Friday, April 21, 2017

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

I was scrolling through Fatherly the other day when I came across this article, "How Co-Sleeping Ruined My Marriage."  Like most of you, any reference to something "ruining my marriage" makes me perk up. I decided to read on.

Well, the husband, in this case, recounts he and his wife's ongoing, (and terminal as it were) disagreement over whether she should co-sleep with their two young sons. As the title implies, it did not end well.

It made me wonder--is this a common problem? I know couples sometimes disagree over the sleeping arrangements of themselves in relation to their children, but does it really lead to breakups?

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

The Talk That Rarely Happens

As the husband in the story pointed out, one of the issues in their co-sleeping battle was the fact that they had never really discussed sleeping arrangement before their sons were born. They fell into a pattern of co-sleeping early on because it was easy and they were desperate for sleep. Over time, however, his feelings about this changed.

I can really relate to this story, like many of you probably can as well. Before our first son was born, my husband and I had planned that he would sleep in a bassinet in our room and slowly transition to a crib in his nursery.

Well, like many new parents, I was surprised to learn how difficult this can be. During his first month or so of life, our son rarely slept for more than 30 minutes at a time unless he was being held, preferably on someone’s chest. Needless to say, this put a kink in our plan of him sleeping in the bassinet.

Eventually, we became what researchers call, “reactive” co-sleepers. In other words, we did not plan to share our bed with our infant but did so as a reaction to his sleeping habits. This is in contrast to “intentional” co-sleepers who plan from the beginning to share their bed with their infant. As it turned out, over the course of several months our son was able to sleep longer periods on his own, first in our room and then in his crib in his own room.

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

Research Chimes In

This brings up an important point--the distinction between "reactive" and "intentional" co-sleeping. This is what the research really focuses on in looking at how it may influence marriage. Although only a mental distinction, the idea of parenting in a way that does or does not correspond with your ideals (in this case bed sharing) may influence the interactions between family members regarding this topic. 

So let's look at what the research has to say:

The results of the study were quite illuminating.
  • On the whole, the amount of time spent co-sleeping with an infant did not significantly predict marital satisfaction between the couple. 

In other words, parents who spent a lot of time sharing a bed with their infant were no more likely to be dissatisfied with their marriage than those who spent less time bed-sharing with their infant.

However, when you consider the distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” co-sleepers, a difference in marital satisfaction was seen:
  • Among “reactive” co-sleepers, those who spend more time sharing their bed reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. 
  • In contrast, among “intentional” bed-sharers there was no significant relationship between time spent bed-sharing and marital satisfaction.
There are several ideas I think this study helps us understand. Most clearly, it shows that co-sleeping, in itself, does not necessarily make your marriage happy or unhappy. It seems what is more important to marital satisfaction is the path by which parents come to the decision to co-sleep. 

If parents always planned to share their bed with their infant, this choice seems to have little impact on their marital relationship. If, however, parents end up co-sleeping with their infant as a reaction to sleep challenges, it can have a negative impact on their marriage.

Of courses, like any social science, this study comes with the usual caveats. This is only one study--you cannot make sweeping generalizations from one study. Additionally, while interesting, this study is not long-term. We have no idea how many of these couples stayed together in the long-run or how their marital satisfaction may have changed over time.

The Reality of Parenting

In a larger sense, I think this study sheds light on the important distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” parenting choices in all sorts of contexts (e.g., discipline, nutrition, etc.). In our lives as parents, I think we all come across issues in which we make choices that do not always correspond to our pre-parenthood ideals.
  • I swore I would never let me kids keep a pacifier beyond early toddlerhood
  • I swore I would never reward my kids with sweets
Sound familiar? 

Most of us probably engage in parenting choices every day that are not so "intentional" in their nature. Sometimes we do things just to get through the day or phase of a child's development. In itself, this is not always a bad thing. Many times our planned responses change to accommodate our child’s needs or temperament.

I "intended" that I would be able to control my infant's sleeping habits. Ha! Little did I know that his temperament would dictate that. My "reactive" parenting choice was to respond to his needs and my need for sleep.

However, when faced squarely with a situation in which I realize that I'm acting in a "reactive" rather than "intentional" way, I find it helpful to keep in mind a distinction between long-term and short-term goals. 

In the case of co-sleeping, my long-term goal was always to have my son sleep in his own bed. Even while we were co-sleeping, I still had that in the back of my mind. As a result, we were able to slowly make this transition while still meeting his need for closeness.

I think keeping in mind this idea of long-term versus short-term goals helps us keep a balance between "reactive" and "intentional" parenting choices. The reactive choice we make today does not have to be set in stone as a choice that remains forever. A reactive choice might meet a short-term goal, but we might need to make more intentional (usually harder) choices to meet a long-term goal in how we want to parent.

