It’s not just newborns who keep their parents awake at night — older children have sleep problems too. Parents need to take a step back, the sleep experts tell Lisa Salmon.
NEW parents expect to be sleep-deprived, and long for their baby to sleep through the night. But it’s not just newborns and their parents who have sleep problems — many older children struggle to sleep too.
And often that’s because their doting parents are simply trying too hard to get them to nod off, say sleep experts Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright.
“Over time, parents’ ‘helping ways’ overshadow their baby’s natural sleeping abilities,” they say.
“Children get confused as to whether they or their parents are doing the soothing, and parents aren’t sure when and how much to back off so their little ones can take over the job.”
The pair, both American psychotherapists, have written a book, The Happy Sleeper, to explain how families can enjoy a good night’s sleep, whatever the age of their children.
They say babies are naturally wired to sleep, and by five or six months of age almost all of them are capable of sleeping well without much help from their parents.
Before this age, everything is very unstructured and the key is for parents to sensitively follow their baby’s cues, and use rocking, bouncing, and soothing words, to allow the natural development of biological sleep rhythms.
This will enable the baby to feel secure enough to easily drift off to sleep. Whether this is for long periods or short, frequent bursts, depends on the baby.
The authors say: “You can’t expect a very young baby to adhere to a schedule. It’s best to follow her lead, and allow her body time to mature into a regular sleeping pattern.”
And this will happen, they promise, as after the first few months, babies gradually learn to self-soothe — if their parents let them, that is.
Wright says: “Newborns often need a good deal of help to soothe, regulate into sleep and develop a sense of trust and safety. However, when parents help babies and children fall asleep by feeding, rocking and bouncing past the age when they’re capable of doing it on their own, two things happen.
“Babies come to strongly associate these helping ways with how they fall asleep, and they aren’t given any opportunities to practise their very natural, emerging self-soothing abilities.” These abilities include tucking arms under the chin, moving the head from side to side, or making little noises to get comfortable.
Parents can encourage self-soothing by putting their baby down awake at least once a day, removing the breast or bottle at the end of feeding, learning the little sounds baby makes before she goes to sleep and not interfering when those sounds are made, and not letting baby cry for more than a minute during the first four months.
Another strategy is using what Wright and Turgeon call The Soothing Ladder, which involves responding to baby with the least intrusive method possible when she wakes in the night between the ages of about four to five months, and gradually stepping up to the next method on the ladder if the previous method hasn’t helped.
Turgeon and Wright say parents should create their own ladder, based on what they know of their baby’s soothing needs, but a typical one might start with just a parent’s presence in the room; then the sound of the parent’s voice; replacing baby’s pacifier; touching or patting baby; picking her up and gently rocking her; and finally, feeding.
“A young baby might need a lot of rocking and bouncing to sleep,” says Turgeon, “but an older baby or toddler has her own personal ways of self-soothing. When a parent continues to over-help by rocking or bouncing, that child doesn’t have the space to practise and use those self-soothing skills.”
She says they’ve also found that parents use bedtime routines that are for younger babies after the child’s outgrown them.
“It’s really important for routines to grow and mature with children, for example by adding in more interesting books, talking about the highs and lows of the day, and using visual charts, or other age-appropriate steps,” she advises.
Consistency is also key: babies detect patterns and form habits, and they relax and are more likely to drop off when they detect a pattern. Happily, they will also forget old patterns quickly, and adapt to new, more helpful ones within a few weeks, say the authors.
They stress different approaches are needed depending on the age of the child, though Turgeon points out that parents are often reluctant to talk about sleep problems in older children because they’re embarrassed.
“Babies and kids are constantly changing,” she stresses, “and sleep issues are common for every age — grown-ups have them too.”
Wright adds: “Self-soothing skills unfold quite rapidly during the early months. The trick is giving parents a clear path to stepping back just enough to allow their baby to practise these emerging skills.”
* The Happy Sleeper, by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, is published by Scribe, €15.99
1. Regular sleep times are key: Waking and going to sleep around the same time every day helps to regulate the body clock and promote good sleep. Waking by 7.30am is a good anchor to help get the day off to the right start and most young children benefit from a bedtime in the region of 7-8pm.
2. Ensure age-appropriate day time sleep: If your baby has under slept during the day then you may find they wake more frequently during the night and stay awake for long periods as a result.
3. Read the language for sleep: Knowing your baby’s sleepy cues can enable the onset of sleep — brief eye rubs, decreased activity and staring into space often represent sleep readiness and would be the optimum time to begin a sleep ritual.
4. Establish a feeding and sleeping balance to the day: Young children need feeds and sleeps evenly spaced throughout the day. Once routine is established ensure that you have a conventional evening meal at dinner time.
5. Create a sleep-friendly environment: Adequately dark, quiet, cool and comfortable.
6. Have a peaceful bedtime process that signals to your baby “it’s time for sleep”. Do this in the bedroom, with the lights turned down. Give your child the opportunity to learn to self-quiet and self-regulate to fall asleep without an over reliance on the parent or a prop. This doesn’t mean that parents have to let their child ‘cry it out’. They need to respond and reassure, but over time to scale back the intervention so that the child can go to sleep independently.
* Tips from Lucy Wolfe, a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. See: www.sleepmatters.ie ; 087-2683584
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