Helping Young Children and Their Parents Sleep

Problems that Parents Experience
*You had a long busy day and finally made it to bed. Just after you fall asleep, you hear your 1-year-old child cry. Immediately you go to him, the same as yesterday and the day before. But you want to sleep. The whole night! Often he wakes up more than once.
*You have a 2-year-old who needs a nap, but doesn’t want to nap. She says, “No! I don’t want to sleep.” To get her to sleep, you start driving around in your car.
*You have a 2-1/2-year-old. After a story, a hug and a kiss, you want to leave him, but he starts asking for water, his teddy bear, etc. It takes forever before you can leave his room.

Such a child has learned that when he cries, his mother comes to him immediately and something nice happens. Such a child is often alert, sensitive and has a strong will, and the parents are often very sweet. They want to do everything to satisfy the child and they wonder: Why is he crying? What am I doing wrong? What shall I do? Be firm and let him cry? Comfort him and read a story? Give him something to drink? And, if so, should I give him milk or water? Should I take him into our bed? Because you have tried so many different things, the child does not know what to expect. In the United States, about 30 percent of all young children have sleeping problems, which can be defined as parents experiencing problems with the sleeping habits of their young child. The child has difficulties falling asleep or wakes the parents up during the night or a combination of both. About 80 percent of those children spend time in bed with their parents.

Advice for the Second and Third Years of Life
This article offers advice for creating healthy sleeping habits by promoting a healthy sleep rhythm, predictability and simple natural stimuli.

Why do we Sleep?
When a child sleeps, she rests, grows and learns. She integrates all the experiences of the day-–the sounds, the smells--into her body, and therefore, she can do more than the day before.

Development of Sleep After the First Year
After the first year, there is often an arrhythmic period. The child is too small for one nap a day and too big for two. It can take a month before a child finds a new rhythm, Then, after about 14 months, children take only one afternoon nap. In the first two years, it does not really matter if it is dark or not. The child sleeps anyway. After the second birthday, a time comes when it makes a difference whether the curtains are closed or not. That means that light and the sun influence sleep. A 2-year-old child sleeps about 14 hours a day. A child going to school normally sleeps 11 hours. The average age at which a child no longer needs a nap is 3-1/2.

Much research has shown that all children wake up several times each night. Most children are capable of calming themselves without the intervention of their parents and can easily fall back to sleep. Parents of good sleepers seldom know their child woke up. “Bad sleepers” are children who wake their parents after they wake up. Children who require the help of their parents to fall asleep are more likely to wake up their parents at night than children who fall asleep without parental help.

The day of a small child requires a rhythm. There must be a balance between running around, and quiet, concentrated play. There needs to be a rhythm between challenge and rest, between being together and being alone, between activity and relaxation. There even needs to be a rhythm between an empty and a full stomach. It is like a breathing movement. After making a drawing in great concentration, it is often impossible to arrange a puzzle. Instead, the child needs to be able to run around or to play outside. If the day develops in a rhythm, the rhythm of sleep will establish itself easily and naturally.

A stimulus is anything that creates a sensory impression on the child. Stimuli must be processed by the child, since the child has no filters to disregard them. The level of stimuli to which a child is exposed during the day is often too much or too overwhelming. Many of the things associated with modern technology (above all, television, but also music) quickly over-stimulate a small child. A big grocery store or an event with many people also creates powerful impressions on the nervous system of the child. If these stimuli are excessive, the child can have difficulty falling asleep and processing the stimuli without waking.

Predictability during the day and in the evening is very important for 1- and 2-year- old children. Recognizing set patterns gives the child a feeling of security and safety and reduces stress in this sometimes overwhelming world.

Example of a Predictable Day
* sleep in the crib
* breakfast
* play inside
* play outside
* lunch inside
* nap in the crib
* drink and snack
* play inside
* play outside
* dinner inside

This way the child knows that after he awakes, he always gets to drink and eat. After he goes inside, the routine is to wash hands and sit in the highchair.

Example of Putting a Young Child to Bed
Take your time when putting your child to bed, and do it in the same order every night!
*Choose an early bedtime so the child does not need to be awakened in the morning! (Probably about 7:00 p.m. every night)
*Dinner (for example, around 5:15 pm). There is time between dinner and bed to enable an easy transition to bed.
*Wash and put pajamas on. Do not ask too much of the child (for example, putting on his own pajamas or taking off clothes). New challenges can be learned in the morning when the child is fresh. When a child is tired, behave as if the child is a little younger. You can also apply oil or give a short oil massage to help the child relax.
*Drink a cup of warm goats’ milk, perhaps with honey. Milk has a calming effect because it contains tryptofaan that increases the level of serotonin. Serotonin is an anti-stress hormone which promotes sleep and decreases hunger. Goats’ milk is easier to digest than cows’ milk. Cows’ milk can also interrupt the normal sleep cycle in children who are sensitive to proteins in cows’ milk. You can also give the child water instead of milk after she brushes her teeth to ensure that the child is not thirsty during the night.
*Brush teeth. The child needs to cooperate to brush teeth successfully; if the child is too tired, he cannot. Singing a song or telling a story while the child brushes his teeth helps him cooperate.
*Tell a story. The story needs to be simple and timeless. A story can be, for example, about a gnome that experiences the same as the child did that day. This helps the child process the day’s experiences. If you have a very shy child, you can tell her about the brave hare who dares to do something that you wish your child would dare. You can choose a character that can be a guide in the night or you can pick a story from a book. If you read the same story a few nights in a row the repetition and recognition are often wonderfully calming to the child.
* You can say a prayer together instead of reading a story.
*Be sure your child does not get cold. It is much easier for a child to fall asleep when he is warm (especially when his feet are warm).
* You can sing your favorite lullaby.
* You can give the child a soft doll/gnome to sleep with, and say, for example, that the doll is already asleep.
* You can also lie next to the child for five minutes. Do not talk or answer questions. Before the child is asleep, tell her clearly: “Good night, sleep well. See you tomorrow.”

