A new year means new opportunities. Parents tend to get stuck in habits and compromises. By taking control of your situation, the whole family can thrive again. Here are my personal findings, outlined in more detail in my book For The Love Of Children.
1. Creating healthy sleep patterns for the entire family
Like adults, young children need to know that they are physically safe to be able to sleep at night. Babies know that they are helpless and that they cannot ensure their own survival. Without you to keep the perils of the night at bay, they will never be able to sleep.
Your duty as the adult is to give answers. However, even when parents continue to pick up and comfort their infants, sleep with them, and feed them around the clock, this constant attention does not always make infants feel safe. Why? Because the parents’ actions are diametrically opposed to the message they are trying to send.
Their actions say, “Danger threatens. You aren’t safe here.” Finding a balance is the key to better sleep patterns.
How much sleep do children need?
• At 1 month: 16.5 hours per 24-hour period
• At 2 months: 16/24
• At 3-4 months: 15.5/24
• At 5-6 months: 15/24
• At 7-8 months: 14.5/24
• At 9-11 months: 14/24
• At 1-2 years: 13.5/24
• At 3-4 years: 13/24
• At 5-6 years: 12.5/24
• At 7-11 years: 12/24
2. Raising independent children through play
I was young and very tired in the mornings after the birth of my first child. At three months, she was only too happy to be put back to bed in spite of the fact that she wasn’t tired. She would spend her time babbling to herself and fencing with her arms and legs. This was a situation I gratefully accepted.
I supplied her with what I hoped were inspiring things to look at and left her to her own devices. When she got tired, she just fell back to sleep. Soon a habit developed, one that I wasn’t about to break and finally, the day came when she was playing by herself for two hours.
Sometimes she would just sit for a while, deep in thought, before tackling a new problem, and she handled her successes just as independently as she handled her failures.
When one of her endeavours failed, no one comforted her. No one helped her.
Her tenacity and her constant attempts at innovative problem solving impressed me as did her constructive, carefully thought-out solutions.
I think that these solitary morning hours devoted to concentrated, uninterrupted work paved the way for their self-reliance and their attitude toward work and life in general – a job well done is its own reward and obstacles are there to be overcome.
3. Acknowledging common behavior and finding solutions for the bad
Children are not saints. As a parent, you naturally want to believe that your child will always stick to the straight and narrow and never stoop to stealing, lying, vandalism, slander. Unfortunately, this isn’t how life works.
It takes children a long time to internalize the norms, rules and values of whatever society they happen to land in. Explanations aren’t enough for them. They have to learn these norms through hands-on experience. They have to learn these norms through hands-on experience.
If you can bring yourself to regard your child’s less attractive tendencies as questions that require answers, you won’t feel obliged to react with outrage. Through your own actions, through consistent consequences and/or punishment, you provide the answer. Just remember that it is always the behavior you are condemning, never the child.
4. Ensuring a healthy, balanced diet
Whatever problems you are having with children older than 1 with regard to food can be solved with the following program.
• Plan the day on the assumption that children, like adults, should eat about every four hours. There should never be less than three whole hours between meals.
• Snacks are a thing of the past. Instead of giving your child snacks between meals augment meals with the snack. Fruit can be served as an appetizer or a meal in itself. Squeezed juice can also be served right before eating.
• De-dramatize mealtimes! Meals are not status symbols. If you set the most beautiful table and compose the most elaborate meals, of course you won’t be very happy if your kids don’t even look at it, let alone eat it. If you keep everything as simple as you can, you will find it much easier to sit back and let your child eat his fill in peace.
• Simplify the menu! You can serve the same meal day after day. You don’t need to serve foods from every food group at every meal. Nor do you need to stimulate your child to eat. Remember, hunger is the best stimulus! Children are creatures of habit. Take advantage of this and offer the same two, or even three, nutritional mainstays every day
• From age 1 and on, your child can eat anything and should be offered the same things to eat that everyone else does. I do not recommend baby food after age 1.
• Beware of jumping to conclusions and seeking remedies for problems that may not exist. If you think there may be certain foods that your child cannot tolerate, listen to your gut rather than to other people’s speculations or the fad of the day! If your instincts repeatedly tell you there is something amiss, seek medical advice.
• Learn to say no! The kitchen is closed between meals. A young child complaining of hunger pains is of course a heart-wrenching spectacle. However, a child who doesn’t know what real hunger is thinks that a hint of a craving to munch is the same as being hungry, which it isn’t. A glass of water will silence the craving. Real hunger is a precious gem that should be hoarded and then joyfully satisfied by a real meal.
Anna Wahlgren is one of Sweden’s foremost baby and child experts with more than 30 years’ experience.