Children and Sleep
A new study looks at the sleep habits of children adopted from China, but all children can have sleep issues.

I was reviewing a recent study on sleep issues with kids adopted from China. Boy, did it bring back memories. Get any group of adoptive parents of children under five together, and I guarantee that the conversation will gravitate to sleep—or parental lack thereof. But I also talk with lots of parents who have biological children under the age of five, and they too complain about getting their kids to sleep and keeping them there. I have been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

One of our kids struggled with sleep and separation anxiety from the beginning. We tried every approach imaginable, including rocking him to sleep, letting him cry, sitting in his room until he fell asleep, sleeping on the floor of his room– to name just a few. What worked best was letting him share a room with a sibling. By the time that his brother wanted his own room, our sleep-troubled boy was more or less ready to sleep alone—some of the time. On most nights he would start out in his own bed, but he often moved in the middle of the night to be closer to us. We kept a sleeping bag in his room for that purpose. He seemed to go through stages: he would go weeks moving every night, then a few days sleeping in his own bed. He progressed over the years from settling down on the floor beside our bed, to the hall outside our bedroom, and finally to a room near our bedroom.

He didn’t travel lightly. One morning I found him sleeping on the hallway floor outside our bedroom with his stuffed dog, his flashlight, the US map with his state quarter’s collection, and his notebook of statistics he collected on the Olympics. I often wondered at his criteria for what to bring, for it changed nightly except for his dog and flashlight. All we asked was that he move his things back to his room each morning.

We took a pretty nonchalant attitude about his nocturnal wanderings. We tried to trust that he was developing in a way that was best for him. For the most part we succeeded, but not completely. Worry and second guessing were also a part of our lives. Should we try to discourage his sleeping near us, were we creating a Momma’s boy, was he not independent enough, had we done something to cause this “problem”, was this a reflection of some deep seated insecurity that would haunt him throughout his life. (OK, the last one was a bit over the top, but still, every once in awhile in the wee hours of the night, it crept in.)

The beauty of hindsight is that I can now see that he was progressing according to his own timetable. His progress wasn’t linear, but over time, his mid-night roving gradually decreased until he stopped completely some time in eighth grade.

Given our own struggles with kids and sleep, I was eager to read the latest sleep research on children adopted from China by Dr. Tony Tan. He talked about sleep issues and this research on the Aug. 6 Creating a Family show. (I have summarized this study on my adoption research page.) His research shows that we weren’t alone with trying varying sleep arrangements, and when children struggle with sleep, the techniques that worked best were a strict bedtime routine, or sharing a bedroom with parents, or co-sleeping with parents. We did all but the co-sleeping.

I have practical rather than philosophical objections to co-sleeping on a regular basis: I’m a light sleeper and don’t sleep well with squirmers and floppers, which most of my kids are. (I woke up this summer with my youngest sitting on top of me knocking on my head!?!) Also, with four kids, our bed would have been very crowded. It seems there are two schools of co-sleeping families. One group is doing it as a last resort because it works, and they need sleep. Their goal is to gradually transition their children to sleeping solo. For the second group, the family bed is the goal, and they follow the children’s lead on when they want to move out.

My only concern with co-sleeping is that it is not always as mutually satisfying as is often portrayed. In talking with both parents, I find that it’s fairly common for one parent to be less enthusiastic about co-sleeping as a long term solution to sleep issues. It’s not unusual for one parent to move out of the “family” bed on a regular basis in order to get a good night’s sleep. This worries me.

I’m a big fan of parents taking care of themselves. I think adoptive parents especially need to be encouraged to do this. Often they’ve waited so long for their children and have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in attachment theories that stress constant adult/child bonding that they have a hard time asserting their own needs. If co-sleeping works for both parents, go for it, and blow off the societal sleep police. My only caution is to make darn sure both parents really want this. (If you decide you want to transition from the family bed, you might want to listen to the June 11, 2008 Creating a Family show on the No-Cry Sleep Solution, where the author, Elizabeth Pantley, gave specific suggestions.)

Now that I’m on the other side, it’s easy for me to tell you not to worry; most kids eventually find a way to get to sleep and stay there. An uninterrupted night’s sleep is in your future. But, although that is true, I could also tell you that your worries over sleep will be replaced by other worries, such as dating, driving, and passing grades. I guess it’s in the nature of parenting to worry, just don’t let the worry crowd out the joy.

Image credit: Wouter van Doorn