sleeping children

How to Help Your Child Fall and Stay Asleep

Do you have a child that is up all night, crying and fretful? After going through this writ, that would stop. For many parents, solving the child’s sleep problems is extremely challenging. 

Sleep plays an important role in restoring the body. When a person sleeps, nutrients are absorbed into tissues and the brain. Children grow when they sleep. When a person doesn’t sleep, everyday functioning and learning are seriously challenged. A person who is not sleeping enough or has interrupted sleep is often inattentive, has trouble remembering things and thinking clearly, and can be very irritable. When sensory hypersensitivities are present, they are worsened. The child is more apt to be bothered by touch, noise, and sensory stimulation.

In this blog post, you are going to understand:

  • The skills for good sleep habits.
  • The developmental tasks that support sleeping in toddlers and older children.
  • The factors that influence sleep.
  • How to develop sleep-wake cycles.

Sleep problems are common in children who have difficulties regulating their mood and activity level and in children with sensory integration disorders. Sleep problems often peak in babies around 10 to 12 months when separation anxiety first emerges. By 19 to 24 months, many young children who are irritable and highly sensitive to sensory stimulation can fall asleep on their own, but they may continue to awaken frequently in the night. Between 2 and 3 years of age, children start having fears (e.g., “monster” in the closet, thunderstorms) and may develop night terrors that awaken them regularly. As children grow into the school years, anxieties can keep them awake at night, causing them to toss and turn until they eventually fall asleep.

A. The skills for good sleep habits

Here is a list of skills that children need to have good sleep habits.

  • Screening out noise from the environment when falling asleep.
  • Self-calming when distressed or when awakened in the night.
  • Use of a calming device or transitional object (i.e., stuffed animal) to self-calm.
  • Feeling attached to the caregiver while feeling secure enough to separate at bedtime to fall asleep.
  • Regulating sleep-wake cycles.
  • Anticipating and following daily routines and schedules.
  • Transitioning from active and quiet alert states of arousal to falling asleep.

Parents help to support sleep-wake cycles by establishing set times for naps and bedtime and by enacting bedtime rituals (e.g., bath, story). When a child has a soothing device to use in the bed or crib, it helps him in falling asleep and when reawakening occurs. Parents also help their child by avoiding overstimulation, which may include noise stimulation such as the television. Finally, it is important that parents provide experiences that support both attachment and separateness.

Parents foster attachment by having defined periods of the day when they engage in intimate, shared activities that give pleasure to parent and child. Separateness is developed when parents and children engage in activities independent one of each another. When the child is alone and separate from his caregiver, he feels secure yet can hold in mind his parent’s presence.

B. Developmental tasks that support sleep in toddlers and older children

  • Calming down after a stimulating day of activities.
  • Engaging in a balanced sensory diet of movement stimulation (i.e., playground activities, sports, rough house play) and calming activities (i.e., reading books, doing puzzles or art projects).
  • Screening out noise from the environment when falling asleep.
  • Negotiating fears of dark places, “monsters” in the closet, and of being alone.
  • Tolerating limits set by caregivers around bedtime rituals.
  • Feeling attached to the caregiver while feeling secure enough to separate for sleep.
  • Developing autonomy or independence in being secure with aloneness.

Fostering a secure attachment between you and your child and helping him to separate from you in the daytime will help him to fall asleep on his own.

C. Other factors that influence sleep

Sleep problems may be attributed to a number of other factors.

  • Some studies have found that mothers who experience a high degree of stress or feel anxious or depressed are likely to pass their tension on to their child. The tension can be as simple as a mother who feels guilty leaving her child all day long while she is at work, feeling that the only time she has with her child is at bedtime.
  • A chaotic, disorganized family life can fuel a sleep problem. It is especially unraveling for a child to sleep in a disheveled bedroom with clothes and books strewn on the floor, toys everywhere, and barely room to lie down on the bed.
  • Sleep interruption can also occur in children with gastroesophageal reflux, ear infections, sleep apnea, allergies and problems breathing, and in some cases, neurological problems. Your pediatrician should help rule these things out for you.
  • Children with a fussy or difficult temperament and who are more emotionally reactive also more likely to have sleep disturbances. They have a higher need to be soothed by their parents and often struggle with how to use soothing techniques on their own.

When parents are lax and inconsistent in adhering to sleep routines, the sleep problem in the child will become worse. Because there are multiple causes for sleep problems it is important to be systematic and thoughtful about what might be contributing to the problem.

D. Developing good sleep-wake cycles

As children grow older, changes occur not only in the duration of sleep but also in the quality
of sleep (e.g., REM vs. non-REM sleep) and the number of times that a child awakens in the
night. A newborn’s sleep has about 50% REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, in contrast to 20%
REM sleep in the adult. As the child matures, there is a decrease in REM sleep. Newborns have
a 50-minute sleep cycle in contrast to the adult’s 90-minute sleep cycle. We need REM sleep to
feel emotional well-being because that is when the brain’s unconscious reworks what we think
about during the day and integrates events in life for emotional adaptation. Poor sleep patterns
or insufficient sleep can lead to crankiness, inattention, and increased emotional and sensory
hyperactivity.

  • Children who use soothing devices to fall asleep on their own also use these soothing
    objects or activities should they awaken in the night. Help your child develop a soothing
    object that he holds or uses during both his waking and sleeping hours.
  • Sleeping alone provides the child an opportunity to feel secure with his own separateness, thus paving the way for good self-esteem and self-reliance.
  • A regular, consistent schedule and a balance between calming and stimulating activities during the day will help your child develop cycles of both alertness and a state of
    calmness. Your child needs to experience both during his waking hours to help him ready
    himself for sleep.

The suggestions above on how to help your child fall and stay asleep, should be useful for infants, preschoolers, and school-aged children but could easily be modified for older children as well. Sleep difficulties can develop into problems related to attachment. It is therefore important to help your child feel close but also to help your child learn how to tolerate aloneness and separateness. You should provide clear structure around the bedtime ritual and nighttime awakenings, as well as activities that
are organizing for your child’s sensory and emotional development.

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