Sleep can be a rather emotionally charged situation for parents and children alike. We all know that sleep is vital, that the rest and recharge it brings makes for happy, positive days full of energy. So why is it that sleep doesn’t always come easy? Well, truth be told, there are more reasons than I am including here, but I will highlight some common obstacles that come to visit many households. I will also give some hints and tips for coping with these, but you can also read more about how to help your little one get the much-needed kip in Sleep Angels.
Sleep thief #1 Sleep Onset Association
Sleep onset association refers to what your child associates with falling asleep; the situation he has become used to falling asleep in, either for settling to sleep in the evening (or a nap) or getting back to dreamland after waking up in the night.
Your child wakes up several times during the night. In fact, we all do. As adults, we have little or no recollection of these awakenings as we mostly just roll over and return to dreamland. For children it’s not always that easy, and many need comfort and reassurance before they can go back to sleep. In the early days, this is what is required, and your child needs your responsive care. However, as she gets a bit older, from 3-6 months onwards, you may want to start helping her find ways to return to dreamland on her own. This can be straightforward with some children, and take more time with others. You shape your child’s habits, and if you always help her fall asleep by rocking, feeding or lying down with her this is what she will come to depend on to be able to fall asleep.
Your child will be able to learn to self-soothe, if you wish for this to happen. Experts say that by one year of age, 60 to 70 percent of infants will be able to self-soothe.
Having ruled out factors such as hunger, wet nappy or illness, you can help this learning process as and when you feel ready and your child seems receptive. It can require patience and it can feel a bit stressful. As always, do what is best for your child and for you. Key ingredients én route to self-soothing:
- Your child goes to bed sleepy but not yet asleep
- Reassure and encourage, and make return visits to comfort short and sweet
- Each time, increase how long (in minutes) you wait before returning to your child’s room
- Encourage a favourite soft toy or blanket for company and a sense of security
- Use comforting words that you always repeat when you go to reassure and comfort; stroke his cheek or touch his head lightly, talk quietly and try not picking him up)
- Remember that learning something new, or indeed changing a habit, takes time. Your consistency holds the secret.
- Of course, when you are dealing with fears such as separation anxiety and nightmares, your child needs extra comfort and reassurance rather than practicing self-soothing.
Sleep thief #2 Colic
The exact cause of colic has not been confirmed, but is often characterised by episodes of irritability, loud crying, and likely abdominal pain as legs are drawn up and the tummy can feel tight. Most commonly it occurs between 1-3 months. The baby’s crying is loud and continuous, lasting from one to four hours. Colicky babies appear to have a shorter duration of total sleep. And in fact, sometimes the responses from parents to help sleep arrive creates a habit, which means the child may still rely on it (e.g. rocking, car rides etc) in order to sleep after colic has ceased (i.e. older than 4 months).
- Try white noise to help a colicky baby fall asleep. White noise is soothing and simulates the noise baby heard in the womb
- See a child chiropractor; chiropractic has been shown to be beneficial to reduce or eliminate colic in infants
- If you want to un-learn habits created during the colic period, one approach is to progressively help baby self-soothe (see Sleep thief 1)
- Make a new bedtime routine and stick to it consistently
Sleep thief #3 Separation anxiety
For infants and very young children, bedtime can be tricky and emotional, as it’s the longest separation they experience from their parents. Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development (starts from 6 months into toddlerhood) but can interfere with sleep as your child feels anxious when she can’t see you.
- Having a calming and soothing routine is reassuring for children in general, as it provides predictability and a sense of security.
- Be warm, sensitive and responsive.
- In addition to routine, recent research has highlighted the important role of emotions too. More specifically, when parents ensure they are emotionally receptive (or emotionally available) this can reduce sleep disruptions and promote a good sleep. Being emotionally available means paying attention to cues your child is giving you, and responding appropriately.
- As highlighted in "Tantrums – behind the screams”, young children lack the brain maturation and cognitive skills to cope well with distressing emotions. Your child needs your support.
Sleep thief #4 Nightmares, terrors and other fears
Nightmares happen during REM sleep (dream sleep), they are frightening to your child and wakes her up. Most often, they occur in the later part of the night.
