Saturday 24 February 2018

Family Life: My three-year-old won't sleep at night. What caused this and how can we fix it?

David Coleman

David Coleman

My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter has not slept a night since Christmas; up until then she was sleeping 12 hours a night.

At Christmas we took away the dummy, which she only ever had at night. She seemed happy to give it up as we gave it to the 'dummy fairy' and left a little gift. We also moved her from her cot to a bed because she kept climbing out of the cot. She picked a 'princess' bed and was very excited.

At first she would happily go to bed without any fuss but would wake after a few hours. When she woke she wanted one of us in the bed or to go into our bed, which she has never done before.

Things have just gone from bad to worse. She will not let us leave the bedroom and she gets hysterical. Bringing her into our bed, just to try and get some sleep, doesn't even work anymore as she cries when you take her in. At the moment she will only sleep a maximum of two hours without wakening. When she does wake she becomes hysterical even if I'm by her side. Nothing we ever say or do consoles her.

I think I might have made too many changes too soon but surely she should not get herself into such a state when I'm by her side? Do you think I should give the dummy back? My husband did try and give her a spare dummy that we have for our son who is 16 months, but she would not put it in her mouth.

Any advice would be gratefully appreciated as we are desperate to get things back to how they were.

I have written before about the need for children to have security and comfort in order to sleep soundly. Any big changes in their life can bring about some insecurity and that insecurity may lead to disrupted sleep.

When that change involves their sleep routine or their sleeping arrangements it is not surprising that they become unsettled.

I think you could be right, that your daughter has indeed had too much change to her sleeping arrangements in a short period of time. While she may have seemed okay with each individual change the accumulation of all the changes may have left her feeling a little insecure.

Given how settled she was I think the chances are really good that she will settle back into a restful pattern again.

What she needs to learn, again, is that she is safe at bedtime. The most important thing to help that is to re-establish a really comforting and consistent routine.

Think back to the routine that you used before Christmas and try to re-establish major elements. I would guess that when she had her dummy you were probably able to let her fall asleep on her own. I wonder whether, since Christmas, you have had to stay in the room with her to ensure that she falls asleep?

If so, then she has come to rely upon you or your husband to be present to help her fall asleep.

Gradually

In order to reinstate her ability to soothe herself to sleep you need to gradually withdraw from being with her as she falls asleep. You do this in stages, where each stage is a bit further physically removed from her. So moving from beside the bed, to nearer the door, to beside the door, to outside the door with visits every minute, to extending the time between visits.

At each stage your daughter needs to be in a settled habit of falling asleep without fuss before you move to the next stage.

Having the security and comfort of her dummy to help herself get off to sleep may have been a really good thing.

It might also be a good short-term help for the 'dummy fairy' to return the original dummy.

You can always wean your daughter off the dummy again when she seems more settled and comfortable.

Hopefully having her dummy back will trigger her sense of night-time security and reduce her distress.

Your own stress level, at night, can also be a significant factor for how settled your child will be. When she first started to wake at night you were probably very understanding and comforting. As she continued to be disrupted you probably found your own tolerance reducing, to the point of annoyance.

If you, or your husband, are anticipating a disrupted night's sleep then you will be primed to be frustrated if that anticipation is indeed realised by your daughter waking up.

Waking

The hysteria that she now seems to have developed is probably the culmination of a vicious cycle of her waking, you getting frustrated, her reacting to your frustration, you getting more cross and her getting more distressed.

If you are already on edge and grumpy when she wakes then it is harder to be calm when responding to her. Until she settles back into a more secure bedtime routine she will probably continue to wake and will need you both to be warm and comforting as she tries to get back asleep.

It might help for you to remember that she is not intentionally trying to drive you nuts! She is just being a typical three-year-old who wants to be asleep but doesn't quite know how to get there. So, if you can be patient while she gets back into a better pattern of sleeping it will make the process easier.

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