorry? Would you be OK with them never apologising as they got older?”. I explained that actually, they would be far more likely to apologise as they grew, if they had done something wrong, because the discipline I would use (namely being a good role model), would be far more effective.

I come across this misconception time and time again; that if you don’t make your child do something (in an authoritarian way), then they will never learn and will grow to be rude and feral. People seem to forget (or perhaps don’t realise in the first place) there is a sweet spot in the middle – something known as Authoritative Parenting. You can see more about the different styles below:

Despite the popular myth; there is a huge difference between Gentle Parenting and Permissive Parenting. Gentle Parenting falls into the official definition of Authoritative Parenting (not to be confused with Authoritarian which is harsh Victorian style parenting!).

Authoritative Parenting is characterised by the parent having realistic expectations of a child’s behaviour, a good degree of empathy and compassion and a good balance of control. ie giving children control where it’s appropriate with the parent taking the lead when it isn’t – or, what is better known as having consistent boundaries.

Permissive Parents tend to have unrealistic expectations of their children (believing they are less, or more, capable than they really are) and tend to give children too much control and not have consistent boundaries. You can see more about the different parenting styles and how Gentle Parenting fits in in the introduction to my Gentle Parenting book HERE.

To stop yourself straying into permissive parenting; the key is to first have a good understanding of what your child can and cannot do and can and cannot understand. To make sure that you are not expecting too little of them (or too much!) when it comes to their behaviour. In short, you need to have a fairly good understanding of child brain development.

Next, it’s about setting age appropriate boundaries and most importantly – sticking consistently to them. See THIS post for more on how to do this. An Authoritative (Gentle!) Parent would uphold boundaries even if their child is crying. What makes the parenting gentle is not the avoidance of crying, but how you respond and react to your child when they are upset – by staying empathic and offering them comfort.

A Permissive Parent is far more likely to drop a boundary if it upsets their child, for fear of them crying and they are also less likely to have boundaries in the first place. It is this setting and consistency of boundaries – and the acceptance of your child’s emotions – that marks the biggest difference between the two styles I think.

For more on what to expect of children at each age, how to choose and enforce appropriate boundaries and to stop yourself straying into permissive parenting, see my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the UKUSACanadaAustralia and the Rest of the World.

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Separation Anxiety – What it is, Why it Happens – and How to Cope

 You may notice that your baby starts to become more clingy as they get older, crying if you leave the room for only a few seconds or needing to be held by you all of the time. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of psychological development for babies that usually starts at some point between 8 and 18 months old.  Separation anxiety is actually a good sign of an emotionally healthy child, however it can leave many parents wondering if they have done something wrong and somehow created an unconfident baby. It is very important to remember therefore that this is a healthy sign.

Far from meaning that you have created a needy child it is actually a sign that you have done a great job raising your baby.  To understand why separation anxiety is a good thing we first need to start with what your baby thinks and feels at birth. Newborn babies have no idea that they are a separate entity to their parent. This knowledge begins to happen at around six months of age, usually peaking between nine and twelve months. The development of separation anxiety is an indication that your baby has formed a secure attachment to you, that they realise you and they are separate beings but that you are vitally important in terms of helping them to feel safe and secure.

Last century, the Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth formulated the idea of attachment theory. Their important work led us to the understanding that the beginnings of true independence and confidence in children stem from a secure attachment to their parents in infancy, or as Bowlby called it a “secure base”. For babies it is important that they are allowed to be dependent on their parents for as long as is necessary in order to be independent as an older child and adult. One of the best measures we have of ‘secure attachment’ is to observe a baby who is comfortable in the presence of his or her parent and very upset when his or her parent leaves. In our current culture however this is not seen as normal, it is seen as undesirable and ‘clingy’ behaviour and many experts and professionals are eager to force independence as soon as possible In the mistaken belief that independence can be taught, it cannot. The commonly held assumption that in order to create a confident independent child we must push them out into the world so they can learn we are not always there is grossly incorrect. True independence is not learnt through rewards, punishments and forced separation, true independence stems from a loving, secure relationship with caregivers at a young age. This is what your baby learns during this period of separation anxiety and why it is so important to stay responsive during this time. It is absolutely not a time for sleep training which only teaches the baby that you don’t come back when they need you.


Top Tips to Cope with Separation Anxiety.

