Hi Dr Justin
My 18-month old son wakes up several times every night. It’s driving us mad. Is it normal? What can we do about it?
It’s a frustrating fact that waking in young children is both normal and natural. When we sleep, whether as children or adults, we move through four stages of sleep. The names of these stages are not very creative. They’re called “Stage 1”, “Stage 2”, and “Stage 3”. Stage 3 is also known as “deep sleep”. We know that these stages are each different because brain scans show different brain waves (electrical activity) as we go through the stages.
We need these sleep stages (non REM sleep) because this is when our bodies grow and repair and recharge.
The final stage of sleep is called REM sleep, which is short for Rapid Eye Movement. Once we have gone through all stages of sleep and hit the REM stage, we have completed one sleep “cycle”. It is during REM sleep that we typically dream. At the end of our REM stage (and therefore, at the end of a full sleep cycle) we wake up briefly before (usually) falling back to sleep.
We need REM sleep for learning and memory. It seems that cognitive benefits are most likely when we get our REM sleep.
Each night we all go through sleep cycles several times. (Actually, it’s not a perfect cycle. From REM we often go back to Stage 2.). As we cycle through, we often wake up during the night. It’s usually so brief, however, that we rarely remember waking up. But it’s really important that we cycle through all those stages several times.
A one-year-old child goes through those stages in as little as 45 minutes. That means that a one-year-old might go through 8 or 9 sleep cycles during the night. By the time they’re 5, it takes about 90 minutes. As the night goes on and we produce less melatonin, it gets harder to fall back to sleep, and our sleep cycles become shorter.
The fact that your child is waking up at night is not a problem. It’s supposed to happen like that. I’m more concerned that your child is getting enough sleep (and same goes for you!), and that you can help him get back to sleep easily.
How much sleep do our children need?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that newborn babies (up to 3 months) get between 14-17 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. Infants (aged 4-12 months) should average 12-15 hours per day including their daytime sleep. Toddlers require an average of 11-14 hours each day (aged 1-2 years) and pre-schoolers are recommended to have 10-13 hours of sleep each day.
In spite of those recommendations, the National Sleep Foundation acknowledges that some people need more sleep than the guidelines suggest, while others need less. You’ll know if your child is getting enough sleep because he’ll be happy, energetic, and easy to get along with. If your child is always whining, falling asleep in the car or in front of a screen, or perhaps gets angry, he may be over tired (or any number of other things). Monitor the total hours of sleep he gets and seek medical guidance if things are not right.
Getting a child back to sleep
Once your child has awoken, there are a handful of critical things to do to help him go back to sleep fast:
First, stay really calm and relaxed. If you become tense, angry, or anxious, he’ll “catch” your frustration and will become worked up.
Second, check his nappy. Sleeping in wet, soiled nappies can’t be comfortable for anyone. Make sure the room isn’t too hot or cold as well. And keep the lights off (or low).
Third, be close. If he’s in a cot, lie on the floor beside him and pat him off to sleep. If he’s in a bed, lie next to him and snuggle. Some parents are happy to co-sleep. If this works for you then it’s the best way to get the sleep you need (usually) and keep him calm. If the bed isn’t big enough for three, decide ahead of time which parent will sleep on the sofa when this happens. A good night’s sleep is usually more important than demanding a child sleep alone in a dark room without parental presence.
Research also tells us that getting children to bed at around the same time each night will have impact on the quantity and quality of their sleep. Consistency in routine is important.
Beyond those pointers, there’s really very little that you can do. Patience is a virtue in these situations. It will help your child stay calm and fall back to sleep. And it will also help you to stay calm and sleep better.