Can you relate? Did you discuss the plan for co-sleeping before your child arrived? Comment below and let's chat.

Like this article? Here are other resources on sleep and infants:

Mom's Expectations About Infant Sleep: Is There a Connection to Actual Sleep Patterns?

You Can Survive Colic

Infant Sleep and Parental Responsiveness
Messmer, R., Miller, L., & Yu, C. (2012). The Relationship Between Parent-Infant Bed Sharing and Marital Satisfaction for Mothers of Infants Family Relations, 61 (5), 798-810 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00734.x 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

I clearly remember sitting in my first mom support group 7 years ago. It was summer in Texas so I was sweating from carrying my son in his car seat into the meeting. I was also sweating because I was nervous.

Would he cry the whole meeting? Did I bring the nursing cover?

I sat down and yes, he immediately started crying. I took him out of the car seat and tried to console him quickly so we wouldn't make a scene.

All the other moms seemed so much more relaxed. I seemed to be the only one with a newborn. This was one of the first times I had taken him out of the house by myself so I was just getting used to the whole procedure--car seat, diaper bag, etc.

Soon I heard the other moms discussing things like babywearing, co-sleeping, and attachment parenting. My mind was swimming. I have a degree in human development, but I was confused. Is attachment parenting the same as attachment theory that I had learned about in my classes?

In my graduate classes, there was no discussion of specific parenting "rules" that made up attachment theory. I just remember it being about trying to be as responsive to your child as possible. Hmm...I'm going to have to look into to this.

I remained listening to the rest of the meeting and became more intimidated. I loved my son dearly, but I didn't really want him in bed with me until he was a toddler. That's what seemed to be the norm among these moms. Is that what I need to do to form a secure attachment with him?

I went home almost in tears and confused. I never returned to that group.

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

Attachment Parenting vs. Attachment Theory

Fast forward a few years and I now have a much better understanding of the differences between attachment parenting and attachment theory.

I have written about the distinction between attachment theory and attachment parenting several times, but it is a topic I feel is worth revisiting. The word "attachment" is thrown around in modern parenting circles often, but there is a lot of confusion about what it really entails.

This article explains in depth the research behind attachment theory. In essence, attachment theory is about the relationship that is formed in early months and years between a baby and her primary caregiver. The beautiful thing about attachment theory is that it does not prescribe a set of specific parenting techniques or rules per se. At its core, it is a concept that helps explain the subtle, back-and-forth, dynamic relationship that happens between a baby and a truly responsive parent.

Responsiveness means learning to read your baby's unique signals; not a pre-conceived notion of what a baby needs. All babies have basic needs for closeness, care, feeding, etc. But how your baby expresses each need is unique. Some babies like being worn in a carrier, some like the swaying motion of a swing. Some babies need quiet to sleep well, others can sleep in a noisy room.

In real life, that means that attachment between myself and my child might look a little different than attachment between you and your child. It can even mean that attachment between you and each of your own children might look a little different.

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

Tale of Two Attachments

For example, my first son was a snuggler. He loved being worn in a baby carrier, loved laying on my chest, etc. So that's what my husband and I did...all the time. He responded well to this and gradually over time was able to sleep in his crib.

We assumed that our second son would be much the same way--I mean what baby doesn't love snuggles. Well, he was a bit different. Of course, all babies love being close to their parents, but as soon as he could lift his head and squirm just a bit, he pretty much tried to wiggle out of our arms. He occasionally slept on us, but really preferred the swing. He still liked being close to us but needed a bit more space.

Now, does one of my sons have a more secure attachment to us than the other? We have never done the "official" attachment test (there is a laboratory procedure to assess this) but based on their self-regulation and interaction with others, I feel fairly confident that they both have a secure attachment to us.

I do not claim that I have always done everything perfectly in terms of attachment-forming with my kids. But here's the wonderful thing about attachment--it allows room for mistakes and correction. Maybe you misread your baby's signal...she will probably let you know in some way and you can try again. Maybe you were distracted or upset one day and could not be as responsive as you would normally be--you can make up for it the next day. It's the predominate pattern of interaction that really makes up attachment. Does your child feel you can be relied upon most of the time for help, care, and assistance with their needs and emotions?

Attachment is really about guiding your child through emotional regulation. As Diana Divecha describes in her article, "parenting for a secure attachment... is not a prescriptive set of behaviors but more a state of mind, a way of 'being with' the baby, a sensitivity to what they are feeling."

