Sleep is important to everybody… and especially kids. When we sleep, we rest and gain energy for a new day. But, of course, sleep does more than that. For example, sleep is an important ingredient for dreaming; which is when we process all the events of our daily life (again, something especially important for children). And you may not know that sleep is also important for laying down long-term memories. And don’t forget that without sleep even little mundane tasks can become difficult and exhausting. So no wonder it’s so important to us that our children sleep through the night and by consequence, so do we!
Well, that’s all well and good, but sometimes it’s not that easy! (I know) So let’s answer some important questions on the topic of sleep:
What is the normal amount of sleep for a child?
This is of course age-dependent and changes from child to child, but as an average this is what you should expect:
- 12 months – 13.5 hours
- Two years – 13 hours
- Three years – 12 hours
- Five years – 11 hours
Remember, these are only averages and individual babies, toddlers and older children may show considerable variations.
What happens when my child doesn’t sleep?
It’s already been mentioned how important sleep is for a child’s wellbeing, but this is an interesting question. At night, the body produces more of the hormone that stimulates growth. So, at a physical developmental level sleep is extremely important.
On a neurological (mental) angle, the way that a typical sleep spindle works is to take the brain through a pre-determined set of brain-wave activity. This is equally important in the mental health of a child. “Beta” is the first of those waves, and it’s the one we would expect to see if you were awake. This represents our fully conscious, alert state (ranging from 14-30 Hz). When we are more relaxed we enter an “Alpha” state, where the brainwaves would slow down to 8-13Hz. Next comes “Theta”, which are waves between 4 and 8 Hz and finally, when you’re in deep sleep, then the “Delta” Waves (1.5-4Hz) start to appear. This is often called “slow wave sleep”, and it seems to be the one our bodies crave most, because it will aim for this kind of sleep when it can get nothing else!
It’s important to remember that each child’s sleeping pattern is different. So if your child is one year old and sleeps 10 hours each day, it’s perfectly OK, as long as he or she is happy and healthy and seems to be developing normally.
My should I do if my child wakes up regularly through the night?
OK – if you have a newborn baby, this is to be expected! Because a newborn baby will probably need to eat every two or three hours. So, sorry, you’re going to have to “tough it out” for those early days! Don’t worry… normally your baby’s sleeping periods increase little by little. So by the age of five months, there’s no need for your child to maintain nightly meals (even though they may want to!)
To start teaching them to sleep through the night, you start by showing them that nothing exciting happens during the night. So when your child wakes up:
- do not turn the lights on
- try not to talk to the child or play with them
- don’t stimulate them in any way (if your child needs to be changed, do so with as little fuss as possible)
The main thing is to calm them (gently patting them, without taking them out of bed, is a good idea), reassure them you are there with a comforting hand, but keep interaction to a minimum. Try to wean them off feeds through the night and remember that getting into bad habits at this stage will result in difficult sleeping patterns as they get older.
So are you saying I should let my baby cry itself to sleep?
No – not necessarily. As a parent, you will learn what different cries mean. Often babies will settle themselves and should be given time to do so. If they don’t, then do reassure them by whatever means you feel appropriate, but remember the adage: “with as little stimulation as possible”.
In the older child who wakes, when they usually sleep through the night, something has obviously upset their routine and you can go in and reassure them. Again, try not to do more than the minimum, so they turn over and go back to sleep.
If your child cries persistently then you may need to seek further advice. A persistently crying child needs to be reassured that they are not alone in the world, but again, this doesn’t mean that you have to feed or entertain your child. For example, you can stroke their head and back, or tuck your baby up in the bedclothes, make your baby feel you are there and that they can safely go back to sleep.
Be sensible! If your child cries unexpectedly or if you feel something is wrong, trust your parenting instincts and make sure that he or she isn’t sick or running a fever.
How long should it take to teach a child to sleep through the night?
Firstly, there is no hard and fast rule. And once again, this is age-dependent. The first step is that you as the parents (or guardians) have to decide when you are ready and then be concerted in your efforts.
If a child is between four and six months old, it will probably only take three or four nights to teach them to sleep through the night. If the child is older than six months, it may take one or two weeks.
What do I need to do in preparation?
The more prep work you can do, the easier the task at hand! Whatever you do, being prepared for the task makes you less likely to give up after one night. You should also discuss this with your partner, so you both agree on your plan of action in order to support each other.
Things to think about are:
- What time are you going to put your child to bed (when does the night start)?
- How you are going to divide the night between you?
- When are you going to go to sleep (in order to be rested)?
- How you will define ‘morning’ (ill it be 6am, 7am or even later)?
Remember “less is more”
Start by doing as little as possible. Each time the child wakes up during the night, the less you do, the better. Some parents are able to leave the child to cry and not go in to the room. Others will go in and stroke the child’s head and back and tuck them in.
Check to see if there is a reason why the baby doesn’t go back to sleep. For example, they may need their nappy changing. Try to do this with a dim nightlight so you don’t over stimulate or entertain your child.
After this, the child may sleep for another hour and then wake up again. If this is the case, you can try something as simple as a quick drink. A drink of water has two functions. It tells the child that we don’t eat at night, but that we can have water if we’re thirsty.
If simply stroking and tucking in the child does not help, it might be a good idea to keep the pram next to the cot. Put the baby in the pram and push it back and forth for a little while.
Repeat the above activities whenever the child wakes in the night and remember that the night is supposed to be boring for the child; so don’t do anything that is likely to make them excited.
Top tips for getting into a good habit
- Bedtime should be enjoyable for everybody so make bedtime a fun and comforting routine and stick to it.
- Your child should feel good, both when they go to bed and when they wake up so never use the bedroom as a punishment.
- Create a simple and familiar routine for bedtime. For example: feed, bath, bed.
- Make sure your child winds down before bed. This will make the transition from lively kid to sleeping child easier.
- Use thick blinds or curtains to make rooms darker so the morning light doesn’t wake them.
- Try to tire your child out with lots of enjoyable daytime physical activities!
- Allow your child time to settle. If they make a fuss, don’t go back in immediately, but don’t leave them for so long that they get very distressed.
- Put your child to bed before they get overtired.
- It’s OK if your child settles down slowly in bed (they don’t have to go to sleep immediately).
- Stroking your baby and rocking her/him in your arms before bed will help to make them sleepy, but try and put them into bed before they’re actually sleeping.
- Dim the lighting or turn the lights off, when you put your child to bed.
- Provide a night light if your child doesn’t like the dark.
- If your child is a little older (toddler age) and seems scared of being left alone, promise to come back and check on them every five or ten minutes until they’re sleeping. They may relax knowing you’ll be back.
- Try playing soothing background music if they are comforted by the sound of people around them.
- Leave safe, favourite soft toys (or a favourite comforter) in bed for company.
Remember to be realistic. A routine wont’ happen over night or every night. And there will be times when your child falls out of the routine (for no obvious reason). Also, keep in mind that sleep patterns vary from person to person. It may take time, but eventually the hard work will pay off.
What to do when nothing seems to work?
OK – there are going to be some children who do need that extra bit of assistance. If you’re despairing about your child’s sleep routine (or lack of it!) it might be time to get help from your doctor or child support group. These people are there to help you and are best placed to explain ways of managing unusual sleep behaviours. That’s it for now.
Good luck and good night!