Ask the Expert: Our toddler wakes three times a night

In part three of his series on the importance of a good night’s sleep for families, John Sharry explores the challenge of helping a preschooler learn to stay in his bed through the night. Send your queries to health@irishtimes.com

To break the night-time pattern, it is important to be calm and largely silent, and ideally to reward him with your attention only when he has got back into his bed. Photograph: Thinkstock

To break the night-time pattern, it is important to be calm and largely silent, and ideally to reward him with your attention only when he has got back into his bed. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Q Our son, who turns three next week, has never been a great night-time sleeper. He has always been prone to waking at least once or even twice throughout the night. He sleeps in his own room and is in his own bed, close to our bedroom.

The problem now is that he is waking up to three times a night and coming silently into our room. I carry him back quietly and settle him in as quickly as possible. There are generally no tears if I get up but if his dad attempts to carry him back, he gets upset and demands that I do it. As you can imagine, I am now beyond exhausted, not to mention the effect this must be having on our son.

Can you suggest anything that we could do to get our boy to sleep well all night? There is no problem getting him to sleep at 8pm and he happily falls asleep on his own.

A It is very common for preschoolers to wake at night and to seek the comfort of their parents’ bed. Throughout the night children go through periods of deep and light sleep and may briefly wake up one or two times.

If you are lucky they quickly self-soothe and settle themselves back to sleep. If you are unlucky, they might seek you out as their parents or make the journey to your bed. This can, of course, be very disruptive to parents and their own sleeping, as well as that of their preschooler, especially if it happens many times a night.

Choosing how to respond

In dealing with night-time waking, some parents try to accommodate their children’s visit to their bed in the least disruptive way possible, recognising that the child might grow out of the behaviour in their own good time. For example, they might let their child settle quickly in the bed beside them so their sleep is disrupted only briefly; it helps if you have a big bed. One parent I worked with put up a small camp bed beside her own bed, and allowed her child to come in and settle there. On a good night she would not even notice his arrival.

Of course for many parents, having the preschooler come in at night is very disruptive, especially if the child kicks and wriggles in their sleep, and they are keen to get him back into his own bed. Sometimes taking him directly back to his bed can work but sometimes, as in your situation, this becomes a repeated pattern. Usually in these situations the child perceives the return to bed as a rejection, especially if the parent is tired or stressed, and this can make him a little more anxious and likely to seek you out the next time he wakes.

Breaking the night-time pattern

To break the night-time pattern, it is important to be calm and largely silent, and ideally to reward him with your attention only when he has got back into his bed: “Back into bed now, and then Mum will tuck you in.” Then, once he is in bed, you go through a brief “tuck-in” routine similar to how he goes to bed, backing off to let him fall asleep by himself. This does require patience and it is hard to do at night. If you get your husband involved in the bedtime routine, then your son is more likely to accept comfort from him at night and so you can share the work.

Teaching your child how to settle

With night-time sleep disruption, the long- term goal is to teach children how to self-settle without needing you. With young children, you need to show them what they can do when they wake at night, and to practise these strategies. For example, you can give him a special teddy or pillow and show him how he can cuddle into these when he wakes, saying to himself, “Oh, it’s still night time now, back to sleep.” As he is only just three, make sure to use simple language he can understand and it is always best to have a fun practice before bed. It helps in particular if you notice the way he currently gets himself to sleep at bedtime and remind him to use these strategies at night.

In addition, you could find an age- appropriate book that tells the story of a child settling at night that specifically describes steps he can repeat.

If you can’t find the right book, you could do up your own simple picture book which tells the story of a boy waking at night and then settling himself, before earning praise and a star in the morning.

Helping your child understand when he can get up

In order to ensure your child does not feel rejected, it is useful to allow your child to visit you in the morning for a cuddle, but not at night. To understand this, your child needs to know when it is morning, which is harder as we come into summer. One option for young preschoolers who are beginning to recognise numbers is to use a digital clock. Put a sticker over the minutes so only the hour is visible and tell your child he can come in for his morning cuddle when he sees a 6 or a 7, depending on what is realistic. It can help if you write the digit “6” on the sticker and tell him to come in only when he spots the numbers matching.

For more practical tips, see the Safefood campaign, “It’s Bedtime”, at safefood.eu

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. He will be giving a talk about parenting when separated this Thursday, May 7th, at 8pm in Dublin. See solutiontalk.ie.

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