The What, Why. When and How of Sleep Regressions

What Are Sleep Regressions?

We often make the mistake of thinking that baby sleep is linear. By that, I mean the presumption that it starts off really bad when you have a newborn and then it gets progressively better as the baby gets older, until at some point it becomes ‘good’ like that of an adult. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Baby sleep is very up and down. I liken it to a rollercoaster (see this article). There are peaks, when you feel rested and then lots of big dips, when it takes a nosedive, just as you begin to think you have the whole sleep thing sorted. What often surprises parents is to learn that, according to scientific research, the best sleep in the first year happens at around 3-4 months and that at 9 months, sleep is usually significantly worse than it was at 3 months. This really goes against the whole idea of it getting better as the baby grows. The other thing that’s important to remember is that even adults don’t sleep particularly well. We often wake at night and our sleep gets disturbed by different things too. Why would babies be any different?

sleep

Why Do Sleep Regressions Happen?

There are so many reasons for sleep regressions, including: illness, pain, teething, learning a new skill (such as rolling over, or learning to crawl), starting solids (many think solid food helps sleep, but actually the huge change usually means it gets worse for a bit after solids are introduced), separation anxiety, disruption because of holidays, moving house, mum going back to work. Really, the reasons are endless – just like adults!

When Do Sleep Regressions Most Commonly Happen? 

Babies usually sleep ‘well’ in the first few days after birth and this really lulls parents into a false sense of security. Often they are tired from the birth and transition into the world, but they tend to wake up towards the end of the first week and sleep can often become more challenging. The other thing to keep in mind here is the huge transition babies make from being inside the womb (where it’s always dark, they are ‘held’ constantly, it’s warm, they are never hungry or cold and there’s always reassuring sounds). Post birth they spend a significant time on their own when parents “try to put them down”, experience hunger, cold, thirst, pain etc…it’s a crazy difference and understandably one that impacts their sleep.

Around four months is a very common time for sleep to regress. There is no one specific reason for this, however I always think that babies of this age seem to cope with a great deal of frustration on a daily basis. They are much more aware and alert, however their control over their own bodies are still quite poor. This inability to get hold of a toy they want, or to move towards you, or out of an uncomfortable positive is very frustrating and seems to cause a negative impact on their sleep. In addition, it won’t be long until they gain these movement skills and that acquisition can often disrupt sleep.

The most common age for poor sleep in the first year is between 8 and 10 months. At this age, many think babies should be able to sleep through the night and consider it problematic if babies are still having night feeds. According to scientific research however, most babies in this age bracket are waking regularly throughout the night and many still require several milk feeds. In part, this is caused by separation anxiety, where the baby understands that you are they are individual beings, but has no concept of time. This means that every time you leave the room, they feel abandoned and scared that you will never return. Sadly this often coincides with the end of maternity leave and mothers returning back to work, which can cause more issues because of the separation in the daytime and the baby learning how to cope in daycare. Finally, this is also a common age for teething. Basically, if you have an 8, 9 or 10 month old. Don’t expect much sleep!

No, Your Baby Should NOT be Sleeping Through the Night by 12 Months!

Do Toddlers and Older Children Have Sleep Regressions? 

Sadly, yes! There are three common stages, rather than specific ages, that toddler and preschooler sleep regresses; when they potty train, when they start preschool or nursery and when a new baby sibling arrives. All of these disturb the child’s status quo, can leave them feeling anxious and upset and tend to disrupt regular bedtime routines. All recipes for a disturbed night’s sleep. Beyond this, sleep regressions continue to happen all the way through to, and including, adulthood. Commonly anything that disrupts the regular daily routine, or leaves the child (or adult!) in pain, scared and stressed has the potential to negatively impact sleep, such as holidays, moving house, illness, or a change in family dynamics.

How Do You Cope With a Sleep Regression? 

The most important things that parents can do when their child’s sleep is regressing are:

1. Realise that it is normal, remember – sleep is a rollercoaster, not a nice straight upwards line. Regressions are almost always NOT the fault of the parents and anything they have or have not done.

2. If you can, be patient. Most sleep regressions will pass naturally, without you doing anything. Usually they last from between 2 and 8 weeks.

3. Try to not make any extra changes. A lot of parents panic when sleep regresses and start trying to change things up, changing bedtime routines, buying new sleep gadgets and so on. However this is the worst thing you can do. The key is keeping things the same and not changing anything. This provides the stability that they so desperately need.

4. Be easy on yourself. Sleep regressions are common and normal and they will pass without you needing to do anything, but you need to take care of yourself while they run their course. Lighten up on the housework, buy some freezer meals or get a takeaway, get some early nights in and keep reminding yourself “this too will pass”.

