"Sleepy signals"...ha. What are those? If my daughter ever yawned, it would be a miracle. I swear this baby could go all day, never, ever nap and be just fine.
If you have an intense, sensitive, alert, non-stop child (a “livewire”), getting more sleep is hard, hard, hard. Sleep training methods that were no big deal for your friends, were a total dumpster fire for you. You may feel defeated or incompetent in addition to being more tired than any human should be…but it’s not you. Really.
Temperament directly affects what you can (and can’t) get away with in terms of sleep—which is why much of the advice you’ve read about or tried doesn’t work for you. (See my blog post about temperament and sleep). Experts will tell parents, “if you just do A, then B, then C, your child will be sleeping through the night in just a few days.” Parents of intense/sensitive children do try A and B and C, as well as 15 other letters with no success, even after weeks of trying.
Sleep books were simply not written for livewires. The promises in those books are 100% true for mellower children who will get with any program without a lot of drama. Livewires already have more trouble with sleep (see my blog on "The Sleep System"), plus they really resist change. It's a recipe for hours of sweaty hysterics (the baby, but also..you). Most parents of livewires ultimately give up on working on sleep. It's just too hard. And who can blame them?
However, there are a few strategies that are specific to working with livewires that may finally unlock a little bit of traction for you and give you a tiny dose of "I've got this." Sounds good, right?
PARENTING WORKAROUNDS THAT REALLY WORK
There are a few “tricks” specific to working with livewires that you won’t read about in sleep books. These strategies involve understanding your child’s unique abilities —sometimes working with them and sometimes working around them.
1. Uber (almost rigid) consistency.
Persistence and perceptiveness combine to test the strength of limits and detect any loopholes or weak spots. It’s like they mentally poke at our rules—what about this? What about now? What happens if I really push back for this long? How about THIS long?
Consistency clearly shows them the new pattern. Inconsistency blurs the pattern that they are looking for and then they can be even more frustrated by our changing strategies.
For older livewires, wiggle room opens up a window for negotiation. “Just this once” is not in their vocabulary. Consistency and repetition are the secret sauce of anything you decide to do. Once livewires are able to detect a pattern/routine and know it’s not going to wobble, they really settle in.
2. It’s okay have limits on what you will do.
Being responsive and following cues are great…but livewires will keep going until you tell them to stop. You may end up following their cues right off a cliff. I've seen many exhausted parents secretly hope that some behaviors would just stop on their own (nursing to sleep, having a parent lie with them, cosleeping). We have to consider whether a child would voluntarily give any of that up. Chances are, these patterns work for them. Why in the world would they just suddenly want to change it. We have to ask whether what we are doing is sustainable. Can we keep doing it indefinitely. If the answer is no, it's okay to pivot.
Know that you have to be able to function, and if that means having a limit on what you do, that’s okay. In order to be mentally and emotionally present as a parent in the long-term (because temperament does not go away), you may need to ask your child to bend a little. If that means sleeping in the crib for a few hours so you can have a teeny bit of grown-up time, that's going to help you be more better during the day. These kiddos require a lot from us as parents and we need our stamina. The parenting road is long (and a kinda steep), you need to have some gas in the tank.
3. Pick your battles but fight the ones you pick
You may have to settle for “manageable” on some issues and that’s okay. However, if there are behaviors that you KNOW you need changed (e.g., you just can’t do a two-hour bedtime routine anymore or you’re really done with cosleeping or you just can’t nurse/feed five times a night), then really commit. If you can only manage to work on bedtime because you are so tired, that's fine. Pick something you know you can really get behind and do that one thing as consistently as humanly possible.
4. Push through the pushback.
There is (unfortunately) no change you can make that a livewire is not going to notice. Even tiny shifts can throw them for a complete, tantrum-y loop. The first time you make any change, I guarantee you they will HATE IT, and the level of pushback they will throw at it can be a lot. No wonder it throws us off. It easy to think that this little change is apparently torturing them.
These smart little cookies are able to register the change and they h-a-t-e changes. The freakout is their way of expressing that they won’t understand why things have changed or what you’re expecting them to do. The only way you can communicate a “new way” is through support and consistent repetition. As long as you are using an approach that’s age appropriate and that you feel comfortable with, pushback is okay.
Here's the real-talk, tough love part: “Pushing through” means pushing ALL THE WAY through. With livewires, the worst thing you can do is to try for an hour, think you’re doing it wrong, and just go back to what you were doing before. This decision actually guarantees more and longer protest next time because they now know that holding/rocking/bouncing/nursing is somewhere on the table and they just have to find it. And you know they will because they can totally outlast you. You may think that the next day, you will just start back at Square One. But you will not be starting at Square One—you will be starting at Square At-Least-An-Hour-of-Pushback.
Pushing through also means giving changes more than a day to have an effect. If the first night was a total rodeo, that’s normal. I call it the "First Pancake" night. You know. That tester pancake we always throw out -- too light, not cooked, shaped funny. The next pancake is always better.
See what happens on Night 2. If you see any change at all, you are on the right track. Pick something you know you can do, buckle up, be supportive…and just do that for at least three or four days to see if you can nudge the behavior.
Parenting these little amazing curveballs is not for the faint of heart. Understanding the ins and outs of temperament, however, can give parents a leg up on navigating sleep in a way that finally works. The sleep books and programs are geared for much more mellow, easygoing children. Your child is not that kid. Your experience is different. And working on sleep is a steeper mountain to climb. But don’t worry. We’re going to keep talking about the tools you will need for that hike. Stay tuned.
Macall Gordon, M.A. has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer. She researches and writes about temperament, sleep, and the gap between research and advice. She is also a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.