This week I flew back to Australia from the UK and I discovered that there is nothing worse than being wide awake when everyone else is sleeping and being woken by changes in the environment that don't seem to bother anyone else!
Many of the parents we see who have children with sleep disruption who are over the age of 2 and so there is no obvious physiological reason why these children can't sleep through the night. From a behaviour perspective though there are a variety of things to consider. The first is whether the child concerned is actually a light sleeper. If the answer is yes, they may actually be woken by anything. Common examples would include a noise outside due to bad weather; feeling slightly hungry or uncomfortable; being too hot or cold or sensing a change in their surroundings such as the amount of light when the door opens for you to check on them.
For these children, it is important to ensure that as much about their environment as possible remains constant and to their preference from the time that they go to bed. Be aware of if their bedroom backs onto a busy road or a tree full of nesting birds. If they are sharing a room with siblings with different sleep habits; aim to put routines in place which will minimise the noise in the room. The less likely they are to wake in the first place- the less likely they are to wake you!
For many children, waking up in the night is actually pretty unsettling. This can be for many reasons. It could be because when they fell asleep someone was lying with them and now they are feeling separation anxiety. Another reason could be that they have woken dye to a bad dream or because something is physically bothering them ( not feeling well) or they are trying to emotionally process something that they haven't managed to during the day. For some children, they actually don't know how to fall asleep on their own without a set routine or a comfort person/ object. The way to know if this is the case with your child is simple. If they get up and solve whatever woke them - needing the toilet or needing an extra blanket, they are able to self settle. If they are waking you as soon as they get up, remember to ask what they want - if they are actually feeling unwell or wanting a drink of water, they are unlikely to go back to sleep until the issue that woke them has been resolved!
The fact is that waking up during the night is not naughty. It becomes so when a child is requiring the whole house to be awake in order for them to get back to sleep. Many families find it helpful to have a set of " night time rules" or a set pattern of behaviour for their child to follow if they wake up which can help to keep the time awake to a minimum. Depending on the age of your child/ren this could be a visual poster in their room or something you remind them before they go to sleep. Rules could include speaking in whispers; not disturbing brothers and sisters or no food and drink during the night. If you are reminding them before bed, keep it simple eg: If you wake up, you can come to mummy's bed; if you wake up, press play on the lullaby music; if you wake up, there is is a mattress on my bedroom floor so you will still be able to see me.
If your child ( of any age ) is dealing with separation anxiety, they are unlikely to fall back to sleep without your presence in some form or other. This means that the quickest way back to sleep for you is one of 3 options depending on what you are most comfortable with 1) let them in your bed; 2) take them back to their bed and lie with them for a minute 3) have a mattress on your floor which is ready for them. Once you have established this pattern for some time you can slowly wean off by leaving them an object that is yours or smells of you to give them some additional security.
As with any " bad" habit, waking up in the night is a difficult one to break. It needs consistent strategies from you as the parent to minimise the impact on your own sleep and that of your household. Once you are starting to see progress and are minimising the amount of time they are awake for, reward charts for staying in their bed all night or not waking anyone all night can be useful. Unfortunately these are unlikely to work until you have seen a couple of weeks of improvement!
Sleep disruption is an issue for so many parents and we have only scratched the surface in this blog of the solutions that could work for you. Remember to prioritise your sleep and work out the way to be awake for the minimum time that you can be in order to be a more awake and fuctional parents the next day.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!