Wisdom, compassion and teaching your children to sleep through the night

One of the hardest things about being a parent of small children is sleepless nights.  This is actually an issue of spiritual concern. 

  1. If we do not sleep properly then we will not be able to do our daily practice.  If we don’t do our daily practice, then everything will fall apart.
  2. If you are exhausted, then during the day you will have less capacity to respond positively to the challenges that parenthood bring.  You will then get upset more often, spoil your relationship with your child, create all sorts of negative karma and generally be miserable day and night.  If you can get the sleeping down, you will be able to deal with anything.  If you can’t get proper sleep, you won’t be able to deal constructively with anything. 
  3. Attachment to sleep is one of our biggest delusions, and this gives us a chance to work on overcoming it.
  4. We will suffer from sleepless nights to the extent that we are thinking about ourselves.  This is an excellent opportunity to practice cherishing others
  5. Learning the proper wisdom/compassion balance when it comes to teaching our children to sleep through the night helps us in many other areas of parenting.  Unfortunately, this is something we often mess up. 

The bottom line is this:  we are not helping our children by not helping them learn to fall alseep on their own and to sleep through the night.  But at the same time, we need to acknowledge their capacity and gradually work to expand it.  Our compassion without wisdom will not be able to tolerate our kids crying, and so we will rush in to console them.  But if we do so, we deprive them of the opportunity of learning how to calm themselves down and fall alseep on their own.  We can in fact create a dependency on us for them to fall alseep, which will make them less confident in themselves and also make them more tired because they too are not having very restful nights.  Eventually, every parent must let their child cry to fall asleep, the only question is how many sleepless nights will they inflict upon themselves and their children before they do so.  Therefore we should unapologetically adopt as a goal to teach our children how to sleep from the very beginning of their life.

How do we do this?

  1. Rhythm is everything.  We should establish a night time sequence of events that we stick to every night that starts a couple of hours before they go to bed.  Then, when you start this sequence, the child already knows what comes next and where this particular sequence leads.  For example, our ritual for our older kids literally starts as soon as we get home.  We walk in the door, the first thing we do is take baths.  Then dinner, then a video/reading, then brush our teeth, then bed.  We do the same thing every day, the kids learn and know the rhythm, and it works.  For the little ones, we do bath, bottle, bed.   
  2. We should put our children down to bed before they have fallen alseep.  We first make sure all of their needs are met (clean diaper, well fed, blankets in order, pacifier, right temperature, etc.), then we put them down into their bed while they are still awake (but calm). 
  3. Once we put them down, there is no picking them back up unless things are really really extreme.  We can go back and give them their pacifier when they lose it, we can pat them lovingly, we can say things like ‘you can do it’, but we don’t pick them back up.  Then gradually, over time as their capacity increases, you go back less often, you stay less time, you start to not pat them but just console them with your words, etc.  Then, you start to not go back at all but just say something reassuring like ‘you can do it’ from a distance.
  4. We need to learn to distinguish between fussing and really needing something.  Often what happens is the baby will be crying or wimpering or making frustrated sounds, but they are working through them.  If you let it ride, they then have various points where they calm down (sometimes just through having exhausted themselves with their cries).  They have a moment or two of calm, and then they start up again.  But they cycle back to calm again.  Gradually, the amount of time fussing decreases and the amount of time calm increases until eventually they are alseep.  When they are cycling in this way, you don’t need to go back to them – just let it ride.  But if they lose their pacifier or teddy bear, reach a point of total hysteria where they will not likely be able to calm themselves back down without some consolation, or they have pooped something awful and need to be changed, then you should go address that need and then leave them again.  You have to be prepared to do this for several nights, possibly even weeks, before they start to get the hang of it.  Don’t plan on doing anything else during this time because you will then just get frustrated with them.  Know that it may take several hours every night of dedicated work before they finally settle down.  Investing the time to teach them will save you countless hours in the future when you can just put your kid to bed, close the door and not have to go back until morning.  So while difficult, it is worth the effort.
  5. Get them attached to a good teddy bear.  This can become their support and means of consolation.  We have found that those teddy bear security blankets are ideal.  They are both a teddy bear and a security blanket in one.  It should have things on it, like ears or tails or tags, that the kid can pull at.  One thing we also do is we have the mother sleep with it several nights so that she gets her smell all over it.  You can even consider putting it in the mother’s bra!  It may seem non-Dharma to encourage an attachment, we should not let the best (non-attachment to anything) be the enemy of the good (attachment for the teddy bear instead of the parent walking them around until they fall alseep!).  Eventually the child will outgrow their teddy bear, but if in the meantime they can use it to calm themselves down and enable both yourself and your child be properly rested, it is a small price to pay.  If it helps, mentally engage in the guru yoga of the teddy bear.  By nature, the teddy bear is the spiritual guide, but he is appearing in the aspect of a teddy bear.  So you are not cultivating an attachment in a samsaric object, you are teaching reliance upon the spiritual guide!!!
  6. Resist the temptation to go ‘save’ them from their crying.  Once you make the decision you are going to let them cry and that you are not going back, then you have to stick with it all the way (barring, of course, something really extreme).  If you let them cry for 15 minutes and then crack and go get them, then you are not helping them.  The only thing you are doing is guarranteeing that tomorrow night they will cry for at least 15 minutes before they settle down because they will think crying for 15 minutes is how you get a parent to come.  They will then cry even more the next night.  But if instead you let them cry for as long as it takes, then the next night it will be less time crying, then less again the next night and so on until eventually they don’t cry at all.

