The Cause of Baby and Toddler Sleep Problems and Gentle Solutions
Posted by SarahOckwell-Smith
Over 60% of parents confess to having a “sleep problem” – or rather their baby or toddler has “a sleep problem”. This is such an alarmingly high number, no wonder so many books and programmes exist to try to implement quick fixes. Do quick fixes however really exist when it comes to baby and toddler sleep? Perhaps more importantly though, do so many of our young *really* have a sleep problem?
In this post I’d like to question the idea of ‘poor’ baby and toddler sleep and look at ways parents can cope if they consider their child falls into this category:
1. Is it REALLY a Sleep Problem?
What do parents perceive as sleep problems in babies and children? This list sums up the most common complaints I hear:
- A baby who only sleeps in the arms of an adult and cries when put down.
- A baby who wakes regularly through the night, be that every 2, 3 or 4 hours
- A baby who only naps when being held, in the car or pushed in a buggy
- A baby who needs to be rocked or fed to sleep
- A toddler who cannot sleep without his parent’s presence
- A toddler who is reluctant to go to bed
- A toddler who wakes early in the morning
- A toddler who wakes during the night
- A toddler who needs the breast, bottle or dummy to fall asleep
- An older child who is reluctant to go to bed
- An older child who finds it hard to sleep without his parent
- An older child who has nightmares
- An older child who wakes regularly at night
- An older child who wakes early in the morning.
Let me begin by saying that each and every point on this list is NORMAL. None of these are pathological problems.
I would also disagree with many ‘experts’ who believe that these are behavioural problems. Quite simply these ‘problems’ are all entirely physiologically and psychologically normal for human young. Which in summary means that they are not really ‘problems’ at all – at least not for the children. What they actually are are problems for the parents. Parents who “want our evenings back to ourselves”, parents who “find it hard to go to work after a night with the toddler”, parents who “really want a fully night’s sleep after not having one for two years”, parents who “don’t want to start the day at 5am”, parents who “don’t want to share our bed with our child”.
Now I’m not saying parents should just ‘suck it up’ and be martyrs, but I am confused that most adults will not take at least some of the responsibility and realise that parenting is about making sacrifices, it is about being selfless and it is about putting the needs of your child first sometimes. Who really expects to have a child and return to pre-baby normality within a year or two? Lets get real here people. Becoming a parent is an irreversible life changing decision. Is it too much to ask to sacrifice our evenings or adult bed space for a few short years that will all too soon be forgotten?
I think many parents would do well to think – “Who really has the problem here? Myself or my child?” if they are honest in a lot of cases then the ‘fix’ should be employed for the parent – how to do this? Work out ways that you can cope better with your own feelings and own needs in order to nurture yourself *and* your child, it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. You might do this by:
- Going to bed earlier yourself
- Taking a nap during the day when you can
- Taking up meditation/yoga/relaxation
- Employing a cleaner
- Getting your washing & ironing done at a launderette
- Employing a postnatal doula, au pair or mother’s help
- Asking for help from family and friends
- Taking a day off to recuperate whenever possible
- If you are with a partner asking him to take a night shift once a week whilst you retreat to the spare room for a full night’s sleep
- Finding somebody to talk to or offloading your feelings into a diary or blog
Once you have emptied your own container you are better able to take on board your child’s issues. The next step is then to form realistic expectations of your child’s sleep.
2. Forming Realistic Expectations of Your Child’s Sleep
Rather than rewrite the book I’ll list some posts below which cover this in great detail, once you understand how sleep works and importantly in line with your child’s developmental stages you can reset your expectations. When we realise something is normal it often becomes far less of a problem:
Normal Newborn Sleep
Normal Baby Sleep
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 1.
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 2.
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 3.
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 4.
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 5
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 6.
- Normal Baby Sleep Post 7.
Normal Toddler Sleep
Why Bedsharing is Normal and healthy
Why it is Normal for Babies to Only Sleep ‘In Arms’ & healthy to nap in a sling.
3. What If You’re Still Not Happy? Looking for the Cause
So, you’ve reset your expectations and you’re taking care of yourself, what if you still need to change things?
Many sleep trainers jump straight in with outdated behavioural modifcation techniques such as gradual withdrawal and rapid return (or controlled crying or controlled soothing, which really is no different to rapid return aside from avoiding the unpleasant taste these two phrases leave us with).
This is naive at best though – why? Because these behavioural control techniques do not ask WHY? WHY is my child doing this? Imagine you had a sore on your arm that was oozing, would you simply stick a bandaid on it and hope it went away or would you think “hmmm, I think that might be infected, I’ll find out as I might need to take some medication to help it heal once we know what bug it is”. The techniques are no more than a sticking plaster. Masking the real problems.
Why don’t children sleep? Well besides from the obvious (i.e: it’s NORMAL!) here’s a brief list:
- Because they do not feel secure enough to do so without us, perhaps they need to feel more attached to us in general – perhaps they already are and just need a bit more at night when it’s dark and scary.
