Sleep Problems

Trouble sleeping? Inconceivable to weary parents who drop exhaustedly into bed at night. Yet there are children who struggle with bedtimes and awaken at night. Why?

Temperament plays a major role. For children who are positive, adaptable and regular in their schedules, sleep is just another routine. But for children who fight transitions, schedules, and are persistent, sleep can be a battleground. At times, a child’s developmental stage complicates sleep: The nine month old dealing with separation anxiety, the one year old on the verge of walking, the three year old dreaming of monsters and things that go bump in the night, and the sixteen year old anxious about the upcoming SAT’s.

Experts (and quite a few parents) have come up with some strategies for handling sleep problems. What seems to work best is picking an approach that works both for you and your family.

There are multiple methods. Here are a few:

  1. The Relax and Go With the Flow Method – This could also be called, “this too shall pass”. Do whatever works for you. This may include co-sleeping with older children (as long as it is done safely with a firm well-fitting mattress with side protection), feedings at night after 4 to 6 months of age (“trained night-feedings”), or continually running into their bedroom to put the pacifier back in their mouth.
  2. The Cry It Out Method – This method is for the stout hearted. This involves checking your child to make sure he is safe and not ill, and then letting your child cry himself to sleep. The crying will probably get worse for a week or two, and then you will notice that the crying time slowly diminishes. Keep in mind that the crying could initially go on for HOURS.
  3. The “Ferber” Method – Richard Ferber is the proponent of a kinder and gentler approach to crying it out. He advocates gradually lengthening the time you respond to your child’s crying while extending the intervals between brief interactions with your child. This method is described in his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (ISBN: 0743201639).
  4. The Be Creative Method – Some parents opt to sleep on a mattress in the child’s room or to have the child sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of the parent’s room. It is important that BOTH parents agree with this plan. Some children respond well to a reward system like stickers.

Children like routines. Decide on a bedtime routine at a regular time: Quiet time before bed, then a bath, teeth brushing, a drink, a book, a song. This routine will help your child know that bedtime is approaching.

A transitional object, like a small blanket or stuffed animal, often helps. When you cuddle or feed your child, grab a soft-small blanket or a stuffed animal which will hopefully become connected to those snuggly, peaceful times. When your child tries to go to sleep with this transitional object, he may begin to feel peaceful and quiet.

Always try to put your child to bed drowsy, but awake. This helps your baby associate the crib with falling asleep. It also helps your baby learn how to “self-soothe” and fall asleep on his own. If he can self-soothe, you will not become his “soother”.

Sometimes a child will have a Nightmare or a Night Terror. These can be scary things for both you and your child. In a nightmare, your child will awaken from sleep and can relate to you the scary dream. In a night terror, your child may be screaming and appear to be awake, but in actuality will still be asleep. A night terror represents difficulty transitioning from one sleep stage to another. For a nightmare, you definitely want to hold and reassure your child. For a night terror, you do not want to awaken your child. You should only make sure that your child is safe during the episode. Neither of these sleep conditions indicate a psychological problem.

Sleep disturbances are practically universal and are a problem mainly for parents. After night feedings, separation anxiety and nightmares, you will soon be dealing with sleepovers, evenings with friends, and borrowing the car keys. Know that when all is said and done and you are looking through the photo album, you most likely will not remember the sleepless nights.