There is nothing worse for a tired parent than a child who won't go to sleep or
keeps waking up during the night. Most parents can cope with one or two nights
with little or broken sleep but after that tempers fray and the situation gets more
tense. It is helpful to know that sleep problems are very common during the first
few years of a child's life. The problems can be failure to go to sleep, refusal to
sleep in the child's own bed, waking up in the middle of the night, nightmares,
sleepwalking and even night terrors.
Children vary according to how much sleep they need and how long they take to
fall asleep. Some children wake very easily and resettle quickly, others wake and
stay awake for the rest of the night, spending the next day being tired and grumpy.
As a parent, it is important to develop good sleep habits at an early age and the
good news is that most sleep problems can be sorted out quite easily. The most
helpful thing you can do to begin with is to work out exactly what the problem is
and then ask, try the suggestions below. Make sure you write down the answers
to the questions below so you can look back at them after you have tried out
some of the suggestions. It is also easier to see patterns and links when the
information is written down. If things don't improve after a few weeks, seek help
from your GP who can refer you onto a specialist.
What is happening?
1 Where does your child go to sleep and continue sleeping e.g. starts off in their
bed and ends up in yours!
2 How much sleep does she usually get each night? Record a week at least to
see what the pattern is. Note what time she goes to sleep and what time she
wakes and how long for.
3 What time does she go to bed and how long is it before she
goes to sleep?
4 Does the child have a bedtime routine, if so what is it?
5 Does your child have a night time cuddle to help her to
fall asleep or does she listen to a tape?
6 What time do you go to bed? - note this on the same
sheet as the child's sleeping and waking patterns as
there is often a link.
7 Can the child go back to sleep herself or does she need
you to tuck her in etc.?
8 What time does she wake in the morning, do you wake her or
does she wake herself?
9 Is she still tired in the mornings, does she flag at lunchtime etc? Does she still
sleep in the day?
10 Are there any particular stresses at home or at nursery/school?
Once you can see what is happening and have the information written down it is
much easier to work out what to do and to decide if the changes you make are
Establishing good sleep habits
As children get older they tend to need less sleep and they usually sleep for
longer. However, each child is different but it certainly helps if you can:-
• Stay calm and keep your child calm, particularly if they wake up in the night.
Don't talk to her or turn the light on if you can help it. Just settle her back into
bed as quickly as you can.
• Have a quiet winding down session
before bed. In most families this is
bath time or story time. Try not to play
active games with your child
just before bedtime and it is often
best to avoid TV or videos late at night.
• Try to have a consistent routine no matter where you are so that if you are
staying with friends or away on holiday the routine can go with you i.e. a snack,
a bath, story and sleep…
• Many children are reassured by having a favourite
bedtime toy, particularly if they wake up in the night.
• If your child does wake up, avoid reading stories or
playing as children are good at waking themselves up
for treats like this.
• If your child wakes check the temperature in the room,
leave a drink out in a beaker that will not spill if it is
knocked over, check that they are not feverish etc.
• Don't let children sleep as much during the day if they
are waking at night.
• Encourage your child to learn how to relax and settle
herself to sleep. Rocking children to sleep can make
them dependent on you for a long time to come if it
becomes a feature of their regular bedtime routine.
• Don't race into your child as soon as they wake unless they are really
distressed. Give her a few moments to try to settle herself. You need to
encourage your child to turn over and fall asleep on their own.
• Most toddlers and pre-schoolers need about 10 to 12 hours sleep. If your child
is having less than that on a consistent basis and seems tired during the day
you should seek some advice from your GP or Health Visitor.
As children get older they tend to need less sleep
Coping with nightmares
Most children have nightmares, usually about scary monsters and other
frightening things. Often children will seem anxious, fearful, breath rapidly and
even sob hysterically. It is important to reassure your child that this is just a dream
and not real, to give them a cuddle and settle them back in bed with something
to cuddle. Be calm, listen to them if they need to tell you about the nightmare but
try not to ask them about it.
Most nightmares happen in the early hours of the morning when parents are in a
deep sleep. Try to stay calm and reassuring, even if you feel very irritated as
getting cross with a child is only likely to keep them awake for longer. Often
children will have more nightmares if there is something stressful happening at
home, school or nursery.
Does you child talk in their sleep?
Most children talk in their sleep sometime but some children talk very frequently,
particularly if they are disturbed when in a deep sleep. Usually the child will talk
for just a few seconds then go back to sleep again. Often what they say does not
make sense and their voice can sound quite different, almost as though they are
talking in a monotone voice.
Keeping sleepwalkers safe
Sleepwalking is quite common for children aged 5 to 12 years of age. In fact
almost 15% of children that age will sleep walk at some time. Interestingly more
boys sleep walk than girls, though no one understands why this is. The most
common time for a child to sleep walk is usually 2 or 3 hours after they have
gone to sleep. Fortunately, that means that most parents are still awake. You can
be re-assured that children rarely sleep walk later than this in their sleep cycle.
However, it is important to make sure that you minimise his chance of hurting
himself so don't leave things on the stairs etc.
These can be very frightening for children and parents as the child usually sits up,
opens their eyes, screams loudly and thrashes about. Your child might breath
rapidly, his heart may be racing and you may not be able to comfort him for
sometime. Night terrors have been known to last for up to an hour by which time
most parents are getting very worried. Fortunately, night terrors only affect 1-5%
of children and usually happen about 1 to 3 hours after falling asleep so usually
parents are still awake. Most children outgrow these terrors without needing any
help. If they continue for a long time, you should seek advice.
(taken from Tumbletots magazine.