  1. Empathising with your baby’s feelings is hugely important.  Try to understand that this is a normal phase of development, albeit a scary one, for them to pass through and that they are not trying to manipulate you in any way. If you parent with empathy during separation anxiety not only will your child be more empathic and confident themselves when they are grown, ultimately parenting will be easier and more rewarding for you too.
  2. Ignore advice from those who tell you that they need to learn to be alone. Despite research into attachment theory being prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, the results of this research didn’t really filter down into mainstream parenting. For this reason many grandparents probably parented in an entirely different way that involved their children “needing to learn to be independent”.
  3. Consider the timing of the end of maternity leave if possible. Many mothers book their return to work at around eight to ten months, but sadly this is perhaps one of the worst times a mother can return to work, because of the separation anxiety. Is it possible to push the return to work back by a month or two? Alternatively consider settling your baby into childcare well before separation anxiety hits in order that they can form a close attachment with their new caregiver.
  4. Try to foster your baby’s secure attachments with other people. Secure attachment doesn’t just have to be with the parents, it can be with grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, nannies, childminder or nursery key workers. You just need to build the secure attachment before separation anxiety exists
  5. Help your child to feel as close to you as possible by giving them an item of your clothing to hug. You could try a muslin spritzed with perfume, or worn close to your skin to absorb your scent, or an old T-Shirt that you have worn often. Some parents even record their voices, talking to their little one or singing a lullaby. Only around 60% of babies will take to a comfort object though.
  6. Try to keep the rest of your life as constant as possible around the age of separation anxiety. It may not be the greatest time to go on holiday for instance.
  7. Lastly, be kind on yourself whilst your baby is experiencing separation anxiety. This is the real key. You can’t do much to speed your baby through this stage, but what you can do is change how you respond. In order to respond with compassion for your baby you need to nurture yourself. Sleep when you can, enlist help from people your baby already has a secure attachment with, even if it is just for them to sit cuddling your baby for an hour whilst you soak in the bath. Keep telling yourself that it is a good sign and repeat the mantra “this too will pass” often.


    This is an excerpt from my Gentle Parenting Book – a guide to gentle parenting practices from pregnancy through to seven years of age. You can get a copyHEREin the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.

5 Ways to Reduce Tricky Behaviour From New Big Siblings

The following is an excerpt from my ‘The Second Baby Book’:

Ultimately, the solution to all behaviour problems that arise in the wake of the arrival of a new baby in the family is time. Until that time passes however, the following five steps can really help to reassure your child, which in turn will reduce their grief, frustration, confusion and hopefully their tricky behaviour eventually.

1. Understanding and Empathy
Remind yourself that your child is not jealous, they are grieving, and they are hurting. They are not being deliberately malicious. Their behaviour shows they are struggling and they need your help.

2. Recognition
Recognising your child’s feelings and showing them that you understand how they feel can go a long way to resolving their behaviour. “It’s so hard sometimes when the baby needs to feed so much isn’t it? I miss our hugs, I bet you do too?” recognises the child’s feelings, without them needing to verbalise them. It shows your child that you get it. You get them. That you’re on the same team.

3. Communication
Encouraging your child to communicate their feelings with you in whatever way they can is very helpful. If they are older, then instigate conversations with them about their feelings, bedtime is a great time for this. If they are pre-verbal, then teaching some simple sign language can help to remove frustration. If they are verbal, but struggle to understand emotions, then make sure to read books explaining emotions, so that they can point out pictures or characters they feel are like them.

4. Connection
Ultimately connection is the key. Your child is mourning the relationship you once had and feeling pushed out by the new arrival. You need to appreciate what a huge deal this is to them and help them to feel connected with you again. Doing bedtime, without the baby, every night is a great first step. But sometimes children need more. An hour in the park together every Saturday morning, while the baby stays home with your partner, dad, friend or relative. Swimming together, without the baby every Sunday afternoon, something predictable, that occurs every week is the ideal. Once the baby is older, or you feel able to leave them for several hours at a time, then planning some special “mum and son/daughter days” is important. Ideally a whole day, if not a whole morning or afternoon together, while somebody else takes care of the baby, just enjoying each other’s company, doing something fun together, can work miracles. This special day does however still need to be accompanied by the more frequent bedtimes and short park visits.

5. Patience and Persistence
Unfortunately, none of these techniques will work quickly. They require perseverance, patience and persistence. Don’t expect results in days, perhaps not even weeks. Think in months. Having a new sibling is a big deal, it can’t be adjusted to quickly. Often you will find different behaviours reoccur further down the line, even after a period of relative calm. This is normal and once again, they will pass. Eventually. In the meantime, the most important part of the puzzle is you. How you cope and react underpins everything.

The Second Baby Book is available as an e-book, paperback and audio book. 

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The Two Most Important Steps to Coping with any Behaviour – and why so Many get it Wrong!

I often speak with parents who are struggling with a specific behaviour, such as hitting. They will say “I keep telling them to stop and explain why they shouldn’t do it – but it just keeps happening!”. The problem here is not necessarily what the parent has done, but what they *haven’t* done. Dealing with tricky behaviour is a two step process. If you skip one of these processes, it’s almost inevitable that your discipline will be ineffective.

