Afraid of Needles

Nobody enjoys getting a needle, but getting the occasional needle is a fact of life. Babies, kids and teens get them for immunizations as well as for blood tests and other routine medical care. Some children who have been treated in a hospital have endured intravenous injections as well. In fact, no one knows when they might have to receive a needle for emergency medical care. This being the case, it is highly inconvenient to have an intense fear of needles! Unfortunately, many kids are afraid of the pain that accompanies receiving a needle and some children have an actual needle phobia – a reaction involving irrational terror and panic.

If your child is afraid of needles, consider the following tips:

Use Emotional Coaching
If your child is afraid of getting a needle, try using emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is the naming and accepting of feelings. In this scenario, you can say such things as “I know you’re afraid the needle will hurt,” or “I know you don’t want to have the needle – nobody really likes getting needles.” Acknowledge your child’s fears without minimizing or discounting them. For instance, DON’T tell him the needle won’t hurt or that it’s not such a big deal or that he is being a baby! When you simply accept the fact that he’s fearful, it actually helps take away some of the fear. However, if your acceptance does nothing to minimize feelings of panic, it is still valuable: it shows the child that you take his feelings seriously. This helps develops the child’s emotional intelligence which, over time, helps the child have greater comfort with his own and other people’s feelings. (Emotional Intelligence also leads to success in every area of functioning.)

Be Careful Not to Reinforce Fears
Avoidance makes fears worse – don’t solve the problem by letting your child skip the needle if it isn’t absolutely necessary or if it can be taken on a later date. Moreover, try not to show excessive interest in the fear (i.e. by constantly talking about it). Make your communications and interventions on the topic brief, matter-of-fact and low-key.

Try Simple Techniques First
Some kids can be bribed out of their fear, so if offering a treat or privilege helps to distract the child from fear, then go ahead and do it. Similarly, if distracting the child at the time of the needle with a joke, a funny face, a question or a puppet will help the child get through the moment comfortably, then go for it! However, if your child’s anticipatory anxiety is way too high for such simple interventions, then consider the techniques below.

Teach Strategies to Cope with Fear
Teach your child how to use his imagination to help him stay calm and confident. Right now, your child is imagining his skin being painfully punctured. He is fixated on the moment of pain. You can instruct him to imagine the time period AFTER the needle – he can picture himself leaving the doctor’s office with a nice lollipop in his mouth, or a storybook that you’ve bought for him, or (if he’s older) the new game on his handheld device. (Of course, you don’t really have to get the child anything new; he can just imagine having one of his old favorites with him!) Imagination is strengthened by asking the child to close his eyes and cross his arms across his chest, Indian Chief style. He should then picture leaving the doctor’s office happily while he taps alternating left, right, left, right with his hands on his upper arms or shoulders. Tapping like this for one to three minutes is all that is necessary and can be repeated whenever he starts to feel fearful. Bi-lateral tapping helps the imagination take root deep in the mind where it can affect the emotional centers.   Another thing you can do, is teach your youngster breathing techniques to help calm his nerves, particularly when he is about to receive his needle. One simple technique that is easy to teach is to have your child think the word “in” while breathing in and think the word “out” while breathing out.  In addition,  you might look into a fear-busting technique called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). This is a simple form of acupressure that you can do with your child before his gets his needle. It involves tapping lightly on your child’s body on meridian pathways on the face, chest and fingers. In many cases, the technique causes the fear to completely disappear in a matter of minutes. In other cases, it brings the fear down to a more manageable level. There are many internet resources for learning EFT – a very easy and quick technique to reduce fear and other negative emotions.

A Needle Phobia May be a Genetic Condition
While fears can be acquired after bad experiences, phobic reactions are biological vulnerabilities – a child can inherit the tendency to have one or more phobias. (If a child develops panic around needles because of having had a life-threatening experience involving a needle, then it may be part of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder rather than a simple phobia.) Therefore, if your child has a complete meltdown, cries, absolutely refuses to cooperate with the doctor (or even go to the doctor), it is possible that he or she is suffering from the very common mental health disorder known as Simple Phobia. There is nothing “simple” about such a phobia from a parent’s point of view, however, since the child’s overwhelming reaction makes it extremely challenging to provide the proper medical care. Some children will calm down, however, if given a few drops of Rescue Remedy in water. Rescue Remedy is a harmless water-based remedy – a special type of Bach Flower preparation – that is used for intense upset and overwhelming experiences. It helps turn off the fight-or-flight response. Although it is useful in the moment for a child who must have a needle, proper treatment with Bach Flower Therapy can help prevent the panic from happening in the future (see below).

Experiment with Bach Flowers
Bach Flower Therapy is a naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. It treats every type of emotional disturbance (fear, panic, worry, anger, tantrums, low mood, guilt, perfectionism and so on). When your child worries obsessively (i.e. can’t stop thinking about the needle that he is going to have), you can give him the flower remedy called White Chestnut. For specific fears (like the fear of needles) you can use the remedy Mimulus. The remedy Rock Rose is used for feelings of panic. You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child four drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the fear is gone. Start treatment again if the fear returns. Bach Flower Therapy can help melt fears out of the system over time and can compliment any other treatment the child is receiving.

Professional Assessment and Treatment
If your interventions have not helped your child face needles more comfortably, you can have him or her assessed by a mental health professional. A short course of professional treatment may help your child manage this fear much better.

Difficulty Awakening or Remaining Asleep

Most parents won’t be surprised to learn that babies and young children don’t always sleep through the night. In fact, even older children and teens may wake up before dawn.

If your child wakes up in the middle of the night consider the following tips:

Waking Up After Being Put to Sleep
This problem is very common among babies and some toddlers. A very new baby may wake up only minutes after being put to sleep. Older babies may wake an hour or two after “going down for the night.” And toddlers are notorious for waking up 4 or 5 hours after going to bed.

