While parenting is fraught with all sorts of stressors, sleep is an issue that’s so emotive that a simple query about whether your child is sleeping through the night yet is enough to trigger yet another sleepless night.
Sleep deprivation is a huge wake-up call for parents as it’s very rarely factored into their pre-baby preparations. “Yet sleep is fundamentally important for the physical and emotional wellbeing of both children and adults,” says Petro Thamm, a specialist sleep consultant and director of Good Night. “Our brains can’t function properly when we’re sleep deprived and sleep debt affects every aspect of our lives. It’s also particularly important for children as the growth hormone needed for tissue and muscle development is primarily released during sleep. What parents need to understand is that babies will develop the ability to sleep well naturally – just as they learn how to walk. However, this will only happen if you provide the correct environment for them.”
So, what’s going wrong?
Lee-Ann Stretch, founder of Sleep Matters, maintains that although all babies are different, they should generally be able to sleep for approximately eight to10 hours from the age of three to six months and for 10 to12 hours from six to12 months, adding that, “This has absolutely nothing to do with your child being ‘good’ or not! Some babies are self-soothers and have no trouble sleeping from a very young age, while others battle to self-soothe and need assistance.
Problems arise when babies or toddlers wake up three to five times a night. This means they’re not connecting their sleep cycles and have not learned to self-soothe, so can’t put themselves back to sleep. These children are called ‘signallers’ and call or cry out for help.
There are various factors that can contribute towards a child not sleeping through the night, including not getting enough sleep during the day, hunger, thirst, teething, ear or other infections, being too hot or too cold, overstimulation or a dirty nappy.
However, it also depends on the parents themselves – how soon they put their babies into their own rooms and whether they rock them to sleep or let them fall asleep on their own. Probably one of the biggest issues is that parents don’t like to hear their babies crying and tend to rush to pick them up.
Then there are the moms who work full time and are often so consumed with guilt that they overcompensate at night and end up lying with their children until they fall asleep. This is repeated each time the child wakes up and they eventually end up sleeping in their child’s room. That’s why all parents need to be realistic about their expectations and have a good understanding of sleep routines and what they should and should not do.”
There are a number of things parents might be doing wrong that contribute to sleepless nights, she says. These include:
- Underestimating how important the first few months are in establishing good sleeping habits
- Not creating an environment conducive to sleep
- Doing too much to get their children to sleep instead of allowing them enough opportunity to fall asleep alone
- Putting too much emphasis on feeding (automatically feeding babies when they wake, thinking they’re hungry). Sleep is influenced by the brain and not the stomach
- Not seeing sleep as a discipline and allowing the child to take the lead.
Breaking the cycle
“There are all sorts of sleep-training techniques on the internet,” says Lee-Ann. “Parents often worry whether they’re doing the training correctly and whether it’s traumatising the child. That’s why it’s vital for parents to be on the same page, especially if they decide to go it alone. One of the biggest reasons that sleep training fails is because parents aren’t 100% committed and give in at the first sign of a hysterical child or when one of them becomes too distraught to continue.
“When sleep training is done correctly, it helps to break negative sleep associations and establishes a routine that will encourage babies and toddlers to fall asleep by themselves instead of stubbornly resisting.
Lee-Ann’s tips to get your baby to sleep through the night
- Have a routine Children thrive on predictability and knowing what they are going to do next.
- Ensure there’s a calm sleeping environment Prepare a dark room with black-out curtains during the day.
- Replace negative sleep associations with positive ones Don’t let your child fall asleep with a bottle or rock him to sleep as he will need this to fall asleep each time he wakes. The aim is to teach your child to self-soothe and fall asleep alone.
- Create a wind-down period before bedtime No child can go to sleep after playing or running around.
- Be consistent and confident Be ready to see sleep training through. If you stop in the middle, you’ll confuse your child and he’ll become more resistant to your attempt. Your child will also feel your anxiety and react to it.
A freelance journalist and content writer with a passion for people and health. She has worked in the magazine industry for many years and is a regular contributor to Living and Loving.