What are these two steps?

1. Dealing with the behaviour ‘in the moment’.
2. Understanding and future prevention.

Let’s look at them in some more detail:

1. Dealing with the behaviour ‘in the moment’.
This is what I call ’emergency discipline’. It’s discipline in the here and now. You have to stop your child 1. hurting themselves, 2. hurting others and 3. damaging things. This is what the parent has done in the hitting example above – they have stopped the hitting. That’s great, it’s important to do, but that’s only half of the discipline needed. I’m often asked how you stop children biting/hitting/throwing/running away and so on – my answer is pretty much always “however you have to”. This is emergency discipline. Safety is at risk. ‘Gentle’ is not high on my list at this point. If I need to physically move my child in order to stop them hurting others (or themselves) I will do. Even if it makes them cry. If I need to shout at them when they are about to run into a road and I can’t reach them quick enough, I will do. Remember – safety is our number 1 priority here. I need to extinguish the behaviour as quickly as possible. Once I have stopped the behaviour (and thus ensured safety) I would focus on reconnecting with and calming the child. This may not be a hug (some children need space, enforcing a hug on a child who would rather not be touched while they cool down is clearly not gentle!), it could be sitting close by, it could be letting the child know you will be in a different room whenever they need you. Of course you also need to calm down. When you are both calmer it’s time to talk, explain, hug and make everybody feel better. This is where the gentle comes in, not earlier – when safety (and getting the child to stop the behaviour) should be your priority.

2. Understanding and future prevention.
Coping with behaviour ‘in the moment’ is important, however it’s only half of the discipline. Unless you look at the cause of the behaviour and work to remove or reduce it, the behaviour is going to keep recurring, however well you coped ‘in the moment’. Step 2 is all about WHY? Asking why your child acted in such a way, trying to understand how they feel, what triggered them and what they need in order to dramatically reduce the chance of the difficult behaviour recurring is the second most important thing to do (after ensuring safety). Children don’t behave in difficult ways for no reason. Now it’s time to find that reason. In the case of hitting it could be: a need for more physical activity, a need to express feelings in a more positive way/to be understood, e.g: via signing, a need for more 1-2-1 time away from a sibling, a need to reconnect with you more if they spend time away from you in the daytime, a need for less (or more) stimulation, a need to be alone/away from other children, or simply a need for food or sleep. Until you find the underlying cause of the behaviour (and associated triggers) and work with that you will be left to deal with the same behaviour over and over again ‘in the moment’ (no matter how great your emergency discipline skills are).

The best – and most effective – discipline strategies incorporate both discipline steps!

For more on coping ‘in the moment’ and long term ‘why’ discipline check out my Gentle Discipline Book HERE in the UK, HERE in the USA, HERE in Canada, HERE in Australia and HERE in the rest of the world.

Talking to Children about Death

Children often become interested in, and preoccupied with, death around the ages of three to five years and parents can really struggle with explaining it to them – the natural instinct is to down play it, so as not to scare them. I am firmly of the belief that we should expose children to death (ie they should attend funerals) and discuss it in a factual, honest way with them. In other cultures death (and birth) are a normal part of everyday life that children are not shielded from, I think we could do well to learn from these societies.
I think it’s important to use words such as “dead”, “died” and “death”, not “passed away” and “passed on” when explaining death to a child. I would also keep religious talk (if you are religious/spiritual) out of these conversations initially. e.g I would not say “s/he has gone to heaven”, or “lives in the sky now” (even if this is what you believe) and I would definitely not use language about “going to sleep”. Finally, I would not say “s/he was poorly”, or “s/he was sick”, instead I would say “s/he died from xxx” (naming the actual disease). The language we use is VERY important when explaining death to children. We need to be very clear about what we mean, explaining somebody is in the sky or similar leaves it open to interpretation that they may come back. Saying something like “s/he was poorly” can leave children worried that they may die whenever they are sick and “gone to sleep” can cause worry at bedtime. The more precise and matter of fact you can be when explaining cause of death the better. Re. spiritual beliefs of an afterlife, it is fine to discuss these, but only when children have a good grasp of death and what it means, not included in initial conversations.

When helping children to understand death (and especially the permanence of it), it can help to use examples children may have been exposed to – e.g: the death of a pet (allowing them to see the body and take part in any burial), the death of a houseplant, or even the death of an insect. This helps to make it tangible to them. I would also read books about death, e.g: ‘Goodbye Mog’, or Margot Sunderland’s ‘The Day the Sea Went Out & Never Came Back’ to help the child to process their feelings in a safe, child-friendly way.


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