The child needs to learn how to fall asleep without the help of parents. Parents need to leave the bedroom when the child is calm, but before the child is asleep. For many children, the proximity of the parent (cleaning the bathroom, folding laundry, reading a book, checking emails, etc.) helps. Some soft noises let the child know you are still there.

Some parents like to lie next to their child until he is asleep. That’s OK. If you pretend that you yourself are sleeping. Most children tend to copy you and fall asleep within ten minutes. However, if you make this choice, you must realize that you must always lie next to the child until he is asleep! You will also need to be prepared to lie next to your child until he falls asleep in the middle of the night. Perhaps you want to put the crib in your bedroom and lie in your own bed until the child is asleep. Some parents prefer co-sleeping. If both the child and parent sleep well, that is OK. However, many 1-year-old children start to crawl around, and both mother and child awaken one another more easily than if the child is in her own bed.

If you decide that the child needs to sleep in his own bedroom and if the child starts crying or calling after being put to bed, wait a few minutes before going to him. If you go to him, do not ask him questions. The child doesn’t know why he is crying, and any question will only make him more alert. Just put him down again, caress his hair and tell him to go to sleep. If he continues crying, perhaps you need to check his diaper or his temperature.

Repeating this pattern might be necessary. First, go back after four minutes. If he keeps calling, return after five minutes, then six minutes, then seven minutes. Use the same routine for the next few nights. A parent unable to find the courage to be consistent confuses a young child.

The room needs to be dark and quiet. The child needs to be in a warm, woolen sleeping sack, with long-sleeved pajamas. This way, she will not wake up because she is cold. If blankets fall off during the night, she cannot cover herself again and she will call her parents. It is perhaps the easiest solution to allow you child to sleep in a crib until she is able to climb out of it. With a sleeping sack, climbing out of the crib is more difficult.

Remember that for small children, every evening and every night need to have the same ritual. After the second birthday, the rituals around bedtime can be done differently by father or mother. For example, father always sings and mother always reads. It needs to be a ritual which fits the individual child and parents. Do not engage in wild games within a half hour of bedtime. Some parents think running or roughhousing makes the child tired, but these activities wake the child up.

Waking During the Night
If a child between 1 and 2 years of age wakes up at night and calls you or cries, wait a few minutes before you go over to him. Nine out of ten times, children fall back asleep by themselves without the help of the parents. When you prepared him for bed, you made sure he was not cold or hungry. If he cries more than a few minutes or if his crying seems unusually desperate, you can go to him. Try to calm him in his own bed and give him his doll. Do not turn on the light, do not ask questions and do not look directly into the child’s eyes. Finally, do not take him out of his crib. That awakens him even more. Only one parent should be busy with the child per night.

Consider carefully if you want to take her into your bed. After two nights it is a new habit . It is likely that she will demand that on the third night because habits are difficult to change.

During a hot summer, if a child wakes up and wants to drink something, give him lukewarm water in his bed with as little attention as possible. Other drinks at night very quickly cause cavities. Saliva cleans the teeth, and a child does not produce saliva at night.

Night-time anxieties, such as nightmares and being afraid of the dark, normally start at 3-1/2 years.

Naps for a 2 Year Old
Almost every 2-year-old child needs a nap. Many 2-year-old children say “no” to naps. Do not doubt as a parent. You know that it is best for your child to sleep in the middle of the day. What helps? First, set a consistent nap time; for example right after lunch. With the sleeping sack, you make sure that the child cannot climb out of his crib. Have the same ritual every day. Darken the room. If you say you are leaving the room after the song, be true to your word!

Wake the child up by about 3:o’clock. Otherwise it is difficult for her to fall asleep in the evening. This is especially important for children over 2 years old. The rule is: no napping within three hours of bedtime.

Identifying Problems
Whenever there is a problem with a child’s sleep, examine his day. You can assume that you need to pay attention to the rhythm of the day first. Does the child get enough physical activity? After that, you may need to reduce the amount of stimuli and daily activities. And last but not least, is there enough predictability during the day?

Perhaps the parent has difficulties with setting boundaries and staying clear. If this is the case, also begin solving the problem during the day. If parents are unable to maintain boundaries during the day, they definitely will not be able to do so at night.

If the problems persist, parents need to talk about this together. When they want to change a bad sleeping habit, they both need to make a plan and help one another when it is difficult because they can assume that the child will protest any change in habits.

Many parents are tired because their 1- or 2-year-old child does not sleep through the night. It helps to understand the factors that influence a child’s sleep before trying to solve the problem. It is wonderful for the whole family when a child can sleep through the whole night. It also is healthy for parents when they themselves are not tired!

© 2009 Ester Delhoofen. All rights reserved.