Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Good Night, Sleep Tight August 26, 2011

Filed under: Sleep — Heidi Emberling @ 3:41 pm

Good Night, Sleep Tight

I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Sleep on “Childhood Matters,” a Sunday morning radio program hosted by Rona Renner, RN on 98.1FM here in the Bay Area. (You can listen to the August 14, 2011 program HERE). During the show, we took phone calls and e-mail questions from parents of children ages 10 weeks, 4 years, a 5th grader, and a teen. And what I realized is that sleep is not just an issue for new parents with babies, it’s an issue that profoundly affects parents throughout childhood and beyond. Even when our children do sleep through the night, we may still lie awake ourselves, especially during stressful times.

Ensuring that our children are getting enough sleep is a fundamental goal of parents from the earliest months of life until our children leave home. In the early years, we wonder if we should keep our children close while they sleep, or encourage them to sleep independently. We may limit our daily outings in order to stick to a schedule for naps. And we may devise elaborate schedules and routines in order to encourage our children to sleep. In the preschool years, new fears disrupt sleep patterns: from the obvious (monsters, spiders, cartoon villains), to the more subtle fears (starting a new school, moving from crib to bed, potty learning struggles, or beginning kindergarten).

The one thing we can’t do, and this is frustrating for all parents, is fall asleep for our children. We can encourage, cajole, bribe, threaten, wish, plead, demand, hope, and plan for good sleep, but the act of falling asleep lies squarely in the child’s domain of control. Here are the areas you can control as a parent to support your child as they fall asleep: create an environment conducive to sleep, stick to a regularly scheduled bedtime and nap schedule, and follow a cozy (but not extensive) bedtime routine.

Environment: Is your child’s room prepared for sleep? Is it quiet, calm, dark (enough)? What about soft music or white noise? Is there a small night light? Depending on your child’s age, do they have a pacifier, stuffed friend or favorite blanket with them?

Schedule: Do you always put your child down at the same times for nap and bedtime? This gets tricky for children in the first two years as they move from three or four naps to one nap per day. Parents want to be consistent with naps, but also flexible as their child grows into less daytime sleep. Children set their internal sleep clocks to our external schedule and routine. Think about the last full-time job you had. Did you always have lunch around noon? Most likely, you began to get hungry about 15 minutes before lunchtime. Do you always go to bed by 10pm? You may start yawning by 9:45pm. You want children to set their clocks to your schedule.

Routines: Moving from high-energy activities to quiet, calming ones help guide a child towards sleep. When I support families in creating bedtime routines, I always begin from dinnertime. Everything you do from dinnertime on is part of your bedtime routine. If there’s time to play after dinner, make sure to offer quieter activities: puzzles, books, shape sorters, drawing. It’s important to do things in the same order each day, since children rely on you to provide predictable and gentle transitions.

Focusing on the areas in your control, such as the environment, schedule, and routines, can reassure you that you’ve done all you can to encourage your children to sleep. Now, it’s up to your child to do the rest.


Why are you upset? What’s wrong? What happened? August 4, 2011

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 6:31 pm

As parents, we want to support our children and solve (or help them solve) an immediate problem or conflict that is causing them any pain and/or suffering. If we notice our child is in distress, or if we hear them scream or cry from another room or another part of the playground, we rush over to find out what happened. And that is where the problem begins.

When a child retreats into “fight or flight” mode, two things happen. First, they become non-verbal, so even children who are usually proficient at expressing themselves may not be able to find words to describe why they are upset. And second, they can’t hear you, because they are so focused on the more immediate feelings of distress.

Think of a time when you were extremely angry. Your toddler just jumped off the couch and landed on your foot. You’re in extreme pain and you’re angry that your toddler was climbing on the couch. Your spouse comes over and says, “Calm down. What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?” You may need a moment to collect yourself before responding. You may be hopping around shouting “Ow, Ow, Ow!” (or shouting expletives that your toddler will certainly begin repeating tomorrow). Your initial response may be to yell at your toddler or your spouse (or both). Are you able to answer a barrage of questions in that moment? Probably not.

Our intention as the parent, teacher, or caregiver, is positive; we want to help the distressed child calm down by resolving the problem at hand. But if we begin by hurtling a bunch of questions at him, we will not be able to make a connection with him. And if you are not connected to your child, you will not be able to help him solve anything. In fact, we may unintentionally make matters worse. We may progress rapidly from gently asking “What’s wrong, honey?” to demanding, “Use your words or I can’t help you!” because we’re frustrated the child simply can’t answer us satisfactorily in that moment.

One successful alternative for connecting with a child in distress is to come over and just sit with her. Offer a hug, rub her back, or just sit near her, for those children that are not ready to be touched yet. Validate the strong emotion she may be feeling (you’re angry, you look upset, you’re mad, you’re frustrated), and wait patiently for her to reach out to you. She may eventually look up, reach out for the offered hug, or calm herself enough to begin talking about what happened. Only then, will you be able to help your child solve the original problem.

Heidi Emberling, MA