“When you simplify a child’s “world”, you prepare the way for positive change and growth. This preparatory work is especially important now because our world is characterized by too much stuff. We are building our daily lives, and our families on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.”

KJ Payne, Simplicity Parenting, 2009

Introduction

This module is all about simplifying your own life. I encourage you to take a step back and re-evaluate some of your values and assumptions at some point in this course.

You’re probably wondering why I have put this module into this course. I put it in here because sometimes sleep is the fall guy when it comes to parenting. We tend to blame sleep for the fact that parenting is hard. We sometimes think that if we fix sleep, we’ll fix all our parenting issues. When really, sleep is just a small component of parenting, and sometimes improving other aspects of parenting, makes sleep disturbances easier. As you know by now, I really do believe that the path of least resistance is the easiest one where sleep is concerned. Some children will adapt really easily to the changes we ask of them where sleep is concerned, but some children really struggle. After all, it’s a bit like asking someone to change the way they pee, or the way they eat! Sometimes changing what else is going on – making sure that you you don’t feel overwhelmed by parenting, and that your needs are being met – will help make what’s happening with sleep feel easier. 

Do you need to be in control?

Do you feel like you’re never fully in control as a parent? I think that’s really common! I think that as parents we like to be in control, we like to know what’s happening next, and of course, we like to be in control where sleep is concerned. Sometimes though, we just need to loosen the reins a little and try to go with the flow. That can be really hard if you’re not a “go with the flow” type of person. Ultimately, we have to remember that our children are little autonomous human beings. It’s not healthy to control other people. I’m not suggesting you let your child do everything they want, we but we have to respect their need for autonomy when it comes to eating, sleep and bodily control. There is a fine line between being responsible for them, and keeping them safe, and trusting them to regulate their bodily functions (like sleep). For example, it’s common for parents to fret about the volumes of solids that babies eat. However, most children are really good at regulating the volumes of food they eat. In much the same way, almost all children get enough sleep, especially when we provide the right environment. The big issue is that often sleep happens in a way that is difficult for us, or we’ve read so many book that really don’t give us a realistic impression of what normal sleep is for babies.

If we try to change sleep too much we end up fighting biologically normal sleep. This isn’t going to make your life better. You’ll just be asking your child to do something that they aren’t capable of and it’s going to be incredibly frustrating for you and your child! So for example, if you want your six month old to sleep through the night, you’ll get frustrated when they wake, even if it’s once or twice. You probably know by now that I’d say waking once or twice at six months is biologically normal! Or another example, you maybe expect your year old baby to sleep for 12 hours at night time and take two long naps during the day. That probably means that they will be getting the maximum sleep that a child can at their age, perhaps even more. Either naps will be a battle or there will be lots of waking up overnight. Again, very frustrating. But… when you accept what your child is biologically capable of, and you accept that your job isn’t to make your child sleep better, but just to provide the right environment, does that help take the pressure off you a little? Does that reduce the frustration?

Let’s talk about your sleep!

Usually, when someone contacts me about their child’s sleep, their concerns fall into two categories:

  • They worry that their child isn’t getting enough sleep or that the sleep is poor quality
  • Their child’s sleep is having a major impact on the parents’ sleep.

With both categories (medical issues aside), these children are almost always demonstrating normal sleep patterns for their age and getting enough sleep overall. So the problem then becomes how do we reconcile normal infant sleep with making sure parents are well rested? It’s not always easy.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the path of least resistance. For some parents, they’ll get more sleep if they adjust their own sleeping patterns to their child’s. So for example, parents might find that co-sleeping results in better sleep for everyone. Night owl parents might find that they have to discipline themselves and go to bed a bit earlier than they’d like because their children are up with the lark. Sometimes, parents get a little bit ahead of themselves. They think it’s important to introduce routines or get their child to self-settle because that will need to happen for child care in 3, 4, 6 months time. Instead of just going with the flow for now, and dealing with those issues later (if they even are still issues at the time), parents put a lot of effort into changing things NOW just in case it’s a problem later on. 

