When Children don’t Sleep

The Reason Your Child Didn’t Sleep Last Night

It can be very frustrating when your child does not sleep well.  It is a place that you may feel only you inhabit and also, you may sense that your child is just a “bad sleeper”.  Healthy sleep habits do not always come naturally for some children, in fact depending on what study you read 30-50% of families report sleep issues.  Sleep is behavioural in nature and also intricately linked to the circadian rhythm (physical, mental or behavioural changes that are generated by an internal clock that is synchronized to light – dark cycles). If one or both of those elements are not applied correctly to your child’s sleep, you may observe that long after the early days of frequent night waking and required night feeding, your child still wakes frequently and is restless.  Sleep deprivation can have a debilitating and negative impact on the whole family unit.  Going forward, once your child is beyond 6 months of age, provided there are no underlying medical issues, evidence supports that a child can and should sleep for long periods without requiring adult intervention and biologically unnecessary feeds.  All children wake throughout the night time, however, the ability to efficiently transition through their natural sleep stages and return to their slumber can be determined by a number of factors that may well be preventing everyone from getting some precious shut eye.

Sleep issues are routinely two-fold. Firstly, they are association orientated where young children require a certain set of circumstances to be created for them in order for sleep to come.  This may include feeding, holding, laying down, all the way to sleep at bed or nap time.  If the parent is instrumental in helping the child go to sleep at bedtime or in fact anytime overnight, then your little person may find it very difficult to cycle through natural sleep phases without calling on you.

Simply explained, when a young child goes to sleep at bedtime they will generally progress into a 2-4 hour deep section of sleep.  Beyond this time the brain will come up to the surface and have a partial awakening, perhaps best described as a checking system-the body checking to see if everything is as it was when they first went to sleep. If it is, then a normal sleeper, will roll over into the next sleep cycle.  However, where sleep has been assisted, when the brain checks in, circumstances may have changed-no bottle, no parent present, a change in sleeping location, for example. This then may become a complete awakening.  Eyes don’t need to open but they may call on you, cry out and expect you to recreate their expectations for sleep.  Beyond 12am, children go into a light dreamy sleep state and the brain “checks in” with regularity-every hour, 2 hours, 20 -50 minutes and each time potentially needing the parent to help them back to sleep.  Frustratingly, as the night wears on it can become more difficult for the child to go back to sleep and what worked at 11pm may not be effective at 2 and 3am and you may need to work harder.  Typically then, once we get to about 5am, young children want to do one of two things; they want to get up and start the day…or they go into another deep section  of sleep for another 1,2 or 3 hours until morning time proper.  This largely describes the common presentation when parents are overly involved in assisting their child’s sleep either at bedtime and/or during the night.

Studies support that children put into their cot or their bed already asleep are 50% more likely to waken throughout the course of the night.  It is important that parents allow their children aged beyond 6 months onwards, if they are not sleeping for consolidated, uninterrupted amounts of 10-12 hours overnight, the space to develop independent, self regulating sleep skills so that they can become efficient, talented sleepers.

The second part of sleep issues are all to do with the circadian rhythm, your child’s biological time keeping.  A young child’s body clock is not mature until beyond 4 years of age, but very significant because they have a day time sleep need until at least 3 years of age. They have what could be described as optimum times to be awake and asleep.  Those not in sync with the ideal timings tend to have more difficulties going to sleep or staying asleep or both.  The immature body clock can be desynchronised very easily.  Not having a regular wake up time in the morning by 7.30am can be enough to throw the rest of the day, making naps and bedtime difficult to achieve.  By starting the day within 6-7.30am, the body clock can be reset and in turn anchors the day opening up natural times to sleep.  Having inappropriately late bedtimes can have the same effect.  Recommended bedtimes up to age 10 don’t normally exceed 8pm.  Misreading your child’s sleep body language can also complicate this matter further.

Late sleep signals may be represented by intense eye rubbing, big yawning, agitation, impatience, noncompliance, clumsiness, hyper activity, whiny, cranky moaning or maybe even very entertaining.  Once you see these symptoms, it would typically represent an overtired child stimulated by a cortisol and adrenaline rush to the system.  This stress hormone concoction serves two main functions, it makes the body resist going to sleep and it also prevents the brain going into a deep restoring sleep, which may contribute to frequent waking-very often soon after bedtime, long wakeful periods overnight, early rising  and frustratingly short 30-40 minute day time naps.

Early sleep indicators may be brief eye rubbing, discreet yawning, zoning out momentarily, being quiet temporarily; all representative of sleep readiness and the ideal time to prepare for sleep time.  Given the skill set of independent sleep and the opportunity in the right environment, then at this point a child may be able to go to sleep with relative ease and to stay asleep for longer periods of time.

Having the right environment, adequately dark, quiet and cool for both day and night time sleep is relevant.  Phasing out motion and unconventional sleeping locations, acknowledging that the best place for a child to sleep is in a cot or a bed when age appropriate, most of the time, helps also to encourage healthy sleeping patterns.

Developing positive associations for sleep such a bedtime routine, security items such as favourite blanket or teddy bear and regular sleep times are key to nourishing, appropriate sleeping patterns.

To correct sleeping issues may take time and patience for everyone involved.  Crying it out techniques are not the only solutions. There are gradual and gentle sleep shaping and learning strategies that can be used to ensure that your child feels safe and secure in the context of their sleep and furthermore, it is never too late to begin a journey towards healthy, beneficial sleep.

Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice with her 98%-effective formula for sleep she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie <http://www.sleepmatters.ie>, t: 087 2683584 or e: lucy@sleepmatters.ie