“A weed is a plant whose virtue is yet to be discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Jenny joined our nature immersion program after her mother chose to take her out of school at the end of 6th grade. Worried about Jenny’s mental health, her mother felt that the current ‘system’ seemed to contribute to the many challenges young girls, and some of Jenny’s friends in the local, relatively wealthy district seemed to suffer from: bulimia, anorexia, early sexual activity, chronic fatigue, alcohol, drugs, etc. Jenny had recently suffered a traumatic event and her mother understood the impact this event could have on an already struggling pre-teen afloat in the sea of teen challenges.
When I first met Jenny, she was a highly intelligent yet quiet and anxious anxious young woman. The light in her eyes was barely a distant flicker and, “I’m sorry” was part of almost everything she said. Hesitation was saddled to most things she did. When asked about the “incident” she shrugged and said: “haha, yea it was pretty crazy,” and then changed the subject.
A couple of months after first meeting her, a group of kids lazed in the green of May grasses and I took the opportunity address the concept of resiliency. Instead of lecturing, I wove a fantastical story of the common Dandelion as inspired by two famous herbalists, Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed. The story had drama, suspense and humor, and brought life to the powerful resiliency of the Dandelion. I watched as Jenny listened intently, lying on her stomach in the grass with her head resting on her forearms. Every now and then she would look up to catch my animated antics and her eyes would widen, a half smile catching her lips.
When I saw Jenny next, her sullen demeanor had changed to a now beaming smile lighting up everything around her, her hair flowing in the wind as she ran down the hill to greet me. I could see she was holding something in her hands. As she came closer, I saw a haphazard mess of dirt and greens falling out of a ceramic cereal bowl and one, bright, wilting, yellow flower in the center. Her mother trailed a few feet behind with a look that was both flustered and full. Jenny pushed the bowl in my direction and said:
“I found this in my yard and wanted to dig it up for you because you love Dandelions so much!”
From behind, her mother shrugged and exhaled as she said:
“The reason we were late.”
I looked at Jenny, alive – the flickering light was now a full flame.
“It just showed up in my front yard!”
Her voice said, louder than I remember it.
It was as if the resilience of the little yellow flower, the one that can withstand feet stomping it, cars and bikes driving on it, toxic chemicals sprayed on it, and even floods, had rooted its lessons deeply into Jenny’s waning heart and revived the light in her eyes. From that day forward it was clear she was changed – lighter, easier to laugh, and leaving the hesitation in her intelligent curiosity behind her.
Our Nature Sense is so supportive of our mental health needs that I never had to have a direct conversation with Jenny about her heart, her anxiety, or her insecurity. All I did was walk Jenny into the wisdom of nature and trust that she would find her own answers among the weeds.
Many teenagers today seem to be in a soul deficit, with a longing they can’t identify. They have been raised with an overabundance of bad news and a lack of a positive future vision. It’s as if they learn about death before they get a chance to live.
“Among adolescents and young adults, suicide is responsible for more deaths than the combination of cancer, heart disease, congenital anomalies, respiratory disease, influenza, pneumonia, stroke, meningitis, septicemia, HIV, diabetes, anemia, and kidney and liver disease”
(John Campo, MD)
It is a fact that we don’t pay attention to boring things. Humans can muster the energy to focus for a lecture or a task that their higher brain overrides as boring, but it is an inefficient task at best, and likely, details are soon forgotten. Meaning is lost. Think of a lecture that you were required (not inspired) to sit for. What do you remember about it? How many details of the content? Likely you are thinking about how the room looked, smelled or what you were wearing. Maybe if there was a particular topic, you remember one specific fact. Other than that, the entire length of time you were charged with sitting, is a mystery to your memory. How is it that our society has managed to take the most alive, impassioned and curious members of it and BORE THEM TO DEATH!??? What would happen if instead, we allowed each “Jenny” to have one day a week to experience the aliveness of the natural world? If instead of lecturing them, we showed them what life could feel and look like? What if we trusted that with a little bit of guided nature connection, they could find their own answers?
The answers to teenagers lacking motivation and vision are laid out before us the way a meadow offers a superbloom of spring flowers after a drought. Even after years of little to no rain, one good soaking, followed by a little sun, and a teenager will bloom- because that is what they are designed to do.
They are designed to watch, listen, touch, smell, taste, balance, move, feel- these are the gifts nature has put in our growth bundle of nerves and cells in an effort to design an intelligence that supports our best self and is at one with all other species on this earth. When this is reintroduced to a starving system, good things happen.
Let’s make good things available to all teenagers.
