Six-year-old Joshua and Jacob are twins — but you’d never know it from their sleep patterns. When their mom, Rachel Melamedov of Richmond Hill, Ont., tucks them in at eight o’clock after their bath-snack-story routine, Joshua drops off right away, but Jacob isn’t sleepy and plays quietly in his room till at least nine. In the morning, Joshua is difficult to wake for school even after a solid 10 or 11 hours, while Jacob jumps out of bed after only nine hours. “As babies they would go down together and wake up together,” says Melamedov. “But as they get older, I see that Joshua is like me — I love to sleep — and Jacob is like my husband.”
The two boys display very different sleep personalities. Just as adults can be night owls, early risers, skittish sleepers or power nappers, so are kids highly individual in their sleep temperaments. Although siblings are genetically similar and live in the same environment, there are always at least slight differences both in their genetic material and in their physical and social environments that influence their temperament, says Toronto neurologist Shelly K. Weiss in her book, Better Sleep for Your Baby & Child. So if one child rouses at the sound of a creaky floorboard while another could sleep through a Metallica concert, genetics may well play a role.
But that doesn’t mean your child gets to be the boss at bedtime. “There are certainly natural differences in temperament,” says developmental paediatrician Golda Milo-Manson, chief of medical staff at Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto and a contributor to Weiss’s book. “But parent environment is an important factor in whether your child will be a good sleeper, and inconsistent messages can exacerbate a child’s sleep difficulties.”
Instead of fighting your child’s natural tendencies, try using tools and strategies that complement them. Read on for how to deal with three different types of sleep personalities — and help the whole family get more zzz’s.
Deb Hennig of Barrie, Ont., had trouble settling her eldest, Dal, to sleep when he was a baby. Dal, now nine, always needed one more story, one more cuddle. Until a couple of years ago he avoided sleepovers, unlike his younger sister, Brooke, seven, who loves them.
Depending on their age, kids who have difficulty settling may cry, call out, toss and turn for hours, refuse to stay in bed or take endless “curtain calls,” asking for one more hug, story, glass of water. Some kids have been this way since infancy, while others take up the cause after an illness, a family vacation or a major change such as moving house or starting school.
If you have a child like Dal who resists sleep, here’s how to help him settle down.
Avoid overstimulation. Some kids, just like some adults, can’t easily unwind at the end of the day. If possible, schedule physical activity, such as hockey or gymnastics, at least two hours before bedtime, since exertion raises body temperature and delays sleep.
To help keyed-up kids relax, keep their bedrooms free of stimuli: mobiles, lively posters and even patterned sheets are no-nos for young children; nix active toys, TVs and computers for older kids. Vancouver nurse Mary Peters keeps all electronics out of the bedrooms of Holly, 10, and Sam, seven. “They’re so busy during the day that I want them ‘unplugged’ in that half-hour before bedtime,” says Peters. So she plays a board game with her kids during that time, then lets them read in bed.
While the wind-down period can start an hour or more before bedtime, try keeping the actual bedtime rituals brief but not rushed. “We recommend the whole routine leading up to sleep be no more than 15 to 30 minutes,” says Milo-Manson. Busy kids may choose bedtime to open up emotionally. “My nine-year-old, Sarah, is a talker, which is great, but it often comes out at bedtime,” says Anne Cox of Aurora, Ont. When Sarah voices worries about death or friendship crises, Cox deals with the issue reassuringly, but doesn’t prolong these conversations. Even better is to redirect the conversation, says Milo-Manson, as discussion of anxieties at bedtime can increase them.
It’s also important to put your child to bed before he gets overtired. Symptoms (which rarely include looking sleepy) may be irritability, decreased attention span and a second wind of energy.
Serve up a snack. Restlessness can stem from an empty stomach, which can cause the jitters. Conversely, having a whole meal before bed may cause sleep problems by triggering indigestion and discomfort. So try offering a light bedtime snack of fruit, yogurt or crackers and cheese. Ban all caffeinated beverages, such as colas, in the evening. Try to ensure your child gets enough liquids to drink during the day, as a big glass of water right before bed can cause extra trips to the bathroom.
Soothe those fears. Children aged three to six often have fears because they’re still learning the difference between imagination and reality. So encourage your child to displace the bogeyman by visualizing a pleasant activity with his best friend. Decrease his exposure to frightening information, such as TV news, and let him know you’ll always be there to protect him. Consider allowing a sibling or pet to sleep in his room.
Tinker with the timing. Weiss recalls a four-year-old girl who didn’t nod off until 10 at night. The reason was simple: Because her mom worked at home, the child had been allowed to sleep in till nine every morning. Doctors recommended waking her up two hours earlier so she’d be less likely to fight her eight o’clock bedtime.
