- Jake is 3 and suddenly, he can’t sleep through the night.
- He doesn’t want to be in his room alone and seems scared.
- Mom and Dad don’t want him co-sleeping but they’re exhausted from the sleep deprivation caused by getting up multiple times a night to put him back to bed.
- They tried leaving his door open, keeping a light on, essential oils, and even supplementing his diet with calcium, magnesium and GABA.
- They knew they couldn’t go on like this, and they had to get to the bottom of this new sleep-resistance.
Many parents encounter sleep pattern changes with their babies and toddlers. In some cases, it can be attributed to changes to the environment or the schedule. In other cases, the cause is unknown and the solution may not seem obvious, especially if both parents are becoming increasingly sleep deprived as they deal with their wide-awake child.
This health mystery was personal. I mean that literally. Jake, the suddenly sleep-resistant child is mine. Those bone-tired parents, that was my husband and I. Our son had been a good sleeper but as he started to outgrow his crib, something happened. He became frightened easily, refused to go to sleep unless one of us was in the room, and then he’d wake up a few hours later and we’d have to go through the whole routine again.
The lack of sleep was making him unhappy and it was starting to affect our health. And, we started to give in to his demands. It meant we got more sleep, but I knew we were on a slippery slope.
I reached out to Kimberly Walker, a sleep consultant to help us get to the root of Jake’s sleep pattern issue. She’s the founder of Parenting Unlimited, is a licensed social worker and has 17 years of experience helping parents as a pediatric sleep consultant.
When babies or kids go from sleeping through the night to struggling with sleep, it’s often called sleep regression. Kimberly says that many parents want to believe that it’s a phase; something that kids will fix on their own. However, if it’s been going on for 2 weeks or more, then Kimbely says, the child is forming a new habit and the problem won’t be solved without interaction. Plus, if it’s causing sleep disruptions for the whole family, then it’s something that parents need to take action for the health of everyone who is impacted.
A lot of parents wonder ‘What happened? Why isn’t my child sleeping through the night anymore?’ There are many things that can trigger a sleep regression but Kimberly says trying to figure out ‘why’ is pointless. You don’t need to know what caused the sleep regression in order to fix it.
Sleep Training vs. Sleep Teaching
There are two common phrases used for helping children learn how to fall asleep (and fall back asleep) on their own. However, Kimberly says there is essentially no difference between ‘sleep training’ and ‘sleep teaching’; they both teach children the skill of putting themselves to sleep without the aid of anything. This includes learning to fall asleep without a pacifier, a parent present, or (for babies) without being rocked. Many people assume that falling asleep is an innate skill but Kimberly says it is something that we have to learn.
The Cause of Bad Sleep Habits
Parents often rely on their loving instincts to soothe their child. It can be very difficult not to go to their child and hold them when they are sick, scared, or unable to sleep. However, Kimberly points out that kids are smart and they learn that certain behaviour or circumstances result in getting more attention and love. They use this learning to get more of what they want (hugs, snuggles, time with mom and dad). This then creates a bad sleep pattern habit. For example, if every time they wake up in the middle of the night they cry out and mom comes running and then stays with them until they fall asleep, they will cry out every time they wake up without mom beside them. And then, the child can no longer fall asleep without mom there.
Parental Emotional Challenges in Sleep Training
It can be very hard for a parent who is trying to train their child to fall asleep and stay asleep without any help. Because, their instinct to soothe is going to kick in. Many worry that the anxiety caused by not being soothed by a parent will cause the child emotional stress that can harm the child physically and psychologically. Kimberly argues that the stress is happening anyway when the child wakes up in distress because mommy is no longer sitting where she was when they fell asleep. And, that when parents acknowledge the child’s emotional challenge but encourages them to work through it, it teaches the child resilience. (And the parents a bit too).
Is Co-sleeping Bad?
Contrary to what Kimberly teaches (that kids should be able to sleep on their own without their parents), some parents and certainly in some cultures, it is normal for the children to sleep in the bed with the parents. Kimberly respects this choice and while she does not teach this, she believes that it’s a choice that every parent has a right to make. It can be a controversial topic because some feel co-sleeping doesn’t teach independent sleep skills while others think that denying co-sleeping creates unnecessary stress and abandonment issues in children. Whichever path parents choose, the key to success is consistency.
Top Tips for Sleep Training
Here are Kimberly’s top tips for sleep training.
- Make sure they go to bed wide awake but tired (not half asleep)
- Teach sleep training at bedtime (not at nap time or when they wake at night)
- Make sure they learn to fall asleep without a parent in the room
- Like with babies, teach sleep training at bedtime not when they wake up in the middle of the night.
- If issues persist, work with a professional before the stress and strain of a sleepless family causes health issues.
How Long Does it Take to Train a Child to Sleep?
Kimberly says there’s a huge variance in how long it takes a child to learn to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. Every child is different so you never know exactly how long it’s going to take. Most of the time for toddlers and babies, the average is between two and seven days. For most kids and babies it’s going to be around three to five days. There are always exceptions on both sides of the average. It all depends on the individual child and the current habits they have. The sooner you deal with a new habit affecting a child’s sleep pattern, the better. And then, consistency is critical in shifting their sleep pattern back to normal. Just keep in mind, most kids don’t want to give up the attention they’re getting when they don’t sleep well. They’re smart, so they may try different things to shift the pattern. Parents need to stay vigilant and both parents need to be on the same page in order for the changes to take hold. If one parent gives in, the training will fail.
I’m happy to report that after working with Kimberly, Jake is falling asleep and able to fall back asleep on his own. She taught me a technique that involved keeping him in his room (even when he REALLY wanted to come out) and using a stern voice (unseen from the hallway) telling him to go to sleep. It was very difficult for me to see my child so upset and not be able to comfort him. But, with Kimberly’s support, I was able to resist the temptation and soon witnessed my child falling asleep on his own.
Eliminating Health Mysteries
In our case, we were able to identify the bad sleep habit we had helped our son develop and then reverse it with the help of a sleep consultant. As a family, we all got a lot more sleep and we’re all healthier as a result. Could this be the missing clue for you or someone in your life?
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