- Because they are trying to assert some control (and do not get enough in the daytime)
- Because they are desperately trying to connect with us
- Because they are in desperate need of our attention (perhaps they are from a large family, perhaps they are in daycare in the daytime)
- Because they are trying to offload their daily stress, discharging their cortisol – perhaps something is bothering them during the day, perhaps this cortisol is due to day care.
- Because they feel safe with us and can use this time with us to offload their stress and anxiety (ever wonder why your kids are “better behaved” for others? This is such a compliment to us as parents – it means they feel safe to be their authentic selves with us, to really ‘let go’ of their emotions, it’s GOOD news!).
- Because something is worrying them – either from their daily lives or something ‘in the present’ in the room
- Because they have too much screen time, particularly before bed.
- Because they are hungry, some toddlers need a bedtime snack!
- Because they don’t have a good bedtime routine.
- Because they don’t have anything to comfort them in the abscence of the parents.
- Because there has been some upheaval in their life – a house move, a new sibling, a new nursery, a new school etc..
- ad infinitum
Fix the underlying problem and often the “sleep problem” disappears……….. Imagine your child ticks three of the above, is ‘Rapid Return’ or ‘pick up put down’ REALLY going to help?
4. Considering the Child
A big step missed out in behavioural techniques. Would you ‘rapid return’ or ‘pick up put down’ your Grandmother if she had trouble sleeping at night? Would you gradually withdraw from your husband if he was going through a traumatic time in his life that was affecting his sleep? Of course not, that would be inhumane – So WHY OH WHY do we treat our child with such little respect and regard?
Empathy for our kids is key if we are going to change anything about their sleep – think about HOW our actions will affect them, how will they feel? Do you REALLY want to make them feel like that? Don’t kid yourself you’re only doing it for their own good, sleep is important, self settling (which is a myth by the way – see my post on this HERE) is a gift – yada, yada, yada……….the reason you have to keep saying this to yourself is because what you’re doing feels WRONG. Your instincts are telling you something, listen to them!
5. Making Plans & Putting Them Into Action
You might not reach this point, but if you do here are some things that can help:
- Fostering connection and attachment in the daytime (check out Love Bombing)
- Giving your child more control in the daytime (15 mins child led play – with them – is fab for this and the above).
- Making sure your child is happy at daycare/preschool/school and removing stressors there
- Making sure your child is well fed, remove additives where possible and give toddlers a bedtime snack if needed.
- Consider alternative therapies, cranial osteopathy, chiropractic, allergy testing and the like.
- Remove TVs, DSs, laptops and tablets from bedrooms and limit their use for 2hrs before bedtime.
- Check the lighting in your child’s bedroom and your bathroom (more HERE)
- If your child is at daycare know they need time to unwind (I suggest 2hrs) before bedtime.
- Be child led for setting bedtimes if possible – watch your child’s sleep cues
- Start a wind-down routine 1hr before bedtime, stories, massage, relaxation CDs.
- Implement a good bedtime routine – at least 30mins before bedtime.
- Don’t worry about how your child gets to sleep, a 3yr old who breastfeeds to sleep will soon stop! (check out THIS POST) BUT if you want to stop night feeds check out THIS ROUTINE.
- Don’t worry about getting your child out of your bed, it will happen soon enough! (see THIS POST) – but if you want it to happen sooner consider making the move in small steps, firstly ‘rooming in’ with a mattress on the floor rather than a big jump to sleeping alone.
- Use ‘props’ to help you – music, smells, ‘loveys’ and comforters (see HERE for recommendations).
- Know that a child crying in the arms of a loving parents is not the same as controlled crying or cry it out.
- Above all else know that you are not alone – you are not the first to experience this and you will not be the last, find people on your wave length to talk to, those who can empathise with you rather than constantly give you advice or opinions, build a network of support around you – because that’s the key to surviving the sleepless nights of early parenthood – YOU – not ‘quick fix’ sleep solutions, not breaking or taming your child. YOU. YOU are the key.
If you would like to learn more about infant sleep, including many more sleep tips check out my latest book, available to order now:
You can also join me on my Gentle Sleep Facebook page HERE for advice, tips and chat about all things baby, toddler and preschooler sleep.
About SarahOckwell-SmithSarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
Posted on April 3, 2013, in Babies, Preschoolers, Toddlers, Tweens and tagged baby expert, baby expert UK, Baby Only Sleeps in My Arms, baby sleep expert, bedsharing, bedtime live, Breastfeeding to Sleep, channel 4 sleep programme, contented little baby sleep, controlled crying, controlled soothing, cosleeping, gina ford, gradual withdrawal, parenting expert UK, rapid return, sleep training, spaced soothing, Tanya Byron, Toddler Sleep Expert. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.