 

For more on sleep during the first five years of life, check out my Gentle Sleep Book, or come and ask me a question  on Facebook or Instagram.

 

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Why Does Toddler Sleep Regress? (and what can you do to help?)

First of all, apologies to those of you reading as a parent of a baby, I don’t mean to scare you by talking about the dreaded toddler sleep regression, hopefully it won’t happen to you or you will at least have a few months of unbroken nights for it does!

Whenever I run my monthly sleep Q&A on my Gentle Sleep Book Facebook Page , I am always asked for advice for toddlers who have massively regressed in their sleep. I don’t think there is a specific age where this happens, 18 months seems common, however it can happen earlier or later, 2 years for instance seems quite a common age too. What is true however is that it is very common for children who have previously ‘slept through the night’ as babies to start waking up again as toddlers. If you are there right now, the first thing you should understand is that it’s normal. The second thing you should understand is that it is transient and the third thing you should understand is that it isn’t happening because of you!

Why does toddler sleep regress so often? Well, think about how much the world of a toddler changes! They have mobility, they can talk a little (often not as much as they would like though and the frustration here definitely plays a role), they may have welcomed a new baby sibling (one of the most common reasons for their sleep regressing), perhaps you have returned to work and they have started nursery, or perhaps they are at preschool. The world of a toddler can be full of exploration, joy and wonder, but it can be also full of misunderstanding, frustration and upset. It is not only the latter than causes sleep regressions, but the more positive too.

Imagine you are about to go on holiday, do you ever find it hard to go to sleep? The excitement keeps you awake, the same is true for toddlers only there are many things they get excited about on a daily basis. What about your night’s sleep before starting a new job? The change can cause you to struggle with sleep. What about your best friend moving a thousand miles away, your grief at missing her can cause you to struggle with sleep, the same can be true with toddlers when you return to work, or they start preschool.

There is no inherent biological reason why toddler sleep should regress, however the emotional reasons are through the roof. This is also the age of nightmares, fear of the dark and anxiety over scary monsters, all part and parcel of your wonderful toddler’s imagination.

How do you get through it? Ultimately you keep reminding yourself of the enormous transitions your toddler is making every day, understand how life can sometimes be full of struggle for them, with a lack of autonomy and communication frustration. Understand that your toddler is not “being difficult”, but that there is genuinely something behind their new broken sleep.

You may want to look at their diet, their bedtime and their bedtime routine (lots of toddler sleep problems happen because we are trying to put them to bed too early), perhaps they need to drop their daytime nap. Perhaps you need to work more on reconnection with them at the end of the day, especially if you work or they have a new sibling. You may need to look more at their sleep environment, do they need to ditch the cot and move to a ‘big bed’ now? Do they need a nightlight on all night to allay their fear of the dark, do they need other security objects around them to help them to stay calm. My article HERE may help.

Remember, the sleep regression is temporary, it will pass!

For more on toddler sleep, and how you can implement changes, gently, see my Gentle Sleep Book.

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Potty Training Regressions and Refusals – Why They Happen and How to Cope!

While there are a multitude of different potty training problems, the two most common – and definitely the ones I get the most questions about – are regressions (accidents after a period of being fully dry/clean for a good while) and refusals (refusing to use the potty or toilet, most commonly after 3-7 days of beginning training). Let’s look at both of these, the reasons that are usually behind them and what parents can do about them.

Refusals
Refusing to use the toilet or potty (and requesting nappies/diapers again) is common around three days after potty training begins, although it can (and does) happen at anytime within the first month. Usually this happens for a few common reasons:
1. the excitement has worn off, the child has realised that actually there’s more work involved in potty training than they expected and it isn’t as fun as they imagined it would be (especially during the underwear and potty buying trips!).
2. They become stressed or scared by accidents (or more specifically somebody’s reaction to an accident) and want to avoid it again,
3. Over-prompting. This often results in children withholding, because they frankly get sick of being asked if they need to go!
4. Inconsistency between home and somewhere else, or inconsistency in keeping them in underwear/bare-bottomed and swapping to nappies/diapers (e.g: when you’re away from home).
If you are pretty sure that you started training when the child was physically and emotionally ready and have had some success in the previous days (and by some success I don’t mean no accidents – I would expect more accidents than in the potty), then keep going! With the proviso that:
1. You need to keep up the excitement with lots of effort-based praise and sharing books, DVDs and conversations about potty training. Here, meeting up with a friend with a potty trained child is a great idea too.
2. Really be very careful about your own attitude, are you positive? Or are you feeling stressed and negative and allowing your emotions to rub off on your child, especially when they have accidents. Could you have scared or upset them with your response to an accident?
3. Stop the prompting, or dramatically reduce it.
4. Make sure you’re consistent, unfortunately – although it’s inconvenient, you really do need to devote time to potty training, ideally 3 days as a minimum. If you can’t devote that time (ie booking holidays from work, ordering grocery shopping from the internet and taking some days off of your regular activities), then I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t even start. This is a huge moment in your child’s life, they deserve the time and attention needed to achieve it.
You may also need to take the lead and take some of the control back from child. For instance, I would offer “underwear or no underwear (bare bummed/commando) today?”, but wouldn’t offer a nappy/diaper. Depending on the child’s level of understanding/verbal ability I would also have a chat with them about growth mindset (not using that terminology obviously) and how proud you have been of them over the last week for trying to so hard, re-iterate accidents are OK, they are learning and they all happen, tell the child that you had them too. Usually what’s needed with refusals is some emotional work – for you as a parent as much, if not more so, than fhe child!