Children, like adults, drift in and out of various sleep cycles. When they are in a light stage of sleep, they may wake seeking food, comfort or both (i.e. babies may wake up to nurse). These small humans may wake several times throughout the night, disturbing their already exhausted parents.

Most people keep very small babies close to them at night (in their bed or in a cradle or crib in the parent’s room or nearby) in order to minimize the amount of energy nighttime parenting will take. It’s easier to roll over to take care of a baby than to get up, paddle down the hall, tend to the baby and then return to one’s own bed. However, many people do the latter even with newborns and certainly with older babies and toddlers. At a certain point, a parent may stop responding to the waking child in order to train the child to sleep through the night. Many people wait until the baby is around 9 months old before starting to withdraw nighttime attention in a gradual process. Some wait until the child is 14 months. Some just wait until the child stops waking up all by him or herself. Whatever works for the parent is fine. Parents know the limits of their own energy and they know what parenting style works best for them. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving nighttime waking problems. However, as long as a baby is permitted to nurse at night, he or she will tend to wake up many times in order to do so. Nighttime weaning therefore is a necessary step on the way to stopping nighttime waking.

Some school-age children also wake in the night. Usually, some sort of health problem (like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or nightmare disorder) is responsible. However, anxiety can also be a culprit; when an anxious child goes into a light sleep cycle, he or she may wake up for a moment and discover that he or she is alone – this can cause the child to wake up fully, get out of bed and run to the parents’ room. Teenagers can also wake up after going to sleep. Like school-age children, this indicates some sort of physical or emotional issue. Teenagers may have sleep disorders caused by, caffeine, drugs or alcohol as well as mental health issues like anxiety or depression, that interrupt sleep. When children and teens wake up in the night, a trip to the doctor for a complete check-up is recommended. If everything checks out fine, a trip to a mental health professional is then indicated. Even when the child does not have a mental health diagnosis, a psychologist can teach the child self-soothing and relaxation skills that can help him or her fall back to sleep independently and quickly and/or stay asleep throughout the night.

Difficulty Waking Up in the Morning
A totally different type of problem is having trouble waking up. This issue doesn’t seem to affect babies or toddlers! School age children usually have trouble waking up when they have not had enough sleep. This can happen because the parents haven’t established a consistent, appropriate bedtime or because the child cannot fall asleep at the appropriate time. Sometimes a child’s system is too active and he or she just can’t wind down and go to sleep. Some kids lie awake for hours after being put to bed. Of course they’re tired in the morning! Teens who can’t get up may have the same problems but they are likely to be short-changed on sleep for other reasons as well. This age group likes to stay up on their computers late at night or stay up with friends into the wee hours of the mornings. They can’t get up because they just don’t go to bed on time.

Children who can’t fall asleep at night may benefit from medical and/or alternative treatment. Medications, herbs and supplements are available that help the nervous system settle down at the right time of night. Melatonin is one such treatment but there are many others; ask your doctor and/or naturopath for assessment and treatment. For children who CAN fall asleep but choose not to, more structure and discipline may be required. Consequences for failing to be up on time can help motivate a youngster to get into bed earlier. A teen who wants a ride to the bus stop can be deprived of that ride if he isn’t out of bed on time. Or he can be deprived of his allowance or some other privilege. Children who can’t get up on time may have to go to bed a half hour earlier the next night or lose some privilege. If you are having trouble finding consequences that matter, consult a psychologist or parenting specialist for ideas.

It’s important to establish some sort of reward or consequences system to help kids get up on time – do not use anger as a wake-up tool! Sometimes, waking up is as simple as finding the right alarm clock (i.e. something very loud and very funny is good for kids). Teach kids NOT to use the snooze alarm, as this just teaches them to sleep through the alarm.

Remember too, that the parental model is important – if you sleep in, your child is more likely to do so as well. And keep in mind that most kids do grow out of the “sleeping in” stage eventually. Those who don’t generally find careers that allow them to sleep in! Try to guide your child but don’t stress too much about it. The consequences that life presents are usually sufficient to encourage morning wakening (i.e. detentions at school, job issues, parenting responsibilities and all the rest).

Insomnia and Sleep Issues

You may have thought that you would be finished putting your kids to sleep once they emerged from the pre-school years. Think again! The reality is that even school-age children often need to be settled to sleep. This age group suffers from various sleep challenges like excess energy and difficulty winding down or over-excitement, or anxiety or other troubled emotions. Many kids cannot fall asleep, others sleep fitfully and others wake several times a night. And given that the responsibilities of being a student require that kids are not just physically awake but are also mentally alert during the day, parents will want to help their kids sleep well at night. A good night’s rest is important to academic success. Parents can do much to help their youngsters achieve this goal.

In this article, we will discuss some tips and strategies parents can use to help school-age children fall asleep. We will start off by discussing what might be preventing your child from getting a good night’s sleep.

Possible deterrents to sleep include:

Physical Discomfort
Being too hot or too cold can interfere with sleep. An environment that is too noisy may also cause sleep problems for some adults and children. Babies can’t tell you about their comfort levels, unfortunately. When they cry, however, you might try adjusting their blankets or clothing to see if it makes a difference. Opening or closing a window, adjusting lights, shutting or opening the door – any of these environmental changes might make a positive difference.

Deflated and Elated Emotions
Depressing and troubling situations like death in the family, or very good news like winning the lottery (or another exciting development), makes the body produce chemistry that may linger beyond the time we need at which we normally go to sleep. We only need to settle this chemistry back to normal in order to put both the mind and the body to rest and eventually enter the state of sleep. Babies who’ve had an unusually active day may be more alert at night even though parents may think that they should be more exhausted than usual. Similarly, children may have trouble settling down after a particularly exciting day at the amusement part. Teenagers who are prone to experience strong emotions relating to their social lives may also have trouble settling down; too much chemistry is running through their bodies. Parents going through stress or trauma inevitably have sleeping challenges, as do those who experience tremendously positive events. Most of these kinds of sleep issues are temporary.