There was a time in the early months of parenting when I counted my son’s sleep in minutes. Not hours, not half hours, and not even quarters of an hour. Minutes. I wrote down these minutes on scraps of paper in the dark while soothing and breastfeeding my son. I scanned this list of digits, also in the dark, hoping to see some trend, however minuscule, towards longer sleep periods. Hoping to see some indication that he was sleeping longer and, by extension, that I could sleep longer too. If he slept even two minutes longer I felt maybe something had improved…. Instead of seeing improvement, though, I saw a deflating list of double digits that represented wakings that also were numbered in the double digits every night.
These early days of parenting had moments of pure bliss, and smittenness at my beautiful, plump, and amazing baby. He was gorgeous. He breastfed voraciously. He was so lovely to hold, to gaze at, to soak in. The moments of bliss were competing, however, against colic and my baby’s need to breastfeed constantly; his need to be held till nearly midnight every night. The evenings consisted of momentary relief when my baby finally fell into a deep sleep in my arms, followed by near tears on my part at having to choose between competing priorities: go to bed immediately for 30 minutes of sleep, or get ready for bed and brush my teeth first, leaving me with only 20 minutes of sleep. I dreaded this decision. It seemed cruel that I had to choose.
My first born was, without a doubt, a baby who spit up a lot. However, the conventional wisdom at the time, reinforced by my training as an Occupational Therapist in a neonatal follow-up clinic, was that plump spitter-uppers were laundry problems, not medical problems. And so I soldiered on, assuming this was what “they” were talking about when they said you’ll be tired, that babies don’t sleep. I focused on attachment-based strategies of nurturing and meeting the need –strategies that are foundational for any baby, but perhaps even more critical (albeit less fruitful early on) for babies in pain. I occasionally filled out infant reflux checklists which had the same questions that I asked parents themselves to fill out when they came to me for their appointments. I ruled out reflux repeatedly based on a lack of empirical evidence, despite my nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. I trusted the checklists more than my own instincts. I hadn’t had to rely on instincts to assess a baby before. But I hadn’t had to do this as a mom before either.
These early days were relentlessly exhausting –the fatigue was physically torturous and did nothing for my lofty, if naive, goals to learn to play guitar or do something else in addition to mothering during my maternity leave.
But my drive to figure it out was relentless, too. I wanted to find a way to parent through this that resonated with my expanding knowledge of attachment theory and bonding while also “solving” this sleep problem. But first I had to figure out if this was a problem: was this normal sleep challenges of a typical baby? Or was this something more?
This led me to read everything I could find about how to nurture better sleep. Before motherhood, infant-mother attachment had been very theoretical. Now, however, it was a practical matter. There wasn’t a shortage of books to read on the topic. The Continuum Concept, the Dr. Sear’s Baby Sleep Book, Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution: these amazing books each offered ways to meet baby’s emotional needs and biological sleep tendencies. But they didn’t seem to work.
They didn’t seem to work because they were not designed to explore and identify underlying health issues. In hindsight, however, they did buy me time. They supported my burgeoning instincts to nurture, to meet the need, and to not worry about spoiling a wee baby. These books bought me time to try things out (chiropractor, osteopath, attempts at diet changes) while still absolutely and undeniably meeting my baby’s need for comfort from me, even if that comfort seemed purely emotional, rather than the comfort that would have come from receiving proper medical advice to treat reflux.
I’ve reflected on why I failed to “fix” the issue of my son’s poor sleep -not in a guilt-laden way, but in a way that asks what pieces were missing that, if in place, would have soothed him, and would have smoothed the edges of fatigue and helplessness. Circumstances were simply not in my favour, and I worked within their limits. If my empathetic and skilled social worker-cum-family doctor had not started mat leave at the same time as me…If I’d read “Solve Your Child’s Colic” in those early days (which asserts that dairy and soy sensitivity is the main culprit in colic), instead of after our second was born…If our new physician hadn’t been so opposed to treating reflux in a healthy chubby baby… Perhaps I would have avoided such extreme sleep deprivation and prevented such awful nights of undertreated colic. But I didn’t have these resources. And I did the best I could.
Mothering was exhausting in a way that makes the word exhausting seem so inadequate. And it was bearable only because I had emotional support — from family, but in particular from a new mom friend who lived nearby and who valued attachment theory. She was compassionate, and also at arms length –able to see the big picture and pour me another mug of coffee.
Infant sleep (or the lack thereof) is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of early parenthood. A google search I did recently of “How do I get my baby…..” came back with 4 of the top 5 ‘hits’ related to sleep. The only one that wasn’t about sleep was “How do I get my baby into modeling”. I have a theory on that. Those parents who are googling about baby modeling have babies who have finally fallen asleep; they are staring lovingly at their beautiful, angelic, sleeping baby and, in the glow of the moonlight basking their peaceful wee one, whisper to themselves, “my baby is the most beautiful baby in the world”. The rest of us are googling “what on earth can I do to make this better?”.