Regressions
In my experience, most parents need to reset their expectations when it comes to what success when potty training looks like. Children have accidents for months and YEARS after potty training. There is a bit of an incorrect assumption in our society that once they’re done – that’s it, no more accidents, actually – that rarely happens. The learning carries on for months and years after the initial ‘training’ period and with that learning comes mistakes.  If you could draw potty training success in a chart, it would look like this:

Regression after a new baby arriving in the family is common, it can and does knock a toddler/preschooler for six, their world is changed over night and it literally pulls the rug from under their feet. Naturally they struggle to control their bodies when they’re feeling so bad and sometimes potty training accidents mean more attention for them, at a time when they are desperate to be seen. Ultimately the key here is to be compassionate and empathic towards how the child is feeling. In the case of a new sibling arrival, the child will be busy dealing with feelings of anger, grief, sadness, confusion etc.. it’s no wonder attention so often shifts away from potty training. Sometimes wetting and soiling happen deliberately, in this instance it’s almost always a cry for attention (actually it is in most cases) – ask yourself what does your child need? The answer is almost always, you. Or rather the you they had before the new baby arrived. The accidents draw your attention solely to them for a few minutes. Any attention is better than no attention. The answer to this is to build in one-to-one time with the child away from the baby – preferably not with the baby in the same building. Feed and run and take them to the park for half an hour a day leaving your baby with your partner/parents/friend. Make sure you do the oldest child’s bedtime each day, give them a bath and read a story while your baby is elsewhere in the house.

Another common cause of regressions that is often overlooked is a physical cause. Here the top culprits are constipation or a urinary tract infection (UTI). Constipation commonly results in soiling accidents (especially diarrhoea) because of what is known as overflow poo. While UTIs cause very frequent urination and dribbling. In both cases, the child is incapable of not having an accident. If there is no big emotional change in your child’s life and their toileting has regressed, the first thing you should do is to pay a trip to your family doctor to rule out constipation and UTIs.
In terms of how to react when the accidents happen – Stay calm, stay compassionate and stay consistent – don’t under any circumstances threaten to put the child back in nappies. This will pass! Just as with refusals, the key to surviving regressions is once again you – and how you act and react.

For more on potty training – including signs of readiness, how to prepare practically and emotionally, common hiccups along with way and how to copy with them, check out my gentle potty training book in the UK HERE, Australia and New Zealand HERE, the USA HERE, Canada HERE and the rest of the world HERE.

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The Dreaded Nap Drop – How to Cope When Your Child Drops Their Nap

I have previously written about what to look for to know when it is time to drop a nap HERE. There are two approaches to nap drops, both have their pros and cons and either can be gentle:

1. Child Drops Nap Naturally.
If your child drops their nap (whether that’s 3 to 3, 2 to 1, or 1 to none) you are likely to find that the process is a slow and gradual one. One day they will take the nap, the other not. They may take the nap much later than normal, wake up earlier, or not take it and flake out for the night at 5pm. Letting it happen naturally is giving your child control, however it can often leave you feeling totally out of control and can cause problems with night sleep.

2. You Try to Control the Nap Drop.
Your child begins to show signs of an imminent nap drop and you decide to speed the process along. This is not totally natural and child led, as above, however it is important to understand that you are still being led by your child if you are following their cues. I only advocate this approach if there are signs of an imminent drop underway. The pros of this approach are that it can speed the transition and avoid some of the ‘all over the place’ days and nights that may occur in approach one, which can leave you calmer and happier as a parent which has a direct result on your child.

I am actually far more in camp 2, following your child’s cues and then taking the lead a little. This approach can be very difficult for a week or two (often nearer the two) as your child is likely dropping naps and not making up for it at night, this is normal and transient. If you can survive this time you will come out of it likely more easily and quickly if you go for approach one.