If a noisy mind, emotional stress, or agitated emotions are what’s keeping your child (or yourself) up at night, you may wish to consider Bach Flower Remedies. Try “Rescue Sleep” – a mixture of Bach Remedies available at health food stores and online, consult a Bach practitioner for an individually tailored remedy, or learn more about Bach Flowers on this site. Another  fast and effective intervention for emotional stress is EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. You can learn this technique  yourself from Internet resources and books or you can consult a therapist who uses this technique in the clinical setting.  You can treat your child with it before bedtime, spending only a couple of minutes to release anxiety and stress or, you can teach an older child how to use the technique independently. Stress that doesn’t respond to self-help can be addressed effectively by a mental health professional.

Change in Sleeping Pattern
Our sleeping pattern is determined by our daily routine. As we normally sleep at a certain time everyday, our body gets used to this pattern and eventually remind us to sleep at that particular time, the same way we get hungry during lunch or dinner time. It does this by producing sleep hormones. When we suddenly try to change our time of sleep, we find it hard because our body is not used to producing sleep hormones at that time. When you change your child’s sleep time (as in the seasonal changing of the clock) be prepared for a week or so of poor sleep. Similarly, when you remove your toddler’s nap time, or go on vacation – expect disrupted sleep patterns. When the new pattern is established, sleep will be restored.

Change in Environment
Just as the body is affected by sleeping routine, it gets used to certain sleep settings. When we switch beds or when we put the lights on when we’re used to sleeping with the lights out, our body takes time to adapt to this new setting. We’ll go through sleepless nights and days before our body gets used to the new environment. When you change sleep locations due to vacations and visits, expect sleep disruption. When you move to a new house or even change your room within your old one, expect some sleep disturbance for a couple of weeks. Children and adults are similarly affected. Be patient and wait for the body to adjust.

Chemicals
Substances like caffeine and nicotine, as well as certain medications with stimulating effects enhance the activity of the brain. Take chemicals into consideration when serving kids food in the evening (cut down on sugar, caffeine, food colorings and highly processed snacks).

Over-stimulation
In the hour before bedtime, wild behavior, intense exercise, scary or intense media and other sources of stimulation can make it hard for kids and teens to settle down. It’s best to use that pre-sleep hour for calming the body and mind, rather than rousing it up!

Strategies for promoting sleep include:

Change the Bedtime
“Bedtime” is the time at which a person is tired enough to go to sleep. If you’ve set a 7:30p.m. bedtime for your child who isn’t sleepy until 9, then consider the possibility that you’ve set the wrong bedtime. Not all kids need the same amount of sleep. Some children, like some adults, can get by well on fewer hours than you might think is normal. Maybe you thought that every kid needs 9 hours sleep, but it turns out that YOUR child only needs 7! If your child can get up in the morning fairly easily and function well at school all day and maintain a decent mood until the evening, then he or she is getting enough sleep. But what if your child ISN’T doing well on just 7 hours, but has to get up for school on time anyways and still isn’t tired at the time that would allow him or her to get those important extra hours of sleep? In other words, what if your child does need  8 or 9 hours sleep but is only getting 7?   If this is the case, you haven’t set the bedtime too early. You need to find a way to help the child feel more tired at the right time.

You can Increase the Child’s Sleepiness
Some parents find that they can “tire their child out” by making sure the youngster has had plenty of fresh air and exercise in the daytime. Although this doesn’t work for every kid, it might work for yours – so give it a try. Encourage your older child to do sports, dance or other forms of exercise after school each day. Take your younger child to the park if possible, or for swimming lessons, skating lessons, karate or other active sports or physical activities. Try to arrange outdoor time – walking to and from school or friends or lessons. Try not to drive the child everywhere – let him or her walk or bike instead.

Teach Your Child to Relax and Wind Down for Sleep
To help ready a child for sleep, reduce stimulation in the half hour or hour before bedtime. Help the child turn his or her attention away from the activities of the day toward a quieting down, readying for sleep focus. You can teach the child (or have someone else teach the child – like a yoga teacher or a psychological practitioner) how to use the breath to induce deep relaxation and restfulness. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response is one excellent breathing tool that is so simple even very young children can use it and so effective that it helps people of all ages learn to deeply relax and fall asleep. The technique involves breathing normally, but on the “out” breath, think the number “one.” That’s all there is to it. Yet breathing this way for a few minutes, alters all the rhythms of the body and mind and settles them into patterns conducive to profound relaxation or sleep.

Try Natural Sleep Aids
There is a reason why parents give their kids milk before going to bed. Milk has a very calming effect on a drinker, and taking it before going to sleep can help facilitate some zzz’s. You may also consider natural herbs that are known for helping people get a good night’s rest. There are many herbal preparations (teas, lollipops, syrups) that are safe and healthy for kids. A special blend with sedative properties can be prepared by a professional herbalist or you might be able to find a pre-mixed blend in your local health-food store or on-line. The more days the herb is used, the stronger its effects become. Sometimes the herb is to be taken in the evening to help the child to unwind, and sometimes the herb is taken during the day, to help the entire nervous system become more calm and settled, which will facilitate normal bedtime sleepiness in the evening. Consult a herbalist to learn about which herbs are appropriate for children or teens and which ones should be avoided. Learn about dosage and safety issues.

Nutritional supplements can have similar effects. Some feeds are sedative and calming in nature and can even induce fatigue. Arrange a consultation with a holistic nutritionist or dietician who may be able to guide you. Naturopaths may also be able to advise you on the selection of foods and nutritional supplements that can help calm and settle the child or teen for sleep. Similarly, homeopaths, acupuncturists, Bach Flower practitioners and other types of alternative healers may be able to offer interventions that can improve your child’s circadian rhythms (sleep cycle), or help relax an overactive body or mind.

Consult a Doctor
Sometimes a doctor will prescribe melatonin to help the child experience fatigue at the right time. If the child’s wakefulness is caused by ADHD, medications can be altered or added to induce sleepiness. Other physical and mental health conditions that cause the child to be hyperalert can also be addressed with medication.

