Hi Dr Justin,
My kids won’t go to sleep or stay asleep and it’s getting to be too much for me.
First of all I have my 3 year-old son. When his father lived with us he would insist I do anything to “keep him quiet” so he could get a full nights sleep. My son has never been a good sleeper from birth, and as a baby he would only ever sleep if it was on my chest while I sat upright. Also, getting him to actually get in to bed is a struggle as he is literally climbing walls up until the moment he crashes out. He wakes at least once a night, crying, and if I don’t pat him to sleep again the other two children wake. He will also frequently wake up and sneak into my bed of a night time and I’m so exhausted I don’t even realise.
My youngest daughter has just turned two. My problem with her is that she still wakes at least two or three times a night and will scream the house down if I don’t give her some water in a bottle. She shares a room with her six year old sister who needs her sleep for school, so I can’t leave her to settle herself as she’ll wake the other two kids.
They all have a routine that I stick to (being a single mum, this keeps me just as sane as them) but I’m unsure as to how to change it to improve their sleeping habits.
I hope you are able to reply, & offer some guidance.
Dr Justin responds:
Interrupted sleep has a significant impact on adults and children, and based on your email, it’s wreaking havoc in your family and leaving you exhausted. While everyone is different, researchers suggest we need the following amount of sleep (on average) each day:
Infants/Babies: Somewhere between 14 and 18 hours a day. (Newborns start high, and the hours decrease with age.)
Toddlers & Pre-schoolers: About 12-14 hours per day.
Primary-School Age: Between 10 and 12 hours per day.
High-School Age: Between 8-10 hours per day (and usually closer to 9.5 – 10 hours)
Adults: Between 7-9 hours per day.
When you and your children are missing out on sleep it can impact in significant ways, such as:
Brain Function – When children don’t get enough sleep it affects their learning, their memory (retention is lower), their concentration drops, planning is poor, and they tend to be less creative. In short, brains don’t work anywhere near full capacity when we miss out on sleep. As adults, we feel mentally sluggish and unable to concentrate without enough sleep.
Physical Function – Lack of sleep is linked with being overweight and obese, and poorer physical health. It also leads to less exercise in adults and kids (too tired), and increases accidents due to clumsiness and co-ordination issues.
Psycho-social Function – Let’s face it. No one is all that nice to be around. Parents and children become anti-social, aggressive, or even moody, irritable, and depressed.
Finances – You can’t do as well at work when you’re sleep deprived. Productivity drops, mistakes are made, and work is missed.
Relationship Function – Perhaps the most important issue related to missed sleep is that relationships suffer. Children and adults treat people poorly. We lack patience, respond sharply, and hurt others. The relational cost from lack of sleep is significant and often overlooked in scientific research.
Get a Routine – and stick to it
You indicated that you have a routine. Consider how it’s working for your children, and look at ways of modifying it.
Children the age of yours will likely do best with a warm bath following dinner, and then some stories, songs, cuddles and soft music. Consistency is key. Save the dishes and cleaning until they’re in bed, and concentrate on them. In particular, going to bed at the same time each night helps with sleep quality. If we can get our kids snoring around the same time each night they are significantly less likely to show disruptive behaviour, and significantly more likely to regulate their emotions well. As bed times vary by greater amounts, challenging behaviour increases. (Given the age of your children, they would be ideally going to bed between 6.30 and 7pm.)
Calm and Kind
My mantra at bed time is “calm and kind.” It is so stressful at the end of the day – especially with no help. It can be easy to get upset, rouse on the children, and fire up. But remember, emotions are contagious. Your children will catch what you are expressing. And no one sleeps when they are upset, stressed, or buzzing. If the children are pushing against sleep, don’t force it. Stay calm, kind, and soft. They may not be tired. If so, help them relax, read, and rest. They’ll sleep soon enough. If they’re over-tired, I recommend giving up 10 minutes to lay with them and snuggle. Perhaps they’re just not co-operating. If so, it might be best to reaffirm expectations and limits (gently), and let them know we can cuddle them or wait outside their room reading until they’re asleep. There are many solutions, none particularly easy when we’re exhausted, but all should be kind and gentle. Screaming kids rarely go to sleep quickly.
Children choose to make bed time a struggle for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re stressed. Or hungry. Perhaps they’re afraid of the monster under the bed or in the cupboard. I don’t know a lot about your situation, but I suspect that your little ones want security and reassurance. Dad is missing from their lives. You are doing it all, and are exhausted. For some reason children desire closeness and connection more than ever during those final minutes before bed. When you are stressed and the children are tired, they may not go to sleep soundly. A compassionate and understanding approach may help your children settle better.
It is normal for children to wake up at night. While some people will suggest that you enforce a controlled-crying regimen, there is evidence that it can harm your children by increasing stress hormones in their brain and body. I also believe (although evidence is lacking) that it is unhealthy for their attachment to us. It is important to remember that many (most) traditional cultures have always co-slept with their children. It is normal for our children to want to be close to us at night. It is how they were kept safe and secure. As such, and while it comes at a cost to you in terms of sleep, I recommend that you do whatever it takes to help your children feel safe at night. If they’re sleeping in your room (or bed), or if you’re in their room patting them off… it doesn’t matter so long as they feel safe. Eventually (usually around age 5-7) this will not be an issue any longer.
Some people think this is a ridiculous proposition. My thinking is that if your child is upset, scared, or insecure, it’s up to you to help them feel safe. The best way to do this is NOT to shut them in their room to “cry it out” and get used to it. The best way to do it is to be responsive and attentive to their needs.
Sometimes a special, soft toy will provide extra comfort. Some children prefer a gentle night light. You might decide that you will lie in bed with her for five minutes each night as she goes to sleep. Or perhaps you’ll decide that you will give her cuddles for a few minutes before you go and do the dishes.
A few other basic sleep hygiene tips to remember:
- I’ve mentioned it, but it’s worth repeating: Create a clear routine that you follow every night. It might include dinner, bath, songs, story, hugs, lights out.
- Keep rooms as dark as possible.
- Make sure the room is a comfortable temperature.
- It may help to provide some “white noise” or relaxation music to help children sleep calmly and without distraction
- Ensure that bed time is around the same time every night.
- Don’t try to put children to bed before they are ready. Usually about 20 minutes before sleep time is ideal.