But HOW do you keep them awake? I’m asked this a lot. The simple answer is that you can’t, not always. There will always be times when they fall asleep in the car or buggy and that’s OK, it happens. Try again the next day. I also advocate doing something fun and lively when you see your child lagging. Go for a walk (sans buggy), play a game, kick a ball around in the garden, do some dancing. Anything possible to try to 1. keep your child awake and 2. keep them happy (or as happy as possible).

What do you do when the nap goes? I think firstly it’s important that you don’t try to delay this. Too many parents are desperate to keep the nap when actually the child needs to drop it, as a general rule I would expect the nap to go between 2 and 3 years (some will drop it at 1 and some at 4 or 5, that’s OK, I’m just talking about the average). There is only heartache and stress to be found in trying to keep a nap when it needs to go, for everybody.

When your child stops napping it’s likely that they will grumpy in the days sometimes, that’s normal. They are learning to last the day without a nap. Here I strongly advocate some ‘down time’, or ‘chill out time’. Make a chill out area in your living room (not their bedroom, that’s too much like forcing a nap), pop a beanbag, sensory blanket and sparkly lights in the area and encourage your child to take some time out, either with or without you, whichever they are happy with. I strongly recommend relaxation CDs here (but not the type to make them go to sleep, like mine HERE, that’s for bedtime only!), or audio books. I like Relax Kids CDs and downloads for this. It is really important that you stress “we’re not going to sleep” here, if your child thinks you are trying to make them sleep, they will resist you. Highlight as much as you can that you are just going to relax for a bit, but stay awake.

For more on baby and toddler sleep see my Gentle Sleep Book,

You can also follow me on Facebook HERE, or in Instagram HERE.

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The Problem With Toys: Why Children Lose Interest in New Toys Quickly

Many parents despair of their child’s inability to play alone for any length of time, or the speed at which they get bored with toys. The biggest problem with most toys today is that their play appeal is limited. A shape sorter is just a shape sorter, put the shapes into the holes and the toy no longer offers interest. An entertainment centre loses appeal after the buttons have been pushed, the beads moved along and the xylophone chimed. Most toys have a specific design and a specific purpose. When the child bores of the set purpose, the toy no longer holds appeal for them. Once the function of the toy has been exhausted they cannot be used in other ways, or allow the child to use their imagination.

As children grow, the over provision of toys can stifle their imaginations. The overwhelming choice of playthings offered to most children today is perhaps one of the worst curses of modern childhood. I often hear parents mutter “you should be grateful, you have so many toys, in my day I didn’t even have half the amount you had”. The parents however are the lucky ones. Although it can be hard to understand why for many. Their childhood was likely filled with the amazing games of make believe that their own children lack.

Research, conducted by German researchers, found that removing toys from children results in them becoming not only more creative but more social too. In their experiment ‘Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten’ (“The Nursery Without Toys”), all toys were removed from children for a period of three months, the only items left were chairs and blankets. Initially they found that the children were bored, however they quickly re-adjusted and were soon building dens and enjoying the new set-up. By the end of the experimental period not only were the children playing imaginatively and creatively, but they were also more confident and social with each other with better interpersonal relationships and less friction and fighting between children. This led the researchers to claim that children can be “suffocated” by the presence of toys and also find it harder to concentrate when surrounded by toys.

While the idea of being a completely ‘toy free’ home may fill you with horror, there are some points from Strick and Shubert’s research that can be implemented with ease. Firstly is the obvious idea of thinning out the toy supply. Removing those items that are barely or rarely played with. Next is the idea of rotating toys. At the end of the experiment, toys were reintroduced to the nursery and the children were happy to see them return. The saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to toys too, rotating your child’s toy supply and putting some away in a cupboard for a month or two, so they remain fresh is a great idea. Lastly, never underestimate the play value in everyday objects, in this case it was simple chairs and blankets, but there are many other options too. I have listed some below:

Cardboard boxes, so many possibilities, anything from spaceships to houses.

Old handbags and purses, great to fill with treasures.

Cornflour and water, makes a wonderfully intriguing gloopy blend.

Mud, mud glorious mud! Mud pies, mud modelling, mud kitchens and more.

Water, freeze toys in ice, ‘paint’ with it on pavements, make boats to float.

Den building, inside with blankets and sheets, outside with sticks and branches

Bubble wrap, put it on the floor and jump and roll on it.

Plastic cups are great for stacking, pouring and scooping.

Old phones and remote controls. Pressing buttons and pretending to control things.

Old baby wipes boxes and tissue boxes. Great for ‘posting’ things and sorting.

Finally, if you want to buy toys, look for some that are ‘open-ended’, that is – toys that don’t have a limited play value. See a list of my favourite toys, by age HERE.

