Top Tips For Childrens Sleep
TOP TIPS FOR CHILDREN TO SLEEP WELL
By Lauren Peacock – Little Sleep Stars
The (sometimes surprising) things that influence child sleep and my top tips for helping a child learn to sleep well
If the title of this article has caught your eye, you may have already resigned yourself to being the parent of a “bad-sleeper”. I know that feeling well as I spent much of my first year as a parent surviving on around five hours of broken sleep a night. During that time, I received a lot of well-meaning, if often unsolicited, advice about what I should do to improve my son’s sleep. Much of it involved leaving him to cry, which was never an option for me.
Since those very short nights, and long sleep-deprived days, I have retrained as a child sleep consultant and now help tired families throughout the UK and overseas to understand why their child is struggling to sleep well and to change that. Using gentle methods, it is absolutely possible to teach any child to sleep well – yes, even yours!
Many things influence a child’s innate ability to take restful sleep. Some we can control, others we cannot. Factors known to play a part include: maternal diet; stress-levels during pregnancy; the baby’s gestational age at birth; when in the year a baby is born; and any medical procedures taking place in the early days of life.
By far the most influential factor, in my experience, is a child’s temperament. At least 90% of my workload comprises children who I would describe as “alert” or even “super alert”. These are little ones who are typically “into everything”, strong-willed, inquisitive and often early to physical milestones such as walking. Alert children are wonderful – they shine bright and have fairly unlimited potential but they can be challenging to parent as not only do they possess a steely will, they are notoriously tricky sleepers.
Because children are wonderfully unique, there is no reliable one-size-fits-all method of sleep training. However, there are some common themes that run through much of my caseload. If you are experiencing challenges around your little one’s sleep, the root cause is probably on this list…
The child is too sleepy or already asleep when put into bed
It may not feel like it sometimes but bedtime is the easiest time for a child to fall asleep! Crucially it is also where they are best able to learn how to initiate sleep for themselves. A child will always wake in the night, all human beings do – typically three or four or even five times. Children who “sleep through” do wake, but they are able to quickly and confidently return themselves to sleep.
Parents might be aware of this information and so are putting their child down awake with the little one drifting off very quickly. This can feel like a huge success but it is actually possible for a child to fall asleep too quickly! Anything under ten minutes from first being placed in the cot to being asleep tends to indicate that tiredness did almost all of the work. To settle to sleep in the absence of exhaustion typically takes a child around fifteen minutes and when it happens much quicker, we often see children unable to resettle in the night without help purely because the edge has gone from their tiredness.
This nemesis of child sleep is present in most cases I deal with. Children who struggle with night-time sleep rarely nap well. Sometimes parents have reduced or eliminated naps in a logical effort to improve night-time sleep but this often it has the opposite effect. This reason for this is that, counterintuitively, sleep begets sleep. Parents are generally surprised at just how much sleep their child needs – as an example at twelve months old I would expect a little one to typically sit best on two naps that total close to three hours plus around eleven hours overnight.
When a child sleeps is just as important as how much they sleep. This is because children have relatively short “wakeful windows” which is the amount of time they can be comfortably awake between periods of sleep. If they go over that window then their body responds by producing cortisol, an adrenaline-like hormone and they acquire a “second-wind”. Overtired children may fight sleep onset and will often wake more frequently – once awake they can find it very hard to return to sleep and often want to start the day at 5-something, not because they have taken all the rest they need but because staying asleep just becomes too hard.
There is so much information available now that it’s actually a case of overload. Parents are scouring the internet at 3am, searching desperately for the one thing that will finally “fix” their child’s sleep. They will try something that another parent swears worked and when that doesn’t help they may move onto another suggestion. Parents can find themselves stuck in a cycle that doesn’t feel like a process they can see the end of. That makes it very hard to continue yet every time they change tack or revert to old habits, it builds resistance in their child and also confusion as the little one isn’t sure what to expect. If there is one thing that creates crying, it’s inconsistency.
Whether parents choose to work one-to-one with a sleep coach or to read a good-quality, contemporary child sleep book and create their own strategy to improve sleep, having a plan is essential. When a family has the right plan in place, that takes into account their parenting style and child’s temperament, and that plan is applied consistently, parents are usually amazed at how quickly things turn around.