Wanted: A full night's sleep
ASK THE EXPERT: JOHN SHARRYreaders' queries
Please can you provide me with some tips for keeping my children in their own beds all night?
I have two beautiful girls, a four year old and a two year old, perfect in every way, but the constant sleepless nights and bed hopping is beginning to wear us down. How can we ensure that they sleep all night every night?
My two year old has a nap during the day, but even if she didn’t nap she would still wake up during the night. We are dead on our legs during the day, our patience is wearing thin and we desperately seek a full night’s sleep.
While some parents are lucky enough to have their babies and young children sleeping through the night, this is rarer than it might seem and many parents remember the preschool years as being ones of tiredness and sleep deprivation.
At times, this can be very stressful, especially when the night-time disruptions are frequent and parents become less well able to function during the day. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to work towards a more settled night-time routine, though it does take time and patience.
In your question you don’t give the specific details of your routine, but I assume by bed hopping you mean that the children come into your room for comfort during the night or that you have to go into their rooms and lie with them to help them back to sleep.
These are all common patterns for families with toddlers with disrupted sleep. In some families, the bed hopping even involves one of the parents ending up in the toddler’s bed alone – as the only means for them to get a few hours’ uninterrupted sleep.
Generally, the central problem in a disrupted sleep pattern for a toddler or preschooler is the fact that they depend on you as their parent to settle them when they wake at night.
Despite what you might think, most children (and indeed adults) wake up a couple of times during the night or at least go through periods of light sleep when they are easily disturbed.
If you are lucky when your child wakes, it is only momentary and they soothe themselves back to sleep almost immediately. If you are unlucky, they call out for their parents or get out of their bed and seek their parents to help them to get back to sleep.
In tackling the problem, the key is to patiently train your children to learn how to self-soothe and to get themselves to sleep. The best place
to start this process is not with night-time waking but usually with the nap-time or bedtime routine.
Take time to establish a relaxing bedtime routine with your two girls that includes a predictable wind-down time and relaxing rituals such as book reading to help them prepare.
Crucially, in this routine make sure that your girls make the final step of going asleep by themselves. Break any patterns of lying or sitting with them as they fall asleep and instead tuck them in with a teddy or whatever other props they need, but then withdraw gently to let them fall asleep by themselves (see solutiontalk.iefor more information on this gentle withdrawal bedtime process).
Once they get in the habit of falling asleep alone, this will greatly help their night-time waking.
The second step is to have a clear plan of action for the night waking, with the aim of ensuring an arrangement that leads to the best night’s rest for all. Different plans work for different parents.
Some parents allow their toddlers come into their bed at night, because the disruption is momentary and the child falls asleep.
Other parents have creative solutions such as a mattress beside their bed, which the preschooler can settle in to with the minimum of bother, or even allow their children to share the same bed together as this comforts and settles them both without disrupting the parents.
For other parents, a toddler tossing and turning in the bed is too disruptive, so they make a decision to no longer allow the “bed hopping” to happen. If you do this when your daughters seek you out at night, you repeat the bedtime process and promptly take them back to their bed, tucking them back in and inviting them to sleep. Make sure to use consistent language and the same phrases as the bedtime routine.
The problem with this last approach, of course, is that it is more disruptive to your sleep in the short term but may lead to more settled sleep in the longer term. When doing sleep training like this, a lot of parents make it easier for themselves by sharing the burden with their partner and having a night-on, night-off rota system (meaning you get a good night’s sleep at least every second night).
Given your daughters’ ages, it is important to get them on board with any new night-time routine. You could do up a chart with them that shows them step by step the night-time routine which finishes in the morning with perhaps a special cuddle time in Mum and Dad’s bed.
You can also incentivise them by awarding a special sticker/star when they stay in their beds overnight. Make sure to show on the chart lots of “self-soothing” strategies they can use when they wake, such as cuddling a special teddy or snuggling down in the pillow, or using a soother if you are happy with this. Watch which strategies work for them at bedtime and encourage more of these at night.
Of course, your eldest daughter will be more able to grasp the chart than your youngest, but over time you would expect her to also come on board.
Finally, it helps children settle if they can tell the time they wake during the night. There are lots of special child-centred clocks that visually show a small child how close they are to the morning (with a picture being revealed in increments) and thus encourages them back to sleep.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and director of ParentsPlus charity. His website is solutiontalk.ie.
Readers’ queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but John regrets that he cannot enter into individual correspondence. Questions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org