Rebecca Sharkey, Psychologist, Cumberland Park SA
Up to 50% of young children have difficulties with sleep.
Sleep problems are complicated and have many causes. They are difficult to deal with because they impact everyone in the house – when a child isn’t sleeping, neither are mum or dad. Not only is everyone tired but insufficient sleep means struggles with mood and managing emotions, difficulties with learning, problems with memory, issues with paying attention, and it can have negative effects on growth and development. So basically, sleep affects everything.
So, let’s talk about some of the complicated causes that result in disrupted sleep. Sleep can be influenced by genetics (if mum was a morning lark, chances are your child might be too), environmental stressors (changes such as moving house, a new sibling), cultural factors (co-sleeping vs. solitary sleeping), illness (teething, colds, asthma), psychological factors (anxiety, fear) and parenting factors (parenting style, values and beliefs).
Some of these factors are beyond our control, but others, such as how we respond as parents is something we can tweak.
Bedtime resistance can be behavioural; often cause by things in the environment or home. It might occur after a change such as moving house or the birth of a new sibling. Or sometimes it can be due to how we parent. As parents, we are often busy; working, running the home, and raising the children, that we sometimes haven’t the energy to cope with or manage issues at bedtime. We, ourselves are exhausted and just want the kids to go to bed so we can have some time to ourselves (and to finish off what needs doing for the day). Therefore, it’s easy to fall into patterns by giving into our child’s verbal protests and crying, often allowing the kids to stay up a bit later than usual, or reading that fourth story if they promise to then go to sleep.
This isn’t bad, nor does it make us bad parents. Life just happens and sometimes the juggling gets a bit tricky to manage.
What can we do about this?
Many parents deal with some level of bedtime resistance from their children. In some households, this isn’t always a big deal but for others they might feel the issues are bad enough to seek professional help. Then a lot of us are in the middle – not liking the drama and resistance at bedtime but feeling the issues aren’t at the level required to see a professional. Here are a couple of steps you can implement. Remember, consistency is the key!
- Aim for a consistent bed and wake time. Your child’s biological clock has a strong influence on their wakefulness and sleepiness. When you establish a set time for bedtime and wake up time you “set” your child’s clock so that it functions smoothly. This would need to occur every day (whenever possible) which means no late nights or sleep ins on the weekend.
- Have a consistent bedtime routine. This creates security. A consistent, calm bedtime routine allows your child to transition from a hectic day to the peaceful state of sleep. You can involve your child in creating this routine – see what suggestions they have. It might involve a warm bath, stories with mum or dad and a glass of milk before bed.
- Create a cosy sleep environment. Where your child sleeps can be a key to quality sleep. Make certain the mattress is comfortable, the blankets are warm, the room temperature is right, pyjamas are comfy, and the bedroom is welcoming. Your child might like to sleep with a night light on and the door open. If they are old enough, involve them in this process.