I got a letter… about sleeping methods

I got a letter from a parent concerning their use of a Swedish “sleeping method” called the ”Good-Night’s-Sleep Cure” developed by Anna Wahlgren. For English speaking readers who haven’t heard of this method, I would say it is quite similar to the so-called “cry it out” approaches in the Anglo-saxon world. The letter is translated here into English. It includes some references to specific features of the method such as singing a rhyme or “jingle”. These terms, as well as the reference to being “cured”, come directly from Wahlgren. Basically, singing a short song, rhyme or jingle is supposed to “give security” or act as a sleep trigger. It is a little bit difficult for me to explain the method to an international audience here, but I hope you get the idea. More about Wahlgren below the letter.
I send my deepest gratitude to Jane Blackwell for her kind help with the English translation.

Dear Daniel,

I have followed your blog since the beginning of this year. I have also read older posts and was struck when Anna Wahlgrens’ Good-Night’s-Sleep Cure (GNS) was mentioned. For us, that method was quite wonderful. Our younger girl was “cured” at the age of 8 months, and it went really well. After two nights, she slept 11 hours without awakening, and if she did wake up we would sing the jingle softly from our bed so that she heard it from her cot behind the curtain, two meters away, and then she would once again sleep, so sweet, so sweet. If the bedtime ritual went awry at any time, we just sang the jingle cheerfully on and off from the sink, so that we got the last word in. And then she slept. How wonderful. Her older sisters also needed some time before bedtime, so it was very practical that the youngest should be asleep by seven o’clock. This continued for one and a half years, and then their younger brother came along, and the bedtime rituals started getting more difficult. Screams and noise behind the curtain, and angry protests. A “bump in the road”, as it is called on Anna’s forums.

Bump in the road? This is a cunning way to rephrase a form of abuse perpetuated against our child, who tried in all possible ways to reach us through our loud singing, corrections and brief good-nights, uttered as we walked out of the room, turning away from her – she who was left alone in the total darkness behind the dark blackout curtains.

You write that there is a lack of research into the long-term consequences of this sort of sleep-method, and this is a pity. I have myself struggled for six months to mend the gigantesque wounds that our behaviour caused in our daughter. The attachment process has had to start all over again, and whether it will ever be complete remains to be seen, but it is improving. She is going to be three years old in one month, and nowadays she always falls asleep together with mom or dad in her bed. She also chooses herself to hold my hand, something that has taken a long time for her to be able to accept.

I suppose one might say that I woke up one day and started wondering what the heck we were doing. How would I feel if my spouse totally ignored my attempts at communicating, responding only with inconsequential answers repeated four times, sometimes six, from the other end of the house? I am really ashamed over this.

It is possible that other GNS practitioners succeed better that we do. That their kids happily jump into bed to sleep well, like they have been taught, and keep on with that throughout the years. Maybe we didn’t follow all the details of the method, but just wanted to take the yummy parts of a long uninterrupted sleep and minimal hassle when the child sometimes woke up at night? In other words: I cannot say that the method is damaging, but I KNOW that it trivialises and reduces the child into something that is barely human. At night you sleep. Period. If you don’t fall asleep quickly and easily, mom and dad haven’t been clear enough in their “message”. What drivel.

Now, this is something which I, a mature person over 40, with an extremely orderly situation in my worklife, my wallet and my life in general, have done against my child. My heart is bleeding when thinking of this.

I don’t think that this would have left such traces if we just hadn’t tried to correct that “bump in the road” that appeared when she was around two. Before that she really fell asleep one minute after the good-night. She never cried at night, just grumbled a little and got to hear a gentle voice repeating the well-known words. The damage appeared when the bedtime routine DID NOT work and we chose to continue to apply the tools of the GNS method to make the girl go to sleep by herself. 30-40 minutes was not uncommon. There it certainly went very wrong.

One night last summer I apologized to her. We had read a story together, and as usual she was angry and aggressive towards me. Tired and angry. The pillow flew against me numerous times and the hands hit me. Again. No contact. It had been like that the whole summer. She didn’t feel present, but would glide into a weird facial expression with an underbite and a stiff gaze and then these scratching hands that wrangled away mine when I tried to embrace her back to calm her. This happened regardless of how gently I touched her.

Oh, yes, the apology. I often felt empty and sad inside in these situations. What was I going to do? How were we going to correct what we felt had gone wrong? She would not accept to be close except when playing and roughhousing, and above all not at bedtime. This evening I just started talking. I talked about how sad I was that she had had to be all alone in her bed, and that I understood how alone she must have felt. That she must have been very afraid, and that mom and dad had done wrong when they hadn’t come and consoled her then. In all possible ways I describe what I felt she must have experienced, and at the same time I stroke her chin. What happens during these minutes is forever etched into my memory and my heart. Little Elin starts to cry, not in the way of a child, but in a very tormented and restrained way. Like if she struggled to control herself. She lays on her back in her bed, and I sit beside her. Her gaze is on the ceiling and her underlip is trembling. Her chest almost cramps from her breathing that has fallen out of rhythm. She tries to say something but it only gurgles, and she vomits right into the air. I don’t have time to move before she literally throws herself into my bosom and clenches her arms hard around me. She can’t really talk but vomits more, and we wipe it up with the bed-sheet. I continue to talk; poor little Elin who has been so afraid and lonely. So afraid and lonely and mom didn’t come. I am so sad Elin, I am so sorry. I will never do it like that again. It was wrong. I am really so sorry. And I repeat this until she stops crying. Then she starts talking. She says that I was frightening then. That she was superfrightened then. She tells me this over and over again.

