Ester Delhoofen is a medical doctor licensed in the Netherlands. She has extensive complementary training in anthroposophical (Waldorf) medicine, many years of professional experience with children 0-4 years of age, and is the mother of three children.
Helping young children and their parents sleep
Problems parents experience
*You have had a long busy day and have finally made it to bed. Just after you have fallen asleep, you hear your one-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 two year old who needs a nap, but doesn’t want to nap. He says; “No! I don’t want to sleep”. To get him to sleep, you start driving around in your car.
*You have a two and a half-year old. After a story, a nice 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.
A child knows that when he cries, his mother comes to him within two seconds and something nice happens. Such children are often alert, sensitive, and have 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 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% of all young children have sleeping problems, which can de defined as parents experiencing problems with the sleeping 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% of those children spend time in bed with their parents.
Advice for the second and third year of life
This article offers advice for creating healthy sleep habits by promoting a healthy sleep rhythm, predictability and simple natural stimuli. Advice differs for each individual child and individual parents.
Why do we sleep?
When a child sleeps, he rests, grows and learns. He integrates all the experiences of the day -the sounds, the smells, into his body, and therefore, he can do a little more than the day before.
Development of sleep after the first year
After the first year, often there is 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 new rhythm is found. Then after about 14 months, children only take one afternoon nap. In the first two years, it doesn’t really matter if it is dark or not. The child sleeps anyway. After the second birthday, there comes the time when it makes a difference if the curtains are closed or not. That means that sleep is influenced by the light, by the sun. A two-year-old child sleeps about 14 hours. A child going to school normally sleeps 11 hours.
The average age that a child does not need a nap anymore is three and a half.
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 fall back to sleep easily. 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 needs to have a rhythm. There needs to 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 not possible to do 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 keep them out.. 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, and also music) quickly over stimulate a small child. A big grocery store or an event with lots of people also creates powerful impressions on the nervous system of the child. The child can have difficulty falling asleep and processing the stimuli at night.
Predictability during the day and in the evening is very important for one- and two-year- old children. Recognizing set patterns gives the child a feeling of security and safety, and reduces stress in this sometimes overwhelming world.
An example of a predictable day: 1 sleep in the crib; 2 breakfast; 3 play inside; 4 play outside; 5 lunch inside; 6 nap in the crib; 7 drink and snack; 8 play inside; 9 play outside: 10 dinner inside. This way the child knows that after he awakes, he always gets something 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 doesn’t need to be awakened in the morning! (Probably about 7 pm every night)
*Dinner, for example around 5:15 pm. There is space between dinner and bed to allow time for an easy transition to bed.
*Wash and put pajamas on. Do not ask too much of the child, like 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 goat milk with honey. Milk has a calming effect because it contains tryptofaan that increases the level of serotonin. Serotonin is an anti-stress-hormone which stimulates the production of sleep and decreases the feeling of hunger. Goat’s milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk. Cow’s milk can also interrupt the normal sleep cycle in children who are sensitive to cow’s milk proteins. You can also give water after brushing teeth instead of milk to make sure the child is not thirsty during the night.
*Brush teeth. The child needs to cooperate to brush teeth successfully, and if the child is too tired, he cannot. Singing a song or telling a story while brushing teeth helps the child cooperate.
*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 process the things of the day. If you have a very shy child, you can tell 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 is often wonderfully calming to the child.
* You can say a prayer together instead of a story.
*Be sure your child doesn’t get cold. It is much easier for a child to fall asleep when he is warm, especially his feet.
* 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 him 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, it is nice if the parent is nearby cleaning the bathroom, folding laundry, reading a book, checking emails, etc. 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 okay; however, if you make this choice, you have to realize that you will always need to do that! You will also need to be prepared to do that in the middle of the night. Maybe you want to put the crib in your bedroom and lay in your own bed until the child is asleep. Some parents prefer co-sleeping, If both the child and parent sleep well that’s alright. However, many one-year-old children start to crawl around and both mother and child awake each other more easily than if the child is in his 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 do 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 maybe you need to check his diaper or temperature.
Sometimes it is necessary to repeat this pattern. First you go back after four minutes. If he keeps calling, you go back after five minutes then six minutes then seven minutes. Use the same routine for the next few nights. For a young child, it is very confusing if the parent cannot find the courage to be consistent. It feels safe when parents set consistent boundaries.
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 he won’t wake up because he is cold. If blankets fall off during the night, he can’t cover himself again and he will call his parents. Children should sleep in a crib until they are able to climb out of it. With a sleeping sack it is more difficult to climb out.
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 parent. Do not do 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 up in the night
If a child between one and two 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 down in his own bed and give him his doll. Do not put the light on, do not ask questions, and do not look into the child’s eyes directly. Finally, do not take him out of his crib. That wakes him up even more. Only one parent should be busy with the child per night.
It is fine if you decide to take him into your bed. But do not do that two nights in a row. Otherwise, it is a new habit, and habits are difficult to change. It is likely that the child will demand that a third night.
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. At night the child does not produce saliva, and saliva cleans the teeth.
Nighttime anxieties, such as nightmares and being afraid of the dark, normally start at three-and-a half.
Napping for a two year old
Almost every two-year-old child needs a nap. Many two-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. Give your child a cup of warm goat milk before the nap, and make the room dark, which is only necessary after the second birthday. Every day the nap needs to have the same ritual.
Here are two ways you can do this:
1. You can lie next to the child in the parents’ bed and pretend that you are sleeping yourself. Most children tend to copy you and fall asleep within ten minutes.
2. If you have a baby or an older child you can’t nap together every day. Then you can put a woolen sleeping sack on the child, and make sure that the child can’t climb out of his crib. Sing a song and tell him you are leaving after the song. Then be true to your word!
Wake the child up by about 3 o’ clock otherwise it is difficult for him to fall asleep in the evening. This is especially important for children over two. The rule is: No napping within three hours of bedtime.
When there are problems
Whenever there is a problem with a child’s sleep, examine his day first. 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 probably 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 start solving the problem during the day. If parents are unable to maintain boundaries during the day, they definitely won’t be able to at night.
If the problems persist, parents need to talk about this together and consider it a problem. When they want to change a bad sleeping habit, they both need to make a plan, and help each other when it is difficult because they can assume that the child will protest.
Maybe they don’t have much time during the day, and realize that they want to give their attention at night.
Many parents are tired because their one or two year old child doesn’t 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 the whole night. It also is healthy for parents when they themselves are not tired!
Woolen sleeping sacks and soft wool/silk undergarments which can be used as warm pajamas can be ordered at www.floweringchild.com.
Ester Delhoofen, M.D. licensed in the Netherlands has extensive training in anthroposophical (Waldorf) medicine and many years of professional experience with children 0-4 years of age. She is the mother of three small children. She is the founder of www.floweringchild.com with information about parenting and wool and silk undergarments. Telephone 612 208 1053