Create a “Parking Bay” for Nightly Concerns
There are occasions when kids have trouble sleeping because they have so many worries about the next day. If this is the case, parents can help their child by starting a ritual of listing down all these worries before going to bed. Create a pact: once a concern is listed on paper or on a white board, it means that it is to be temporarily set aside until the next day. This way your child gets to unload from their mind all the things that are bothering them before going to bed. However, after writing down worries, be sure to write down some positive thoughts, memories of the day and things to look forward to. You want to help the brain go to sleep peacefully and happily.

Set a Schedule
You know how kids are with their assignments; if you leave your child to accomplish their homework when they want to, they will play all afternoon and evening, and then try to finish their assignments way into the night! If you want your school-age child to sleep on time, set a regular time for homework and a regular time — with justified limitations — for their play. If kids are conditioned from an early age that the day ends at bed time, then they are less likely to stay up well into the night. Make the transition to bedtime with a period of quiet time – bathing, stretching, reading in bed. Teach your child a few yoga postures and breathing patterns to dispell stress and physical tension.

Be Strict about Lights Out Policy
Lastly, one effective way parents can get their children to sleep on time is to implement a daily lights out policy at a reasonable bed time. Lights outs should include no computer or TV time after bedtime. In a house of parents and teens,  everyone may go to bed at the same time – or not!. However, when there are younger kids in the family, there will always be several different bedtimes going on. As each person hits their bedtime zone, everything must quiet down around them. The quiet and stillness itself is a cue to the brain to settle down and get ready for sleep.

Consult a Mental Health Professional
If you have done all you can to help your child establish good sleep habits but your child is still having trouble falling asleep, then make an appointment with a mental health professional who can guide you further.

Refuses to Eat Breakfast

Breakfast is an important meal. For one thing, breakfast provides energy and nutrients for the first part of the day. Secondly, it’s a meal that comes after a long period of not eating (during sleep), so skipping it gives the body the impression that it is fasting and causes it to slow down its metabolism in order to preserve nutrients. This can result in weight gain! Health practitioners have always recommended making breakfast the heaviest and most nutritious serving of the day, instead of lunch, snacks or dinner since a person has time to use the nutrients and work off the calories of this earliest meal. After dinner, for example, many people are sedentary until they go to bed a short while later. There is certainly no need to ingest a large amount of food in order to sit around for a couple of hours and then go to sleep!

So what can parents when their child refuses to eat breakfast?

First, Determine Why Your Child Does Not Want to Eat
As with most things, an accurate diagnosis is half the solution. Could it be that your child doesn’t like the food you are serving? Or maybe he or she rarely feels hungry in the morning? It’s also possible that your child is always running late, and breakfast is a luxury he can’t afford (many adults have this problem too!). Knowing the specific cause of not eating breakfast can help a parent provide a tailor-fit response.

If what you put on the plate is the problem, maybe it’s time for a change in the menu. The good thing is, there are many high energy breakfast choices that a parent can choose from to break the monotony of cold cereal. Tasty muffins, fresh waffles, eggs and bagels, fruit breads, french toast, granola, various puddings, cheese and crackers, hot cooked grains, fresh baked scone, cottage cheese salads, and many other delicious and nutritious treats can be served up. If you bake them at home you can make sure that you use high protein, high fiber “ancient grains,” (like sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, etc.), nuts and nut flours (like almond flour), dried fruits, eggs and milk products. There are many cookbooks available today that offer you a wide range of nutritious options for breakfast. If time is short (as it is for most of us!), you will find many offerings in your grocery and local health food store – fresh and frozen (ready to heat & eat) wholesome breakfast foods – both ready-to-make mixes and ready-to-pop-in-the-oven prepared foods.  Of course, you can also spice up old traditional offerings — perhaps you can add fruit to that pancake, or serve non-traditional breakfast foods such as meat, poultry, salads or whatever else your child might be willing to eat.

If the problem is that your child doesn’t feel hungry in the morning, then you might consider some extra interventions. Waking a child earlier usually helps address this problem, as hunger usually take some time to kick in after rising. Give your child a small drink of lemon-water (water to which you’ve added a bit of lemon juice and optional sweetener) to wake up the digestive tract and stimulate appetite. Eliminating midnight snacks and 3 am kitchen outings will also help. You may also cut back on dinner portions, or take dinner earlier, so as to give more room for breakfast in the morning.

If constant rushing is the reason kids skip breakfast, then the solution is to make sure your child gets up on time and moves efficiently! In the meantime, prepare a packed sandwich or fruit that they can eat on the bus or while walking to school. Taking a meal on the road may not be ideal practice, but it’s better than letting your child skip the most important meal of the day. Alternatively, make a quick, nutrition-packed breakfast smoothie by blending together milk or milk substitute, fresh or frozen fruit, protein powder and optional “extra’s” like chia seeds (for fiber and nutrients), yogurt, kale, flavorings and sweeteners.

If Possible, Eat Breakfast as a Family
Never underestimate the influence of a family routine. If you establish breakfast early on as a family affair it can encourage life-long breakfast eating – a healthy practice.

Baby Wakes Up at Night

You can’t blame exhausted parents for trying – they want their 8 hours of sleep back! So they read every book on the market and scour the online resources. “Rock your baby, don’t nurse her,” “Walk your baby till she falls asleep and then gently lay her in her crib,” “Sing to your baby while patting his back until he drifts off,” “Don’t pick her up again, just talk to her,” “let her cry 10 minutes before you come to her and then don’t pick her up,” and so on and so on. Many people offer advice about how to get a baby to sleep through the night because somewhere, for some baby, this advice actually worked at least once. However many, if not most, babies will defy your get-him-to-sleep strategies and continue waking up several times a night for—brace yourself—several years.

