Sleep expert Lucy Wolfe suggests ways to deal with late-night visitors
Children's sleep problems are all too frequent and come in a variety of guises. Studies suggest that 30 to 70pc of children experience a childhood sleep disorder at some point. This can involve trouble going to sleep and, most commonly, difficulty staying asleep, or perhaps a combination of both.
Some parents observe that bedtime is easy, but their child just doesn't stay asleep; some will report that bedtime takes hours but once they are asleep that's it, they stay asleep all night and, of course, some may say that bedtime takes ages and they still wake at night.
What exactly constitutes a 'sleep problem' will vary from each household and each parenting unit and, of course, each individual child. Decisions that we make about our children's sleeping patterns are deeply personal and need to feel right for each family.
Within that space, it is important to note that being well-rested ensures that our children are functioning at their optimum level and that is increasingly significant for healthy childhood development. Consistently research unreservedly puts emphasis on the amount of sleep that our children achieve together with the quality of that sleep.
Interrupted night-time sleep, outside of the biological transitions through natural sleep phases, coupled with inadequate amounts of sleep duration, may have implications for negative mood, undesirable behaviour and impaired cognitive development.
Often, it is a vicious cycle - children who get less sleep one night, will potentially have trouble sleeping well the next, and very often each night; or a snap shot of two weeks is varied and different.
Frequently, you may report that a few nights a month are great and you spend lots of time trying to analyse what was different and why this happened, and the simple answer is that the body wants and needs to sleep well, but if the back story is not right, then the nights can fluctuate - you may find you have a visitor overnight and this can mean interrupted sleep for all.
To begin, I encourage parents to decide on where they want their child to sleep. As mentioned this is an in-house, personal and ideally informed decision: Some family units want their children to sleep in their own space, their own room and bed, and to maintain this overnight.
Others may practise a 'family bed' scenario where bed-sharing is desired and enjoyed. Bed-sharing is quite common, with an estimated 35 to 55pc of preschoolers sleeping with their parents either from the start of the night or at some stage during the night.
Once that suits everyone, then there are no sleep challenges. However, if you are an "unplanned" co-sleeper and only operating the family-bed approach in an effort to get sleep or you report that even with bed-sharing, sleep is still elusive, then you may benefit from helping to define, with greater emphasis, the sleeping arrangements that you want for your child and family unit.
Helping your child to understand what is expected of them and where everyone sleeps in the overnight period can be a big undertaking and feel like an insurmountable task. But as with most sleep improvement exercises, it typically takes about four weeks.
Unwanted bed swapping may mean broken sleep for everyone, often with one parent leaving the bed to sleep in the spare room to make space for the visitor. Many parents will want to re-position this and want both parents in one bed and the children in another. Again, this is a decision that you will make depending on your own philosophies.
In this instance, it may help to ring-fence your child's sleep space. If you would like your child to sleep in their own bed, in their own room, then this is where they should start off at bedtime, and then you would look at how you respond to them when they wake and either want to join you, or you to join them.
Reducing the parental input at bedtime is normally a necessary a starting point so that you can assert that your child is able to 'put themselves' to sleep at bedtime.
This activity reduces the vulnerability of waking and wandering overnight, but it doesn't eliminate the dynamic entirely.
One common way of managing the night-time wanderer is that the parent consistently returns their child to their own bed for any waking through the night, but often by 5am they give up and allow them to get into their bed, or get into the child's bed to get some sleep.
Your child may not even return to sleep at this time, but this particular management approach seems keeps the expectation of bed-sharing and waking alive and generally means that the overnight activity continues. Unless you operate with 100pc precision and return them to their own bed all night, and help them to resettle there, and avoid your bed altogether, then the odds of the night-waking continuing is high and totally expected on their part.
Having a plan in place and sharing the load between each parent is crucial to the success of weakening this cycle. Using my stay-and-support approach together with my age-relevant feeding and sleeping suggestions further improves the chances of reducing this overnight cycle and will edge you closer to the goal of your child staying asleep in their own bed overnight.
Understand that this particular issue applies to a slightly older child and this in turn may mean that it has been going on for a long time, in various formats. This means that to entirely correct the issue may take at least four weeks, and maybe more. Doing your best to be predictable and consistent for the duration is key. Making sure that not only do you clearly define bedtime, but that you also clearly define the wake time, is also beneficial.
As you work through this, avoiding your bed and bedroom at the wake-time, not providing drinks or toys or TV before it is officially a suitable time to get up will ensure that you don't dilute your efforts. This can be solidified by having a post-sleep ritual, with a big exaggerated wake up, exposure to bright and natural light come the morning and then moving to the function of the first drink and breakfast in your living space.
Ensuring that bedtime is approached before overtiredness sets in is also key. If your child is not routinely sleeping through the night, has trouble going to sleep or must learn a new way of achieving sleep without intervention, then I would suggest an early onset of bedtime. This activity opens up the airways for better, more consolidated sleep to happen.
Being predictable, consistent and loving will help to establish a new sleeping practise but it will take time, patience and faith, so that within about a month of making the changes, you have your bed back and they are happy to go to sleep and stay asleep in their bed now as well.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant, Author of 'The Baby Sleep Solution', creator of 'Sleep Through', a natural Body and Bed Sleep Spray and Relaxing Rub, and mum of four children. She runs a private sleep-consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country.
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