Before being initiated into the world of infant sleep we, as soon-to-be-parents, are superficially aware of the idea of sleep deprivation. However, it is virtually impossible to understand just how physically painful, and emotionally exhausting this sleep deprivation is. Like understanding what giving birth is like, there was simply no way for me to know what fatigue actually feels like without experiencing it. No all-nighter to finish an essay for school, or staying up to watch the sunrise, or an international flight with jet lag can compare to the ongoing (and ever changing) circumstances that make sleep deprivation as a parent so challenging.
I have come to believe that it does not need to be as tough as it is. That even with medical issues underlying sleep, there are cultural factors that make sleep deprivation with a baby more challenging than it needs to be:
We believe babies should be sleeping through the night by 4 months (or 6 weeks, or at least by 6 months). When they don’t sleep through the night we believe that we are making mistakes with our parenting;
We believe babies are supposed to develop sleep skills at an even pace and never slide backwards on this march towards independent sleep. When a previously “good sleeper” needs more support we think we need to “do something” to fix this;
We believe (or convince ourselves) that if sleep is really going poorly that it must be something we are doing wrong. We may not consider fully enough (or have the right supports to pursue the idea) that there is something medical going on;
We believe we need to control our child’s sleep, that somehow we are in charge of getting them to sleep;
We believe meeting their need for support at bedtime (whether at 6 weeks or 6 years) develops bad habits;
We believe that babies need to learn to self-soothe; and
We believe if we don’t fix, enforce, address, or deal with our infant’s sleep we are setting ourselves and our children up for years of disordered sleep. Whether this comes in the form of “our baby will never leave our bed”, or “they need to be independent to be successful”, the result is the same: a burden that, based on research evidence, we don’t actually need to carry.
So what can replace these myths? Here is what I have figured out as a mom and an Occupational Therapist/Sleep Educator. If I could go back and wrap my arms around my new-mama self I would share with her that:
Babies have two irreducible sleep needs. These needs are to be close to mama (or other key caregiver) and to wake up often. These aren’t negotiable needs. They are needs driven by biology and that shift over time through neurological development. Trying to eliminate or speed through these needs is like trying to time travel. Theoretically it sounds nice (and I do love my share of books about time travel), but there are consequences to skipping out on nature’s plans. Sharing a room with babe for at least the first six months (and ideally 12 months) are the current guidelines; other evidence reinforces much longer even than this. And, serendipitously, room sharing also makes it easier to meet that need to wake up often, while also supporting breastfeeding. Mother nature is one smart cookie.
Mama instincts count for a lot. Although it can feel overwhelming, and we feel the confusion of messages that conflict with our instincts, underneath the layers are instincts that we can tap into to help guide us.
Support makes all the difference. When we can’t hear our instincts over the background noise of cultural messages or maternal anxiety and depression, a single supportive person can make all the difference. We need someone who will listen, who empathizes, and who can see the whole picture and help us navigate. Someone who understands our values and priorities, and who can cut through the mixed messages to provide reassurance, concrete strategies, and give us perspective can change everything. When you are in the deep end as a new mama, your swimming skills don’t matter. You still need a hand to pull you out. Despite our skills and knowledge and ability to problem solve, we need support. We are too close to problem solve our way out of sleep challenges.
Time in nature makes sleep better –indeed, makes everything feel better. What has become so clear through this personal journey is that all of us in our family sleep so soundly when we are camping: we pay attention to the rhythms of nature, and we let our rhythm fall in sync with that. With no electricity, no screen, no lights other than our flashlights, we are in bed and drifting off to sleep by 9pm. We are not up washing the dishes or wiping down the counters –these things are done immediately after dinner, and with minimal kitchen items we have minimal clean up.* We are also not using television or facebook as our way of relaxing.
You are not screwing this up. Although it can start to feel trite to hear that you aren’t destroying your child’s chance at healthy sleep, there is truth to it. Babies grow, they develop, their entire neurology and sleep cycles and brains change. And they change in ways that respond to their environment. If you are aware of your priorities to provide responsive parenting that meets your baby’s needs, you are giving your baby what they need in ways nature intended.
This is a 1000+ day project. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to solve sleep problems tonight. To think that how our baby sleeps today is indicative of how they will sleep in two years. To think that lying down with our children now will mean they will not be able to sleep alone when they are 12. It doesn’t work that way. This is a multi-year project of mistakes and learning, infant development and mama personal growth. Taking the long slow path allows us to not sweat the minute to minute issues. It allows us to truly lean in to the need at this moment, without fear or reservation.