Why aren’t people aware of this fact? Because the popular culture suggests that if parents just do it right, their babies will be sleeping through the night by 4 – 6 months of age. Feeling embarrassed and inadequate, most parents with wakeful 8 month-olds or 2 year-olds simply don’t tell the truth to anyone. “Is your baby sleeping through the night?” the mom at the Moms & Babes group asks.  “Oh, yes. He sleeps quite nicely,” lies the other mom for fear of admitting what a failure she is at this tender stage of the game. Her lie only goes into the large pile in the sky that makes other normal parents feel guilty and ashamed. She should have answered, “Gosh no! Babies aren’t supposed to sleep through the night! Yours doesn’t, does he?”

Why Do Babies Wake Up?
Infants need things in the night. Their little bellies empty every couple of hours and for the first year or so, they actually get hungry in the night. In addition, when babies cycle into light sleep, they “realize” that they are alone; they crave warm body contact and cry out for it. In the second year of life, nursing babies suckle for the same reason—no longer just out of hunger (because their tummies have grown and can hold more food), but now out of longing for physical contact. Some babies are sensitive to the sensations of their own bodies and will wake with discomfort from a wet or dirty diaper.

All of this waking has been programmed into babies for their survival. If you were a paraplegic without a wheelchair or other equipment, unable to speak the local language and unable to get yourself from point A to point B,would you want to be left alone for 8 hours at a time? Probably not. You would want to know there was someone near by who could meet your needs. Have you ever been stuck in a dentist’s chair or other restraining medical device for 15 minutes without someone in the room? Did you feel a twinge of the panic of helplessness in that situation? What if you needed something? What if you wanted to tell someone something?

Babies are in that position until they become toddlers. They are helpless. To top it all off, they are like foreigners—unable to speak the local language. They open their mouths but they cannot put their needs and wishes into words; they can just make noise.  For all these reasons, babies are programmed to be distressed about finding themselves alone. It just isn’t safe for them to be alone. There are serious survival issues going on. They wake up for contact to in order to assure that they will be looked after. This is not something that we want to program babies out of any more than we would want to program adults out of their scream response when faced with life-threatening danger.

Training Babies to Sleep Through the Night
Nonetheless, removing survival instincts can be accomplished, if we only persevere long enough. By ignoring a baby’s cries consistently, the baby will learn that no one will come and there is no point in crying anymore. If this experience only occurs at night, the baby learns that there is no point waking up at night. For parents, this translates into a baby who sleeps through the night. If it happens both day AND night, the baby goes into a hopeless depression (as seen in “failure to thrive” syndromes), since he “realizes” that he has been abandoned and there is no further hope of getting his needs met (and therefore no further reason to keep trying to bring help through crying). Fortunately, for most babies, the “abandonment” experience is happening only at night. However, the newly subdued baby has still learned that there is no point in crying. This will not lead to hopeless depression. In fact, in babies who are now enjoying a better night’s sleep, we may even see improved daytime mood.

Here is the problem however: if a baby quickly catches on to the idea that crying at night is a waste of time, there is minimal suffering on the baby’s part. However, if the baby has the “not-so-good sleep genes” that cause him to put up a royal battle, screaming for weeks or months  before he finally submits to the new regime, then it could be that the child is truly suffering. What this does to his long term development is simply not known. Some say it does nothing. Others say that it causes trauma. More research is required before we will know the truth.

Tired Parents
Even if parents do not want their babies to feel abandoned, it is not clear that responding to their every cry at night is the action of choice. After all, tired parents also pose a risk for babies. Tired parents have less patience with their children and are therefore more likely to engage in poor parenting techniques like snapping at the kids (including the baby), yelling or speaking in a harmful way. Fatigue causes more daytime errors including driving more dangerously, forgetting to turn off electric elements and putting the baby down in unsafe locations “just for a moment.” Exhausted parents can even dose off during the day when they need to be alert. Therefore, it is essential that parents find a way to balance their own needs for sleep with their babies’ needs for night-time wakings. This is especially important because night-time waking happens, as stated earlier, in the majority of homes—not the minority. And, it continues for the early years of childhood in many homes. Therefore a coping strategy is badly needed!

Here are some strategies that parents have found to be helpful. Not all will be practical for your own situation, therefore simply choose any that might fit into your own lifestyle:

  • Keep the baby in bed with you and DON’T get out of bed the entire night (see Dr. Sears’ books on attachment parenting for details of co-sleeping techniques and strategies). Although you’ll still be waking in the night to tend to the baby’s needs, you’ll need to expend less energy doing so.
  • Keep toddlers on a small crib-size mattress on the floor near your bed. At first, they can start in your bed and when they fall asleep, you can gently place them on the floor mattress beside you.
  • Have the baby or toddler sleep on a large mattress on the floor in her own room. When you wake up, go to the child’s bed and sleep there the rest of the night.
  • Tend to the baby in his crib when he cries at night. In the daytime, hire a daily baby-sitter and take a nap for a couple of hours. If the baby is in play group or daycare and you are at home, take your nap during those hours.
  • Alternate “baby duty” with your spouse. Whoever tends to the baby at night, gets a one or two hour evening nap the next day while the sleeping spouse takes responsibility for house & childcare.
  • Alternate night-time shifts with your spouse so that neither of you gets completely exhausted. For example, one answers cries until 2 a.m. and one answers cries after 2 a.m.
  • Use weekends to catch up on sleep. One spouse sleeps in late on Saturday; the other sleeps in late on Sunday.

As you can see, all of these strategies address the problem of night-time waking by assuming it is going to happen, parents are going to be tired and they will need to make up the sleep somehow. This approach is more in line with reality than trying to get babies and young children to stay asleep all night long. But here’s the good news: once kids are around 4 years old, there are effective strategies that can be used to really keep them in their beds throughout the night. By the time a child is this age, he can speak and walk; he is no longer totally helpless. He is familiar with his world and is achieving a level of competence. No harm will be done now by insisting that he stay in his own bed. So just hang in there. Sleep is coming. That is, until your child turns 15. Then you’ll be up at night again—waiting for him to come home. Sigh.

