Sleep training is one of the most demanding parenting situations. But it is especially important to stay positive and calm around bedtime, because being harsh can stress your children and make it more difficult for them to fall asleep. Today I talk about a study that showed that reducing clutter and chaos in our homes increases our ability to stick to positive parenting, thus it can probably make it easier for us to stay peaceful when setting limits around bedtime too! It was especially interesting for me to learn this as I enrolled in the Parenting Junkie’s year-long parenting course, Present Play, where this month we experienced how reducing clutter and chaos improves the behaviour of our children too. I would say, less chaos = win-win :)
You can find the dissertation I was talking about here (Suzanne Marijke Andeweg: Unravelling the effect of household chaos on parenting, 2021): https://scholarlypublications.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/3147171
Hello everyone. It's Anna. Thank you so much for tuning in today. You are listening to The Baby Sleep Project Show, the place to learn about baby sleep and sleep coaching.
Today, I'm going to talk about a very interesting study that I've just found. There's heavy rain outside so you might hear the raindrops on my window. I will try to filter it out, but if you still hear some background noise, then that's that.
This study is part of a doctoral dissertation that was submitted this year to Leiden University, in the Netherlands. The author is Suzanne Marijke Andeweg. I'm sure my pronunciation was not correct. The title of the dissertation is: Unravelling the Effect of Household Chaos on Parenting, 2021. The whole doctoral dissertation is about the relationship between household chaos and parenting.
Chapter two, for example, was a laboratory study where they invited people who were not parents themselves to the lab. The lab was furnished as a living room and they had to take care of an infant simulator. So I'm going to read a quote from this study.
“Ninety-six young adults (nonparents) visited our lab twice and took care of an infant simulator in a lab furnished like a living room. In the neutral condition, the room was orderly and calm, and in the chaos condition, it was cluttered, noisy, and smaller. According to our findings, household chaos leads to less positive caregiving behavior and parents with higher sensory sensitivity may be more affected by household chaos. Thus, reducing household chaos may be effective in promoting positive parenting.”
So, in this study, they proved that in the laboratory, for participants who were not parent during the task of taking care of an infant simulator, chaos in this living room led to less positive parenting. So, in the study that I will talk about today, they tried this in real world settings. It is described in chapter four of this dissertation and the title is: Reducing Household Chaos to Improve Parenting Quality.
Previous studies show that more household chaos is related to lower quality parenting, but it's not clear whether household chaos itself causes lower quality parenting, or maybe the relationship is reversed, or maybe there's a third factor that influences both. So you can never conclude from correlational studies about the causality of these relationships. That's why in chapter four of the dissertation, they tried an experimental design.
But first, let's define what household chaos is, what is negative parenting, and what they mean by positive parenting. Their definition of household chaos is this: "Household chaos is defined as a lack of family routines and week structure, high noise levels, material disorganization, and crowding." Negative parenting involves dysfunctional discipline like laxness, overreactivity, verbosity, anger, and hostility towards the child. Positive parenting, on the other hand, involves responsiveness towards the child, understanding, and responding to the child's social cues, showing warmth and enjoyment, and stimulating parenting.
And we know from previous studies that more harsh and insensitive parenting is related to a slower cognitive development and to more externalizing and internalizing problems in children and adolescents. In other words, it is very important to exercise positive parenting instead of negative parenting. And if household chaos influences this, whether parents are more negative or positive in their parenting, then household chaos is an important factor in raising children.
Participants in this study were chosen based on their self-admitted level of household chaos. So they chose participants with relatively high levels of household chaos. All children in this study lived with their parents and they had no siblings. And children were on average 19 months old, so one year and a half. All of these families had relatively high social economic status, and most parents had university or college degrees.
They randomly chose half of these families who received the intervention to reduce household chaos. The intervention consisted of four home visits and follow-up phone calls and some reminder text messages. The themes for these visits were clutter, noise level, and routine. After the first visit, the parents chose a theme for each of the next visits. These themes could be clutter, noise, or routine. The method was the so-called "motivational interview".
They tried to motivate parents to reduce chaos in their homes instead of logically convincing them. And parents chose a goal for each of these themes for each week. For example, a goal could be something like putting away toys before bedtime to reduce clutter, turning off the TV if no one was watching to reduce noise level, and getting dressed before waking up the child to improve family routines.
Parents also received a cardboard box to help declutter, a family planner whiteboard to help with family routines, and a traffic light that responded with a red light to high decibel levels to help with noise levels. Parents also wrote down their goals on cards, and these were placed in visible places in their home to remind them of their goal. They also received text messages twice a week to remind them of their goals.
So that was the intervention. Basically, for each week, researchers helped the parents to set goals and then reminded them of these goals. And all of these goals were related to reducing clutter, reducing noise, and improving family routine.
What happened is that before this intervention and after this intervention, the researchers measured several things. For example, there was a questionaire about chaos. This questionnaire consisted of 14 or 15 items, and parents rated these statements based on how true they were to their families: completely not true, not true, sometimes true, sometimes not true, true, or completely true, or not applicable.
For example, "It's so noisy you can't hear yourself think in our home." Or, "Our home is a good place to relax." Or, "We can usually find things when we need them." Or, "No matter how hard we try, we always seem to be running late," and similar statements.
Besides this, researchers also recorded the living room and the child's bedroom to assess chaos. For example, whether items on surfaces impeded the use of that surface. For example, items stacked on a chair, making it impossible to sit on the chair; that would be a chaos item. Or the ratio of visible to closed storage space, the amount of stimulation based on spaciousness, clutter, the amount of decoration, and the use of bold colors. These were things that the researchers observed.