 

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The Top Six Causes of Sleep Problems in School Aged Children (and how to fix them!)

Do you have a slightly older child and struggle with their sleep? Sadly, ‘sleep problems’ are fairly common throughout childhood. The good news however, is that as children get older, night waking lessens dramatically. Most sleep problems in older childhood usually centre on bedtime resistance and early morning waking. Let’s look at the top six problems – and how to fix them!

 

1. Expectations has to top the list as the cause of most sleep problems in childhood. Unfortunately, there is a lot of incorrect information about sleep in society that unnecessarily scares parents. Parents are commonly worried that their children are not getting enough sleep, so try to encourage an earlier bedtime, however in many cases, this bedtime is at biological odds of what the child needs. At each age, there is a range of acceptability when it comes to the amount of sleep needed. For toddlers, the average range is 9-16hrs in a 24 hour period, for preschoolers, it’s 8-14 hours in a 24hour period, for 5-11 year olds it’s 7-13 hours in a 24 hour period and for teenagers, it’s 6 to 12 hours in a 24 hour period. If your child naturally needs less sleep, trying to make them take the higher end of average amount of hours of sleep is going to end in disaster. They will resist going to sleep, which makes them secrete cortisol (the stress hormone), which in turn inhibits melatonin (the sleep hormone) and ultimately they will end up going to sleep even later. The best thing parents can do is try to understand the true biological sleep needs at each age and make sure they are not trying to get their child to sleep for too long.

2. Timing: As with expectations, bedtime matters too. We have freakishly early bedtimes in the UK, USA,Canada and Australia. In most parts of Asia, children don’t go to bed until 10pm, interestingly, research shows that Asian parents have far less problems with sleep than UK parents do. A study from Colorado University in the USA, found that most children are not ready to sleep physiologically until around 8pm onwards. Pre-8pm their bodies had not secreted sufficient melatonin to enable a peaceful sleep onset. This is even worse in the spring and summer, when we’re trying to make children go to sleep when it’s still light outside, because light exposure has a huge effect on melatonin

2. Time to reconnect: At the end of a busy day, when children are at school and haven’t seen you all day, they need time to reconnect with you. School and daycare can be very stressful to children. We know from research it takes around 2 hours for their cortisol levels to drop once they get home. When they get home, children need time to reconnect with you and to children – reconnection means playtime! The trouble here is that evenings in a family home are often rushed, with little time for play. We rush from activity to activity to dinner and then straight off to bed. Making time to actively play together as a family, for at least half an hour (but preferably an hour) before the bedtime routine begins has a dramatically positive effect on sleep for most families.

4. Poor bedtime routines. We all need bedtime routines, whatever age. Children need time to wind down and to have clear markers and boundaries at bedtime. A great routine would involve a bath, reading a book together and tucking up in bed and having an end of day chat, follow by an audiobook or a special kids relaxation recording (here’s mine in the UKor USA) Keeping the routine the same every day is really important. Families are often so busy now that bedtime routines get overlooked, but they’re really important. In fact, according to research, they are the most important predictor of child sleep.

5. Diet: Iron deficiency, magnesium deficiency and Omega 3 (fatty acid) deficiency all negatively affect child sleep. Most children don’t consume enough iron rich food in their diet, ditto magnesium (you’re looking at red meat, dark leafy veg, dark chocolate, nuts, pulses and beans – not usually high in the light of what kids consume!) and research has shown that deficiencies cause sleep problems. Similarly Omega 3 deficiency has been linked to less sleep, difficulties falling asleep and more sleep disorders such as night terrors in children. They need to have at least two portions of oily fish (salmon,mackerel, herring, tuna) each week. if not, a daily supplement can be a good idea. Similarly, re. diet – there are a lot of myths out there – many parents avoid sugar because they think it causes hyperactivity and sleep problems – it doesn’t! It actually aids sleep (but I’m not advocating giving children sweets and sugary drinks, they’re bad for them for other reasons). The only foodstuff that can cause issues with sleep if eaten is caffeine – here, you’re really only talking high cocoa content chocolate, tea, coffee or caffeinated cola.

6. Screen exposure and lighting. Research has shown that being exposed to screens 2 hours before bed has a very negative impact on sleep. Even if it’s CBeebies bedtime hour! The programmes stimulate the brain too much and the screens release blue light which causes the brain to inhibit the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Turning off TVs, iPads and confiscating smart phones at least 2 hours before bedtime is vitally important and children should never have screens of any sort in their bedroom. Similarly, lighting matters at bedtime too. Most lights in children’s rooms are terrible for sleep. You should never use the main overhead light, or even a lamp with a regular bulb as these also secrete blue light which halts melatonin release. Especially if you use energy saving bulbs. Nightlights are usually bad news too. If your child has a nightlight that is white, blue, pink, green purple or even some shades of yellow (in terms of the light colour emitted), then get them out of the bedroom ASAP! These light sources all inhibit melatonin release and are like adding a giant sun to the child’s bedroom. Instead, look for a low blue-light lamp, or red light – you can find some here.