Feeling at Home in Blended Families

Blended families come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes there are two sets of children who are living in the new family home at the same time, but more often children will be entering the new family home and leaving again at various intervals. For instance, Mom may have her 2 boys living with her during the week and staying with their biological dad every weekend. Mom’s new husband may have his daughter and son coming to the new home every Wednesday evening and alternate weekends. With kids coming and going like this, the new home can have a chaotic flavor to it. However, firmly established family routines can counter this feeling, adding predictability and stability to the family.

To help increase feelings of stability and cohesiveness in your blended family, consider the following tips:

Try to Establish a Family Dinner Hour
If there is any day or days in which all the children from both previous marriages are in the house at the same time, try to establish a family dinner hour. For instance, let’s say that all the kids are together in your home every Monday night and Tuesday night. In that case, try to limit after-school activities for at least one of those nights (or both nights, if possible) and make a standard routine of having dinner together as a family. Mother and Father will arrange their schedules to be present and all the kids are available – it’s only a matter of committing to the importance of being all together that one (or two) night(s). In our culture where everyone is busy with so many work-related, school-related and personal development activities, it is not easy to arrange a weekly family dinner. However, if you can find a way to do it, your family will definitely feel more like a family. Moreover, family dinners have been found to be valuable to the development of kids (even from non-blended families!) for many reasons. Emotional stability, family cohesion, a chance to get to know each other and strengthen bonds – these are only some of the benefits of family dinners.

Arrange Routines Appropriate for Each Child’s Stage of Development
In some blended families, there are two different age-sets of kids. For instance, the children from one previous marriage might be 2 and 4, while from the other partner’s previous marriage, the kids are 10 and 13. This age-gap situation is more common in blended families than in non-blended families. It is important that each child is treated in a way that is appropriate for his or her age. The little kids may need to go to bed by 7p.m. while the big ones stay up till 9 or 10. Blending families does not mean ignoring real differences. The “family bedtime routine” becomes a matter of working through two different bedtimes in the household each night.

Not Blending Well
Sometimes kids from divorced homes end up “falling between the cracks.” For instance, 14-year old Jake stays with his Dad’s new family every other weekend. Dad has two children from his new marriage, aged 3 and 5. Jake’s step-mom Carol is very busy with the kids and she doesn’t seem to know much about teenagers. She’s always on Jake’s case to clean up his room when he comes or to be quiet so the little ones can sleep and so on. Jake feels like an intruder in what should really be his home. He reacts by being sullen with Carol, and he doesn’t care much to please her. He resents his Dad for breaking up his family. All-in-all, Jake’s sense of stability and security have been deeply challenged. If Dad added a couple of simple routines during Jake’s visits, Jake might have a much better adjustment. For instance, it would be great if there was always at least one family dinner during Jake’s stay (see above). Perhaps, Jake could choose a task that he would like to do with the younger kids during his visit – give them a bath, or read them a story, or play ball, or cards or something. If there was one activity that Jake did with those kids every time he came, this routine could help make him an important part of Dad’s new family instead of just an outsider who enters the house. Step-Mom could make a routine of sitting down for 5 minutes with Jake each visit just for a one-on-one chat – catch up, chat, bond. Perhaps that routine would center around a favorite treat that she has ready for him at each visit, whether that is a can of soda or a home-made brownie or whatever he likes. Doing the same thing over and over again is what turns an activity into a routine. In order for Jake to feel that he is in a home – his home – and he is not just a visitor to a hotel, he needs to have some regular responsibilities and accountability. A curfew, a task (take out garbage, clean the yard or whatever) and other normal family routines will help him feel that he is actually IN a family when he is staying with his Dad.

Reducing Chaos
Routines are important to every child. However, they are even more important in helping to stabilize blended families. Parents need to be organized, responsible and consistent. Children get picked up and dropped off at regular times. They go to bed at the same time during the week and the pre-arranged time on weekends. In other words, there is no “free for all” just because a child is not always home. If the child has homework to be done, he is assigned a time in which he needs to do it. Dinner time should be regular – not 4 p.m. one night, 8p.m. the next night and 6p.m. the night after that. Eating at home is important and home-cooked food should be a big part of the menu. In other words, parents are doing everything to maintain the flavor of a stable, normal home environment as opposed to a vacation spot where everything goes. If you are finding it hard to establish consistent routines within your blended family, meet once or twice with a mental health professional or family counsellor who can help you put things in place. The enduring benefits of establishing healthy routines will be worth whatever investment you make.

Family Rituals and Routines

Rituals and routines add stability to family life and contribute to the smooth running of the household. Let’s look at some examples of rituals and routines that many people find helpful.

Bedtime Rituals
Bedtime rituals are useful for helping children’s minds and bodies settle down to prepare for sleep. Many parents start the bedtime ritual an hour or 45 minutes before the child’s actual bedtime. This allows for a leisurely transition from a high level of energy and activity to a slower paced rhythm and winding down for the night. A typical beditme ritual for young children consists of the following activities:

  • bedtime snack
  • wash face & brush teeth (with some nights including a full bath)
  • getting into pajama’s
  • bedtime stories
  • quiet time
  • lights out

Bathtime Rituals
Some people have a bathtime ritual for their young children. It helps kids focus on the task at hand – getting clean! Once the bathtime ritual begins, children stay in the bathroom until its completion (no running down the hallway). When children do the same thing in the same order each time, the process of cleaning up becomes automatic and easy for them. Here are some components of a bathtime routine:

  • wash face and brush teeth
  • get undressed as bath is filling
  • play with bath toys for a few minutes
  • wash hair
  • wash body
  • play a few minutes more
  • get out of bath and get dressed

Dinner Rituals
When families sit down to eat together – whether that is once or twice a week or whether it is every night – they may observe some rituals that foster decorum and civilized behavior at the table. For instance, in some households each child sits in the same chair every night. This makes for efficient seating instead of a nightly battle about who sits where. Some people may have prayer rituals before and/or after eating. This makes the meal a sanctified activity connected to something even larger than the family itself. Some people have a ritual of talking about the events of their day at the table, or sharing some positive news, or discussing a hot topic in politics, religion or current events. Instead of everyone talking at once, the father or mother may be designated as the “chair person” who helps initiate and maintain the flow of conversation. Some parents ask their children to wait until everyone (including the parents) have been served their meal before they start to eat. In some households, some meals are selected for special routines. For instance, some people celebrate Sabbath meals or weekend meals. These may have several courses such as a soup or salad course, a main course and a dessert. Some people assign tasks to each child or each person in the family: one sets the table, one serves the entree, one serves the main course, one serves dessert, one clears the table and so on. Or, a family might have a different routine altogether – for instance, it might be expected that each person takes off his or her own plate and washes it or puts it in the dishwasher. Whatever the particular routines and rituals, automatic processes at the dinner table help the meal run more efficiently and smoothly.

