If your child is a perfect sleeper, read no further- pat yourself on the back and thank your lucky stars! If, on the other hand, you are convinced that your child is trying to make sure no one in your household is getting enough sleep, read on…
You may be wondering why your child fights going to bed, refuses to take a nap, or wakes up in the middle of the night. Rest assured, no pun intended, you are not alone! Many young children struggle with some kind of sleep issue, and many parents of young children are, well, tired.
Here are the top ten misconceptions about young children and sleep, (and what you can do to set the record straight and get some sleep yourself):
#1: If I keep my child up later, he will fall asleep more easily.
Parents sometimes make the mistake of thinking that keeping a child awake later will make him sleepier for bedtime. The fact is that kids can have a harder time falling asleep if they stay up too late.
When a young child stays up too late, you may notice that he seems to have boundless energy, even though he seemed tired just a little while ago. This is because he has become overtired. The adrenaline kicks in and his little body literally goes into “overdrive” mode, making it especially difficult to wind down and go to sleep.
Staying up late does not mean that your child will sleep later the next morning either! While that may be the case for some adults, most children will wake up around the same time each day regardless of when they went to bed. Watch for your child’s signals that he is tired, and put him to bed before he gets overtired and goes into “overdrive.”
#2: If my child does not nap, she will go to sleep more easily at bedtime.
Remember that young children can have trouble winding down and falling asleep if they’re overtired. Young children need 1-3 hours of daytime sleep to get all of the rest that their growing bodies need. Infants under 4 months need to nap whenever they are tired. Between 4 and 6 months, you can begin to help your child develop a nap schedule. Most children transition from two naps to one nap between 12 and 18 months of age. Whether she takes one nap or two, she needs her nap to refuel her body and mind for the rest of the day. Naps are an important part of a healthy sleep pattern for young children.
It can be especially tempting to skip her nap when you are on vacation or out of town. Make the decision to skip a nap carefully! Going without a nap can make her cranky and adrenalized, which will make relaxing at bedtime harder.
#3: My child needs the same amount of sleep I do.
Getting the right amount of sleep is critical for young children. Sleep is essential for maintaining physical health- it is the time when your child’s body rests and repairs itself. Sleep is also vital to your child’s brain development. Neuroscientists believe that sleep is necessary to help the brain convert waking experiences into memories. Studies indicate that sleep dramatically enhances brain connections that were formed during periods of wakefulness.
While the recommended amount of sleep for adults is 8-10 hours per night, young children need approximately 12 to 14 hours of sleep, including naps and nighttime sleep, within a 24-hour period. That means that your child may need up to four more hours of sleep at night than you do, even if she naps for two hours during the day.
#4: My child doesn’t need a bedtime routine- if he’s tired, he will go to sleep.
Schedules and routines are essential to your child getting a good night’s sleep. Many parents have difficulty with maintaining routines, so remember: consistency is crucial. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible. Dinner, followed by a bath, story time, and then “lights out” while you sing a soothing song is a common and effective bedtime routine. (Be careful to keep the routine simple- a routine that is too elaborate can get longer and longer each night. The goal of a bedtime routine is simply to create a sense of security and predictability.)
As your child gets older, you may notice him beginning to resist moving along with the bedtime routine. One way to handle this and avoid a power struggle is to have the clock be the bad guy instead of you. It’s 7:00- you need to brush your teeth now so we have time for a story before lights out at 7:30. That way, the two of you are working together to make time for that story. Another option is to offer two choices, both of which are acceptable to you. It’s time for bed- do you want to brush your teeth first or put on your pajamas first? This will help your child feel like he has some control.
#5: I don’t need to set a bedtime for my child, she will let me know when she is getting tired.
Actually, setting bedtime by the clock can help your child to set her “biological clock.” Most young children do well with an early bedtime (around 7 p.m.), because it seems to fit their biological rhythms. Again, when they stay up later, their adrenalin kicks in, and they actually have a harder time falling asleep. You can try to dim the lights before bedtime, and keep routines slow and calm. This will send the message to her body that it’s time to sleep.
Keep in mind, especially during the fun, relaxed summer months, that changing your child’s routine can be disruptive to her sleep pattern. If she falls asleep in the car for 15 minutes here and there while you run errands, she may not nap when you get home. And if you let her sleep later on a Saturday or Sunday morning, she may not go down at naptime. No nap can mean a child in “overdrive” at bedtime, so try to keep to her usual schedule as best as you can on weekends and during vacations.