Sometimes, it can be helpful to focus on your reactions and the thoughts that arise around your child’s sleep. If you get increasingly frustrated because your sleep is being disturbed, or because you need your child to sleep because you’re exhausted, you end up in a cycle whereby your emotional state actually prevents you from falling asleep easily once your child does fall asleep. This frustration is really normal, you are only human after all! Your workbook contains some information on mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT has been proven to be very effective for insomnia, and many of the techniques can be used by frustrated, sleepless parents too! I’m planning to do a CBT-insomnia course this year, specifically to support parents with their sleep, so when I have done that I’ll add in some more resources to this module. In the meantime, your workbook for this module contains some links to some CBT-related resources which may prove helpful for dealing with frustration around sleep. I’ve also added some Affirmations that you might like to use to help you reframe your thoughts around sleep. I used to think Affirmations were a bit “woo woo” or hippy-dippy. However, when used regularly, they can be powerful tools to help reprogramme unhelpful thoughts.

Finally, on a practical note when it comes to sleep, it’s worth thinking about your bedroom environment and your own sleep hygiene. As you know, when we talk about improving sleep for children, sleep hygiene is important for them. Almost all of the same sleep hygiene tips apply to both parents and children. There is a checklist in your workbook that you can use to make sure that you are optimizing your own sleeping environment.

The reality of modern motherhood

Motherhood is particularly tough right now. I think mums are being bombarded with images of “perfect” family life on social media. You could be forgiven for thinking that mums always look perfect, with a tidy clean home, with smiling, happy children who sleep through the night and always eat their broccoli. And of course, these mums love parenting every single second – with their perfect eyebrows, healthy slim bodies and stylish clothes. You do know that this Instagram filtered perfect life is complete nonsense, right? 

But it’s not just the influencers and other mums that put us under pressure. Almost every day there is a newspaper article that exclaims that a new study says that doing XX will severely affect your child’s development, or doing YY is crucial to helping them grow up healthy… If you are one of those “high achieving” parents who wants to do a good job at parenting (and let’s face it, we all want to be good parents), the pressure to get it right can be immense. We can very quickly end up feeling like we need to get everything right to help our children reach their full potential, and that we need to do all the things or else our children won’t develop properly. The interesting thing is, almost all studies into child development happen in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies and these studies are underpinned by an awful lot of assumptions about what “normal” child care is. The reality of child care around the world is often very different from what we consider “normal”. And yet… children around the world grow up to be fully functioning adults. Take sleep for example. The West is peculiar for having children with “sleep problems” – other societies that perhaps take a more relaxed view on sleep, nap on the go, and co-sleep well into early childhood, don’t seem to worry about the same problems that we do. 

Of course, the intense nature of motherhood here in the West often contributes to our inability to accommodate sleep in exactly the way our children want to sleep, which is exactly what this module is about. After all, Western society is also characterized by very isolated, nuclear families (and this has been even more the case with Covid-19 restrictions). Those other societies that take a much more relaxed approach to sleep? Well, often child care is shared with other extended family members, older siblings, and other people within the social network. Let’s face it, looking after your baby/toddler is hard work! It definitely makes it easier if other people can help out.

Let’s also consider the issue of “motherload”. I realize that I’m generalizing here, but mothers tend to carry the burden of the household – not just in terms of physical tasks that need to be done, but often the mental burden of organizing and planning ahead. How often have you been feeding or cuddling your baby to sleep while mentally creating a checklist of all the things that need to be done? Maintaining a fully functioning household is hard work – and the skills that are involved are only ever noticed in their absence. The fact that there is clean laundry piled high on your dining room table – that’s a sign that you’ve dropped the ball somewhere, right? If someone walks into your home, they don’t make a mental note and say to themselves, “Oh look! Rebecca is great at laundry! There’s nothing drying on a radiator, there’s no piles of clothes waiting to be put away!” (By the way, Mount Laundry mocks me regularly – I’ve been known just to leave it on an unused bed during particularly busy weeks and go mining for clean clothes!) While partners are often very much involved in helping out with household chores and child care, the actual organization of the household often falls, unacknowledged, on mums. I remember chatting to a friend who is in a same-sex relationship and she said that she didn’t know how heterosexual women manage – having another woman in the house who shared that load made such a difference, especially once there are babies on the scene too. Ultimately, many of us feel like we are constantly juggling a hundred different balls at once, and our self-care takes a back seat. Sometimes even talking about “self care” just makes us feel even more stressed, as it often feels like another tick box of things we are supposed to be doing but failing at, as often even our basic needs aren’t being met, never mind the ones that we need for our emotional and mental wellbeing.

You may be on your own and raising a child or children, in which case the burden of everything falls on you. I don’t presume to know what it’s like to be a single parent, but I do have some experience of solo parenting. My husband works abroad and is often away for months at a time. I’ve single handedly had to do bedtime with two children for the last 3 years, 99% of the time. When you do that, you have to find a flexible approach to bedtime, readjust your expectations of what you’re capable of, and usually accept that much needed “me time” will go out the window for several weeks at a time.