The next day we have a different girl here in our home. She sits close. I get to hug her gently. At bedtime, she interrupts the story and asks me to tell her about when she was alone and afraid. I tell her and say that I’m sorry. She falls asleep easily. After this it has only got better and better, but anyway, it is not complete yet. Difficult to explain, but evident for me as a mother.

Sorry, this became a long letter after all. I just wanted to relate our story that gives a glimpse into what this method has caused in our little family. The younger brother who is now ten months will never experience the same thing. If you have questions I will be glad to respond.

Best regards,

The mother of Elin [names changed for confidentiality]

– – – –

Comment from Daniel:

Anna Wahlgren’s method is based on the idea that all children are “afraid of the wolf”, and if we stay close to our children at bedtime, we as parents validate this fear, but if we stay at a distance and act calmly, the child would believe that there is no wolf to fear. I don’t know if there is any research supporting this idea. On the contrary, from an evolutionary point of view, it would be natural for children to have a deep fear of beasts for many years, a fear that cannot be eliminated by any “method”.

Wahlgren’s books has touched generations of Swedish parents. And much of her advice is quite sane from a humanistic point of view, like for instance being the best friend of your child. The most problematic and controversial part seems to be her sleep advice. My understanding is that she has some issue against body-touch; she manages to put forth many smart-sounding reasons to avoid touching your baby, and I really don’t understand why she is so negative about touch.

You can see videos of her questionable methods here.

Wahlgren has nine children, and in 2012 one of her daughters, Felicia Feldt, wrote a book that really made the Swedish public question her status as a parenting guru. Feldt described a quite horrible childhood, including Anna Wahlgren allowing her new partners to sexually abuse her teenage daughters.

For more about alternatives to “sleeping-methods”, I recommend Aware Parenting.

Chapter 6 in Playful Parenting

Chapter title: Learn to Roughhouse

When Emma was little, I would stand right underneath her when she climbed on a playstructure, my face contorted by worry and anxiety. Her mother would let her climb as high as she wanted, a confident smile on her face, trusting Emma’s judgment. At the time I thought this was horrible, but she was right. No broken bones. And I know, as a therapist, that even if she had broken a bone, bones heal faster than timidity and fearfulness

When reading this chapter I have been thinking about how playing with children can boost their self-esteem. Social interaction among children is almost 100 % about play. So while we cognitive behavioral therapists train adults with social phobia in social small-talk or to stand in front of a crowd and talk, the most important skill for a child in order to get along with his/her peers is playing. And since most of us adults have forgotten much of childhood and playing, we underestimate how complex a skill playing is.

Think of how people who want to do acting spend years learning and rehearsing every aspect of it. Children also spend a lot of energy learning to play. And think of the advantage of a child who has one or two dedicated  coaches in this process in his parents. (This paragraph may have sounded competetive – like as if you should make your child a ”winner” – of course parenting and play must also be a way of helping your child in finding their uniqueness and their own way through life)

Things that are important for children to learn in this area are for instance:

  • How to be a leader or follower in play – this will make it easer for them to adapt to new playmates and new constellations.
  • Initiating play with people they know and with strangers.
  • How to be light-hearted with their own mistakes. Here I think Cohens advice to act goofily is extremely important. I think that if a child sees an adult make mistakes and laugh about it, it will make the childs own mistakes much easier to bear. You know – I spend my days seeing people with all sorts of social inhibitions, and for these people making a social mistake can often feel like being sent to purgatory or something. So being able to laugh at your own mistakes can be a tremendously important skill to teach your child. (or your grand-child or some other child…)

This chapter is about roughhousing. I must admit this is not at all something that I consider myself good at. My parents never did much of that with me. [for my Swedish readers: I didn’t know this term either – ”roughhousing” seem to indicate physical play like ”kuddkrig”, ”brottning” and similar stuff]

I remember, though, that as I child I sometimes saw other parents wrestle and do that sort of physical play with their kids and I can remember that, as a child, seeing this looked so very warm to me. It felt like those parents and kids built a warm bubble of love together.

Again, Cohen argues brilliantly why it is so important to engage in this kind of play. He mentions that there are findings that indicate that children who wrestle with their fathers have better social contacts with their peers (he also makes a strong argument that mothers should also wrestle…). And for those of us who are ambivalent about wrestling, he points out that wrestling is not that much about winning or being strong. It is just as much about learning about using your body, and learning to control your aggressiveness. And learning about other peoples control over their aggressiveness.

Cohen provides ten very useful rules, especially useful for us who feel inadequate in this sort of play. Please note rule number 9 – no tickling allowed. Our parents often had no clue about how to play physically with their children, and they often didn’t have very much clue about physical integrity either. So many of us were tickled too much, without any any respect with regard to when we wanted to stop, and as parents we might have a tendency to repeat this mistake. So please pay attention to this!

Rule number 7: (usually) let the child win, made me think of a coaching with the Danish parenting-guru Jesper Juul, that I read in a magazine a while ago. Juul recommended that the father wrestled with his son, but Juul stressed that the father should always win.

We Scandinavians proud ourselves of being anti-authoritarian, but when comparing Juul and Cohen I feel that it is Juul that is authoritarian. My vote is definitely for Cohen, and I keep wondering why Juul had this idea, he who has been the big name in Scandinavia for democratic parenting.

For Cohen, a very important function of play is to reverse roles, and this he deals with in the next chapter.

Note: This posting is part of a collaboration with InspireMama, who also writes her about reflections on each chapter of the book.
Added sept 2015: InspireMama seem to have gone off grid, I cannot find her blog any more.