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

With this in mind, I've ditched the culturally derived "rules" (for attachment and otherwise) and have instead tried to focus on the relationship with my kids. I simply try my best to meet my kids where they are at in a particular phase of development.
  • I included formula in my son's diet (along with breastfeeding) even though "the rules" said it was not recommended. I needed enough sleep to be responsive to my son rather than emotionally checked out.
  • I allowed my son to have a pacifier until he was 2.5 years old--another thing "the rules" did not support. I decided I would rather play with him than battle him over a piece of silly plastic. Note: he ended up throwing it the trash on his own.
  • Both my boys were not completely potty-trained until they were almost 4 years old (much to my chagrin). Ultimately, I had to value our relationship over "the rules" of an arbitrary timeline. Plus, you can lead a toddler to potty, but...(you know the rest).
This is where "rules" fall apart--there are no rules for the dynamic, ever-changing relationship with your kids.

The key idea that attachment theory has taught me in a broader sense is that parenting is more about relationships than rules. If I can keep this in mind, things usually fall into place.

"Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base." --John Bowlby (co-founder of attachment theory)
More Resources on Attachment Theory:
The Thoughtful Parent posts on Attachment Theory: part 1 and part 2

Diana Divecha's wonderful article: What is Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn't "Attachment Parenting" Get You There?

Another excellent article: Can Attachment Theory Explain All Our Relationships?

**this post contains affiliate links

Thursday, March 23, 2017

One Research-Backed Way to Diminish Toddler Tantrums

All I wanted was to walk on the treadmill for maybe...20 minutes. Is that too much to ask?

I had a great plan--I would hop on the treadmill in the basement while my son (age 2 at the time) played with the plethora of toys down there. Easy peasy.

Minute 5 rolled around and the whining began.

"Car on track...ahh." My son couldn't get the little Matchbox car onto the track the right way.
"I'll help you in just a few minutes," I said hoping he would calm down on his own. "Do it myself...urrgh, it won't go," my son continued. I could see the tension building but I decided the push on. I really needed some exercise.

Then I heard it--a loud "clunk." My toddler had thrown the car across the room and it had hit the wall. Crying and fussing ensued. Oops, I had missed the point of no return. We were in full-on tantrum mode.

"Remain calm," I told myself. "He's just frustrated."

I try to calm him but to no avail. He pushed me away. He had to get it out. I told him to take some breaths but that just made him more upset. So I just stood by him and he eventually calmed down but it took a long time.

My "20 minutes on the treadmill" had turned into a half-hour fiasco.

This is Him

I look back at this incident now and I see--this is what it means to be a toddler. He was trying so hard to assert his independence and he is very independent by nature. "I do it myself" is a constant refrain, even now at almost-4 years old.


toddler tantrum

This is Him Learning

Toddlers are often testing limits, but they do it because they are learning. They are learning new skills, new ideas and how they fit in their world.

Combine a strive for independence and limited self-regulation, you have a recipe for potential high-stress situations. As parents, it's tough to keep a calm attitude.

Well, a recent piece of research should give you a little hope.

Researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center recently published an article showing that parents who can keep their “cool” when their youngsters test their patience have a better chance of their kids not having behavior problems in the future.

The primary finding showed that children whose parents who have a tendency to over-react and/or are quick to get angry with them, are more likely to have more tantrums and negative behavior at age 2. Is important to note that most children increase in their tantrum-type behavior during this toddler period, but this study clearly showed that children whose parents over-reacted increased in this negative behavior more than average.

Being the Model I Want Him to See

The good news for parents is that if you can maintain your “cool” while still setting firm boundaries, you are helping your child learn emotion regulation by your example. When a child misbehaves it is tempting to react out of emotion and not think about the consequences. It is a struggle to keep your emotions contained, but if you can keep your composure and discipline the child with less intense negative emotion, the child will slowly learn how to regulate their own emotions as well. So take heart parents, we can survive those toddler years without losing our sanity.

One Research-Backed Way to Diminish Toddler Tantrums

Diffuse the Situation

Knowing my toddler was not intentionally trying to derail my workout was the first step in keeping a calm mindset. Most of the time, these little ones are not trying to "push your buttons" or make you upset on purpose.

  • Knowledge is power: if you understand what is typical for toddler behavior, it makes it easier to take it in stride (at least most of the time). If we know that they act irrationally and have little self-control, that helps us remain in control.

  • The "golden rule" still applies to grownups: it may sound simplistic but the old rule of "treat others how you would like to be treated" still applies to toddler-parent interactions (at least to some degree). We are modeling behavior for our kids with every action. If I yell at my toddler (which we all do from time to time), then we are modeling anger. However, if the other 90% of the time, we model compassion, patience, and self-regulation, they will eventually learn this.
Ultimately, we are teaching our kids how to treat us. It takes years modeling, growth, and maturity, but they will get the hang of it eventually.

In the meantime, hang on for a wild ride, and maybe get that walk on the treadmill while he's napping.