If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. It’s easier to ignore messaging around infant sleep if you reflect on whether what is happening in your own family is working for you. If it is, carry on, regardless of whether it meets the expectations of extended family, friends, or the latest book on sleep training. Day by day we can meet the need and feel good that it is reflecting our priorities to nurture our babies.
If it’s not working, change it. If what is happening day by day by day is frustrating and leaves us feeling resentful, then it’s time to look at changing it. How we do that takes some thought and reflection, and change can be hard. But there is no need to be a martyr. Make the changes needed to respect everyone’s needs, including your own.
Little pieces of self care adds up. Self care does not need to be a day at the spa, or a girls’ weekend away. These things are lovely, there is no doubt, but are not necessary and not always possible. Find as many ways during the day to catch a moment of self care to fill your cup. Taking a slow deep breath before heading out the door, enjoy the moment (even if it is a minute) to prepare a hot tea before babe wakes up. By living in the present and enjoying what is immediately in front of you, it may be easier to relish it in a way that allows you to sustain the feeling of peace and balance. Acknowledging brief moments of self care can add up to be a sustainable ‘filling of your cup’ throughout the day…You don’t need to save up extraordinary amounts of time for this to happen.
Be the Mama Bear: If your gut is telling you there is something interfering with your baby’s sleep, listen. Even if it whispers quietly. Listen and reflect, and don’t let your brain get in your way on this one. Pay attention to the questions that push you along the path of who to connect with to find answers.
Now, 9 years later, I have a bright, and empathetic kiddo who….drum roll….sleeps well. He prefers to stay up “late” (9pm), who would like to have his own room (he shares with his brothers), and who will say “I’m tired. I want to fall to sleep now” –magic words to a mama who was worried my kiddo would never sleep.
*One of my favourite parts about camping is that there is no kitchen floor to sweep!
Heather is an Occupational Therapist, a spouse, and a mom to three young boys. Her mission is to offer family-centered, attachment-based tools for families of infants and young children to thrive in nurturing and healthy environments. Heather places great value on attachment theory and nurture-based parenting practices that support the biological, evolutionary, and developmental needs of infants and young children. She envisions making a difference to families by helping them focus on how they can improve their child’s environment through nurturing parenting approaches, and healthy homes.
My alarm goes off and the feeling of dread comes over me. I am about to begin the morning battle with my 9-year-old. I tiptoe into her room and place a gentle hand on her back. With a soft sing-songy voice I recite:“Hey sweetheart, it’s morning and time to get up.” After a long silence, she pulls the covers over her head and rolls away from me with a “Nooooooo, aaaargh, rrrrrrroarrrr, I’m NOT getting up!”
I tell myself that she is just not a morning person. I change her bedtime to make it earlier. I make agreements with her. I plead with her. I buy her a special pillow, and a blanket, and a stuffed animal. I make her favorite breakfasts. I dangle a “cookie” in her lunch. Nothing works for very long, until, I find a magic key.
Maybe it is the deep and long sleep I had last night, but something in me shifts on this particular morning. I stop and study the writhing bump of blankets. I listen to the discomfort in her voice. I explore the wrinkled forehead and the cringing muscles of her face when she peers at me. The fight in my response softens and my shoulders exhale. I can see that she is enjoying this even less than I am. She does not want to feel like this. She is not willfully resisting me. She is in distress and the intelligence of her neurological system requires her to get out of distress, and as a last resort to fight, flee or freeze. This response is a process that has been designed over millennia to keep her first alive and second to help her expand (learn). The first order of business is physical safety or comfort.
My daughter’s sensory sensitivities seemed to rule our lives when she was younger. That is until I found the key that unlocked the causes of her meltdowns, and there was more than one key and more than one door. It became an ongoing tracking adventure.
The solution to the morning dread was not all of my acquired verbal skills and persuasions but instead a simple and ancient one: the olfactory system.
This particular morning, disharmony was solved using this equally simple and complex sensory system. I discovered if I first lit an incense stick before waking her up, she woke up with relative ease. The possible reason for this change in emotional behavior?
Science tells us that emotional regulation can be supported by certain scents. Scent and emotion are related in that they are deeply connected with experience, meaning, that an association is made deep in the brain between an experience and a particular smell.
I chose the incense based on the fact that when my daughter was younger and I read her bedtime stories I also burned incense. When I did this she often said: “I like that smell”. Once I got out of my own way, I thought about all my training in sensory processing and integration. I applied that to what I learned about the fight/flight/freeze response, and then I figured I would lean into the science and try my own little experiment… and it worked!
