If you are facing a sleep challenge, it’s very important to know how sleep works in order to make any changes. Here are the basics that I want every family to understand about their child’s sleep:
Sleep is a learned skill
Although it is easy to assume that sleeping is a natural ability we are born with, the skill of sleeping is actually learned. While some children have an easier time than others, just as children will naturally be predisposed to learn certain skills more easily, the ability to sleep well is largely taught by our caregivers.
Sleep cycles are basically divided into two main types: Non-REM and REM. Non-REM sleep is the deep, physiologically restorative part of sleep. REM sleep is thought of as “active” sleep or light sleep.
The body actually shifts gears during the night and we experience something called partial awakenings. In reality, nobody sleeps through the night! We all wake up at different points but as adults we know how to put ourselves back to sleep- children have to learn this skill. If a child knows how to fall asleep they won’t need someone/something else to do it for them. If your child is put to bed already asleep they don’t know how to do it themselves and will have night wakings.
Right Amount, Right Time
Sleep needs to be understood in terms of the right quality and the right amount and during the right time. There are fairly standard average amounts of hours that children need as they develop and the timing of those hours is also significant (see below about “sleep windows”). Quality sleep means sleep that is not fragmented, uninterrupted and motionless (don’t you feel more rested after a night in bed than during a nap in a car?). Your child’s sleep environment should also be consistent, quiet (though can include a noise machine) and dark.
Daytime sleep is very important for young children. While it seems illogical, sleep begets sleep. The better your baby sleeps at night, the more easily he/she will nap during the day (and vice versa, it’s a bit of chicken and egg). Too little daytime sleep can erode nighttime sleep.
Sleepy Cues, Windows, Crutches
Sleepy “cues” and “windows” are indications of the right time for a child to sleep. Sleep cues are usually what we find in ourselves: yawning, rubbing of the eyes, listlessness.
Are you approaching a good time for a nap or bedtime? This can also be the “window”, meaning this is the time he is most ready to be put to sleep. Windows are a natural predisposition to fall asleep at a certain time because of a rise in various hormones including melatonin and growth hormone (which induces sleepiness and is released during nighttime sleep).
If a window is missed the body naturally secretes cortisol, creating what we know as the “second wind.” This makes it doubly hard for the child to fall asleep because the body has to come “down” off this natural rush and relax again.
“Crutches” are things that prevent our children from being able to fall asleep independently. It can be a pacifier, a bottle, being rocked or twirling mommy’s hair (anything really!). It’s very important to know that crutches tend to stop working at some point. The rocking that used to take 15 minutes now takes 45- that’s a crutch that doesn’t work!
Underlying medical conditions such as: asthma, allergies, eczema, reflux and sleep apnea need to be addressed before any sleep coaching is undertaken. Sleep apnea is a very commonly undiagnosed condition that can be addressed by a pediatric pulmonologist and/or ENT. Common symptoms may include snoring, nighttime sweating, disturbed sleep, enuresis and daytime fatigue. Talk to your doctor about sleep.
Reflux symptoms are commonly undiagnosed as many people still use the term “colic” to describe reflux-like symptoms. Allergies can also play a role in medical issues that disrupt sleep. Even sensory integration difficulties can also play a role in underlying difficulties with sleep.
Now that you understand the basics behind how sleep works you can successfully implement a new sleep plan. Wishing you a good night’s sleep!