If you are in a relationship, then your values and beliefs will have an impact on how easy it is to make changes around sleep. Often, you’ll find that your partner has different ideas about sleep, or how it should happen. You may find that one of you wants to use gentler methods than the other, or you may even have different priorities when it comes to co-sleeping and breastfeeding. That all adds extra pressure to the situation, when trying to make gentle, responsive changes to how sleep happens. Open and honest communication is essential, especially if you aren’t on the same page about sleep. Sometimes the anger and resentment that builds up comes from unmet needs, or from a sense that one partner is more hard done by than the other. If one partner goes to work, they may feel excluded from the family dynamic or no longer wanted by their child. They may feel that their hard work isn’t appreciated or valued, even though it allows for the purchase of essentials like food and pays the rent. If you’ve been used to working and earning your own money, and now you’re stuck at home, you may feel like there is a subtle power shift – you rely on someone else for money. Sometimes if you stay at home, you may try to re-exert your power by acting like your partner doesn’t know how to look after your child – criticizing them or taking over from them when they are doing simple tasks. 

It may also well be that one partner feels they are being supportive, but the other partner doesn’t interpret it as such. If you’ve never read much about Love Languages, it might be worth reading this link. Basically, we all experience and express love in certain ways. If your “love language” is the same as your partners, then when they express love in that way, you feel loved. For example, if you both have “acts of service” as your love language, then if your partner cleans up the kitchen while you do bedtime with your baby, you will feel loved and appreciated. If, however, your love language is “acts of service” and theirs is “physical touch”, you won’t feel loved and cherished when you come back downstairs to a messy kitchen, and they want a kiss and cuddle! If you can, try to sit down and have an honest conversation about your emotions, concerns and needs before embarking on any major changes where sleep is concerned. Where possible refrain from accusing statements such as “You never help around the house!” and instead reframe them in terms of how you are feeling:  I’m feeling really overwhelmed at the minute. I wonder could we look at dividing some of the household tasks between us?

Some practical suggestions

Declutter

I am an aspirational minimalist. In real life, I struggle to keep on top of clutter, although I’m gradually reducing the amount of stuff in my life and seeing the benefit. If you’re in Northern Ireland, please feel free to join my Minimalist Mums NI group. The benefits of decluttering are not just about getting rid of material possessions, it can be about reducing our unnecessary activities too. Often we take on activities because we have an aspirational image of ourselves. Perhaps buying a load of plants for the garden, because you see yourself as the next Monty Don (but actually, you really only have time for a low-maintenance garden so everything just looks messy). Perhaps you’ve volunteered for something at your child’s school but you just feel stressed and resentful every time someone makes a demand on your time. Perhaps you imagine cooking with your children, but all they do is make a mess and everyone gets a bit cross – nothing wrong with a pack of Oreos instead of homemade buns! Decluttering isn’t about getting rid of stuff or activities that we enjoy, it’s about making space and time for what really matters. 

The less stuff you have, the easier it is to stay organised. And it’s always better to declutter than to organise! Some easy ways to declutter:

  • Try the 33/3 challenge – you keep 33 items of clothing in circulation for 3 months and then reassess. I keep my “spare” clothes in a large storage bag and every 3 months, rotate what I have to wear depending on the season. It means you’re only keeping current clothes that fit and that you love, at hand’s reach. It also saves you money because you become a lot more aware of what you actually have, and you’re less likely to impulse buy. You can do this for your kids too! Parcel up the clothes that no longer fit, or you know you aren’t going to reach for, and pass them on – there are lots of freecycle groups where you can offer bundles of kids clothes.
  • Toys – there is a lot of evidence that having less toys is actually more beneficial to children, you can read more about this here. When babies are very little, they don’t need toys at all – they can gain a rich sensory experience from contact with you and exploring the world in your arms. If you are buying new toys, consider getting toys that are open-ended and encourage imaginary play and creativity – like building blocks. Toys that have flashing lights and move will never spark as much creativity (plus, they get really annoying after a while). Tried and tested toys in our household include Duplo (and Lego as they get old enough for it) and musical instruments. These little eggs are great for baby hands, but continue to provide a source of fun right up to toddler years – both my kids loved them! Get rid of toys with broken parts, or missing parts, duplicates, and toys that never get played with. Consider rotating the toys that you have. Put out 10-12 toys for your child to play with and watch them. Any toys that aren’t played with can be disappeared. Tidying up 10 toys at the end of the day is much easier than tidying away 50! 
  • Books – children actually enjoy repetition. If you find yourself reading the same 5-10 books over and over, consider getting rid of the rest of the books you never reach for!