They may result from events in your child’s life that she has found scary or stressful, or they can come from a change in her routine. Your child has a vivid imagination, so a nightmare can result from something she watched on TV, or read in a book.
Night terrors happen early in the night. If your child experiences night terror, he will be distressed and may cry or scream out, but is not awake or aware of what is going on. It can be a frightening experience for you, particularly the first time it happens. You may not realise until after he calms down that he was actually not awake during the event. Sleep terrors may result from insufficient sleep, having an inconsistent sleep schedule or being somewhere new.
Young children commonly develop fears which often come out at bedtime. It can include fear of the dark, a monster in the corner wardrobe, being left behind by parents, etc.
- Provide reassurance and comfort after a nightmare
- A night light can be comforting when experiencing nightmares
- A comforter (favourite fluffy toy, blanket etc) can help calm and provide a sense of security
- It can be difficult for young children to understand the difference between the dream and reality. Comfort and talk about how everything is safe; for older children encourage talking through the nightmare and taking ‘control’ over what happened in the dream and what can happen next time (i.e. change outcome or view of the dream)
- Ensure your child gets sufficient sleep, to help reduce likelihood of night terrors
- During night terrors, stay close until the event has calmed, but be aware that he may not want to be held until fully awake. It could also be that he only wakes up very briefly and wants to go back to sleep, in which case just tuck him in and leave him to it.
- As always, a positive and calming bedtime routine is beneficial for a safe and peaceful kip.
- When it comes to fears, remember that the fear is very real for your child. Accept the fear, talk about how you can see why something seems scary, and then talk through things and explain everything is safe, in a way that is understandable for your child (age and development level).
- For older children, you can also play to your child’s engagement with a fantasy world, by finding a playful solution to getting rid of something scary (e.g. chasing away a monster).
- Be sensitive but confident; you are role modeling responses and beliefs for your child.
Sleep thief #5 Limit-Setting Problems
As you know, effective parenting involves getting the right balance, i.e. providing both opportunities and limits to guide your child. Well, the same thing applies at night: you’re providing a positive, supportive and calming routine. During toddlerhood it becomes beneficial to involve your child in what happens in the routine and give him some choices and decisions within this. Equally, your rules and limit setting are important when supporting and encouraging your toddler’s sleep. Approaching 2 years of age, you will probably notice a stronger tendency to resist bedtime or finding ways to prolong his time with you before bed.
You are likely to face some impressively persistent and creative ways in which your child tries to stall sleep. Asking for one more story, calling you back to request a drink or to tell you one more thing (something "very important”).
Stay firm and consistent, if you agree on one story (let her choose the story), and stick to it.
When requests persist for other things (calling you back to the room), keep being firm that it’s bedtime and use a word or phrase you always use to signal bedtime. When you are consistent your child understands you mean business and there is no point to ‘try it on’. Over time you will see a change and less stalling.
Sleep thief #6 Food
If your child sleeps soundly at bedtime some days but seems unable to wind down on others, it could come down to what she eats. Eating the wrong food prior to bedtime can provide too much energy, causing a rise in blood sugar levels and making it hard to sleep. The right foods contain ‘tryptophan’, which helps produce the sleep inducing hormones in the body (serotonin and melatonin). Take a note of the below foods and observe which may be causing trouble and which could help get thing back on track.
Foods that help Sleep thieves:
- Caffeine or carbonated drinks
- Chocolate and sweets
- Citrus fruits or juice
- Cream, butter and margarine
- High fat food or very spicy food
- Processed carbohydrates (e.g. white rice, white bread, pasta and some cereals)
Foods that help Sleep Fairies:
- Dairy products (e.g. cheese, milk)
- Soy products
- Whole grains
- Rice and Lentils
- Nuts and seeds
Nutritious snacks that involves a protein and a complex carbohydrate help ensure blood sugar levels can stabilise throughout the night. Try cereal with milk (not processed cereal), or porridge with chopped almonds. A little bit of honey can sweeten the deal (although not for children under 1 year).