Sweet Slumber?

After having children, do you wonder if you will ever get a full nights sleep again? Having a baby or a toddler tends to make us nostalgic for the evenings when falling asleep was smooth and soothing.  What can we do to help our toddlers fall into the habit of a full nights sleep? The early childhood staff  at Harley Family Center wanted to share some strategies for snoozes.

Remember that sleep is a neurological function. It is affected by development, stimulation, emotional experiences and even how much sleep your child got earlier in the day.  In short, the young child will experience sleep disturbances throughout the first years of life just because she is growing up. You can expect that your child’s sleep will be spotty at times. Knowing that your child is expected to wake up throughout the first years of life can help us to have more patience toward the process of helping them get back to sleep.

Toddlers need to have 12-14 hours of sleep during a twenty four hour period. This includes nap and night-time sleep. If your child is not getting this amount of sleep her sleep is likely to be disturbed at night. Make sure that your family is prioritizing sleep over other experiences. Even if these experiences seem to be special and exciting opportunities they are likely undermining the general well being of your child if they are interrupting sleep.

Young children crave routine and predictability. Making changes in the routine will likely cause sleep disturbances. These changes can occur around positive or negative situations. A new baby, a new bed, a new activity during the day, anything can make the sleep cycle of a young child go haywire. Try to keep your activities throughout the week and the day predictable. If you need to make a change, make only one change at a time and allow your child to acclimate to the change. While you are transitioning to something new, have patience with the sleep disturbance.  Meet your child’s waking with patience, a consistent routine for soothing back to sleep and quiet insistence on very little interaction during the hours when she should be asleep.

Develop an understanding of what is over-stimulating for your child, and avoid those activities in the later afternoon and evening hours. Caffeine can stay in a child’s body for hours (think chocolate and soda—and don’t forget about the effects of sugar in candy). A bath in the evening can be over-stimulating rather than calming. Exercise or rough play can rile up a young child rather than wear them out. Screen use of any kind generally keeps a child more alert rather than soothes them to sleep. If a child shows signs of tiredness and we push them past those signs to keep them up a bit longer, her body will kick back into alertness and she will have trouble relaxing into sleep.  Although we cannot make our children sleep we are responsible for and in control of the sleep routine—so take this job seriously.  If we create an environment around them that favors sleep we can help them to soothe their own bodies and relax into sleep themselves. Although we do our best to keep a consistent and calming routine around sleep, remember that there will be many nights when they do wake up due to internal or unexplained circumstances. Knowing that we have created a quiet and soothing environment for sleep, we can meet waking in this instance with patience, a consistent routine for soothing back to sleep and quiet insistence on very little interaction during the hours when she should be asleep.

Small things that we do can make a big difference in helping our child sleep. Keep a simple routine for bedtime. Remember to keep it short rather than extensive. A book or two, a simple song, a hug and a kiss and a tuck in to bed is a simple way to signal to your child’s mind and body that they are expected to let themselves relax into sleep. By waking up in the morning with good morning light and activity throughout the day we help the child regulate when times are appropriate to be awake and when times are appropriate to fall asleep.  Her body and mind fall into the rhythm of the day and she recognizes mornings as active and evenings as quiet. By feeding your child meals and snacks at regular times in the day you can help her to regulate her system and mind towards predictable events. This allows her to accept sleep at regular times in the day as well. Some children really appreciate a white noise machine in their room, some children need a light on to be comfortable, some children need to toss and turn for a while to relieve their bodily stress before relaxing. Some children need a gentle back rub or back scratch just before the light turns off. All of the “helps” we give our children are respectful ways of providing tools so they can learn how to soothe themselves to sleep.  Even with all the things that we do to help them sleep, children will sometimes wake up for reasons that we can’t identify.  During these instances, knowing that we have done all we can to set the scene, we can meet the waking with patience, a consistent routine for soothing back to sleep and a quiet insistence on very little interaction during the hours when she should be asleep.

Toddlers can sometimes use these waking up instances as an opportunity to play or explore the house, or visit parents who are looking for just a moment of time together. When your child takes to getting out of bed and refusing to sleep, instead trying over and over to get out of her room and play, find ways to clearly and consistently state your expectations. Some parents have been successful by setting up a visiting schedule with the child as she lays awake. For instance “I will come back and check on you in 5 minutes.” Continue to visit the child on a predictable schedule until she falls asleep. These visits help her to build trust that you are still around, and having that sense of security will help her to relax and fall asleep. Provide your child with a comfort item. Your scent is often very comforting for the child, so ensure that the item she finds special isn’t cleaned too thoroughly. The blanket or stuffed animal is comforting because it is so well used. If your child tries over and over to get out of bed then we as parents have to insist on returning her to bed over and over. Keep the lights off, don’t be playful during this time, keep the house and yourself quiet and calm and boring and bring your child back to bed. Remember that with all the efforts you make to insist on your child sleeping in her designated area, she is likely to fight you at some point in her early life. The advice to offer will by this time seem familiar: know that you have done all you can to set the scene for sleep, and meet the waking with patience, a consistent routine for soothing back to sleep and a quiet insistence on very little interaction during the hours when she should be asleep.