Up to 24% of all children, and 35% of children under two years of age, have frequent problems sleeping.
And we know that these are most commonly behavioural sleep problems, with psychologist Sarah Blunden estimating that 30-40% of children’s sleep problems are related to habits and behaviours.
Parents of children with behaviour disorders know this all too well. Kids with ADHD have problems sleeping well for many reasons, not the least of which are behaviour traits that make it difficult to settle and stay settled.
Medication side effects and depression may also play a role. Ineffective sleep, in turn, revs up behaviour further.
These are tough issues. We’ve already looked at how we can help reduce our child’s sleep problems through setting up a sleep sanctuary, creating an emotionally healthy sleep environment and taking control of the bedtime routine. In this post, I’ll be tackling the tricky topics of co-sleeping and night waking.
When helping your child get to sleep becomes a problem
Many parents feel torn between wanting a warm, cuddly and loving bedtime, and wanting their child to learn to fall asleep on their own.
Research indicates that 43% of parents stay with their preschool child and 23% stay with their school-aged child until they drift off to sleep. The chances are that if you do this, they’ll need you again if they wake middle of the night.
If lying with your child to help them go to sleep is what you want to do, it is a personal choice you’re free to make.
But many parents start this and then find that it becomes very difficult to sustain. The bedtime routine can become increasingly long, with more and more demands from the children, eroding parents’ own wind-down time at the end of the day.
If you have been lying down with your child for a long time, you have become their ‘cuddly’. Kids often need a cuddly toy of some kind to get to sleep. But if you have become their teddy bear, you’re in a bit of a bind, as this habit doesn’t help your child transition to independence.
Love can be shown in many ways, and your most powerful tool at bedtime is a warm, loving voice and reassuring manner.
But what if you’re co-sleeping?
Going deeper: To co-sleep or not to co-sleep
To co-sleep or not to co-sleep – that is the question.
Stances on this issue vary culturally, with five- and six-year-old children still sleeping in their parents’ bed in some Asian cultures, while many Western cultures have babies sleeping in a separate bassinet from birth.
Medical advice may also influence parents’ decisions about co-sleeping, as there are strict medical guidelines around babies and co-sleeping due to the higher likelihood of SIDS in a co-sleeping environment.
Co-sleeping becomes an issue if the reason for co-sleeping is a reactive attempt to solve sleep problems.
It’s important for kids to learn to put themselves to sleep, and back to sleep if they wake, thus learning independence.
When children have not learnt to settle themselves, co-sleeping will often perpetuate rather than solve the problem.
However, if co-sleeping is part of your family philosophy, there is no reason to challenge this as long as everyone is getting the sleep they need.
Be creative about how this can happen without disturbing sleep cycles. For example, you could have a mattress next to your bed where a child can sleep and their movement or waking will not disturb you or your child.
Whatever your decision, try to factor in the good sleep formula. You need to be confident that your set up poses no risk to safety and does not compromise the quantity and quality of everyone’s sleep.
The benefits of a clear night waking strategy
Everyone experiences micro-arousals at night, during which we wake briefly but not fully. Most of us are unaware of waking.
However, if a child requires help to go back to sleep, you have a night waking problem and need to come up with a good overnight routine to address it. A third of pre-schoolers wake up at least once a night and five per cent wake two or more times.
Regular night waking habits in which kids require resettling are most often behavioural. They can be linked to issues surrounding the bedtime routine or the emotional or physical environment. So the first thing to do is ensure that your environment and routines are in good order.
It can be harder when the overnight waking is related to sleep-disordered breathing. In this instance,
But in many cases, overnight waking from any cause can be curbed by helping your child learn to put themself back to sleep once they wake.
Self-settling overnight is firmly linked to a successful bedtime routine. Once your child is able to go to sleep really well at the start of the night, the same cues can be used to put them back to sleep in the middle of the night.
In time, you can also teach them to follow the routine independently, rather than waking up mum or dad to put them back to bed.
Where possible, avoid the ‘path of least resistance’, which is to let your child crawl into bed next to you.
While it is lovely to have those middle-of-the-night cuddles, it is not ideal as your sleep will be disrupted and no one will end up with their correct quota of quality sleep.
Note: sleep-walking or talking is a different matter. Kids experiencing parasomnias need to be directed calmly and quietly back to bed. Persistent parasomnias require medical advice.
When all else fails, try ‘third-party magic’
After decades of working with children and their families who want to create new sleep habits and extinguish old ones, I have observed that families face a few challenges: resistance from children, inconsistency from parents and conflict.
It’s hard to be persistent in the face of sleep problems. I have frequently watched on as parents try out a new approach, only to give up if it takes lots of effort or doesn’t work immediately.
The end result is not behaviour change but a pattern of failed attempts – in other words, a ‘failure cycle’.
After many years of helping kids to change habits like thumb-sucking, I realised that a key factor to success was the child’s accountability to me instead of their parents.
I therefore began to apply the same principle to sleep issues. This is how ‘third party accountability’ – or ‘third-party magic’, as I now call it – developed, and I still use it successfully in my clinic.
I’ve even developed a character called Granny Twinkle, who ‘goes home’ with children to reinforce their new routines and habits. This enables the sense of accountability without me being directly involved.
A third party can defuse the conflict between parents and children while you are settling new habits and routines. Often, a friend or family member will be able to perform this defusing role.
However, if you can’t find a suitable adult to step in, a specialist psychologist or sleep coach or ‘sleep granny’ may be able to help.
Looking for more?
Let’s build a new generation of healthy sleepers!
With my book Sleep-Wrecked Kids, I support you to become the lifeguard of your child’s sleep. Packed full of information and practical help, it will get you on the way to good sleep for all the family. Order your copy here!