When you think about your activities, it might be helpful to actually write out everything you do on a daily basis and how long you spend on it – there is more information on this in your workbook. Think of all the activities you do and then ask yourself: What would happen if I didn’t do this? List your top priorities, your values and goals, and assess how your current activities fit into these priorities. What can be discarded for now? 

Do you need to get organized? 

Here are some of my favourite ideas for making that “motherload” a bit easier:

  • Check out The Organised Mum Method (TOMM) for cleaning. I’ve been using it for over a year and it definitely helps me keep on track with cleaning. Gemma Bray initially devised the method when she was a young mum, with a baby, struggling with postnatal anxiety. She ended up spending way too much time every day cleaning as a way to cope with the overwhelm of motherhood. For her, TOMM became a way to limit the amount of time she spent cleaning, while still maintaining a reasonably tidy home. For those of us who hate housework, TOMM works too! When you know you only have to do half an hour of cleaning and then you can stop, it seems a little bit more achievable. (This is definitely my mindset!)
  • TOMM also includes a rough guide to laundry. Aim to do at least one load a day so it doesn’t build up. Depending on how fussy you are with laundry, you can either just put all dirty clothes, towels, bedding etc in the washing machine throughout the course of the day, and then do a wash at bedtime – I have one friend who does this and is able to keep her kids’ clothes to a bare minimum, around 3 outfits per child, because at least one outfit gets washed every single day. If you are fussier with your laundry – you can allocate specific days for each type of load.
  • Meal plan! There is something really tedious about trying to decide what to eat every day. I’ve included a sample meal plan, plus a template for you to use in the workbook. Pick easy meals that everyone enjoys and decide when you’re going to have them. It will make your weekly shop easier to do, and I promise that you’ll have less food waste. 
  • Batch cook and freeze. I often do a huge batch of something in the slow cooker at the weekend – pasta sauce, chili, stews, or a roast. Make enough for several meals, parcel it up and freeze. 
  • Do a click and collect with your local supermarket, or get a home delivery once a week. Plan to do it on the same day, every week so you never forget. 
  • Invest in a notebook and start a bullet journal. There are loads of massively complicated bullet journal tutorials out there, but I’d go right back to basics and look at Ryder Carroll’s original Bullet Journal method. It’s essentially a “To do” list with a method. Two minutes a day on your bullet journal can help you get organized and productive, but it also helps you with more intentional living. Although you can write a more traditional long-form journal entry if you want to, the clever (and quick) way to stay organised is to use “Rapid logging” – you write things down in point form and then use different symbols to help you see at a glance what needs to be done. If this sounds intriguing, check it out. I’ve been using a Bullet Journal for about 4 years now and really love how it keeps me organised in my day to day life. 

Can you lower your standards?

Often we have built up a picture in our minds of what we should be like as parents. We think there are all these different things that are important to parenting and that without them all, we’re failing. I appreciate that there are a lot of things that truly ARE important, and what one person values, the next person won’t. BUT… what would happen if you let a few things slide for a few weeks. Are you still a good parent? There is a great book called “A Good Enough Parent” – remarkably, our babies don’t need us to be amazing at everything, they just need us to be good enough. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make any effort at all, but our babies don’t need 24/7 entertainment, it’s ok for them to fuss for a few minutes while you grab a shower, or if they get fish fingers for dinner instead of organic chicken and veggies, it’ll not ruin their chances of a healthy life. 

Can you get some help?

It’s so hard to ask for help sometimes, isn’t it? And yet, it makes life so much easier. We put so much pressure on ourselves to do everything and yet, as I’ve mentioned before, this is peculiar to Western culture. In other societies, child care (and often household tasks) are shared out. Obviously, not everyone will have the budget for a weekly cleaner, or to employ a nanny or Mother’s Help. But they are completely reasonable options if you can afford them and need a bit of extra help. Some parents will consider hiring a postnatal doula for a few weeks, or on an ad hoc basis. You may also be able to access Home-Start support too, which is free. If you have family who are willing to help and offer support, then take it! It doesn’t make you less of a parent. The more we normalize getting help, the easier it becomes.