If your adolescent can’t settle at night and can’t wake up in the morning, try gradually advancing his sleep schedule by waking him up 15 minutes earlier each week. And don’t let him sleep in more than an hour on weekends. (You may have to physically haul him out of bed.)
Some children go to sleep beautifully, only to wake up a couple of hours later, crying as though they’re in mortal peril. They rarely are.
It’s a common problem: Weiss says studies show 30 percent of six- to 12-year-olds have difficulty staying asleep. If there’s no medical cause, such as bedwetting, obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, the most common reason for middle-of-the-night wakings is simply that the child doesn’t know how to soothe herself back to sleep. Consequently she’ll cry out or come into her parents’ room for help. It seems logical that kids with easygoing personalities would automatically know how to self-soothe at night, but Weiss says research doesn’t support that. Everyone wakes briefly several times a night, but some kids need to be taught how to put themselves back to sleep.
Rethink night feedings. “Some one- and two-year-olds are still nursing every two hours at night, not for nutrition but out of habit,” says Tracey Ruiz, a sleep doula in Brampton, Ont., who makes overnight house calls to help exhausted parents with their children’s sleep problems. Ruiz introduced a handkerchief-sized blanket as a comfort object for one little girl, Allegra, whose mom had been nursing her back to sleep several times a night. Ruiz also gently shushed Allegra every time she awoke. Within a few nights Allegra was sleeping nine hours straight and doing all her eating during the day. If you can’t cut a nursing child off altogether at night, Ruiz recommends a large “dream feed” at 10 p.m., then gradually reducing the length of each middle-of-the-night feeding.
Keep in mind that not all children make the transition as smoothly. Some parents continue night feeding if it’s the easiest way for everyone to get back to sleep.
Keep the associations consistent. If you wake up in the wee hours to unusual circumstances — you’ve fallen asleep on the couch, you’re in a hotel room or your partner is no longer beside you — you might feel disoriented. It’s the same with children. “If they’re used to you lying beside them till they fall asleep every night, you’ll have to be willing to lie beside them every time they wake up,” says Ruiz.
Andrew, 2½, was brought to Weiss’s clinic because he could fall asleep only with his mother beside him, his hand touching her ear, music playing and the light on to allow his mother to read. When he woke up in the night he needed all four associations again. Instead of forcing a child to go cold turkey, Weiss suggests gently removing one association at a time; for instance, start by turning the lights down.
Firm up those limits. If you’re inconsistent — for instance, your child’s midnight wakings sometimes provoke your sympathy, sometimes your anger — your child won’t know what’s expected of him. Also, kids soon learn which parent is the softie. Hennig’s five-year-old son, Ben, who sometimes wakes up at midnight and goes into his parents’ room, knows exactly how his mother and his father will each respond. As Ben tells it, “Dad says, ‘Go back to your bed!’ but Mom says, ‘Aw, what happened?’” That’s not necessarily a problem. But if you want consistent behaviour from your child, present a united front.
What to do with a child who’s up before the sun? If you’re a morning person, it could be ideal. If not, missing those glorious final hours of shut-eye could leave you a sleep-deprived zombie. “We do see trends in a family,” says Milo-Manson. “One parent may be a morning person, the other a nighthawk. Whether a child’s preference is a result of their own biological clock or training, we just don’t know.” She adds that allowing a child to crawl into your bed and turn on the TV, or getting up to make a child breakfast or play with her, just reinforces the behaviour. There are better ways to encourage an early riser to lie low until an agreed-upon time.
Adjust her bedtime. Make sure your child isn’t going to bed too early. “If you put a nine-year-old to sleep at 7:15, you can’t expect him to sleep in,” says Milo-Manson. If your child appears well rested during the day, moving her bedtime later might shift her wake-up time to a more reasonable hour. If not, encourage her to play quietly on her own for a half-hour to an hour after waking up, and reward her with a small gift or special outing if she does it consistently for a week.
Also, check that your child isn’t napping too long during the day. Many children outgrow naps by age two or three, almost all by age five.
Hide the dawn’s early light. The first glint of sunrise may be enough to wake a sensitive child. Since exposure to full natural sunlight triggers wakefulness in almost everyone, installing room-darkening blinds could help your early bird to sleep longer. If there are consistent early-morning noises that wake your child — traffic, neighbours or the shower — consider a small, portable white noise machine for your child’s room. Available for less than $40, it makes consistent, smooth sounds, such as rushing air or a waterfall, which mask extraneous noises and seem to relax wriggly kids. “It could be the best money you ever spend,” says Ruiz.
Accept that eight is enough. While most young children need at least 10 hours’ sleep a night, your child might function beautifully on eight. Just keep reminding yourself that her ability to get by on little sleep will be a huge advantage during her high school years and beyond.