The olfactory system, or our sense of smell, can be one that when triggered, calms or alerts. It can however be overloaded with too much information in a highly sensitive child. Some smells can cause aversion while others can be like a warm bath for the nervous system.
Try engaging the sense of smell as a way to support a child who seems to over-react to normal situations such as; getting up in the morning, coming into the classroom, transitioning from playtime to bedtime, etc.
Some things to know when trying this out with your children or the children you work with:
The olfactory system is a fickle system and what is pleasant for one child, might disgust another. Tread slowly and track behavioral changes.
Be careful to only use high quality, natural essential oils or incense. Artificial oils and artificial, chemical incenses can be toxic and increase negative behaviors. Here are two reputable sources: www.mountainroseherbs.com, or www.rockymountainoils.com
Ask children what smells they like.
Do a “smell test.” If using essential oils, place a few drops of 4 different scents on a piece of cotton fabric. Then, have the child (or children) smell each one and tell you what they like and don’t like.
“Trauma isn’t what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside you.”
-Dr. Gabor Mate
We are at a stop sign on a little backroad when my nine year old flings her seat belt off and throws the car door open with an ear-bending squeal. I freak out too and yell “Close the door, that’s dangerous!” which only inflames the situation. “NO!” she yells looking down at something as she leaps from the stopped car. Now we are both upset as I put my flashers and emergency brake on, leaping from the car myself and demand, “What the hell happened?”
“A spider! A spider is in there and its trying to kill me!”
“Seriously?!? A spider?!?” I stammer indignantly.
“You don’t knoooooow MOM! It’s going to kill me!”
I look at her. Her whole body is shaking and her eyes are filled with fear. Finally, I get the intensity she is feeling and calm myself down:
“OK, I think it jumped out of the car when you opened the door, you can get back in now.” I lie with an unnaturally calm tone.
“MOOOOOM, I’m not stupid, no it didn’t and I’m not getting back in THAT car until you GET IT!”
My un-naturally calm voice now turns to an ultra-spiritually fake voice as I muster “OKaaay, I. Will. Get. The. Spider.” To which her whole body goes from rigid to semi-relaxed, she stops shaking and I see tears well in her eyes.
My empathy and compassion finally kick in and I offer “Wow, spiders are really scary for you. I didn’t know.” A cascade of my daughter’s tears flow now as she sobs: “I tried to TELL you.”
Ultimately nobody died. I relocated the killer garden variety spider from the car to a roadside plant. My daughter got back in the car. I figured out she had a fear that had become a phobia.
After the killer spider incident, I began to honor the flight system that kicks in for my daughter, not as an overreaction, but as a deeper need to be heard and honored for what is real for her. We worked through the phobia together.
My daughter is now almost 18 and just last week came to me and said, in the same ultra-spiritual calm as mine 9 years earlier: “Mom, I want you to know that last night when you were already asleep, there was a spider in my room and I didn’t wake you up. I caught it myself and put it outside.”
The first order of business in human development is safety. Without safety at the neurological level and at the conscious level, learning halts. Regardless of how rational or irrational a response may seem to us, to the child, it is VERY real. Children need to know they are safe, which is the caregivers’ number one primary. Meeting safety needs is the most important step towards growth and learning.
Research tells us that a trauma response to life’s little insults is built not so much by the event that happens, but by how it is responded to.
Dr. Gabor Mate tells us that “Trauma is when you are lonely to your pain and sadness and can’t process it…”
Whether you are a family member, a teacher or a mentor, what is needed to mitigate a trauma response is to “help them experience [loss or fear] by a nurturing adult so the young person learns that they can handle it and that there is support in this world.”
In moments when fear, even seemingly unreasonable fear, hijacks a kids behavior they want two specific things. They want to feel that:
You’ve Got This!
You believe in them that “They’ve got this!”
See a two and a half minute clip of Dr. Mate talking about children and trauma.
Why does the phrase “Drive fast, take chances” elicit both laughter and fear? Researchers have identified a kind of developmentally important play called “Scary Funny.” Listen to this engaging conversation with Mariana Brussoni, risk researcher from the University of British Columbia, to learn more about how a little bit of risk can go a long way towards a child reaching their true potential.
A big gratitude to Dr. Brussoni for being our first interview in this series! Find Dr. Brussoni and her NUMEROUS publications and contributions HERE.
A thousand thank you’s to Samuel Gray Edmonson for offering his music for our podcast! Sam’s music is a perfect fit and you can find more great tunes from him on Bandcamp HERE.