Come and join me on Facebook or Instagram to learn more about child sleep!

 

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How to Increase  Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence in Children

There is no coincidence that difficult behavior is often linked to low self-esteem. If a child feels bad about himself he’s far less likely to act well towards others. If you want to improve behavior, you have to improve how the child feels about himself. Helping a child to feel good about themselves is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts of gentle discipline. Here are a few ways you can help:

Unconditional Love
Helping a child to feel loved unconditionally, regardless of their behavior or abilities, must always come first. You cannot increase a child’s self-esteem or confidence without starting from this point. Only when they feel loved by their parents for who they are can they begin to love themselves…. The key is in not trying to change your child but accepting them as they are—  the good and the bad. Listen intently to everything they have to say and always be there for them. Help them to calm down when they are sad or angry and don’t ignore their behavior or the feelings behind it, no matter how tempted you are to do so. Last, don’t punish or shame them and don’t use exclusion from you—  whether that’s being shut in their rooms, in time- out, or on the naughty  step—  as a way to handle undesirable behavior. When you do this, the message that you give to them is that you want to be around them only when they are “good.” In other words, there is a part of their personality that you really don’t like. The result? They begin to dislike themselves.

Develop Their Problem-Solving Skills
Every time you swoop in and fix something for your child, whether resolving a sibling argument, completing a jigsaw puzzle, or helping with homework, you deprive your child of the ability to sort it out themselves. Giving your child some space to solve their own problems does wonders for increasing their self-esteem and confidence. If they think they can’t do something, help them to know that you trust that they can—“That looks really tricky; I have faith in you, though”—  and to think critically and logically, knowing this is something they struggle to do alone. Asking questions is a great way to trigger their problem-solving ability: “Do you think that the shape you need has a straight side or a bobbly side?” Or, “Can you think of anything that would help here?” Each problem that your child solves as independently as possible will help to build their self-esteem and confidence.

Tell Them How You Feel About Them 
Most of us are forthcoming with insults and criticism or nonspecific praise of our children, but how often do we really tell them how we feel about them? Taking time to look properly at a picture that they have painted and commenting on how you like the colors they have chosen, or telling them how proud they make you feel and saying that you’ve noticed how hard they have been trying to master a handstand, for example, can really help your child to feel loved and seen. As children get older it can be a little harder to do this, especially if they reply, “Oh, Mum, you’re so embarrassing. Stop it.” At first, it may seem that they don’t want you to tell them how you feel about them anymore, but it just means you have to do it in a different  way—  because we all like to know when others think well of us, however old we are. My favorite approach in the tween and teen years is to write notes to each other. I have also been known to e-mail or text them. After a tricky period with my (then)  eleven-  year-  old son we had a really lovely day together, and afterward I wrote a note and pinned it onto his bulletin board in an envelope with his name on it. It said something like this:
“I just wanted to write you a note to tell you how much I loved  today—  it’s been such a lovely day, thank you so much. You were really helpful and it makes me so proud to see how much you like to help other people. See you tomorrow. I love you very much. Mum xxx”
The next morning I found a note on my pillow. He had written back to me:
“Dear Mum, I really liked your note, thank you for writing it. It really made me smile. I’m pleased that you appreciated me helping you, I really enjoyed it too”.
Occasionally, I have been known to write notes and pop them into their lunch boxes or school bags, particularly if they are feeling worried about something.
 
Opportunities for Independence
In the same way that you should encourage children to solve their own problems, you also need to let them take care of their own needs as much as possible. If a task is age appropriate, allow them to complete it unaided, to make them feel capable and confident. Too many parents take on tasks for their children that they are capable of doing themselves. And each time they do so, they take away some of the confidence and  self-esteem that accompany the sense of achievement and feelings of “I did it!” Giving children special responsibilities around the house or at school can help too. If your child struggles at school, asking their teachers to consider giving them a job, such as delivering the attendance record or collecting the mail, can make a big difference. Also, make sure that you do not force your own unfilled wishes and regrets onto your child. Allow them to choose their own activities and hobbies and their own life path as much as possible. If you wanted to take ballet classes when you were young, but for some reason didn’t, don’t force it on your child. They need to make their own choices and decisions, free from your influence, as often as they can.

This is a short excerpt from my discipline book, published as ‘Gentle Discipline’ in the USA and Canada and  ‘The Gentle Discipline Book’ in the UK, ROI, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. You can buy the book in the UKUSACanada and elsewhere in the world.

