BY HEATHER NUGENT, HOMESCHOOLING MOTHER, WRITER, REGISTERED NURSE, DUNKIRK
One of the facts of life as a parent is that your sleeping life drastically changes with the arrival of a new family member. Most of us expect to be awakened several times a night when there is a new baby in the house. But what many parents do not anticipate is that their toddler may have difficulty sleeping through the night as well. The problems associated with this reality can be frustrating and confusing to parents who expected sleep to return to a somewhat normal schedule once their baby reached the two-year mark. When you consider that the normal sleep pattern of humans includes several sleep-waking cycles, it becomes clear that the issue is not so much the nighttime-waking child, but rather the child who is yet unable to return to sleep independently.
If you are experiencing this phenomenon, it may be tempting to run to the local bookstore and employ the methods found in books claiming that children need to “cry it out” if anyone in the home is to ever get a full night’s sleep. Before you take that step, consider some simple strategies that are likely to be just the tools you need in order to gently encourage your little one’s development of back to sleep skills.
We know that active children who eat a nutritionally sound diet tend to sleep better. A look at the foods your child is eating close to bedtime may provide some clues to her sleeping difficulties. Is it possible that your child is actually hungry in the middle of the night? Children grow in spurts. The dinner that held her til morning last week may not be enough this week. Consider a bedtime snack, but avoid foods that may produce gas or stimulate your child, such as sugar, caffeine, high-fat foods or citrus. Foods that encourage restful sleep include breastmilk, turkey, tuna, cheese, yogurt and bananas. Combining a wholegrain starch and a protein source encourages a slower release of nutrients and energy from the food, keeping your child fuller, longer. Any foods to which your child has an allergy or sensitivity should be avoided.
Speaking of allergies. It is possible that undiagnosed allergies or asthma could be keeping her awake at night. Even if your child has outgrown the baby monitor, plug it back in and listen for coughing, snoring or labored breathing. If your child is already diagnosed with allergies or asthma, close the window and keep the room as clean and dust-free as possible. Try to eliminate stuffed toys in the room and invest in pillow and mattress covers that reduce dust mites and other potential allergens. Other medical reasons your child may be waking frequently during the night include undiagnosed sleep disorders and GERD.
Taking a closer look at the environment, spend some time at night in your child’s bedroom, looking and listening for possible distractions that may be preventing your child from falling back to sleep after awakening. Is there noise from a nearby highway? Are there transformer towers nearby? These things might not seem to make much noise during the day, but at night when the air is still and sound travels more readily, the sounds can be big enough to stand between your child and sleep. Tree branches brushing or beating against the house, an air-conditioner or heater cycling on and off, or lights from a neighbor’s home might also be culprits. Is the temperature too hot or too cold? Does your child have enough blankets, or possibly too many? Some children are very sensitive to textures. The fabric in her comforter may feel good to your skin but be irritating to hers.
Has something major in your child’s life changed recently? A new daycare situation, mommy returning to work or grandma leaving after an extended visit might be on your child’s mind enough that it prevents him from easily falling back to sleep upon wakening at night. Thankfully, if a recent change is the culprit, the effect should be temporary.
Ruling out the physical reasons for nighttime sleep difficulties, there exists the potential that your child is suffering from separation anxiety at night. You might combat this by providing some company for your child in the form of a favorite toy, a CD or MP3 player with soothing music, or a small pet such as a fish at the bedside. If you find that it is necessary for you to enter your child’s room in order for her to calm down after wakening, try to keep a hands-off but loving approach. You can use your voice to indicate that you are there and that everything is okay, but do not lie down with or pick up your child if possible. Rather, find a small task to accomplish in the room such as putting on or taking off an extra blanket or putting a toy on a shelf while softly reassuring your child. Then leave the room with your child knowing that you are never far away, but that now is the time for sleep. If your child will absolutely not go back to sleep without you in the room, you could sit in a chair or lay on a sleeping bag on the floor until he drifts back to sleep.
Some families find that having siblings sleep together in the same bed, once both children are out of infancy (greater than eighteen months) is a good solution to a child’s separation anxiety at night. Whether or not this approach works for you, it is a good reminder that creativity and compassion for the feelings of the child in question are always helpful tools in discovering a sleep solution.
For more information about sleep issues in young children, I recommend The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, by Elizabeth Pantley.
Heather Nugent is a homeschooling mom of two who lives in Dunkirk. She works outside the home as a labor and delivery nurse in Buffalo. Heather also works as a midwife's assistant, labor doula and massage therapist.