I wanted to put a disclaimer on this up front. What follows is mostly advice for parents having problems with their children’s sleep. If things are working for you, you’re happy, your child is happy, then I’d still like you to read this of course, but I would not recommend making any drastic changes to your routine. I nursed my daughter to sleep and never worried about her falling asleep on her own. At a couple months old, she started sleeping through the night – I never did any sleep shaping or training with her, she just figured it out on her own. Some babies do this. Others are like my son, who didn’t consistently sleep through the night until he was 3 ½ years old!
Importance of Sleep
Not only is sleep important to having a less cranky child, there are many biological functions that occur when we are sleeping that are important. Without adequate sleep, growth problems can result. Children who do not get enough sleep may be prone to overeating, or preferring high calorie carbohydrates. Hormones in the body are also affected in sleep deprived children.
Children who do not get enough sleep are also more prone to accidents during their waking hours, and they can also show signs that are often mistaken for ADHD.
Some Sleep Basics
In most children, the ability to put themselves to sleep is a learned skill, one which we can help them learn. If children do not know how to fall asleep at bedtime, they will probably wake during the night. We all go through sleep cycles when we sleep. When we switch between sleep cycles, we have a partial awakening. For adults, usually we turn over, maybe fix our pillow and fall back asleep. For children, these awakenings may be more difficult. If your child has fallen asleep while being rocked in your arms, then wakes up in the middle of the night in their crib, she will wonder how she got there, and then she is going to try to figure out how to get back to sleep. If the only way she knows how to fall asleep is being rocked in your arms, she will call or cry for you so that you can help them. Every 90 to 110 minutes, adults and children two and up have a slight awakening, every 3 – 4 hours we have a more pronounced awakening. Babies under two cycle more frequently.
We all have sleep windows that are our naturally sleepy times. When we are in a relaxed state and at our sleep window, our body produces Melatonin, a calming hormone. When we wait too long, our body starts producing Cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This is why your child, who a little while ago seemed pretty sleepy, is now running full speed around your house!
Once a child misses their sleep window and their body begins producing Corisol, it is harder for them to fall asleep, and they are more likely to wake during the night.
A well-rested child can handle variations in a sleep schedule better than an overtired child. Babies are even more sensitive, especially if they are already overtired.
Babies who do not get enough sleep will wake up throughout the night and earlier the next day.
Some Gentle Way s to Get Your Child to Sleep Better
The most important thing you can do in trying to change any behavior is to be consistent.
For all children, have a predictable, relaxing bedtime routine, preferably with no television or other electronic devices. Many people include a bath as part of their bedtime routine, but if you feel that this gets your child more worked up and less relaxed, it is fine to move it to another part of the day. If your child has a hard time settling down, look into baby massage or yoga for children. I recommend reading some books as well.
Younger children (under 2.5)
Try working on getting them to go to bed drowsy but awake at bedtime. You can begin trying this at 6 – 8 weeks old, but do not worry if your child resists it. Just try again in a couple of days.
Try massage or yoga if your child has trouble settling down before bed.
To improve sleep at night, make sure your child is getting enough sleep during the day. Over tired children sleep less and worse than well rested children.
Older children (2.5 and up)
Make sure your bedtime routine is consistent and the child knows what to expect (i.e. how many books will be read, how many times they can fill up their water cup, how many hugs etc.). Think about all the things your child may use to stall bedtime and think up your answer before time.
Explain the changes you will make to your child in a family meeting – Make it Positive! Explain to your child that they will feel better and be able to have more fun if they are well rested.
Use Sticker Charts to give a visual of the behavior you want changed. Put 3 or 4 behaviors on the chart, including one that will be relatively easy for the child to accomplish.
There are many clocks you can buy that will turn different colors to show the child when it is time to wake up. These are great for children who wake in the middle of the night or wake early in the morning.
If sleep training does not work, and you are 100% consistent, there may be underlying medical conditions such as: asthma, allergies, reflux and sleep apnea. Some symptoms of sleep apnea are restless sleeping, extreme sweating, snoring, and mouth breathing. If you are seeing any of these signs, discuss this with your pediatrician.
Written By Michelle Winters, Gentle Sleep Coach
Michelle Winters graduated from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach. Working with infants, toddlers, and preschool aged children at a Montessori school has made her aware of how prevalent sleep difficulties are. She decided she wanted to do something to help all the tired parents out there, especially since she had been one of those tired parents until very recently when her 3 year old son finally started sleeping through the night. She can help you create a plan that will have your child sleeping better at night and at naptime. Her website is www.sleepwellsleepsolutions.com.
Growth issues and Sleep: http://www.babycenter.com/0_the-connection-between-sleep-and-growth_3658990.bc
Article about adults, eating and sleep: http://www.sptimes.com/2004/11/17/Worldandnation/Sleep_deprivation_rai.shtml
Article about ADHD symptoms really being symptoms of sleep deprivation: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/attention-problems-may-be-sleep-related/
Sleep Basic information comes from “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight”, written by Kim West.