They also videotaped parent-child interactions during different kinds of play and tasks. Some of these were playing with toys that the researchers brought in. Another play situation was when the child played with his or her own toys. Also, there was the so-called "don't touch task". The don't touch task is where a researcher brings a bag of very interesting interactive toys and he asks the parent to prevent the child from touching these toys. So the child is not allowed to play with these toys for one minute, and it is the parent's task to make this happen or not happen.
They observed the behavior of parents during this quite difficult task and they observed whether the parent used physical discipline; whether the parent used physical force to make the child compliant with this don't touch task. They measured laxness based on the frequency of giving in; how frequently the parent gave in to the child. And they also measured overreactivity based on the frequency of verbal and nonverbal signs of anger and losing one's temper.
So these were the play situations. Besides this, parents also used a diary app to record the daily routine; when the child woke up, had lunch, went to bed, when the light was turned off, and when the child fell asleep. So more variability in the routine means more chaos. They also measured noise levels with a decibel meter in the living room.
To sum up, researchers measured several things to assess chaos in the home. There was a questionnaire about chaos. They rated the living room and the child's bedroom for chaos. They videotaped and rated parent-child interactions during different kinds of play, including the don't touch task. They also measured the variability in the times of the daily routine and the noise levels with the decibel meter.
So what did they find? First of all, they found that harsh discipline decreased after the intervention during the don't touch task. But they didn't find any difference in sensitivity during the free play task when the child was just allowed to play freely. And keep in mind that they didn't provide any information on harsh discipline to parents. So parents were not asked to behave more positively. The only thing that happened was that they set goals to reduce household chaos.
The intervention was aimed at reducing household chaos, not directly at reducing negative parenting. But the effect was obvious in the don't touch task situation. So they concluded that this may indicate that the effect of household chaos of parenting is most relevant in demanding situations because the don't touch task was more difficult, more demanding than the free play task. They concluded that the effect of household chaos may be most relevant in an already demanding situation by making the situation even more demanding or stressful, resulting in more harsh discipline. Household chaos may thus be causally related to parenting, specifically, in already demanding parenting situations.
So that was the main conclusion of this study. But why am I telling you all this? Well, let me tell you a little background story. At the beginning of May, I have started a year-long parenting course. It is called Present Play, and it is run by The Parenting Junkie, aka Avital Schreiber Levy. You might have seen her YouTube videos, or she also has a podcast, The Parenting Junkie podcast, that you might know.
The first month of this course or coaching program is focused on transforming our homes. The goal is to create an environment that induces independent play in our children. So maybe some of you have done The Parenting Junkie's free challenge called Reclaim Play, which took place last month. It's every year in April. And it is very similar to that. Basically, that one-month long free challenge is similar to the first month of this year-long experience.
You can check out the Reclaim Play hashtag on Instagram, and you will see a lot of beautiful pictures about homes of parents who participated in this challenge so you will get an idea of what this is. During the first month, we create play zones or play areas in our homes that promote different kinds of play. For example, imaginative play, sensory play, or movement, et cetera.
But the first step before all this, before creating these beautiful play zones is decluttering, which means to get rid of all the toys that we don't love, that are annoying, that are broken, or duplicates. And then we rotate toys. We put all the unused toys into storage so that we can take them out again in a few months so that they seem new and interesting to our children, hoping that they will play with them again. Basically, we just remove a lot of objects, a lot of toys, clutter from the play areas, and hopefully, from all of our homes.
This is reducing material chaos. This is one aspect of chaos as it was defined in the study that I talked about. So Avital says that we do this for our children because chaos and clutter can be overwhelming and it makes it hard to concentrate, to focus on play. So when there are too many toys, children just don't know which one to choose, and they end up not playing at all or just playing for short amounts of time with each toy. And so they cannot get into deep play.
For me, after learning all this, it was very interesting to read that this study proves that clutter and chaos influences our parenting too. So if you declutter, not only your children will behave better, but you will behave better too. And the second reason I chose this topic for today is that the study showed that the effect of household chaos on harsh parenting is more relevant in demanding situations.
And what is sleep training, if not one of the most demanding parenting situations? We all know that if you're calm and all Zen, then it will be more easy to stay kind and not to lash out when your child asks for yet another glass of water, or another story, or another lullaby during bedtime. So it is much easier to hold your boundaries, which is a huge part of sleep training, especially for toddlers and older children. It's much easier to hold your boundaries when you are calm and not overwhelmed to begin with.
So if your environment is chaotic, you will be more stressed, more on edge, and it will be more difficult to keep your cool during sleep training. And being peaceful and kind is especially important during bedtime because if you're harsh with your kids, it will be just more difficult for them to fall asleep. With your behavior, you can actually prevent them to fall asleep.
You want to exude calm and love and positivity around bedtime so your kids will be calm too, and they will fall asleep more easily. The whole experience will be more positive for them. For me, the study means that if you want to make it easier for yourself, then maybe start the decluttering the nursery or the child's bedroom. Put all toys away and create an environment that is calm and not too stimulating. And this will have a double effect. Your kids will be calmer, so they will fall asleep easier. And you will be calmer too so you can stay peaceful when your kids try to stretch your boundaries or the limits you are trying to set around bedtime.
So to sum up, sleep training is a demanding parenting situation. And if you want to make it easier for yourself, and if you want to make it a more positive experience for your child, then you might want to declutter your environment and make the nursery less chaotic because that will influence both of your behaviors; both your child and your behavior. And it will make the whole situation easier and more pleasant.