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How to Stop Last Minute Potty Dashes

You know your child needs to go to the toilet; you watch them hopping from foot to foot, squeezing their legs together and making strange squirming faces. You ask them if they need to go? “NO!” they emphatically reply! Then two minutes later, a puddle appears on floor. Or, they run and mid dash, they have an accident. Why does this happen? and what can you do to stop it?

Firstly, I’d like you to ask yourself a question. Do you ever push yourself and wait for longer than you should before you go to the toilet? Perhaps you’re engrossed in a TV show, or want to get to the end of the chapter in the book you’re reading. Perhaps you’re waiting to get through a meeting, or to finish a conversation you’re enjoying. Have you ever waited a bit too long? Perhaps you had a little leak, or perhaps you gave yourself stomach cramps from holding on for too long?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of those points, I’d like you to imagine what life is like for a toddler just starting out with potty training. The world is a fascinating and fun place for young children. Going to the toilet is something that takes them away from this engagement with the world and their favourite activities. It’s understandable they leave it until the very last minute. Actually, the accidents that happen here are really important, because – in time – they teach the child how long they can leave it for before they go. The difference between ourselves as adults and young children, is that we’ve learned what our “point of no return is” and we’re pretty reliable at predicting it. LIke you, I know when I can read one more page, or watch to the advert break and NOT wet myself, because of all the practice I had when I was a kid. This is something that will absolutely come in time. Until then, use those accidents as a learning opportunity “Oh no, you were so engrossed in your puzzle, could you feel your body telling you that your wee was urgent?” “next time, do you think you could recognise that feeling and know that you can’t wait anymore?”

What should you do? Actually I’m going to answer this with what you should NOT do! and that’s over-prompt! Young children get very frustrated with over-prompting, because they want (or should I say need!) more control over the process. On the one hand you’re encouraging them to listen to their body’s cues and go when they need to go and on the other you’re encouraging them to go before they feel they’re ready. Now – you and I know that they need to head to the potty before the last minute dash, but the child doesn’t yet. They currently thinks they’re going at the right time – when they REALLY feel they need to go. In time, they will learn that actually they need to go a little sooner than waiting for that last minute. They will soon learn the subtleties of listening for that gently ringing bell, rather than waiting for the blaring siren. That is something they really do need to learn for themselves though. As the weeks and months pass you’ll find children will start to take themselves off a little (and I mean a little!) sooner each time. As I’ve mentioned, over-prompting can really backfire though, so try to bite your tongue if you can and show your children a little more trust and faith.

For more on potty training – including signs of readiness, how to prepare practically and emotionally, common hiccups along with way and how to copy with them, check out my gentle potty training book in the UK HERE, Australia and New Zealand HERE, the USA HERE, Canada HERE and the rest of the world HERE.

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How Much Sleep Should Babies Really Get?

“How Much Sleep Should My Baby Get?”

An often asked, but almost impossible question to answer. I’m frequently questioned by parents who worry that their baby isn’t getting enough sleep.

The simplest response would be “however much they need”, for sleep needs differ for each individual baby.

Any recommendations given are simply that, recommendations and any trustworthy sources provide a rough guide rather than a fixed figure of hours or time. Most recommendations for amount of baby sleep required, including suggested bedtimes and length and amount of naps, are not evidence based. Most stem from personal opinion with some being more educated than others.

Recent guidelines by the National Sleep Foundation provide a broad range in terms of sleep recommended at each age. During the first three months they indicate that anywhere between eleven and nineteen hours of total sleep per day *that includes naps and night sleep) may be acceptable. Between three and eleven months these figures change to a range between ten to eighteen hours in a twenty-four period (ie naps and night sleep combined). At twelve months the range of acceptability falls to between nine and sixteen hours total sleep in a twenty four hour period. What is not made explicitly clear is that these figures incorporate both night-time and daytime sleep combined. A baby who sleeps for eleven hours per night at the age of three months may only take two very short naps, perhaps each totalling thirty minutes and they would still fall within the range of acceptability in terms of total sleep per twenty four hour period. Similarly a six month old taking two naps of one and a half hours each may only sleep at night for a total of seven hours and will still fall within the realms of normality.

Recent research has recently questioned the importance of paediatric sleep guidelines. Researchers from The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia studied the sleep patterns of four thousand children and believe that associations between mental and physical health and well-being and sleep are overrated. The study found inconsistency between the amount of sleep a child received and their well-being levels and those of their parents, concluding that guidelines for specific amounts of sleep at each may not be necessary or useful.

