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The Importance of Sleep



“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one” Leo J. Burke

Sleeplessness and parenting go hand in hand. When you become a parent, you expect that your life will be different — very different — and most certainly you can expect to be awake at night for feeds and when your child is unwell or teething. However, there is a point when your waking baby should no longer be waking and you and your family should begin to enjoy solid stretches of sleep. If your baby or young child does not sleep well at night it has a knock on affect for the whole family. You are tired and emotional while poor quality and quantity of sleep in older children has been linked to problems, such as learning, emotional development and growth, so helping your child to sleep by themselves is essential for everyone.

From around four months, children’s sleep begins to resemble that of adults, with only one qualitative difference; about a quarter of their sleep is represented by REM (rapid eye movement) and the rest non-REM. They alternate between the two states in what we refer to as sleep cycles. As sleep passes through the cycles, they will experience a “partial arousal” when they are close to begin awake. These partial arousal phases can occur within 3-4 hours of falling asleep during the night and within 10-30 minutes of falling asleep during daytime sleep. It is during these partial waking stages that they may be looking for their parents to help get them back to sleep.

Babies do sleep

Evidence suggests that a full-term healthy baby aged from six months is physically capable of sleeping an 11-12 hour stretch at night without waking. So, as a parent, it is not unrealistic to expect that by nine months your full-term healthy baby “should” sleep through the night. In order to grow and develop well, their bodies need an average 11-12 hours uninterrupted sleep at night, plus another two and a half to three hours nap time during the day. If this is not the case for your infant, understanding your child’s sleep can often help parents to identify why they may be struggling with night-time waking, early rising or resisting day naps.

Sleep patterns from 0-4 months

Children have an enormous need for sleep from the day that they are born and this begins to evolve and mature over the next few months of life. By about four months babies begin to organise their sleep patterns and at the same time, their body rhythms begin to mature as well. Parents of new babies should be encouraged to pay attention to their baby's sleep requirements ensuring they are awake for approx 45 minutes - 1.5 hours at a time. This will prevent them from becoming overtired and difficult to settle to sleep.

Daytime Sleep

Daytime sleep has a huge impact on night-time sleep, with well-napped children sleeping better at night. Children who are operating in sync with their internal body clock inevitably find it easier to fall asleep and to stay asleep, as they are tuning into their natural sleep windows and optimum go-to-sleep time. In the event that a child is not on a consistent schedule or one that echo’s his/her natural body rhythms, they can become over-tired and the stress hormone, “cortical”, is introduced to their bodies. This cab impact negatively on a child's ability to sleep and stay asleep. It is this hormone that gives rise to babies getting the well-recognised “second wind”.

Teaching Sleep

Sleep disturbances in infants and children manifest in many ways. Sleep, like talking, is a learned behaviour. Your routine and behaviour at bedtime and especially your response to your child’s night-time awakenings play a big part in establishing your child's sleep patterns. Your child must learn how to put him or herself to sleep at bedtime and then learn how to get back to sleep when they come into the partial arousal stage of light sleep throughout the night. Unfortunately, children become used to the parent “doing” something for them in order to get them to sleep (for example, feeding, rocking or patting their back) and then are unable to go back to sleep by themselves during the night. This is where the broken sleep patterns begin as a parent is required to help them to go back to sleep.

Sleep Tips

  • Have an age appropriate bedtime
  • Learn to identify your child's sleep cues
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
  • Create a peaceful sleeping environment
  • Put your child to bed more awake than asleep
  • Try to avoid night time feeds once they are no longer necessary
  • Be consistent in your responses during the night
  • Ensure adequate daytime sleep appropriate for your child’s age
  • Every child is different so be flexible and trust your instincts. What may work for one child may not for another