In with the new
Even if all your other resolutions have gone out the window, you can still hold firm in your plan to improve your child's sleep this year, writes sleep expert Lucy Wolfe
As January draws to a close and Christmas entirely fades into the background, those resolutions may be fading too - but don't be complacent about improving your child's sleep. Decide that this year you are going to positively, and in a loving way, improve your child's sleep and, in turn, your own!
Unfortunately, sleep issues are possibly one of the biggest challenges for parents of an otherwise healthy child. Those issues can range from mild to extreme, with some parents reporting excessive night waking, long after night time feeds are required.
In some instances, parents may observe their child waking every 40 minutes to one hour throughout the night and requiring a level of intervention, or some say that their child wakes and stays awake for extended periods overnight. Others find that it can take hours of heroic efforts to achieve sleep, whilst some struggle with achieving and maintaining their daytime sleep.
Although it is typical for children to wake throughout their sleep cycles, often the frequent nocturnal activity represents that the way you are currently addressing your child's sleep doesn't work for them.
Very often, small changes can make a big impact and without having unreasonable expectations about what your child's sleep might look like, anticipating some level of consolidated sleep from six months onwards is highly achievable and in fact necessary to ensure that your child is operating at an optimum level developmentally, physically and emotionally.
5 sleep tips for 2017
1 Find out how much sleep your child might need based on their age group. Last year the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released the most up-to-date recommendations based on age and stage.
Although I never encourage parents to be obsessive about sleep amounts, they are a relative yardstick for you to work towards. It is suggested that children who do not achieve optimum levels are at an increased risk of lower immune systems, decreased mood and behaviour, lack of concentration, inability to play alone or well with others.
Listed below is an idea of what you can aim for and then you can help establish the right balance for your child's sleep:
• Ages 4-12 months: 12-16 hours
• Ages 1-2 years: 11-14 hours (including naps)
• Ages 3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps)
• Age 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
• Age 13-18 years: 8-10 hours
2 Having a day sleep imbalance leaves lots of families vulnerable to unnecessary night-time sleep issues. The balance is a reference to the amount of time that your child is awake between sleeps.
The wake period that causes the most difficulties is the one between the final nap and bedtime. If this gap is too long, then this can be the reason for resisting sleep, or indeed finding it challenging to stitch those cycles together overnight without lots of help. Although all children are different, there is a generality to these wake periods as follows:
• 4-8 months: longest wake period between nap and bedtime is 2.5 hours
• 8-18 months: 4 hours
• 18 months-3 years: +5 hours
3 Create a predictable bedtime process that everyone follows before sleep times - naps included. Everyone is well versed with the concept of a bedtime routine, but they are not all equal; the best bedtime routines happen in the bedroom where your child will sleep.
It's not a good idea to do your bedtime routine in a room other than the actual room where your child sleeps; doing so can break the spell of the actual process and in turn be a waste of time. Even if the room is small, commit to this pre-sleep ritual, in a dim environment at least 20 minutes before sleep time. Have certain tasks that you always complete, words that you say, songs that you sing that send the right sleepy message.
4 Banish the bottle or feed immediately before bedtime. I know that a great many sleep experts recommend the ideal of "bath, bottle and bed", but proceed here with caution. I actually believe that this concept causes many of the sleep issues that families experience. Even if your child doesn't fall asleep on the feed and is 'awake' or 'drowsy' on put down and then fails to sleep well, this feed placement is the likely cause.
Unless there is at least a 45-minute time lapse between the end of last feed and sleep then I consider them to be too close and possibly part of the problem. Even if this is not the sole reason, taking the feed out of the sleep routine will also promote better dental hygiene as you can have the feed, then brush teeth and then begin the bedtime routine.
Another problem with the feed too close to sleep time is the "recharge"; when your child is tired and gets very sleepy on the final feed, only to spring up again totally re-energised and ready to stay awake for another three hours. This is also another great reason to adjust the final feed time and use the last feed as a beverage after dinner rather than a drink to sleep with.
5 Increase your one-to-one time with your child. Studies support that it is not necessarily the amount of time spent with our children that counts, but the quality of that time. Learning to be present with your child emotionally is a key part to improving better sleep practices.
It is suggested that 10 to 20 minutes of exclusive one-to-one time with your little one helps to solidify the connection between parents. Plenty of eye contact, physical contact and play that is led by the child is a good start. During this undiluted time, switch off distractions of phone, computer and outside influences. Allow your child a chance to explore, get messy and have fun.
Also, once your child is mobile make sure that they have lots of opportunity to roll and roam without restriction; don't allow them to spend too much time cooped up in buggies, high chairs or play pens. Safely allow a sense of freedom and opportunity to perfect their growing skills so that they don't feel the need to climb and jump out of the cot when it is sleep time.
• Don't expect fast results necessarily as you work through your sleep enhancement exercise. It can take three to four weeks for improvements to start to take hold, but with a consistent, predictable approach you will see a change and look forward to positive sleep practices this year. Good luck!
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep-consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See sleepmatters.ie, tel: 087 2683584, or email firstname.lastname@example.org