Special Rituals
Having unique family rituals can be both fun and emotionally enriching. Families can create any rituals they like – having popcorn every Saturday night, going on a drive every Sunday afternoon, going to a particular beach every weekend in the summer, having a favorite meal every Monday night and so on and so forth. Pleasureable weekly, monthly and seasonal rituals help family members bond and create wonderful memories to treasure for a lifetime.

Household Routines
Routines can be established for virtually anything: how laundry gets organized, washed, folded and put away; how rooms get cleaned; how food shopping happens, how people pack for trips and so on and so forth. All routines help tasks flow more quickly and smoothly. As children grow older and can participate in household routines, they are able to incorporate important self-care routines into their consciousness. In adulthood, they will find it easy and natural to look after themselves and their homes. The less routine there is in a household, the more difficult it can be for children to pick up the rhythms of household management. In fact, the more chaotic a household is (lacking routines), the more challenging it can be for the children to decipher and learn the steps involved in self-care and household management.

Some families have routines for meals: dinner on Monday is always chicken, dinner on Tuesday is always pasta, dinner on Wednesday is always ground meat and so forth. Establishing this sort of routine makes shopping easy and routine as well (i.e. go food shopping once a week and always purchase one chicken, one type of pasta, ground meat etc.). There can be routines for making lunches, routines for getting out the door for school and routines for cleaning up toys and other messes. Routines do not have to be rigid, inflexible sets of rules and laws. They can be fun, flexible and loose. The main characteristic of a routine is that it contains certain elements that are repeated over and over again. It is the repetition that causes routines to be easily learned and applied.

Family Meals

Dinnertime is far more than the time when the family eats dinner! It is a time when children learn tremendous life lessons. Let’s examine a few examples of the profound effects of the nightly ritual we call “dinnertime.”

Routines Help Provide Security and Stability
Some families have dinner together every night of the week. In such homes, children enjoy the benefits of the predictable, regular ritual. Having dinner together is something the kids can count on. It structures the evening into “before dinnertime” activities and “after dinnertime” activities. It is a time when everyone will come together as a family, providing all the emotional security that family togetherness provides. In some homes, the family comes together for dinner only on the weekend or on selected nights of the week. Here too, the predictability and dependability of those particular dinner commitments help children feel grounded and stabilized. This is particularly true when children are shifting in and out of different households due to the divorce of their parents. Landing in a place that has a regular dinner ritual helps that place feel like a home. It reduces the feeling of chaos.

In homes where everyone eats at different times and rarely sits down together, the benefits of ritual and communal eating are lost. Children lose out on the stability and security that a regular family dinnertime can provide.

Dinnertime Teaches Children How People Get Along (or Don’t)
In some fortunate homes, dinnertime is a loving time. People share the news of the day. There is laughter, empathy, and discussion. Kids learn how to communicate, following the model of their parents. They learn how to show respect for others, take turns, listen, support each other and care. In such homes, parents are often parenting in an “authoratative” parenting style – warm and loving, with firm boundaries. When things go wrong at the table (i.e. one child bothers another), they handle the situation calmly and purposefully – effectively estabishing the rules for proper table behavior.

In some homes, parents haven’t got as much control of the situation as they really need. The children may be a bit (or a lot) more out of control, as a consequence. Perhaps there is bickering, teasing, or outright fighting at the table. Maybe the parents try to manage the situation with shouting, threats and punishments. Or perhaps the parents are the ones doing the bickering and arguing. Either way, the feeling of the dinner hour is tense, chaotic and unpleasant. Not only are children NOT learning how to communicate in healthy ways, but they are actually learning how to communicate in unhealthy ways!

Dinnertime Teaches Values
In some homes, parents teach their children to wait for their parents to start eating before they start to eat – as a sign of respect and appreciation. They might teach their kids good manners – to ask for items to be passed instead of reaching across the table themselves, to say please and thank, to ask to be excused, to thank the “cook” and so on. In such homes, dinnertime is used to teach children how to behave in socially acceptable ways. In other homes, anything goes. Etiquette is not on the agenda. Kids eat with their mouths open, talk with their mouths full, grab with their hands.

In some homes, children are taught to eat what’s on their plate. In other homes, they’re taught to eat until they feel full. Some kids are forced to eat what is put before them, while others are allowed to have something else to eat if they don’t like what is being served. However parents decide to manage food issues teaches kids a “philosophy of food.” Consider the following examples: “In our house we went hungry if we wouldn’t eat dinner.” or “In our house, we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we ate dinner.” or “In our house, Mother would make 5 different dinners – one for each of us.” or  “In our house, you could have cheese on bread for dinner every night if you wanted to.” These experiences become embedded in the child’s memory banks and come to haunt him when he becomes a parent. He’ll either want to do what his parents did or absolutely refuse to do it their way. In either event, the lessons of childhood dinnertimes tend to last a lifetime.

Positive Family Memories

Why is it so important to build positive family memories? Throughout life, purchase walking down memory lane can be a wonderful, heartwarming activity for anyone. Thinking of the fun and special times the family spent together can provide a real boost during periods when life is difficult. Going through the family history can affirm how far everyone has gone! Being able to remember people who have passed away, or are not accessible for some reason, can help keep someone’s presence alive. And there is of course a sense of bonding and family unity when you know that everyone has journeyed together all these years.

