One of the many things people say to you when you have a baby with sleep problems is ‘they’ll grow out of it’. But what if they don’t? What if that baby who doesn’t sleep simply becomes a child who doesn’t sleep? Alex Manson-Smith looks for solutions (before taking a nap).My five-year-old son won’t go to sleep unless one of us is sitting in the room with him. He wakes up and cries if it’s too dark (a downer, since he shares a room with his younger brother, who needs total blackout). And, regardless of what time he goes to bed, he gets up between 5.30 am and 6am.
So I guess you could say we have a child with sleep problems. And it seems we’re not alone. ‘25% of younger children have sleep problems,’ says Mandy Gurney, founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic. ‘And 40% of teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep. So the percentage of children not getting enough sleep only increases as time goes on.’
But while there’s plenty of literature and advice on what to do if your baby doesn’t sleep, less is written about what to do if your older child has problems. After all, the presumption is that, by now, these issues are sorted, and you should have a child who sleeps from 7 until 7 every night.
But come on. Beyond the people who sugar coat childhood to their friends, we all know that this isn’t often the case. “Often, with children aged 5-11 there’s a real set pattern of difficulties in falling asleep at bedtime,” says Gurney. “Generally you’ll find that they sleep through the night, but they may never have learned to fall asleep independently. So they’ll get into bed OK, but don’t know how to fall asleep and start becoming anxious. Then they keep coming downstairs with all sorts of excuses.”
This sounds familiar – most nights, after I put my son to bed, he’ll come down telling me he’s hungry or thirsty, or needs a wee.
Andrea Grace, Harley Street sleep consultant and author of Andrea Grace’s Gentle Sleep Solutions, agrees that sleep problems in this age group are extremely common.
“Lots of children delay going to sleep until their parents have gone to bed, because they feel safer with them upstairs. Another common problem is delayed sleep onset – children who are put nicely to bed at 8pm but don’t fall asleep until 11pm.”
For a parent, sleep problems can be insanely stressful. You know your child needs his sleep and, without it, will be vile tomorrow. You also know that your evening is short enough as it is, without having to spend it schlepping up and downstairs, trying to coax a reluctant child into bed. So you end up shouting at them, and it all ends in tears.
Which entirely defeats the object, as the child now finds it even harder to sleep. “Bedtime, instead of being a nice, relaxing time, becomes very stressful and children start anticipating anxiety. If you’re stressed, you have an increase in adrenalin and cortisol, which will stop you going to sleep,” says Gurney.
So, no matter how stressed you are, screaming at the kids – or shutting them in their room – is out. Both Gurney and Grace are agreed on this.
“Bedtime should be as calm and loving as possible, and if your children experience you frequently losing control at bedtime, it may make them feel unhappy and unsafe,” says Grace.
So what should you do? “We always talk about a bedtime routine with parents and make sure that it’s really quiet,” says Gurney. “Bedtime isn’t the time to talk about fears or even exciting things.” She also has her clients fill in a detailed questionnaire and keep a sleep diary, so that they can see exactly what time the child is falling asleep.
Grace advises making a plan to tackle sleep problems. “In the afternoon, decide what’s going to happen at bedtime and what time it’s going to happen,” she says. “A repeated series of steps leading up to bedtime will help children of all ages to feel safe and sleepy, so encourage a nightly bath or shower, teeth cleaned, etc. Then they go straight to their room. Even older children will appreciate you sitting on their bed for a few minutes for a chat.
“If they’re anxious, tell them that you want them to stay in bed but will keep coming in to check they’re OK. Keep your promise and go back in every few minutes. Even if they’re still awake, praise them for staying in bed and let them know that you’re proud of them for trying. It is worth investing a few nights of staying upstairs and helping them to develop a positive association of bedtime.”
Either way, the good news is that you don’t need to suffer. “Oh my goodness – intervention does work,” says Grace. “It’s true that many children do find it hard to switch off and go to sleep. But, given that sleep is so important for them – and for us parents – it’s well worth getting some help.”
Certainly I’m tempted. Because although sleep consultants can be expensive (consultations at Millpond start at £150, or it’s £285 for the core package), what price do you put on a good night’s sleep? Certainly if they could stop my son demanding I get up at 5.30am, it would feel cheap – after all, it’s a couple of meals out with friends that I would have been too tired to enjoy anyway.
Alex Manson-Smith is a journalist, copywriter and blogger, and regular contributor toMr Fox. She has two sons, aged 5 and 2.