For more help with toddlers...
Lipscomb, S., Leve, L., Shaw, D., Neiderhiser, J., Scaramella, L., Ge, X., Conger, R., Reid, J., & Reiss, D. (2012). Negative emotionality and externalizing problems in toddlerhood: Overreactive parenting as a moderator of genetic influences Development and Psychopathology, 24 (01), 167-179 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579411000757 

Photo credit 

**this post contains affiliate links

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lessons Learned from Doing Artwork with Boys {plus some art materials to help}

As most of you know I am boy mom. Two boys and they are, as we say in west Texas (where I was raised), "all boy." All the gender stereotypical descriptors categorize them--loud, rambunctious, messy, active and rarely sit still. I was a bit intimidated when I found out I was having a boy the first time. Will I have anything in common with him? Will I know how to play with him?

As most things in parenting, you learn as you go. I have come to appreciate their spunk, zeal for life, and energy. Ironically, one thing they have taught me more about is a broader view of the role of art in child development. Before actually experiencing a boy, I had visions of doing cool art projects with my kids. Projects where we sat down and worked on things together and had a cute little art piece to show off at the end.

Well, then I actually had a preschool-age boy and reality sunk in. I remember watching the first few days of 3-year-old preschool as my son sat down with the other kids to do their letter tracing and coloring portion of the day. The girls sat nicely and worked diligently tracing letters or painting with watercolors. My son, conversely, sat for approximately 1 minute, did his fastest version of letter tracing (i.e., scribbling) and then was off to play with a puzzle or toy trains.

Wow, I must be doing something wrong, I thought. These girls are all so careful with their handwriting and my son can barely hold pencil. I knew from my child development classes that girls tended to develop fine motor skills sooner than boys, but to see it so starkly in real life was shocking.

Needless to say, our attempts to do art projects at home where met with a similar speediness and lack of focus. However, we still had fun with art materials. Both boys love glue so we would glue anything that would stick--pom poms, shapes, string. We had no real plan or vision for our art, we just did it. We would make Angry Birds characters out of Play-Doh and use them to knock over the cans. Fun!

Then one day, I remember is clearly--my then 4-year-old son really got into coloring. He had finally learned how to maneuver his crayon or marker well enough to make it do what he wanted it to do. He could color inside the lines, he could make the beginnings of drawings. The little connections in his brain just clicked. As it turned out, this was perfect timing because I had just given birth to his little brother. He spent many an afternoon coloring and drawing while I took care of his newborn brother. I printed coloring sheets of his favorite characters faster than you could imagine.

This is when I came to really see the value of art for young kids, but in my case especially boys. For young kids, art is not about results. They often don't buy into the "contrived" version what what the adults want the finished project to look like. They are just exploring colors, textures, and most importantly thoughts.

Have you ever really looked at what your kids draw on any given day and how it relates to what's really going on in their mind. For example, lately my 7 year old is really into Roald Dahl books. So, of course, all his drawings lately have been things like foxes (Fantastic Mr. Fox), fox holes, and maybe even a few elevators (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). The artwork is really a perfect expression of his inner world. Now that is cool.

This follows right along with what art experts tell us about the value of art for young children. It can teach many lessons that no other form of expression can teach. Art scholar Elliot Eisner wrote of the classic works on this topic and he puts it best, "The arts help CHILDREN LEARN to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them FEEL, they must reach into their POETIC CAPACITIES to and the words that will do the job."

10 Lessons the Arts Teach

One thing that does help when attempting to do artwork with kids is good materials. Markers, paint, crayons, etc. that work well and don't break right away. We just got some Kwik Stixs, which are new to us, and we are really enjoying them. They are paints but they come in a tube sort of like a glue stick. Given my boys' love of glue sticks, they took to these right away.

Kwik Stix

The best part for parents--they dry in 90 seconds! Brilliant. No more smudgy pictures because your toddler couldn't wait for the paint to dry. Since they are in a tube, there is limited mess and they don't break like crayons. My boys have had great fun with these.

Lessons Learned from Doing Artwork with Boys

Lessons Learned from Doing Artwork with Boys

Lessons Learned from Doing Artwork with Boys

Along with them we also received a few of the Pencil Grip writing tools for handwriting. They are meant to help kids develop proper pencil grip. This development of correct pencil grip is often challenging, especially for boys. My boys tried these out and I think it did help them both (even the 3 year old) have better control of the pen or pencil. If used often, it seems like they would help establish good habits with pencil grip.

Here are a few resources for helping you get started on artwork with your kids:

Tinkerlab: I love Rachelle's work and her whole approach to children's artwork. Her book is full of ideas and we are loving her online class.

Hello Wonderful: another wonderful site for creative projects with kids. Great colors on this site--if you need a little "pick me up," check it out.

Fireflies and Mudpies: great site with a great name. Tons of craft ideas and best for me (and boy moms everywhere) sensory ideas. My kids always love sensory projects.

**This post contains affiliate links. We received products in exchange for an honest review**