How to get children to sleep? Our parenting expert investigates.
Sunday Express, 23 April
There are few subjects closer to a parent’s heart than sleep: principally, of course, how to get more of it. Perhaps it’s no wonder when you consider that today’s children sleep around two hours less each night than 40 years ago. Most four year olds, for example, need 12 hours, but these days only get 10. We have more trouble getting our children to bed at a decent time than our own parents did, and its now fairly common to hear exhausted parents confess that they get out of bed at 5.30am and stuff Bob the Builder in the DVD player to keep the children entertained while they grab an extra hour’s sleep.
So where are we going wrong? And why didn’t our own parents have these problems? Talk to any expert and they say that sleep problems generally start when they’re babies. Little habits and routines are established which then become a real problem when the child is older.
“When a baby is newborn, we naturally tend towards soothing behaviour, such as rocking”, says Angela Henderson whose self-published book, The Good Sleep Guide for You and Your Baby (Hawthorn Press, £5.99) became a hit and is now used routinely by health visitors and sleep clinics. “As these things work so well for a newborn baby, the natural tendency as parents, particularly when we are in a state of sleep deprivation, is to cling desperately to any tactics which have worked in the past. As a result, we can find ourselves with a ten month old still needing us to carry out a range of bizarre activities long after they are really appropriate.” Similarly, if you continue to feed an older baby at 5.30am, you’ll end up with a toddler who demands Bob the Builder at the crack of dawn.
In my circle of friends, it’s the parents who are least tolerant of nocturnal disruptions who have the best sleepers. In other words, a little toughness pays off. Maybe that’s what previous generations realised: in our parent’s day there was an expectation that babies and small children would sleep through the night; in ours, there’s an expectation that they won’t. Sleep deprivation is seen as some kind of passage for parents.
The good news is that most sleep problems are fairly easy to deal with – and most can be sorted in a few days if the children are young. Health visitors Mandy Gurney and Tracey Marshall set up an NHS children’s sleep clinic, and later a private one called Millpond, because they were convinced parents needed more help. “Parents are often told ‘that’s what children do – you just have to put up with it,’” says Mandy. “But almost all sleep problems can be dealt with fairly easily.”
The pair don’t follow a particular programme, but find a solution to fit each family. There is, however, one very common problem across the board: what the experts call “inappropriate sleep associations” – when a child needs rocking, feeding or a parent present to go to sleep. “It’s an easy habit to get into” says Mandy. “As a baby you’ll rock them to sleep, but the trouble is that when they come into a light sleeping phase later in life they need the parent there again because they have to have that trigger to get back to sleep.
Another common complaint is children who get into a “late sleep phase” where they’re awake until 10pm and then can’t be roused in the morning. Mandy believes that a good, old-fashioned, bedtime routine is essential in establishing a solid sleeping pattern: a relaxing bath, followed by pyjamas, teeth brushing and stories. “The whole thing should be over within 45 minutes and – if conditions are right – the child should be asleep within 15,” she explains. “I have parents saying, ‘I already do that but my child still won’t go to sleep’. Then it turns out they’ve been bouncing on the bed and chatting about their day during that time. Then Daddy comes home and there’s more excitement and running about. By the time you’ve said goodnight, they’re too wound up to sleep.”
Mandy maintains a lot of sleep problems in today’s children stem from not being able to unwind. “They are under pressure from parents to go to after school clubs. Then there’s homework afterwards and practising for the drama class the next day, plus TV and Playstations in their bedroom. Then they’re expected to go to bed and sleep. How can they?”
Sleep ClinicTracey Marshall and Mandy Gurney answer your questions
My children aged three and five get up at 5.30am. I usually end up putting on a DVD and crawling back to bed. How can I get them to sleep longer?
Early rising is very common but also one of the hardest sleep problems to crack. Children go into a light sleep phase at 5am so there isn’t much motivation to go back to sleep. You need to stop putting on a DVD because it’s actually an incentive for them to get up. Go and buy a lamp with a timer switch and a low-watt bulb for their bedroom. Explain that they will get a reward it they stay in bed quietly until the lamp comes on. For the first few nights set the timer to on at 5.15am so they can easily achieve their reward. Then gradually put it later, in 15-minute intervals every few days, until go get to a time you’re happy with: you may have to go weekly. They may not go back to sleep if they wake up before the lamp but as least if they’re quiet, they’re resting and certainly more likely to go back to sleep than if they were watching a DVD.
I have to sit on the end of eight-year old’s bed until she goes to sleep; I’ve done this since she was tiny. Is it too late to do anything?
It’s never too late. It would be worth writing a sleep diary for a week to see what time she goes to sleep. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s quite late: children with this problem are often stuck in a “late sleep phase” because they feel anxious about going to sleep.
The following week, start a calming 30 minute bedtime routine right up against the time she normally falls asleep, even if that’s 10pm. In that case you’d start the routine at 9.20pm, then tuck her in at 9.50pm, giving her 10 minutes to fall asleep. Gradually retreat from her room: move further away every three nights – first on a chair by the bed, then in doorway, then on the landing and so on, until you downstairs. Only once you’ve got that sorted should you bring bedtime forward gradually.