#6: If my child is tired, he will be able to fall asleep anywhere.
Because brief nighttime awakening is normal, your child needs to be able to put himself back to sleep. To do this, he needs to fall asleep on his own, in his own bed. That means putting him in bed when he’s awake, so he gets used to falling asleep there himself.
Also consider the following:
Quiet is important– make sure he can’t hear the TV or adult conversation. Consider a sound machine or soothing music set on repeat. Darkness is important– make sure his curtains keep the sunlight and streetlights out. Try room-darkening shades for the summer, when your child will be going to sleep while it’s the sun is still out. Warmth is important– if he kicks off his covers, dress him in warm pajamas with feet or socks.
#7: If my child wakes or cries, I should go get her immediately.
Be cautious about bringing your child into your room or your bed because this sends the message that your room is a more comfortable, safe place to sleep than her room. Let your child try to soothe herself back to sleep. You can go in to comfort her, but be brief and don’t take her out of bed. Give her a hug and tell her that it’s time to sleep. If she gets out of bed, walk her back to her room (even if this means getting out bed yourself), and calmly tell her that she needs to stay in her bed, that you will see her in the morning.
Also, think about how your child falls asleep, as this will affect her ability to fall back asleep when she wakes during the night. If she falls asleep in your arms or with you rubbing her back and singing, she may not be able to put herself back to sleep without you. Try cuddling and singing before she falls asleep- always put her in her bed while she’s awake so she can practice soothing herself to sleep. She may cry or fuss the first few times, but this way, she will learn what to do when she wakes in the night and you are not there.
#8: It is best not to talk about scary dreams or nightmares.
Your instincts might tell you that talking about strong feelings will escalate the situation, but in fact, it can help your child to cope. When a child is angry, for example, talking about the anger lets your child know that you understand how he feels, gives him words for those feelings, and shows him an appropriate way to manage them. This helps him to feel in control even when his emotions are overwhelming. Let your child talk about a scary dream if he wants to, and stay until he calms down. It can help your child to describe what happened in the dream and how it made him feel.
Scary dreams or nightmares have a variety of causes. Sometimes, something your child saw or heard that may not be scary to you, like a loud motorcycle or a movie poster with a clown, can re-emerge in a dream. Other times, scary dreams can occur when there is stress, anxiety, or change in a child’s life. It could be moving to a new house, a “big-kid” bed, a new sibling, or even something as simple as a new babysitter. The uncertainty about even a small change can sometimes translate into nightmares for young children.
#9: I need to show my child that there are no monsters or bad guys in the closet or under the bed.
When you check the closet for monsters, you may be reinforcing your child’s fears that there might actually be a monster and that she needs you to check. Remember, that one of the key elements of getting your child to sleep through the night is for her to think of her room as a comfortable and safe place. That means no monsters. It also means staying in her own bed.
Instead of checking in the closet or under the bed for monsters or bad guys, you can help ease her fears by talking them through calmly. You can sit by her bedside and remind her that monsters are not real and that your house is a safe place. You can also ask questions like “Are monsters real?” and “Is our house a safe place?” to help give her back a sense of control. You can give her strategies to calm herself if she wakes up scared- she can hug her stuffed animal, snuggle with her blanket, sing herself a song, or close her eyes and picture the bedtime story you read together.
#10: Once I have helped my child become a good sleeper, she will never wake up in the middle of the night.
Even the best sleepers won’t sleep through the night every night. Even good nappers will occasionally protest their naps. Even the child who falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow will sometimes have a hard time falling asleep. There will always be the wake-up calls, the naptime disputes, and the bedtime battles, but relax, you can handle it!
Remember that nighttime awakening is normal. Infants typically wake 2-4 times per night as they learn how to regulate their feeding and sleeping schedules. Teething can awaken a toddler, and so can dreams. Separation anxiety, the desire to not miss anything, being overtired or simple stubbornness can motivate a child to stay awake.
It may seem like some children are born good sleepers, but in reality, healthy sleep patterns are a matter of habit. All children can learn to be good sleepers. It will take time, patience, and a lot of support from you, but your child can learn to put himself to sleep, and to stay asleep, which means Mom and Dad can get some sleep too!