The Fussy Baby Site

Q & A with Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Have you ever wondered how you’re supposed to react during your toddler’s temper tantrums?Mary Sheedy Kurcinka photo

Or what about what to do when your baby or toddler consistently wakes up SUPER early in the morning? (I’m talking 4am here).

Do you wonder if life with a spirited child ever gets easier?

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Sheedy Kurcinka for the second time, and I asked her these questions and more.

I’ve read her book, ‘Raising Your Spirited Child‘ so many times I’ve lost count. I even have a copy upstairs, and a copy downstairs, for easy reference 🙂

If you suspect your child may be spirited, I’d highly recommend you pick it up, as well as Mary’s new book, Sleepless in America.


Between the ages of about 18 months and 3, my son’s tantrums were epic – screaming, crying, laying on the floor – he was completely inconsolable, sometimes for up to an hour. He didn’t want us to hold him, or even talk to him, so we felt completely helpless.

In your book, you give advice for avoiding tantrums before they start. However sometimes tantrums still happen. What are your best tips for dealing with a tantrum once it’s started?

We approach tantrums from a two-pronged approach.

The first is in the “heat of the moment” and the second is on a preventive basis.

So if you get caught in the “heat of the moment” the first thing is to remember that your response changes your child’s. So stay connected. He starts to lose it and your response is, “I’m listening.” “I will help you.”

You have to draw him to you and help him calm before he can hear you and work with you.

Get down on his level. Go to him and if he’ll let you touch him, touch him gently, reminding him you’ll help him.

Then look for the cause. You’re seeking understanding. What is he feeling or needing? Describe what you see. “I see you don’t want to get dressed this morning.” Or, “You were really having fun. It’s hard to stop.”

By staying calm, drawing him to you with empathy and seeking understanding you’ll find it much easier to calm him. On a preventive basis protect his sleep, especially naps.

It’s likely that as a toddler he still needs somewhere between 13-15 hours of sleep during a 24 hour period. That’s 11-12 hours at night plus a 2-3 hour nap during the day.

And finally create a predictable routine so he knows what to expect. Surprises trigger toddlers.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I got from ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’ is the idea of looking for yes’es. Can you explain that a bit for parents who haven’t read your book?

Looking for “yes” recognizes that children do not know the social rules. We have to teach them.

So if your child is jumping on the couch – which is unsafe and disrespectful to the environment – we’ll stop it.

But as we’ll go to her to take her off the couch we’ll say, “Oh, you like jumping. Let’s find a safe place for you to jump.”

Then take her to the trampoline or a mattress on the floor where she can be safe and jump.

If your child throws her food, we say, “We don’t throw food. We throw balls. Let’s go get the ball.” T

he idea is to stop the inappropriate behavior but at the same time understand what the child is trying to do and show him/her how to do it appropriately.
One of your specialties is helping children learn to sleep without crying. When should parents begin to think about sleep training? What resources would you recommend to help parents with this task?

Learning to sleep well begins in infancy with a rhythmic routine that protects sleep.

Check out my book Sleepless in America for tips on how much sleep your child truly needs – which is probably much more than you expect and how to make that happen without leaving him/her to cry.

When you follow the recommendations in the book you will be putting to bed a happy child who falls asleep easily, sleeps well through the night and wakes up happy. It’s worth the effort!
An issue I’ve heard from many parents is that their spirited child wakes up extremely early (we’re talking sometimes as early as 4-5am). For older children, this is a bit easier to deal with as they can at least occupy themselves for short amounts of time. But for babies and toddlers, is there a way to move the wake-up time later? Once they’re awake, should we be trying to get them back to sleep, or let them get up?

Early wake ups are not uncommon. There is a genetic factor to whether we are a morning lark or a night owl.

If you get the little morning lark it can be tough – they wake early no matter what time you put them to bed. So to at least move them to 6:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 a.m. there are several things you can do.

Follow a predictable routine that protects naps and night time sleep – over tired children tend to wake early.

Use dark out shades and a sound machine to help them continue to sleep and finally treat a 4:00 a.m. wake up as though it was midnight – do not turn on lights, talk or play.

If this is an infant and she needs to be fed – feed her, but then do your best to help your child go back to sleep.
Night wakings: Is there an age that we should be expecting our baby or toddler to sleep through the night? Is this different for each child?

The reality is we all wake at night. We go through sleep cycles all night long moving from light to deep sleep and back again.

The key is to help your child return to sleep without alerting you as he moves through his sleep cycles.

To do this you want him to fall asleep the way it will be in the middle of the night. So if he falls asleep with you rocking him and the rocking has stopped he’s more likely to wake.

That doesn’t mean you can’t rock him, it simply means stop rocking before he is completely asleep.

The same is true with music playing. If it’s playing when he falls asleep leave it on all night long. Otherwise turn it off before he falls asleep.

If he does wake give him a few minutes to see if he’ll go back to sleep. If he doesn’t, help him. It could mean a diaper change, or a feeding for a younger infant, or a cuddle for an older child. It is okay to do what you need to do to help all of you get back to sleep as quickly as possible.
What, if anything, can one do when their toddler/preschooler refuses to nap but clearly still needs it (i.e. will nap at daycare and will often fall asleep in the car) but all of the coaxing and effort in the world at home fails? At what point do you give up the battle?

Don’t give up the battle on naps. If your child naps at child care, but not at home, you have to look at your schedule and routine at home as well as the clear expectation that this is sleep time. Odds are your schedule is slightly different.

A mere 15 minute change in schedule on non-child care days can disrupt naps so find out the child care’s schedule and match it on the weekends.
What’s the best advice you can give parents who are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless that life with their spirited child will ever get easier? Will life ever be ‘normal’ again?

Raising a spirited child does take more skill, patience and energy.

I would encourage you to find the information and strategies that can make it better.

It is also critical to broaden your support system so you can get a break.

What I have also seen is that when you do your “work” in the early years, the teen years can actually be easier than with non-spirited youth who have not had to learn how to manage intensity or to be problem solvers.

The spirited child who has needed this coaching early on has the skills and can be an absolutely amazingly, wonderful teen and adult!

Looking for one-on-one sleep support? Mary is now available for private sleep consultations. Visit her website for more information.