How can parents help build memories for their family that will last? Consider the following tips:

Live!
This may sound like common sense, but it’s still worth mentioning. Before thinking of ways to preserve memories, why not start by proactively creating moments you and everyone in the family will want to look back on? Don’t over-plan an event; it’s not about how grand something is but rather about how the event feels to everyone. In fact, even a simple get together in front of the TV can be a memory everyone will want to treasure – especially when there has been laughter and warmth involved. Simple moments can create cherished family memories.

Don’t Hesitate to Verbalize How a Family Moment Has Struck You
Create the habit of sharing with your family what a special moment means to you. “This is great, isn’t it? We haven’t gone fishing together in such a long time!” When kids know that a moment matters to a parent, they are more likely to appreciate it. Similarly, encourage your children to share what strikes them about what the family is doing. It may feel awkward at first, but it’s also training them to attend to the value of the simple things in life!

Invest in Photo Albums, Video Recording, Journals and Scrapbooks
This is the digital age. Preserving a memory is not as expensive and as labor-intensive as it used to be. You can make memories in many media including old-fashioned photos, on-line galleries, audio and video recordings and even fabric crafts (i.e. pillows, shirts and mugs bearing the family portrait!). As much as you can, spend time in making materials that you can use to remember the times you want to remember. You can even make scrapbooking into a family event. How about that: the family’s efforts to preserve memories can be a memory to preserve too!

Do Reminisce from Time to Time
What’s the use of building memories when you can’t go back to them on occasion? Start a ritual where the family can get to recall all the great things the family has done — it can be something that you do every Thanksgiving, for example. Do put on your wedding video, or the documentation of baby Joshua’s first steps on the TV, on random occasions. These may be simple activities but it can create closeness in your family. When you can look back happily on what was, you can look forward happily to what will be.

Reducing Stress at Family Gatherings

While the idea of happy family gatherings is heartwarming, the reality of these get-togethers is more complex. Family gatherings can be fun or they can be stressful. They can be uplifting or maddening – or they might be a little of everything! It all depends on who is in the family and how you feel about them. Family members are people who are thrown together by birth and marriage; they are not like friends we have carefully chosen. These are people we must deal with whether we like them or not. Quite often, there are difficult people included in the group who may have caused us pain and aggravation. Usually, there is one or more person who has hurt us and disappointed us and there are some others who are just plain annoying.  Fortunately, there are also likely to be some who we truly enjoy being around. All of these “loved ones” come together for family celebrations and holidays to enjoy feelings of closeness and community.

Let’s look at some tips for minimizing stress and increasing the pleasure of these gatherings.

Family Relationships are Important to Kids
Children are nourished by family gatherings. The extended circle of love makes them feel secure in a world which is often fragmented and isolated. The ritual celebration of holidays brings a sense of stability and meaning to the child’s world. If your children are going to experience the family scene, you can help to make it as positive as possible for them by keeping your negative thoughts to yourself. Children do not benefit from hearing how you can’t stand the sight of Uncle Joe or how you will not be talking to Cousin May. If you have any conflicts with any family members, try to keep them under wraps for the duration of the gathering. Kids don’t have to know all of your business. Even if YOU don’t like a certain family member, you can still allow your child to enjoy that person’s company. (If you think that anyone is a threat of any kind to your child’s well-being, either don’t invite the person or don’t allow your child to attend the event).

Prepare Kids in Advance
Let your children know what you expect of them in advance. If there are rules you wish to establish (no yelling, running, cursing, grabbing or whatever), tell them before the gathering. You can also warn them that there will be negative consequences AFTER the gathering if they misbehave. Try very hard not to discipline children during a gathering as the embarrassment they feel can harm them. Of course, you’ll need to be realistic too – children who are seeing their cousins and other relatives can get over-excited and a bit wild. From their point of view, they may be having the time of their lives. Simply remind them quietly to settle down if necessary.

Do Not Disturb the Festive Atmosphere
Refrain from anything that might contribute to tension at the gathering. Don’t talk about “hot” topics. Don’t correct your spouse in public. Don’t criticize anyone or anything. Don’t argue with a relative about anything – it isn’t worth it. Your job is to keep the gathering upbeat and positive. This is a party! Keeping it this way is your gift to your children.

Teenagers are Independent
Often, teens go through a period where they don’t want to attend family gatherings. Usually this is temporary. Once they have found a life partner or  have kids of their own, they’ll be very interested in family gatherings again. Meanwhile, you can ask your teens to please attend for a short while and then allow them to go to do their own activities whether that involves leaving the house to be with their own friends or going to their own rooms to pursue their own activities. If your teen really doesn’t want to come for even 5 minutes, don’t push it; this may change by the next gathering or over the course of the next few years. As long as you report having a great time, the door remains open for your teen or young adult to join you on another occasion. If your adolescents are happy to attend the gathering – that’s great! You might even put them to work! At this age, they can help with serving and clearning or table setting or whatever. Try to listen to their ideas and suggestions and implement them, giving them a voice in how things will be set  up, arranged or conducted. This can help them “own” the scene and enjoy it even more. If you are at another relative’s home, encourage your teens to offer their assistance. This is sure to earn them positive feedback, helping them to feel important in the family scheme of things. But don’t over do it – a few minutes of helping is all that is necessary. Let your teens just relax and talk to people. Welcome them in joining the “grownups” in more adult conversation if they show an interest to be there. If they want to hang with the young people, be careful not to correct them or criticize them in front of others. No warnings not to drink too much and so on – do all of that in private before you get to the party. This is not the time to be “parental.” Just smile and wave!  By treating your teens as if they are no longer little kids, you can help them become “young ladies and gentlemen” within the family context – you are promoting them to the next level. When they experience their enhanced status, they are more likely to want to attend future gatherings.