When it comes to the child sleeping through the night, again, you need to work gradually.

  1. Time everything so that you feed the kid a bottle when you, as parents, go to bed.  Typically, in the early days, the kid can go 2-3 hours between feedings.  So if you go to bed at 10:45, make sure you feed them a bottle at 7:45 so that they are sufficiently hungry at 10:45.  Likewise feed them at 4:45 and so forth going backwards in the day.
  2. Try expand the time-scale between feedings during the night, not during the day.  During the day, you want to stuff them like a sausage.  But at night, you practice expanding the scope of time between feedings.  For example, if your child normally does 3 hours between feedings, then when they start to wake up after 3 hours, instead of feeding them give them their pacifier, console them, etc., but don’t feed them until 4 hours.  Then feed them a bigger than usual bottle (since they will be hungry).  Then do the same thing again, trying to stretch it out to 4 hours again.  If you can do this, you will get them down to one feeding a night.  You feed them before you go to bed, once in the middle of the night, and then once again when you wake up.  This is a major accomplishment.
  3. Once you have done this, continue to stuff them full of lead during the day, especially just before they go to bed, and then try stretch it to 5 hours before you feed them in the middle of the night using the same tactics as above.  You can still feed them again when you wake up, even if it is less than 4 hours between feedings.  Once you have stabilized 5 hours, repeat the same process for 6 hours, then 7 hours until finally they can do 8 hours!  As a rule of thumb, a baby can do their weight in  pounds minus 2 hours.  So a 6 pound baby can stretch at most 4 hours before you really should feed them.  A 7 pound baby can stretch at most 5 hours, an 8 pound baby 6 hours and so forth.  But every baby is different, so really you need to figure this out according to your own kid’s capacity.  This has at least been our experience after 5 kids.

One final note on doing your daily practice during the training of your children.  Pre-children, our routine was say sleep 8 hours, then do our practice for 1 hour, for a total time period of 9 hours (this is an example, modify the number of hours accordingly to your individual circumstance).  So when you are training baby, when you get up to feed them the middle of the night bottle, instead of trying to go back to bed do your practice in the middle of the night, then go back to bed and wake up at the end of the same 9 hour period.  In this way, you will still get the same number of hours of sleep and the same number of hours doing your practice, but it will just be in a different order.  There are several advantages to doing this:

  1. The hours you do sleep will be more effective.  The problem I have had is when I wake up to feed the bottle, I tend to become more awake.  It then takes me longer to fall alseep so these hours are wasted.  Then when I wake up to do my practice, I am too tired to do so, and my practice is of poor quality (or sometimes not at all if I am really tired).  If instead you do your practice, your mind becomes more subtle and collected so then when you do go back to bed you will fall right asleep.  The reason why we can’t sleep is our gross winds do not dissolve.  If you make your mind more subtle through your practice, they will dissolve more easily.
  2. You willl have more virtuous dreams, leading up to sleep yoga.  Just as the last mind we have at the time of death determines the quality of our next rebirth, so too the quality of our mind we have as we fall alseep determines the quality of our dreams.  If we fall alseep with a virtuous mind, we are more likely to carry that virtue into our sleep and dreams.  Eventually, as our mindfulness improves, we will be able to carry it into our sleeping state and do lucid dreaming.  When we first start lucid dreaming we will want to fly around or do other such things, but eventually we can teach ourselves to meditate in our dreams.  Some of my most profound meditation experiences have come from doing this because at this point we are meditating with our subtle mind.  Think Shantideva!

I hope all of this proves useful to all those sleepless Kadampa parents out there!

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