Paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe tells us how to banish sleep woes to ensure better shut eye at night for your entire family.
Children’s sleep problems are all too frequent and come in a variety of guises. Studies suggest that 30%- 69% of children experience a sleep disorder at some point. This can include trouble going to sleep and most commonly difficulty staying asleep.
What constitutes a sleep problem?
This may vary from household to household. Our task as parents is to ensure that our children are getting enough uninterrupted and good quality sleep for their bodies. Broken and inadequate amounts of sleep can have implications for a child’s mood, behaviour and cognitive development. It is a vicious cycle; children who get less sleep one night, will potentially have trouble sleeping well the next. What do you do when your child insists on visiting you overnight?
Where does your child sleep?
To begin, it is necessary for parents to decide on where they want their child to sleep. Some family units want their children to sleep in their own space and to maintain this overnight. Others practise a ‘family bed’ scenario where co-sleeping is normal, either from the start of the night or at some point overnight. Co-sleeping is quite common, 35%-55% of pre-schoolers sleep with their parents and once that suits everyone, then there are no sleep issues.
When co-sleeping helps your child to doze off
However, if you are a ‘reactive’ cosleeper are and only operating a family bed sleep approach in an effort to get sleep, you may need to help define what the sleeping arrangements should be for your child and family unit. You may need to help your child to understand what is expected of them and where everyone should be, both at bedtime and in the overnight period. Lots of bed hopping can mean broken sleep for everyone, often resulting in one parent leaving the bed to sleep in the spare room to make space for the visitor.
Define your child’s sleep space
Lots of parents report nocturnal visits from their children. Often this can be due to the way the child is going to sleep at bedtime. If the parent puts the child to sleep in the family bed, only to transfer them to their own bed once asleep, you can potentially expect a night caller, wanting to simulate what happened to him/her at bedtime.
Also, if you lie down in your child’s bed or use drinks or other sleep aids in order for them to go to sleep at bedtime – reasonably, she may request a replay of events from last night’s bedtime.
Sleeping is a skill
Young children typically require skills to self-regulate, self-quiet and go to sleep without a parent present in order to become efficient at sleeping soundly overnight.
Some children can be independent at bedtime and still visit the parent’s room overnight – they may not have learned to ‘stitch’ their sleep together without parental presence; this is a learned behaviour and may also need to be addressed in isolation. If you want your child to sleep in their own bed, in their own room, then this is where your child’s sleep should begin at bedtime and end in the morning time.
Make sure bedtime is appropriately timed
Ensure that the time that your child goes to bed is appropriate for them. Watch out for overtired signs such as intense eye rubbing, hyperactivity, impatience, crankiness; all of these factors can make the body find it more challenging to actually stay asleep overnight. A reasonable bedtime for most children is between 6pm – 8pm.
When dealing with your child overnight, it is a good idea to meet them in the hallway if you can, so that they never make it to the parents’ room. Definitely don’t let it get to the stage that they are climbing into bed with you. Try to be as responsive as possible, but also be firm and clear in your expectations. Return them to bed and stay with them, if necessary, until they go back to sleep.
It takes practice
You may need to repeat this exercise a number of times and gradually reduce parental attention and presence. This will take time and patience with many parents experiencing long wakeful periods overnight. This is short-lived and the long periods will shrink with your child ultimately learning excellent sleep skills for life. Be prepared for protestations from your child, help him/her process the changes and always maintain a high level of consistency in your approach.
Help them to understand sleep
It may help to make a booklet with your child to help them understand that you want them to sleep in their own bed all night long. Illustrating this in words and pictures can help with understanding, but will not eliminate protest.
Any changes that you make with sleep can potentially be met with resistance.
Make a decision, formulate a plan of action and understand that it can take upwards of four weeks and sometimes longer with older children to change the pattern of behaviour. Ensure that your child has a calm bedtime routine that happens before you want them to go to sleep. I recommend that this happen in their bedroom, outside of the bed. Allocate at least 20 minutes to get ready for sleep, getting changed, doing songs and stories and generally helping their little body to relax in advance of sleep.
Good luck and sweet dreams!
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie
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