The Book: a review

The book is Sleepless In America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I’ll be discussing the implementation of our sleep plan over the next little while, but thought I’d talk about the book itself here, since it applies to a variety of sleep issues that families may have and not just my particular situation.

The basic premise of the book is that, if you are having discipline or behavioural issues with your kids it may be that they are sleep-deprived, in which case focusing on the behaviours is a waste of time. Now this doesn’t really apply to my family but I definitely know what the author means as I’ve seen it happen when the kids don’t get enough sleep – the total meltdowns and nightmarish behaviour. But I’ve always recognized it for what it was.

The author focuses largely on families where both parents are working and where the kids are in daycare or school. It makes sense that if you are having trouble getting your kids to bed on time, and you are forced to wake them early because of work/school schedules, then they are going to be sleep-deprived. But my one beef with this book is she doesn’t seem to address SAHM families, and certainly doesn’t touch on homeschooling families. For example, when going through a checklist to determine whether your kids are experiencing regular sleep patterns, the charts ask you to compare weekdays with weekends. For families like mine there is no difference between Mondays and Sundays, really. Still, I was able to draw the logical conclusion that irregularities between weekdays and weekends were just as bad as irregularities throughout the week (which is our case).

She also talks about tension and stress as contributing factors to bedtime battles. Think “The Hurried Child”. Again there is an obvious bias towards two-working-parent households where the kids are rushed out the door every morning, go to daycare or school, and participate in a variety of after-school activities. This doesn’t apply to us either so I skipped over most of this chapter. (It did serve, however, as yet another reminder of why I chose this SAHM, homeschooling lifestyle; I’m still shocked by the reality that, in some households, allowing a child the recommended number of hours of sleep would mean the parents would literally not get to see their children when they got home from work. Go ahead, shoot me for saying it: if your kid is away from you for 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, maybe you should have adopted a chihuahua).

So I’m reading along wondering when she’s going to get to the “solve your sleep battles” part, wondering if this book is really going to be relevent to me at all, when she brings up an issue which I had ignored: that of my OWN sleep deprivation. She reminds us that if our kids aren’t getting enough sleep, we almost certainly aren’t either. And this can affect our relationships, particularly with our partners. It was like a light bulb going off over my head – for the last few months DH and I have been scrapping like alley cats, arguing over the stupidest things (we make up just fine but we’re both frustrated by why we can’t get a handle on it). It coincides with our sleep issues and I’m surprised I didn’t put two and two together before this. So while I might not be having issues with my kids, my relationship with DH could stand to benefit from more regular sleep.

When she finally gets to the part about sleep she emphasizes that the child’s natural clock, their circadian rhythm cycle, needs to be tuned to the right time cycle. This is accomplished by regular wake times, regular meal times, daily exercise (preferably not late in the day), ensuring that lights are on in the morning and dim in the evening, and recognizing the “window of opportunity” which, if missed, may lead to a second wind – a burst of “frantic energy” from which I child will eventually “crash”, leading to sleep that is not as restful and healthy as the “normal” kind of sleep.

She also emphasizes the importance of a bedtime routine that involves four components: a transition activity (which signals the start of the process), the connection/calming activity (with two parts, one done with the parent and one done alone; supposedly this is to help the child “not need you” to fall asleep but…if you are like me and think “needing me” is normal and I’m going to cherish it while it lasts…she also notes it can come in very handy when you are putting more than one child to bed), the signal activity (the signal that it’s time for sleep, like turning off the light) and the switch activity (which isn’t an activity at all but just means your child falls asleep). I like how she makes these four things really flexible in both the activity itself and how much time it takes. She really does try to accomodate families of all “value types” here, from those who insist their kids fall asleep on their own and never darken their adult bedrooms, to cosleeping families with one big bed for everybody; from those who nurse their kids to sleep, to those who give bottles in the night. She is very non-judgemental, but at the same time takes a definite stand against Cry-It-Out or other abandonment-based methods of sleep training.

She does focus some sections on “the spirited child” and also on how to adjust your routine and sleep needs according to your child’s temperament. Many of this was a rehash of her “Raising Your spirited child” book, which I found difficult to read – mostly because I couldn’t seem to answer the questions in her myriad checklists to determine what my children’s temperament types were like. Mine seemed to mostly fall in the “normal” range, leaving me without any label to look up in her “special considerations for the ___ child” sections.

I think it is a good book to read just to see if your kids are getting enough sleep. I had kept a two week sleep log even before reading the book and was able to determine that my kids pretty much get the sleep they need. Our issue was WHEN they were getting that sleep, but Kurcinka’s information about circadian rhythms and adjusting the clock was very helpful here.

I think the unspoken message in this book is an important one. Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, she puts the focus on the “modern family” and how screwed up we’ve become in the way we run our lives these days. With two-parents working, long commutes, and then children who are stuck in school all day only to cram all the “fun stuff” in after school, followed by increasingly huge amounts of homework, where the parents are struggling to run a household, get meals on the table, and spend some semblance of time interacting with their children…sleep is often the first thing to be sacrificed. Kurcinka argues that our children’s physical and emotional health is at stake when we do not make sleep a priority. Maybe it is the wakeup call some people need to take a good look at their priorities and choices and find a way to put time with their children first, and maybe sacrifice the big mortgage payment instead of the family’s sleep, in order to do so.

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One thought on “The Book: a review

  1. Space Mom

    Interesting. I have discovered that my kids need very little sleep. S, for example, needs 8-10 hours. That’s it. Any longer and she resents bedtime.L needs about 10-11. strange

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