While researching  my ‘Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters’ book I asked over two hundred parents the question “before you had children, at what age did you think babies began to sleep through the night”. Their responses were as follows:

Less than three months: 22%
Between three and six months: 42%
Over six months: 8%
Over twelve months: 8%
I didn’t know what to expect: 20%

These responses fit very much with the commonly held expectation in society that most babies should sleep through the night by six months of age. Research findings however paint a very different picture. At the age of three months research has found that almost forty seven percent of babies wake three to four times at night. At six months of age research has shown that eighty four percent of babies are still waking at night at least once. At twelve months of age research has found that fifty percent of babies still need parental help to get back to sleep when they wake in the night. These percentages are likely to be underestimated in most cases too, as the large majority of research into infant sleep patterns relies on parent reporting of night waking. Knowing that all babies wake at least once per hour it is likely that what the parents are actually reporting is when their babies were crying for their attention during the night.

Why You SHOULDN’T Track Your Baby’s Sleep

Research has found however that diary keeping and parentally reported night waking is an inaccurate measure for recording infant night waking. Using actigraphy, a sensor worn by the baby which monitors movement, to measure night waking proves that parents under-report the amount of times that their baby woke in the previous night. In other words even if parents believe that their babies sleep through the night; they actually don’t, what they are really saying is “I do not need to go to my baby in the night when they wake.”

Once again the question that needs to be asked is “are baby sleep problems actually adult problems?”. If evidence based expectations of baby sleep were universally adopted it would be easy to see that what is expected of baby sleep in our society today is unrealistic. If expectations are adjusted then it becomes clearly apparent that what many feel are baby ‘sleep problems’ are really, just babies sleeping normally!

If you would like to learn more about the science and norms of baby sleep – check out my Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters in the UKUSA and Rest of the World.

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What to Do When Your Child Prefers to Play Alone

I’m often asked how to encourage introverted children to be more sociable and to join in with other children when it comes to play. However,  I believe that this common worry is usually unfounded. In my experience, this anxiety tends to highlight more about the parent’s concerns and feelings, than those belonging to the child. Most often, this question comes from parents who are naturally extroverted, who are flummoxed by raising an introverted child.

Parents should try really hard not to transpose their own fears and feelings onto their children. I tend to find those who struggle the most are parents who are naturally very extroverted, the life and soul of the party with a wide circle of friends, who are raising naturally introverted children who prefer to play alone, or with just one close friend. This is especially true if your child has not yet started school.

Parallel Play

Kids under the age of four will often engage in parallel play. That’s when two kids may be in the same room playing in proximity to each other, but really playing alone—like two adults sitting at the same table, but each staring at their phones, engaged in their own thoughts and activities. Parallel play is crucial, because it’s how children socialise before their sense of social etiquette kicks in. Children begin to understand that not everybody thinks and feels the same way, but before that, when they are incredibly egocentric, a young child will believe that the toy they are playing with is theirs—even if it isn’t and others want to play with it too. This is why some toddlers can seem so antisocial. It isn’t a problem though, it’s just normal development!

Some children genuinely prefer to play alone. I was one of these children. I’m naturally very introverted. My mother was a natural extrovert and I don’t think she every really understood me in that sense. She needed to be around people. I needed to be alone sometimes. I was happy to spend hours amusing myself, which I think my mother saw as a character flaw that needed to be ‘fixed’. She often spoke with me about being more sociable, joining in more and making more friends. I didn’t feel the need to do any of these things, but, in time, I did start to wonder if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t. As a teen, I questioned if my introversion (or what was labelled as me being ‘shy’) was a problem and something that I needed to change. This made a huge dent in my self esteem. As an adult, I’m still happiest in my own company, but now I’m fully at ease with being an introvert too. I enjoy socialising with others, but I love to get back home and be alone after and that’s OK, because we’re all different. Introversion isn’t a flaw. Extroversion shouldn’t be the goal, at any age.

Ultimately I think the key is in making sure your child is happy. If they are distressed at not joining in with others, then absolutely it’s time to do something (but forcing the issues is never the solution). In this instance I’d find some social groups, with activities the child enjoys, and invite a child they seem to favour a little more than others around for a no-fuss playdate, with the child’s carer. Here, it can be good to do an activity together, like visit a soft-play park, so that the emphasis is not on the child needing to initiate play. Sometimes children need work on their self-confidence too (something I’ve discussed lots in my ‘Gentle Discipline’ book).

Is Being a Loner a Sign of Other Problems?

Difficulty with social relationships can be an indicator of an Autism Spectrum Disorder and children with other special education needs, such as ADHD, may struggle to form relationships with their peers. If you feel that your child may potentially have a special educational need, then a visit with your family doctor is a good idea. In most cases though, in my experience, the issue is more adults expecting children to behave like adults. Or more specifically, like them!

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