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Sleep – what’s that?

“Sleep – what’s that?!”, I often hear parents of babies or young children ask.

When you have a baby or young child in the house, sleep becomes a new form of currency to be traded between parents (“you had more sleep than me so you can do the next nappy change!”).  When your child has slept through the night, you literally feel like you’ve won the lottery and set about high-fiving anyone who will listen.  When your child hasn’t slept for nights on end, the world can become a very dark place indeed.

Attend any baby and toddler group and you’re guaranteed to bond with other parents over the question of sleep.  Conversations often begin with a debrief on how much sleep they managed last night.  If they hit the jackpot and slept for more than five hours in a row, they can expect to be thoroughly interrogated about exactly how this miracle occurred.

When you’re a parent of a baby or young child, getting enough sleep is akin to winning the lottery.  It’s the $50 million question that every sleep deprived parent wants to know – how do I get my baby/child to sleep? Along with some other questions like:?
* How much sleep should my child be getting?

* When should I drop the day time nap?

* I can’t get my baby to settle – what do I do?

* Is a dummy ok if it helps my child settle?

* Should I be using a swaddle or sleeping bag?

* What time should my child be going to bed?

* And the controversial humdinger, is it ok to leave my baby to
cry themselves to sleep?

Goodness, where sleep is concerned, it’s a bit of a minefield because every little person is different and their patterns won’t necessarily conform to the supposed ‘norm’.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns should sleep around 12 to 18 hours out of every 24 (every new parent hopes), with a gradual reduction to 12 to 14 hours for toddlers ages 1 to 3; 11 to 13 hours for pre-schoolers 3 to 5; and 10 to 11 hours for schoolchildren ages 5 to 10.

Newborn babies need feeding and changing at regular intervals, 24 hours a day which equals a relentless cycle of broken sleep for parents, night after night.  The good news for parents is that the sleepless nights don’t last forever!  Your baby will eventually settle into a sleeping pattern, especially if they have a consistent familiar routine.

After those initial first few weeks with a newborn when they’re awake and feeding every 3 – 4 hours, babies begin to sleep as long as their small bellies can go in-between feeds so around 4-5 hours at a time.  To compensate for a big stretch of sleep throughout the night, some babies feed more during the day.

After following a consistent relaxing wind-down routine where your baby is feeling sleepy, allowing them to settle themselves to sleep on their own is pretty key to helping them reach every parent’s dream stage of having them sleep right through the night. Babies will naturally wake up throughout the night, so the skill of self-soothing themselves back to sleep becomes helpful for all.  If they are in need, you’re sure to hear about it pretty quickly, though!

If your baby is under 6 months and continues to cry in the night, it’s time to respond. Your baby may be truly uncomfortable: hungry, wet, cold or even sick.

A lot of parents swear by introducing a special comfort toy when their child is a baby.  This toy will often follow them through childhood, providing a sense of comfort and security that is invaluable to their emotional well-being.  Be sure to get more than one of the same toy though!

Once your child reaches toddlerhood, keeping up a good sleep routine can become a bit challenging as they flex their independence muscles and push for clear boundaries. Continuing with a great sleep routine is crucial for young kids as they develop and grow.

As grown-ups, when we don’t get enough sleep we can feel quite grumpy, tired and lacking in energy.  For kids, the link between lack of sleep and their behaviour isn’t always obvious as they can become quite hyper or ‘wired’ with what looks like energy to burn, often coupled with some especially tricky behaviours.

For kids up until around the age of two and a half to three years, that all important day time nap is still really necessary (phew, say the parents reading this!), just make sure that it isn’t too close to the child’s evening bedtime.  Along with a great bedtime routine, a naptime routine can be just as effective to help your child settle in to recharge their batteries.

Once your child hits school and throughout their teenage years, it’s really important to continue to emphasize the benefits of getting enough sleep.  Putting simple measures in place like keeping screens out of the bedroom and encouraging reading before bed can assist. Of course, once they reach a certain age, you’ll have the reverse struggle on your hands than you did when they were young – the battle of trying to get them up in the morning, ready for school!

There is an abundance of information out there to help assist you with any questions that you might have around your child’s sleep but from my perspective, if you have any concerns at all, please go and speak to your GP – we’re here to help.

Also, please remember that if you’re the parent/carer of a young baby, when you’re suffering from sleep deprivation and feel utterly exhausted, a persistently crying baby can move you to frustration and anger.  If you ever feel overwhelmed with strong emotion, put the baby in a safe place (such as their cot) and leave the room immediately. It’s really important that you give yourself a chance to calm down.

Some sleep tips from the Sleep Foundation:

Newborns:

  • Observe baby’s sleep patterns and identify signs of sleepiness.
  • Put baby in the crib when drowsy, not asleep.
  • Place baby to sleep on his/her back with face and head clear of blankets and other soft items.
  • Encourage night-time sleep.

Infants (4-11 months):

  • Develop regular daytime and bedtime schedules.
  • Create a consistent and enjoyable bedtime routine.
  • Establish a regular “sleep friendly” environment.
  • Encourage baby to fall asleep independently.

Toddlers:

  • Maintain a daily sleep schedule and consistent bedtime routine.
  • Make the bedroom environment the same every night and throughout the night.
  • Set limits that are consistent, communicated and enforced. Encourage use of a security object such as a blanket or stuffed animal.

Preschoolers:

  • Maintain a regular and consistent sleep schedule.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine that ends in the room where the child sleeps.
  • Child should sleep in the same sleeping environment every night, in a room that is cool, quiet and dark – and without a TV.

School aged children:

  • Teach school-aged children about healthy sleep habits.
  • Continue to emphasize need for regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.
  • Make child’s bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, cool and quiet.
  • Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.
  • Avoid caffeine
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