Who’s in charge of sleep?

Today NPR ran a story about the proliferation of caffeinated beverages and gums that children are using to keep themselves awake (http://www.npr.org/2011/06/06/136921303/think-twice-before-reaching-for-a-caffeine-boost). Many children nowadays are sleep-deprived and their moods, school performance, IQ scores and relationships reflect the significant cost of fatigue. Rather than putting children in charge of their own bodies, helping them develop the emotional muscles they could use to discern their needs, express them and find ways to release into sleep at the time appropriate to their age, our society interferes with that opportunity and is offering external “energy boosts.”

These drinks, gums, and tongue strips supply from the outside what children have a right to tap into internally. But they can only do so if parents and schools value their getting enough sleep and having the emotional muscles to regulate their own sleep needs. This starts very early, with parents having the emotional muscle to make the demand of babies and toddlers to learn to settle themselves, without promoting insecurity by just leaving them to “cry it out.”

In EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN we describe the emotional muscles developed by parents and children at each age that support children being in charge of regulating their own sleep needs, not relying on external aids, like endless back rubs, or sleeping in their parents’ bed, or staying up until they collapse in cranky over-exhaustion. The children who have come to depend on these external aids, who haven’t developed the emotional muscles of reading their own body signals, communicating their needs and working together with their parents to create a daily routine, are the ones who are at risk of developing dependency on drugs to put them to sleep and drugs to wake them up.

In our clinical practices, we have seen far too many teenagers who use marijuana to put themselves to sleep, then use stimulants of various kinds to get themselves through the day. They and their parents struggle to recognize the severe impairment in their cognitive functioning this vicious circle of reliance on external regulators perpetuates.

Parents can help their children by
1) teaching self-regulation of sleep from infancy on; for instance, toddlers can learn to think about all the good things of the day so that they are not preoccupied with ongoing angry or upset feelings;
2) accurately placing this responsibility on the child, not depriving her of this opportunity to feel in charge of herself; and
3) helping children develop strategies for releasing into sleep, which will prepare them to greet the day with gusto and energy.

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