Livewires’ secret superpowers, how they totally tank sleep...and what you can do
After working with thousands of parents, I can say without hesitation that temperament is the dividing line between kiddos who sleep easily and well…and those who absolutely don’t. In fact, I would bet that between 80-90% of parents who ultimately make their way to a sleep coach have livewires. Why? Because if you have a mellow child, just about any reasonable method is going to work.
For livewires, sleep is simply harder in every way that it can be, and those usual methods just don’t work like they say they will ("30 minutes of crying the first night? HaHa! Not.")
I talk to parents every day who are struggling with “outside the norm” sleep challenges: massive meltdowns, hours to go to sleep, wakeups every hour. It’s a massive lift to corral the chaos. And that’s just nighttime. Daytime can also be a full-blown rodeo.
There are treasures under the surface of all of that struggle. Parents know this. There are big strengths just underneath (and beyond) all of the battling. When you’re “in” it, it’s hard to see. But there are powerful strengths inside of all of that chaos.
Big brains + little bodies = so much drama.
The good news is that if you know this fact, 1) you can be reassured that you’re not doing anything “wrong,” this is just your child’s nature; and 2) knowing that there’s “good stuff” in the mix may help you limp through the tough moments when you worry that you may be raising a total hellion.
Once you understand the source of the struggle, you can figure out workarounds that actually work...for your very unique livewire.
Here are some of the main temperament traits/superpowers, how they impact sleep, and some parenting hacks that can act like kryptonite.
TRAIT #1: Intensity/Reactivity
This is perhaps the biggest nemesis of working on a livewire's sleep: the dreaded nuclear meltdown. You put your livewire into the crib awake the first night and — KABOOM!— it's like they're being stuck with a pin....for HOURS. Most parents absolutely bail in the face of that (and why wouldn't they? It makes total sense.)
Here's the challenge: if we wait for our livewires to be okay with change, we will be waiting a long, long time.
So, what's a parent to do? Make sure we set them up for success (well-rested, solid routine with lots of sensory calming, give them presence and support....and then withstand the storm. They may hate the change (see "Perceptiveness" and "Allergic to Change" sections below), but we can be okay with that. It's tough love, momma and papa, but you have to push through that pushback.
TRAIT #2: Persistence
They can totally outlast you
Pick your battles but fight the ones you pick.
You cannot fight every battle with a livewire. You will lose. You will need to let some things slide (Do they HAVE TO sleep ON the bed? Is there a problem with them being covered in stuffed animals?)
Whatever battles you choose to take on, REALLY take them on—clearly and consistently. Livewires can turn us into mushy, wobbly, throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it, reactive messes. PICK SOMETHING to work on and really, really work it.
TRAIT #3: Low Sensory Threshold
Potentially the MAIN underlying trait of all livewires is a low sensory threshold—meaning, they can detect and react to much smaller units of sensory input. When it comes to sleep, think "The Princess and the Pea." Yup.
Most of the other traits I'm talking about have to do with HOW you change their patterns and their reactions to it. Low sensory threshold has to do with WHY you need to change their patterns in the first place.
Think about what we mean when we say someone is a "light sleeper." THAT'S low sensory threshold. A dripping faucet, a beam of light, a room that's too quiet, or a wrinkle in the sheets can be enough to block sleep for sensitive folks.
JUST like The Princess, sensitivity is also a mark of someone who is more open to their environment...who sees, feels, hears more.
TRAIT #4: Alertness/Engagement/FOMO
Takes in more information because of all of the learning and doing (Also, is often learning from engagement with you)
Oh boy. These alert, engaged little ones see "sleepy signals" as a sign of weakness. If you ever see a yawn (I think I've heard of these before....), you're already too late.
Get ahead of the second wind and do not wait for sleepy signals. You will thank me.
TRAIT #5: Perceptiveness
Notices any inconsistency in your behavior and holds you to it
Be more consistent than you've ever been in your life
Livewires can notice subtle patterns and changes in their environment. They pick up on things that they absolutely should not be able to at their age.
Livewires ALSO detect every single variation from the norm. They zero in on any wiggle room in your resolve or slight detour from the status quo.
If you read three books last night, what's different about tonight? "Just this once" is not in their vocabulary.
If you worked and worked at bedtime and then just gave in and rocked them to sleep, they have clocked this and will hold you to it tomorrow. They are calling you to be more congruent and consistent (dare I say, almost rigid?) than you have ever been in your whole life.
TRAIT #6: Allergic to change
Meltdowns when you say “no” to requests or when you try to change the sleep status quo at night
"Easygoing" and "go with the flow" are not concepts typically associated with livewires. Everything is a BIG DEAL. They LIKE how things are, and change (especially unanticipated change) freaks them out. Livewires tend to know how they want things to be. They like patterns and do not appreciate if something is out of alignment with that.
This is why there can be such massive blowback when you try to change their familiar bedtime or nighttime expectations. Parents can actually feel unable to change their livewires.
A three-year-old powerhouse suddenly wants a banana at 10pm when they should absolutely be asleep. The parent KNOWS if they say "no," a meltdown is inevitable and it will take an hour or more to get this angry child back to sleep.
HOWEVER, if they say "yes," they also know they're opening the door to late-night snacking...and just caving can make them feel a little like they've just been strong-armed by a three-year-old. No fun.
Here's how you shift this:
Give PLENTY of warning. For older livewires (2-1/2+), make a chart and preload everything they usually ask for. If it's not on the chart, it doesn't happen.
REHEARSE any changes during the day. Do not surprise them with something new in the moment. You will lose.
KNOW that freakout is inevitable. They need time to get used to whatever it is you're changing. It doesn't have to stop you. It's okay for them to have a tough time with change. That's how they roll. Be empathetic, be supportive..and MAKE THE CHANGE.
Every sleep challenge has its own underlying gift. You may not see it right now, but it's totally there. If you know there is "good stuff" underneath the "hard stuff," it may help you see sleep struggles as less of a problem and more of a by-product of a big brain in a very little body.
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Macall is a researcher, author, and certified sleep coach specializing in the link between temperament and sleep. She has an M.A. in Applied Psychology from Antioch University and a B.S. in Human Biology from Stanford University. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, alert, intense children, and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.